Exclusive interview: Kayla Johanson on rockhounding and the men of Gold Rush: White Water

Kayla Johanson has quietly usurped a leadership role from three frosty military men on Gold Rush: White Water. Pic credit: Discovery

The twist in Discovery’s Gold Rush: White Water happens to be female. As Dustin Hurt was behind in gold production, Kayla Johanson was his new season secret weapon, and Hurt has elevated her to crew boss for his new second team.

And as it goes, the three alpha males of team two—Eric Foster, Mark Stamper, and Scott Allen— balked at the idea that this woman could lead them in the expedition the last episode. So much so that Allen point-blank asked Kayla if she had ever led men in “life or death” situations.

But Dustin Hurt is a bright guy, and he knew placing Johanson on his team was a good move. So she took the abuse and did her job, and the bottom line: Johanson knows what the hell she is doing on those Chilkat mountains. He-man wimmin’ haters be damned.

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Even the show’s original miner, Dakota Fred, is behind Kayla and her capabilities to find gold in the rough waters of this series.

Gold the hard way, raging rivers and hypothermia risks

Kayla Johanson is no novice to mining. She worked her way up, starting as a teenager and then rockhounding and mining in various locations across the country.  

She has an artistic bent and an Etsy shop called The Peeking Doe, where her gorgeous natural mineral finds become wearable art pieces. She even sells unusual quartz specimens for display.

One of the hallmarks of this series versus the OG Gold Rush series is that there are way more personal injury and death risks than operating a dozer or a sluicing plant.  

The ravines and narrows of the raging McKinley Creek will ebb and flow with the snowmelt. As a result, it can change velocity and depth in seconds, and only the best divers need to apply. 

Not to mention the physicality of getting cumbersome equipment down to the water and creating a maze of pulleys, winches, and cables to support the dredges and leverage the boulders out of the way of those under the water looking for the plunge pools and deeper, calmer spots out of the pound zone.

Monsters & Critics spoke to Kayla Johanson about all of this and more on Discovery’s “other” Gold Rush.

Exclusive interview with Kayla Johanson

Monsters & Critics: It appears you and Dustin had some relationship where he knew you before this season and had you come in and be part of the second crew. So how did you meet Dustin Hurt?

Kayla Johanson: I met him out in Nevada about five or six years ago. He has known about me since then. And then I also had some mutual friends who were on the show previously. 

M&C: Were you mining in Nevada?

Kayla Johanson:  I was out there visiting family at the time. But I have done some rockhounding in Nevada, but I was visiting family on that trip. 

M&C: When did you realize that mining was of interest to you?

Kayla Johanson: I think I’ve always been interested in rocks and things when I was a young kid, but I started getting into gold prospecting when I was about 17, almost 18. 

I was living in California at the time, and I used to go camping up in the San Gabriel mountains with my dad, and I used to see guys who were panning or dredging. 

And it sparked an interest even more. So I started playing around panning a little bit. And then I found out that my grandfather, who lived in Arizona, would do some panning on the side for some extra money. 

So I went and stayed with him for about a week, and he taught me a little bit more about it. And then it just kind of stuck from there.

M&C: When did you find your first little gold nugget?

Kayla Johanson: So, I found my first gold when I was 18, but the first actual nugget I found in the San Gabriel river; I think I was 22.  

M&C: What are the biggest mistakes amateur panners and hobbyists make, and what would you suggest to them to increase the odds of them finding gold?

Kayla Johanson: I think many people go for the most accessible entry points, which if they’re going for the easiest access points, hundreds of others have also gone through that same easy route. 

More footwork, hiking a little bit farther, or looking for areas that look like maybe fewer people have visited elevate the chances of you hitting something that hasn’t already been panned a hundred times over gives you a greater chance. 

M&C: So this season, you were thrown into the He-Man Women Haters Club. All these veterans and Marines. Dustin, of course, in his mind, has complete confidence in you, but the three problematic men. Tell me a bit about the initial meeting of these guys?

Kayla Johanson: It was pretty nerve-wracking when I first got there. But part of that too is just because I’ve always been shy when I meet new people, and it’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older, but it’s still there. 

So there was that factor, and then you have cameras in your face, and I was a million percent camera shy when I first started this. 

Then you have that on top of it. So I was already a nervous wreck because of those two things. And then here I am, the only girl in camp, and I’m like, I don’t have to prove anything to myself because I know what I’m capable of, but there are all these guys looking at me with all this doubt. 

And I’m like, oh, I’m going to have to prove myself to all seven of these guys. 

But ultimately, the main goal was to get the job done. So whether or not these guys liked me, that was their problem. Obviously, I would prefer to get along with everyone I’m working with because it goes much more smoothly, but you can’t please everyone all the time. 

M&C: It must have put some wind in your sails knowing that Dustin had your back entirely, and even Fred Dakota, Fred had a little one-on-one with you, and you can tell by the way Fred is talking to you that he knows you can do it. So that had to help.

Kayla Johanson: Yes. It was nice not having everyone against me from the get-go. But there were challenging times because I know that Scott was definitely unhappy about me getting the position because I think he thought he would get it. 

And I know he really wanted it, but I have a lot more mining experience than he has. So I think that’s part of the reasoning why Dustin made the decision that he did. 

M&C: It seems though the Scott came around at the end. I don’t know if he was putting it onto the cameras, or did he settle down a little bit?

Kayla Johanson: No. He ended up coming around, and it ended up the two of us working together really well for the most part. 

I mean, we still butted heads a little bit here and there, but I mean, that’s just a given when you’re working in that kind of environment, I think. 

M&C: I love your design ethic and the jewelry you create and sell. You have an excellent eye, and your pieces are compelling. So let’s talk about The Peeking Doe Shop for a minute. That’s just a natural offshoot of what you do for work.

One of Kayla’s original pendants made with found gold and minerals. Pic credit: Kayla Johanson

Kayla Johanson: Yes. I started making jewelry about five years ago, but it was kind of on and off. And there was a period for almost two years where I didn’t do anything with it. 

Then I picked it back up last winter because it was my first Alaskan winter. And I’ve never spent an entire winter where it was like a full six months winter. So it was an adjustment. 

And I found that making jewelry kind of helped pass the time. So I started selling my jewelry more. And so now it’s kind of like my winter job. And it keeps me a little bit sane because I would go insane if I didn’t have something to do.

M&C: I noticed you sell minerals. What are some of your favorite rocks to collect? 

Kayla Johanson: Yes, I have traveled all over to many different places and dug a lot of other minerals. I love finding quartz crystals. It’s because they have so many different variations. It’s not just clear, but smokey quartz, amethysts, and you can get double-terminated quartz crystals and ones with other inclusions. 

Like there are just so many different varieties, and they’re just so much fun to dig, but I like exploring and finding pretty much anything.

M&C: Where are your favorite places to do this? Many people here in Idaho go to the Idaho/Oregon border at Succor Creek. Where do you like to go?

Kayla Johanson: I like to make a trip to Arkansas every few years because there are many quartz crystal mines down there. When I went to Arkansas the last visit, I had to rent a U-haul trailer because we dug so many crystals to get home. So that’s always been pretty lucrative as far as what you find. 

So that’s one of my favorite places to go because you can find a lot in a short amount of time. But I have a lot of little secret locations that I’ve discovered over time.

And also lovely discoveries made in North Carolina when I lived out there, and I’ve pulled some cool stuff out there. I have one 17 pounds smoky quartz crystal that I found at an unnamed location, and I have a few 14 and 15 pound sized white quartz crystals that I discovered as well. 

M&C: That’s amazing. Where is home for you?

Kayla Johanson: Well, that’s a tricky question because I’ve moved around so much. Right now, Alaska because that’s where I am now, but as far as the most time spent? I grew up out west mostly, but I spent 13 years in North Carolina before moving to Alaska.

So that was my home base for a long time. And that was the most extended time that I lived in one place. I moved around within the state but lived for the longest time. 

M&C: Do you still socialize with Dustin after the series has wrapped, and will you be involved in the next season of Gold Rush: White Water?

Kayla Johanson: Well, that is yet to be determined, I mean, it’s looking that way, but I don’t know until it happens. But regarding Dustin, yes, we are still in contact. 

M&C: So the three guys that were kind of a headache for you that I mentioned—Eric Foster, Mark Stamper, and Scott Allen—did you guys end the season on reasonable terms, or was there still a little bit of an edge?

Kayla Johanson: I don’t think there were many ruffled feathers with most of them. Maybe one of them doesn’t like me. I don’t know.

M&C: What about Carlos Minor? Dustin relies on Carlos so much, and Carlos seems cool. He knows what he’s doing.

Kayla Johanson: I like Carlos a lot. He’s, I think, one of my favorite people up there, he’s got a great sense of humor, and he does work hard.

M&C: All right. I know you can’t spoil it, but did you find anything notable that we haven’t seen yet this season?

Kayla Johanson: Well, I will say we did not go home empty-handed. That’s all I’m going to say. They’re just going to have to watch it.

Gold Rush: White Water airs Fridays at 9/8c on Discovery.

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