Pomrenkes live ‘gold rush’ life in Alaska
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Steve Pomrenke hasn’t spent summer in Minnesota since 1986. That was the year he first went to Nome, Alaska — one corner of “The Last Frontier.” Although he started working as a diesel mechanic, it wasn’t too long before he caught gold mining fever.
Pomrenke grew up five miles north of Pierz. He worked as a diesel mechanic in St. Cloud for a few years, followed by some time in the Twin Cities.
He had married and had two sons, Shawn and Erick. Soon after, he built a mechanic shop north of Pierz (now Gerry’s Truck and Tractor).
A few years later he got a truck and was an over-the-road trucker for some years. But a truck strike in February 1986 changed things.
“In May 1986, Marv Brisk from Harding came looking for me,” Pomrenke said. “He knew I was a mechanic and he needed me in Nome. He had bought a bankrupt construction company and he told me he had ‘110 pieces of equipment but only one that worked.’”
Pomrenke went to Nome to see what he’d gotten himself into. “It was a ‘hunting camp’ town with shacks everywhere,” he said. “But I haven’t seen a Minnesota summer since.”
Pomrenke’s daughter, Nikki, was born at the end of 1986.
After four years, the company Pomrenke worked for was sold so he contracted mechanical work. But on days and weekends off, he worked for miners, fixing their equipment.
“There were a lot of miners, but no mechanics,” he said.
Pomrenke told a buddy named Dan Walsh that he would show Walsh how to be a mechanic if Walsh would show him how to mine gold.
“I had 10 days between jobs, so he showed me a good spot on the famous Anvil Creek,” Pomrenke said. “I found 27 ounces of gold in 10 days, just playing around with borrowed equipment.”
Pomrenke went back to work to pay the bills for another year. In fall 1990, he and another mechanic, Al Turner, started mining at Tripple Creek.
“In 30 days, I mined 130 ounces,” said Pomrenke. “That was back when gold was about $290 an ounce.”
He and Turner had to go back to mechanic work through the winter, but that got tough.
“That winter it was -40 degrees for two weeks, then below -55 for a week straight,” Pomrenke said. “Then it stayed below -25 through all of February.”
It was in summer 1992 that he decided to go back to mining full time. It took until Aug. 19 to get all of his equipment together. He and his son, Shawn, mined until about Oct. 15, taking in 475 ounces.
“That was pretty good for starting out,” said Pomrenke. “Then somebody stole all of our gold.”
Friends of Pomrenke knew what had happened and someone let him know where to find the gold, so all of it was recovered within a day or two.
Since he couldn’t mine all winter, Pomrenke managed apartment buildings. He continued to mine Tripple Creek from 1992 until about 2003, when he tried to go back to Anvil Creek.
In 1999, Pomrenke married Harding native Christine Skiba, whom he met at a Gull Lake fishing contest.
“She’s very accepting that she’s married to a workaholic character,” Pomrenke said.
Attempting to go back to Anvil Creek turned out to be a huge mistake.
“I figure we lost about $400,000 over three years,” said Pomrenke.
In about 2006, he pulled up and headed back to Tripple Creek. He got as far as the second submarine (below the water) beach line just outside of Nome and decided to mine there.
“Nome sits on a gold mine,” Pomrenke said. “In 1930, they were going to move the city but didn’t. I ended up mining the second beach line. Instead of having to take 15 – 20 feet of overburden off, we only have to take off a couple feet.”
Overburden is all the material laying over the top of the gold, which is called a “pay streak.” That is why striking is called hitting “pay dirt.”
There are seven different beach lines between the first beach at water’s edge and the mountains behind Nome. It was a prehistoric beach they worked, a mile inland. “We dug up mammoth tusks and walrus heads,” Pomrenke said.
Friends and family have made the trip to Alaska to help the Pomrenkes. Their son, Erick, worked with them several years. Pomrenke’s brother, Gary, has been there every summer for the past 20 years.
“Tim and Mary Thomas from Pierz were there one year, and Maynard Mitchell another year,” Pomrenke said.
Pomrenke has received a number of reclamation awards. He was recognized by the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys in 2003, for outstanding reclamation of six years of placer operations on 19 acres of ground on Tripple Creek.
For three seasons Pomrenke mined the beach line until circumstances intervened. A barge owned by South Korean citizens arrived in Nome, mounted with a specialized dredge.
“I am still ‘the mechanic’ of the town, so they asked if I could help them,” Pomrenke said. “We became partners in fall 2008 and I took it over in spring 2009.”
Pomrenke hauled the barge to his yard three miles from town. Mining the beach line had given him the insight on how to mine under water.
“We worked on it day and night through that summer,” he said. “I had great help from my great friend Dave Virnig. He came up for about a month helping me put it together. I couldn’t have done it without Doug Graham, who helped put her together.”
One major change he made was to remove the cutterhead dredge and use a backhoe.
“They had it together and in the water by Labor Day and took the rest of that week to get everything remounted onto it,” said Christine.
“We were completely blessed that God decided to give us blue skies and calm seas for another two months, after all the stormy summer weather before that,” Pomrenke said. “Everything worked perfectly.”
The Pomrenkes took 900 ounces of gold in those two months. They have been mining that way for at least part of three seasons and have found it is the cheapest way to mine.
“There are very few expenses compared to inland mining,” Pomrenke said. “Pay dirt is right on the ocean floor, without the 25 feet of overburden to shovel off. The waves take away all the light material and leave all the heavy laying on the ocean floor.”
Graham has worked alongside Pomrenke every summer.
In 2010, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” came to Nome to film a segment of the show.
“They filmed the whole day on our barge, but none of that ended up being aired,” Christine said. “The show started bringing a lot of people to Nome, besides gold being worth so much.”
People from The Discovery Channel were walking the beaches and spotted the Pomrenkes’ barge set up on the beach for the winter.
“I got a phone call from Original Productions asking if we wanted to be on a T.V. show,” Pomrenke said.
In about 2005, Pomrenke dove under the ice in the spring for the first time with his son, Shawn. In 2012, Shawn had set up a filming agreement with the Discovery Channel for “Bering Sea Gold — Under the Ice.”
“We usually go up from May to October, but Steve went up in April last year,” Christine said. “There is a lot of drama on the show. The show makes mining look easier than it is.”
“It doesn’t show the hard, hard labor that everyone in mining does,” Pomrenke said.
From June 1 – July 15, 2012, mining was halted anywhere within a mile of the mouth of any stream where fish were going in and out.
“We were first told our location was OK, but it turned out we were .88 miles from the nearest stream and they shut us down,” said Christine. “It was very frustrating.”
The Pomrenkes are waiting to see what will happen this year.
They enjoy winter in Minnesota near Royalton, closer to family.
“Civilization’s here,” Christine said. “We go south for a month too.”
Pomrenke still drives semi for a friend, about 30 days throughout the winter.
Many years after the fact, he discovered that when he was a baby, his dad had worked at the Homestake Mine in Lead, S.D.
“He did hard rock mining there,” Pomrenke said. “Then he moved to Pierz and bought the farm in 1958.”
No matter how long the mining lasts, the Pomrenkes have some things in mind for the years to come.
“We’ll grow a big garden out back here,” they both said. “We’ve thought of doing some niche farming, organic. It would be fun to do animals, too. Something not related to stress.”