Now in its seventh season Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush follows the dreamers trying to get filthy rich by pulling gold out of the ground. We went north (and then north some more) to find entrepreneurship in its most extreme, raw form.
By Dan Bova

“They are just waiting for something to go wrong,” 22-year-old miner Parker Schnabel tells me with an expression that is half smile, half sneer, and all exhaustion. We’re standing on the grounds of Scribner Creek, which isn’t a creek so much as a postapocalyptic-looking wasteland of turned-over earth. And “they” are the film crew of Discovery’s Gold Rush,who have followed Schnabel’s every shovelful of dirt since he became a mine boss at the ripe old age of 16.

“Last night I was digging a ditch,” he continues. “And I knew that the only way this was going to make the show was if I did something wrong or if I got hurt or something broke. And you can tell the film crew wants one of those things to happen! But that’s the nature of the show, they—”

As if on cue, a Gold Rush producer appears. “Sorry,” he says, “I have to interrupt you. Something has gone wrong.” So off we go to see what that “something” is, which is a big something: A boulder has smashed the holy crap out of a vital piece of Schnabel’s machinery. The producers are surely happy. Schnabel is not: He’s just an entrepreneur trying to make a living out here, surrounded by problems.

Welcome to working in the Yukon, a small, mountainous, and extraordinarily unwelcoming Canadian territory just east of Alaska. The town nearest the mines is called Dawson City, and its 13 bars have enough capacity for every resident to get drunk at the same time. The Downtown Hotel’s signature offering, the Sourtoe Cocktail, is a shot of alcohol with a frostbitten, dehydrated human toe plopped into it. There’s a $2,500 fine for actually swallowing the toe. That’s the thing about this place: Even the drinks aren’t easy.

Gold prospectors have come here since the late 1800s, when pickaxes and shovels were your most complicated machinery. Today the job requires towering equipment that can cost millions of dollars. Equipment breaks constantly. Workers fight. Mining goes on almost around the clock, and the overtired reality TV stars on the show have two careers to manage—as businesspeople breaking new ground in a high-stakes line of work and celebrities whose every move is captured on film.

Discovery’s attraction to this scenario is obvious: the drama. That’s what fuels today’s ever-growing genre of workplace reality television—tales of high tension unfolding inside cupcake bakeries and motorcycle shops. But often, the actual conflict in these shows seems forced. Is that deadline really so pressing? Are those two employees really dysfunctional? Something about Gold Rush has always stood out to me, though: This is a job few people want, and that most people probably don’t realize still exists. The people who do it have to be all-in. And the stakes are extreme versions of what every entrepreneur faces: There’s a crushing up-front cost and risk baked into every decision, and the final result is dependent upon a group of people you can’t control…along with, you know, dumb luck. You might strike gold. Or not. Out here, it’s no metaphor.

So that’s why I traveled to the Yukon. I wanted to know how entrepreneurs like these think—how they handle the risk, the stress, the possibility that what they’re doing is totally unreasonable. Are these extreme conditions fit for only extreme entrepreneurs? Extre-preneurs, so to speak? (Sorry.) And now here I am—just another spectator, along with the film crew, further raising the stakes by watching Schnabel handle his latest crisis. (Maybe you’ll see it on TV: Gold Rush’s seventh season began October 14.)

Today’s screwup is partially of Schnabel’s own making. A very quick lesson in the basics of gold-digging technology, so you can understand what went wrong here: Schnabel operates a series of machines that tower many stories upward, looking like the mess of metal you’d find on a construction site. First, large sections of earth are fed into one machine. The earth passes through “grizzly bars,” designed to block boulders from reaching the machine’s more delicate sorting system, called a “washplant,” which separates gold from dirt. But the grizzly bars stopped working recently, and Schnabel had to take a bet: Does he keep feeding in earth, hoping that it includes no boulders?

Gold-mining season is short (about six months, until winter freezes the ground), and minutes count. Schnabel’s operation works to pull in an ounce of gold per hour, 20 hours a day. With current values of gold, that amounts to more than $24,000 worth of gold a day. To fix the grizzly bars, Schnabel would have had to stop operations and wait a week for the part to arrive from Oregon. “For me, production is number one,” says Schnabel. “So a lot of times, we’ll risk things and run equipment that we shouldn’t be running just to keep everything in motion.” This “keep going until you are forced to stop” theory has paid off for him in the past. Last season, he pulled 3,362 ounces from the ground, worth $3.7 million.

Last season, Schnabel pulled 3,362 ounces from the ground, worth $3.7 million.

That’s why, today, he kept going without the safety system. And wouldn’t you know it: A boulder passed through and slammed into the belt that feeds the washplant. Problem compounded.

Entrepreneurs take risks. They don’t always work out.

And now, like a good reality television show, we will leave the tension hanging in the air while we move along to another scene of impending chaos.

Drive 45 minutes away from Schnabel’s Scribner Creek, down a winding dirt road that can turn into the world’s biggest Slip ’N Slide after a good rain, and we reach the very improperly named Paradise Hill. I’m sitting on the steps of the main building here, and a pickup truck heads toward me—fast. Like, ramming speed. I sit there like an idiot, and the truck’s brakes slam at what feels like the last minute, spraying dust and gravel on me. Tony Beets gets out. He’s the gold miner in these parts.

“Most people get out of the fucking way when a truck is driving straight at them!” he says with a laugh. “I guess I trusted you’d stop,” I explain. “Don’t trust no fucking person with your life but yourself,” he says.

Tony Beets, 59, looks exactly what you’d expect a Yukon gold miner to look like. He’s bearded, his black clothes are covered in dirt, and he uses the f-word like Michelangelo used a chisel.

He’s from Holland, where he made ends meet by milking cows and working on pipeline construction. But he wasn’t content. That’s why he and his wife, Minnie, shipped out to Dawson City in 1984—to take a big bet on a boom-or-bust industry. “There was no plan B,” Minnie tells me. “But I wasn’t worried. He always finds work. Best thing we ever did was move to Canada. Our kids should kiss our ass that we moved here!”

"Our kids should kiss our ass that we moved here!”

It’s worked out pretty well indeed. He doesn’t share how much he has in the bank, but at this point it’s enough to drop $1 million on a lark: He bought a 78-year-old dredge—essentially a barge with a bucket line that methodically chews through flooded ground, the kind of technology commonly used to find gold in the first half of the 20th century. But when gold prices fell many decades ago, the dredges were considered too costly to operate. Beets is perhaps one of the first people to now question that logic, and brought one back to life. Experts thought the plan was nuts: Seventy-eight-year-old dredges don’t come with owner’s manuals or spare parts. As the owner of a Saab, the product of a virtually extinct company, I know how hard it is to find replacement floor mats. Now imagine replacing a three-ton gear that was made eight decades ago.

But Beets thought differently: He saw dredges as more efficient than today’s popular machinery, which can require three or four times the number of crew to operate. “The dredge costs about $100 an hour to run: fuel and two people,” he says. “So if I get only one ounce an hour, I’ll still make a fucking lot of money.” (One ounce of pure gold would equal about $1,325.) He heard people pooh-pooh this logic, but that didn’t concern him. “When you do a big project like rebuilding our dredge, there are always a lot of ‘experts’ around. And most of them are always broke. So it doesn’t bother me if they’re saying whatever is wrong. You can think what you want; I’ll just fucking go and do it while you’re thinking.”

"You can think what you want—I’ll just f---ing go and do it while you’re thinking.”

After three decades of bets like this, Beets has become a man of hard-won wisdom like that. A further sampling:

On teamwork: “I always give people the chance to express their opinion. There’s nothing wrong with a good short argument. If people feel better because their way is better, that’s great. As long as I get to that piece of bacon, I don’t care.”

On motivation: “Do yourself a fucking favor and get out of bed every morning and be very serious about what you do. We all have good days and bad days. At the end of the day, it’s you that made it happen. Not your neighbor, not the banker. You!”

On perfectionism: “We could fix up the dredge better, could have more people running it, but let me put it to you this way: Right now, the damn thing is working, so don’t fuck with it. The important thing is to keep it going.

Beets takes me on a stroll of his site. It’s a stark contrast to Schnabel’s, which at least has the appearance of order. Schnabel grew up around mining, and, at age 22, he’s seen what works, and his instinct is to repeat it. But older, serial entrepreneurs—guys like Beets—know something that’s learned only from experience: There are many ways to success, and sometimes the best thing you can do is leave something that works to find something that works better. Everywhere you look around Beets’ place, there are machines big, small, and positively enormous in varying states of rust and readiness. He buys as many of the same old machines as he can—they’re cheaper, his mechanic knows how to fix them, and he can cannibalize them for parts. This is what a diversified portfolio looks like in the Yukon: It’s like if Mad Max owned an AutoZone. “After I have my breakfast, I don’t walk outside with coffee in my hand,” he says, surveying his glorious junk. “I have both hands ready to fucking work.”

In business, of course, there is no such thing as a winner that lasts. A startup could knock out an established rival, but another challenger will just come along. Apple walloped Microsoft. Now Samsung chases Apple. And so on. But for all the realism captured here in the Yukon, the show Gold Rush does layer on one slightly false note: At the end of the season, there is a big emphasis on who found the most gold. But the reality is, it isn’t how much you got, but how much you spent to get it. These guys aren’t true rivals. They don’t work near one another; one team’s success doesn’t impact another’s. This isn’t part of the gold business. And yet: drama.

Cut back to Schnabel, and the case of the unwanted boulder. As we stand here in front of a broken machine, I wonder if he thinks about the other miners and how they’ll trash-talk him when this episode airs. Because these guys will trash-talk each other; it’s easy to get them going. But that’s not where Schnabel’s mind goes at a moment like this. Rather, he thinks about the stakes he’s created for himself. “We’re putting all the cash flow we have back into the ground,” he says, “and that’s the trouble with mining. A lot of guys end up with nothing because all the money they make goes into the next piece of ground, and as soon as one of those pieces doesn’t work out, you’re done.”

The real winner, in real life, is anyone who spent their money right.

After an hour, master mechanic Mitch Blaschke shows up. He’s a Yukon mix of the Maytag Man and MacGyver. Diagnosis: The damage is not as bad as feared. He can Band-Aid the plant back together and get it operational in a few hours. A brief relief (was that a smile?) flashes over Schnabel’s face before stress starts creeping back in.

If you watch the show, you know that the financial strain can lead Schnabel to scream. At everyone. A lot. “Dealing with people is probably my biggest personal challenge. I’m pretty short-fused,” he admits. One worker, who was doing a perfectly fine job, once walked off a job simply because he was terrified of getting yelled at. “I’m pretty lucky in that I have a great group of guys here now. Rick, our foreman, is a great guy, and he genuinely cares. And that’s what I look for in a person. Do they care, or are they just here for a paycheck? I can’t stand being around people like that.”

"Do they care, or are they just here for a paycheck? I can’t stand being around people like that.”

So that’s Schnabel’s way of managing his temper: Hire people who keep him grounded. Today there is no screaming. There are only solutions.

Once schnabel’s plant is patched up, he seems to truly relax. He asks me what I want to do with my remaining time, and I have an obvious answer: Dig up some damn gold in one of those huge-ass machines. The on-site safety expert is not into this, so I settle for panning by hand in an area that Schnabel’s guys have yet to tear into.

I grew up on Long Island, where the most notable concentration of gold is inside Flavor Flav’s mouth, so I’m pretty excited to hunch in the muck. But what starts as a goof quickly turns serious: While loading up my pan, Schnabel plucks a small gold nugget, called a “picker,” out of the gravel. That, apparently, never happens. The gold the miners catch in the big machines are tiny flakes and particles, called alluvial deposits, which are impossible to see before their journey through the washplant. After a few more minutes, another picker appears. Then another, then another. By the time the sediment washes out, my pan is bedazzled.

I think Schnabel is going to jump up and hug me. Hell, I want to jump up and hug me. But he doesn’t. It turns out that when you do this for a living, finding gold is what’s supposed to happen.

“When we have a good weigh-in, the camera guys will ask, ‘Aren’t you excited?’” he says. “And I’ll be like, ‘No, that’s just what we found, and we spent a hell of a lot of money to get it.’” It’s the entrepreneur’s dilemma, no matter where the business is: Success may look like a miracle, but not to the people who made it happen. To them, it’s just the result of a lot of hard work—and there’s no stop to that.

Credits
Writer: Dan Bova is the editorial director of all digital content at Entrepreneur.com. He previously worked at Jimmy Kimmel Live, Maxim and Spy magazine. He currently writes a weekly humor column for The Journal News.
Edit: Jason Feifer
Creative: Austin Allsbrook, Kevin Chapman
Photography: Dan Bova, Justin Kelly courtesy of Discovery Communications, Judith Puckett-Rinella, Getty Images
Video: Dan Bova, Conrad Martin

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