“Big” Al McGregor is a high roller. Living up to the moniker that precedes his name, he took a giant gamble a few years back that even the most seasoned of betters would balk at, walking away from a successful career in the oil industry to chase gold in Dawson City, Yukon. True to his apparent go-big-or-go-home nature, McGregor went all-in on the life-altering career move, electing to bypass the start-small stage and instead purchase an entire mining camp consisting of nearly 1000 claims, which he estimates is enough dirt to keep himself and 10 generations of gold-digging McGregors going. Clearly, the big man isn’t afraid to stare risk in its cold, dead eyes.
But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely fearless. Turns out he wasn’t all that comfortable stepping out of his work boots and into the television realm to star in History’s new, original Canadian docudrama, Yukon Gold, despite his affable, made-for-TV demeanor.
“I was a little reluctant at first,” McGregor reveals to TV Guide Canada. “Now I’m enjoying it. It’s a new adventure, right?”
Yukon Gold is exactly that — an adventure, one that follows four eclectic gold-mining crews as they dig deep into the territory’s wilderness, hoping to hit paydirt. With Dawson City and its surrounding areas having been a hotspot for mining during the Yukon Gold Rush of the late 1800s, and gold being a non-renewable resource, it’s a surprise there’s any significant amounts of it left in that area. McGregor says there’s still plenty kickin’ around, though, just waiting to be found.
“The geologists still say only about seven per cent of the gold’s been found in the Yukon,” McGregor explains. “It’s just a matter now … the gold’s getting tougher [to find]. You have to get farther out, and you end up using planes and boats, which are very expensive. I was lucky enough to get where I still got a road to the camp.”
McGregor’s crew works out of the Indian River area, located 30 km south of Dawson City. The other three crews — led by Bernie Kreft, Ken Foy, and team Guillaume Brodeur and Karl Knutson — also operate in the southern portions of the territory and even beyond. One of Kreft’s claims, McDame Creek, is actually located in B.C., just below the Yukon border.
Naturally, the farther you travel away from an urban centre like Dawson City, the more likely you are to have run-ins with the local wildlife. While McGregor has been relatively fortunate in that area, owed to his proximity to the city, there are a couple of grizzlies preventing him from reaching his claim at Reindeer Creek, and he lost a four-legged member of his crew last season.
“We lost a dog this summer to wolves,” McGregor says. “She thought she was tough as a wolf and learned her lesson, I guess. It’s wild; it’s wilderness. You can get in a lot of trouble in a big hurry if you’re not paying attention.”
When you’re working 18 hours a day, every day, for four months, it’s easy to lose focus. The window for mining in the Yukon is about four months, from the seasonal thaw in late June to the freeze in early October, which is why the work days are so long and the pressure so high. Come up empty in those four months, which is a real possibility in the guessing game of gold-mining, and you’re looking at an even more excruciating eight-month wait between seasons than usual.
“A lot of this stuff is moose pasture,” McGregor admits. “Gold’s the price it is [about $1,600 CAD per ounce] because it’s not all over the place, even up there.”
Come up big, though, and the long days, the pressures from wildlife and the constant mechanical failures (which you’ll see a good deal of in the premiere alone), are all forgotten. But come up big you must; anything less is failure. McGregor estimates his operating costs per mining season are $800,000, all-in, so he has to pull at least 500 ounces of gold from the ground just to break even, more if he wants to make a profit and expand his business. At the beginning of Wednesday’s premiere, each crew chief – minus Knutson, who doesn’t make an appearance until Episode 2 – lists their goals for the mining season, and only one makes any decent progress towards it, proving just how difficult, and depressing, the trade can be at times.
McGregor points out that a lot of the miners in the Yukon are risking everything to chase their dreams. Some have to dip into their retirement funds to support their operations, putting a great deal of stress not just on themselves but on their families. McGregor hasn’t allowed his gold fever to spread that far, but that doesn’t mean he has no worries. In the premiere alone, he runs into two equipment failures, but you’ll rarely see him frowning.
“It’s part of the process, and, really, what the hell else are you gonna do?” he laughs. “You can’t just get all mad and walk away and go home. You gotta deal with them. A lot of the miners up there, you’ve got to understand, they’re trying to make it, so a lot of them got old, tired equipment. You’ve got to put up with it and fix it. Keep on truckin’.”
Watching that tired, fuel- and water-guzzling equipment run all hours of the day, it’s impossible not to question the damaging effects of gold mining on the environment. McGregor and his Yukon Gold mates are knocking down trees, strip mining their claims and running tonnes and tonnes of water through their sluice machines, used to filter gold out from large loads of dirt and rock. McGregor tries to limit damage where he can, and it’s his personal policy, when he leaves a claim, to put things back to bed.
“Just remember, this is all permafrost up there,” he says. “To even start with, there’s not a lot growing on this stuff. They actually did a study a few years ago [because] they were concerned about the environmental impact. And it ended up, once these areas had been turned over, there ended up being way more fauna and flora than before. And for me, and for most guys, I totally recycle my water. It’s not flowing into any streams; it’s all in open, existing pits. I’m very proud of that. I’m not out to wreck anything.”
Despite being the new kid on the block, McGregor seems to have the right amount of knowledge, passion and sensibility to make things work out in the unforgiving Yukon. He’s not allowing his thirst for gold to consume him, and he doesn’t frazzle easy, attacking each day with a level of verve unmatched by his co-stars. That’s because he’s found where he truly belongs and harbours no regrets over the life he left behind in oil.
“Some days, when I see a huge plant going up, because I used to general manage building huge plants, [I] say, ‘Ya, that’s nice,’ but thank Christ that feeling runs away pretty fast!”
Yukon Gold premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on History. It is scheduled to run for 10 episodes, with the season finale set to air May 15.