Mike and Kim McDougall have been mining gold in the Sixtymile region of the Klondike for nearly 40 years. Throughout the decades, they’ve made their own history in the area. They’ve also been surrounded by the remnants of those that came before them, both the mammoths and the miners.
“There are not too many places left in the world like Sixtymile,” said Mike. “There is enormous history there. It’s a gift and we have a responsibility to keep it safe. Sometimes I feel like we’re a teabag in a teapot: we’re steeped in that history.”
The area they mine and the area mined by their parents—each of their fathers also ran placer mines in the area—is known for its caches of Ice Age mammal bones. Things like mammoth, muskox, giant beaver and camel.
“We had an incredible amount of bones. I call them treasures greater than gold,” said Mike. “Dick Harrington used to come out from the national museum every second year and his eyes were always as big as dinner plates when he’d get there because of the range and the quality of bones that we found. By the time he left Sixtymile, the back of his truck was always full and he’d have this very worried look on his face because his budgets weren’t big and he was trying to figure how the heck he was going to get the bones back to Ottawa without breaking his budget.”
The first miners reached Sixtymile in 1892. Since then, there has been continuous activity in the area. They left behind more modern treasures for the McDougalls to discover.
“We’ve found all kinds of things that had been abandoned for any number of reasons—shovels, buckets, wheels, wrenches, tram cars, kitchen tools, butter boxes, flour sacks and old miners’ clothing,” said Mike. When gold was found on Rabbit Creek, closer to Dawson, in 1896, the miners dropped their tools and started walking toward the major gold find to see if they could grab a piece. Off to Dawson they all went and some of them made some money and some of them didn’t,” he said. “Around 1906 or 1907, they started coming back out this way, but what is interesting is that they brought different mining tools with them. They had equipment to steam thaw the ground rather than having to use fires.”
That’s when everything changed. The tools became more efficient and the miners got better at what they did, so they didn’t leave as much gold behind. Now when the McDougalls come across a piece of land that has already been steam thawed, they expect to find old pieces of equipment, but not much gold. Kim first came north to the Klondike to work at her father’s placer gold mine, but had no idea it would become her life’s work.
“I can remember travelling on the Top of the World Highway and dad kept commenting on the beautiful scenery. I was a teenager and it didn’t mean much to me then,” said Kim. “Of course, I thought I would be up there for a summer to make some money and move on, but I fell in love with the place and here I am, 39 years later, still making the trek out to camp.”
Her father knew Mike’s father. They had been friends. In the fall of 1980, Mike’s father asked him to come up and help with the operation, which is how he met Kim. “That was a real bonus for me,” said Mike. They married in their early 20s and then started mining on their own.
“I worked for my dad, Mike worked for his dad, and then we started mining on our own with our own equipment and our own ideas of how we wanted to do it,” said Kim. “We started out very rustic and we did everything together.”
As the years went by, their operation expanded. They had two children, hired a crew, and bought larger and more efficient pieces of equipment. A seasoned miner named Jim Lynch owned a cabin nearby and had been working in the area since the 1930s. He was a good friend to the family and gave Kim and Mike advice. Since he passed away, the McDougalls have keep his cabin the way that it was when he lived in it.
“There are other buildings on our property, but that one is the most precious to me,” said Kim. “All of his cups and the little radio he used to listen to and even his pen and paper are still on the table. All of those things, it just brings back memories of him. It’s all just sentimental value to me and people love to go in there when they visit.”
With full days working to keep the operation going, the McDougalls don’t have a lot of time for visitors. On a regular summer day, when the mine is in full production, Mike gets up at 4 a.m. to prepare for the crew that comes in at 7 a.m. He “walks the pit” and takes a look at the area they’re working on, then he leaves the crew—usually seven or eight people—to get to work. After that, he comes back to the house to have a cup of coffee with Kim and they plan what they need to get done during the day. That could include anything from moving equipment, doing maintenance or repairs, or going into Dawson for supplies. The day wraps up around 7 p.m. with dinner for everyone in the cook house.
“In the same way that people are entrepreneurs, we were seeking to make a living for our family,” said Mike.
The work environment has changed a lot since the McDougalls started their operation nearly 40 years ago.
“In those days Dawson felt like it was a long ways from anywhere,” said Mike. “It just seemed to be a magical place and a little unreal.”
There was also a lot more mining happening in the area. When they started, there were two large operations, 15 other operations and 150 people working on Sixtymile. There are currently four working mines and roughly 20 people living there during the summer months. Mike said the days are long and hard, but it’s been fun to discover artifacts in the area. The history has always been important to them.
“It’s been a good life for us. There are years where it’s been really financially beneficial and there’s been years where it hasn’t been,” said Kim. “We just love doing the work. We like being there. It’s not just a job for us, it’s our life.”