When it comes to Juneau Gold Rush Days, Alea Oien is totally into mucking around.
The former cartographer and underground worker at the Alaska-Juneau Mine is reportedly the most successful competitor in the two-day event that will mark its 30th year beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday at Savikko Park. The event celebrates the area’s long mining and logging history, and during its peak years has attracted more than 10,000 people to a variety of contests, vendors, fair foods, gold panning and children’s activities.
A highlight is the competitions in mining events such as jackleg drilling and spike driving, and logging events such as axe throwing, pole climbing and log rolling. Oien said this week she doesn’t know specifically how many events she’s won, but there’s no special training or strategy to explain her success.
“I don’t think any of us do any training other than what we do around our yards,” she said. “Most of us run chainsaws and stuff around our yards.”
That said, “I don’t think anybody throws an axe.”
But the competitions are such that a novice can sign up to test their skills and, for instance, learn the difference between mining’s hand mucking and logging’s hand bucking. Oien offers a glimpse of the dirty details for the mucking competition that she said she has never lost.
“The main reason I was good at that is I used to have a horse and I used to have to clean a stable,” she said. “There’s no real secret to it — just go as fast as you can and remember to breathe.”
One competition novices may want to be cautious about and practice for in advance is pole climbing, Oien said.
“There’s not really an easy way to rescue somebody from the top of a pole,” she said.
The person asserting Oien is the competition champ is Jerry Harmon, president of Juneau Gold Rush Days and a miner for more than 40 years. He’s been involved with the event since it was founded in 1990 as a relatively humble get-together featuring some drilling contests among a handful of competitors and what today would be a pittance of spectators.
“When we started this in 1990 we had 500 people for the first event,” he said.
Over the years the event — like the mining and logging industries — has seen big changes. Harmon said organizers are bringing in nearly half a million pounds of heavy equipment from area mines and other locations, and modern-day setup involves activities from repainting park shelters to installing water and electricity hookups to inflating a children’s bounce tent.
“It’s a lot of things people don’t realize,” he said.
This year’s opening ceremony is scheduled at 9 a.m. Saturday, although vendor booths will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Children’s events will be 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday and 1-2 p.m. Sunday, gold panning and carnival will be 1-3 p.m. both days, a “music and brews” event is scheduled from 3-6 p.m. Saturday, and competitions are scheduled throughout both days.
Gold Rush Days started 32 years ago, but is celebrating its 30th year due to being canceled the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Harmon said there will be face masks and sanitizer available, but no mandates will be in place unless officially required.
A mix of old-time miners and fresh interns was helping Harmon set up on a rainy Monday for the weekend’s events. Among the newcomers was Derek Thompson, a Michigan Tech student interning this summer for Coeur Alaska Inc., who said he’s long been interested in mining and is intrigued by entering some of the competitions as an intrepid novice, even if “I don’t even know what jack legging is.”
“Spike driving is a good one for you to get into,” Harmon advised Thompson. Apparently the grizzled veteran finds the youth’s vigor impressive since “I’ll pay the entrance fee and we’ll split the money.”
Helping Thompson paint picnic tables beneath a shelter Monday was Kali Braning, a geological engineering student at the University of Utah who is also interning for Coeur Alaska. She said she took a less rock-solid path to spending a summer among Alaska’s modern miners,
“I never actually imagined myself working in a gold mine,” she said. That changed when she began her studies and applied for an internship far from home because “I just decided I wanted to try mining.”
While Braning may be acquiring some skills that help with mining events this weekend, Harmon suggested she try the sporting life of a lumberjack.
“There’s always a logger that’ll let her get on the other end for a Jack-and-Jill,” he said.
While mining and logging have both experienced turbulent times in Southeast Alaska — and globally — during the past three decades, the enthusiasm the interns expressed about careers in those fields is still felt by Oien. She left her mining job after becoming a mother, but said she believes strongly such work and opinions about it have strong future prospects.
“I just have this feeling that people are more understanding these days that mining is really important for the products it produces and for giving people good paying jobs,” she said.