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Exclusive interview: Dakota Fred on the perils of extreme mining in Gold Rush: White Water

Dakota Fred Hurt
Dakota Fred and the icy waters of McKinley Creek on Gold Rush: White Water

Gold Rush fans have got a treat in store on Discovery’s latest spin-off show, Gold Rush: White Water.

Stars of the series “Dakota” Fred Hurt and his son Dustin Hurt are headed deep beneath the surface of Alaska’s McKinley Creek — but getting there and how they fare doing it will be the ultimate reality TV ride.

In the new series, this father and son duo work together but do not always see eye-to-eye. They return to the creek with divers, mountaineers, and mechanics in a bid to get gold from plunge-pools beneath the raging torrents.

The lengths and heights they must traverse to get there are not for the faint-hearted. Dakota Fred hopes that the unique challenge will keep the Gold Rush fan family glued to the network on Friday nights.

Dakota Fred is in his seventies now, but fitter than many men half his age. We spoke to him as he shared his strategy for extreme gold mining and a bit of his backstory as well.

Dakota Fred on a zip-wire
Dakota Fred crossing a death defying 400-foot canyon on a zip-wire

Monsters and Critics: Can you tell us what makes Gold Rush: White Water different from the normal Gold Rush, and what fans can expect?

“Dakota” Fred Hurt: The difference between Gold Rush and Gold Rush: White Water is day and night. Gold Rush is more now an industrial mining show, with big giant equipment. They go out there, they dig the dirt up, scoop it up, run it over and throw it in a big plant and go thousands of yards and at the end of the week they do a clean up and they have ‘X’ number [ounces] amount of gold, and whoopee, yay, yay.

This show, White Water, is how you go out and get gold in a very, very difficult situation. This is an inaccessible area, by equipment. You can’t drive to it. You can only hike or fly in with a helicopter, and then you can’t even land out there. It’s so remote. And you’ve got canyon walls straight up and down a raging creek.

We figured ‘well, let’s just go in that creek and get that gold out of the bottom of that creek.’ But how to do it is really the story of how we went about that. So it’s day and night.

M&C: Yes, it sounds it. What training did you have? I know that you were a commercial diver…

Fred: Well, what we did…my history of course, way back in the 60s and 70s, I was a commercial diver. I did oilfield diving out in the Gulf of Mexico. Mostly out of the New Orleans area, some out of the Corpus Christie area in Texas. Mostly out of the New Orleans area.

I did all kinds of stuff, everything from pipeline work…so a glorified underwater construction worker, that’s what I was. But then I went into dock building, like pile driving and poke heads and docks and wharves and specialty concrete columns. We lived right on the coast in Louisiana, so we had to build houses up and down there. We built mostly specialty concrete type stuff. It was hard, hard work.

When I decided to retire after about 35 years of that, when I was 60 years old, it was just like stepping from one career totally trained for the next career — which was gold mining. So, it was just like I had trained for it all my life.

M&C: What does this gold look like when you dive into the water?

Fred: We were diving in a creek called McKinley Creek, and it was raging, raging water. And you wind up digging a big hole down in there, and of course, when you’re on the surface of it to start with, you’re right in the raging, raging water. But as you get down a little bit, you can see a little bit. Mostly you cannot see anything, generally, as you get down, not because of mud or anything, it’s because of something called glacial silt.

The glacier is about, I’d say two miles from where we are, and the water is about 38 degrees, constant. And it is just raging. But that’s…you can’t see any of this stuff, and you have to just keep…you do a lot of it by feel. You don’t pick it up or…these are mostly small, very, very small pieces, you’re sucking it up with a big dredge.

We’re working in a creek that’s rushing through a canyon that the walls are 200 feet straight up at least on both sides, very narrow, and you have to look for a place that you figure you have a chance of getting some good gold, and that’s what we did.

M&C: When you’re there and you set up camp in such a remote area, you must have bear issues and wolves, how do you go to sleep?

Fred: Well where we were sleeping was out in the wild, we had a little cabin…and also, the film crew actually lived right out there with us. They had very nice little tents and everything, they lived in tents, but they put a little bear perimeter around theirs, like an electric fence, because we did have bears there. Yes, we had bears.

Now, on the job site, it was so far down in a canyon and so remote, we had no problem with critters like bears and things of that nature, but taping conditions, there was always a chance of bears breaking into cabins and things of that nature, and there were some encounters along the way, as you will probably see. Some of this show you’re going to kind of cringe — it is so intense at times, it will…you’ll go, “whoa!” while other times you’ll be cheering.

M&C:  I’m sure. You must have an eye on Dustin at all time, he’s your son, so you must really give him loads of advice…

Fred: Well, loads of advice that most of the time he doesn’t want to take.

M&C: Oh no?

Fred: And therein lies part of the story. How many fathers and sons have had problems or mothers and daughters and brothers and sisters have had problems working together, or having to do tasks together that…and they don’t necessarily agree with each other?  This is a big part of this show, of how I relate to the rest of the crew, and how the crew relates to me and each other. So it’s basically how you go get some gold — a very intense situation.

M&C: In Gold Rush, they’ve got teams in the competition, is it just basically you or are you working against other people doing the same thing?

Fred: We are not in competition with anyone except ourselves, and that is one of the big things on this show. Whether you can get to the site back and forth every day, and you’ve got to get hooked up to a cable and there’s no cable car or any of that type of thing, this is literally…you’ve got a couple of straps that you hook on to a pulley, and you go across a canyon that’s about 400ft across. The walls of the canyon are straight down, almost total vertical, and it’s like 200-250ft straight down to the creek.

Then you have to walk and hike about, oh, a third of a mile up a very, very steep mountain. Then you have to rappel on a rope about 300ft down to the creek, then you have to walk about a quarter of a mile to the job site, and do your work.

M&C: This sounds like an Ironman competition.

Fred: And in the afternoon, you had to do exactly the reverse. And go back. Twice a day.

M&C: Safe to say you’re in good shape.

Fred: When I first started I was not in good shape, and I was carrying an extra 10-lb, which I don’t normally do, and it was rough. Me being in my 70s and these young bucks, I had quite a struggle to kind of keep up with them, but I did it.

M&C: What’s the largest piece of gold you’ve found from the creek bed so far?

Fred: That’s one thing that you don’t find there. You got to remember that this gold, that we find anywhere in the Porcupine area, has mostly been crushed to smithereens by a glacier. That’s how it got deposited there. So it mashes it into little bitty, like, salt and pepper flakes, and that’s about the size of the gold that you find there.

Every once in a super-great while you might find something as big as oatmeal flakes or a corn flake, but they’ve been flattened. Just small little stuff like that.

So that’s the way that it is there, and that’s pretty normal in gold mining…first of all this is called placer mining, which means you’re digging up gravel that has been deposited.

Hard rock mining is the type of thing that you see done in the side of a mountain or a hill, you go inside and then you follow say a quartz vein or something of that nature, and blow it out and drill it and blow it and what they call mucking out the…all the chaff that you’ve blown up. So, it’s not hard rock mining.

This is placer mining, and it’s from an old glacier deposit, and they had several glacier periods there, and that’s what deposited the gold in that whole area there.

M&C: How much gold have you taken out of the area, McKinley Creek?

Fred: In Porcupine and McKinley, I would probably…I’ve only found about $750,000 worth?

M&C: That’s not too shabby.

Fred: Well, no. It costs a lot when you have to do it digging and using equipment and things of that nature, the expenses are extremely high. The way we’re doing it, we were kind of forced into a situation where we had to mine on a little bit of a tighter of a budget than we had ever done before, and that’s why we decided we would do dredging.

It’s much less expensive and we were under the constraints of a budget, but that we could afford.

I’ve been mining for about 14 years now in Alaska, and we always made enough just to come back every year. We never got rich at it, but the adventure, it was the adventure basically, what we were going after. And, we just never got lucky enough to really find millions and millions of dollars worth of gold, but we worked hard at it.

M&C: Did Discovery come to you with the idea for this, or did you pitch them the idea based on what you did? Did you say, ‘Hey I want you guys to do a show about this?’

Fred: The previous year, Dustin and I and basically the same basic crew had been doing this in that area there. We were getting ready to do it again, and they got wind of all of that, and they came to us and said, “Hey, you know, that’s some pretty exciting stuff. Maybe we should film it.” And we said, “We think you ought to also.”

So we negotiated things, and they followed us and…this is another thing, a lot of reality shows may not be as real as they are portrayed, but this one is unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your viewpoint, very real. Very, very real.

I think people will appreciate that, that it’s none of this made-up stuff and things like that, this is the real deal. I think people will really enjoy it, it’s a different pace and totally different thing than the regular Gold Rush program.

It’s been a fantastic show for eight years, but I think people are just hungry for something new. Whatever it is. And this is what we’re showing. They may or may not wind up liking it in the end, who knows. But I think they will appreciate the reality of this whole thing.

Gold Rush: White Water premieres tonight, January 19, at 10/9c on Discovery. Watch an exclusive clip here.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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