Stories from Alaska

An insider's journey through Alaska's best kept secrets

Alaska Reality TV – Gold!

Ratings gold: Reality shows about Alaska mining

It’s a classic Alaska storyline and far north fantasy – the Gold Rush and visions of gleaming nuggets. In the 1800s and early 1900s, tens of thousands of prospectors, opportunists and dreamers traveled north to Alaska. For most, it proved a dead-end road for dreams that went bust. But those rare few who struck the motherlode became insanely rich legends, inspiring others to continue prospecting and dreaming.

The quest for all that glitters, and the high-stakes gamble of boom or bust, endures. Professional and amateur prospectors from around the world still wander the wilds of Alaska hoping to score gold, untold riches and fame. And every week, millions more get a stake of the action without having to sell everything and move north thanks to numerous reality TV shows about mining in Alaska – perfect prescriptions to pacify gold fever.

The shows capture the hopeful highs of large and small discoveries, the comical lows of equipment malfunctions, the potentially deadly consequences of mistakes, the dramatic meltdowns between rivals, teammates and even families, and the daily operations of cast members who are inventive and impractical, salty and surly, sweaty and sometimes even sweet. The potential rewards are massive, and so are the frustrations and tempers. It’s a tough life of tough work for equally tough modern-day miners. The combination makes for ratings gold as millions tune in to multiple shows. All that glitters isn’t TV gold, though. Much like prospecting, for every sparkly hit, many shows are just fool’s gold.

 

The big shining nugget of the genre is Gold Rush/Gold Rush: Alaska (2010-present, more than 170 episodes). Fittingly broadcast on Discovery Channel, the program originated in Alaska and has since expanded to mining hot spots in Klondike Canada, other locales around the north and around the world. Its big personalities, big mining operations and big drama made it an instant hit and a continued triumph. It owns ratings, key demographics and ambitious advertisers. It’s also created stars out of many burly and boisterous miners, particularly the Schnabel family and the young, headstrong and charismatic Parker Schnabel.

The Gold Rush success spawned specials and spinoffs, including the new Gold Rush: White Water. This show finds established Gold Rush stars the Dakota Boys back in Alaska for extreme (and extremely dangerous) mining action – diving and suction dredging in the icy, wild waters of McKinley Creek and Porcupine Creek near Haines. Savvy 70-something “Dakota” Fred Hurt, his daring son Dustin, and a cast of hardened characters provide the water work and high-water drama that make it a hit: more than 2 million viewers tuned in for its debut. (The Hurts also starred in the 2015 unofficial Gold Rush spinoff mining documentary, All that Glitters.)

 

Discovery dug up another gem in its Bering Sea Gold/Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice series (2012-present, 80 episodes), which is set in the AK Gold Rush epicenter of Nome and drew an average of 3 million viewers in its first season. Various crews operate from boats in summer and on ice in spring, with miners diving, dredging and competing for deep sea discoveries. Under the Ice segments dial up the drama and dial down the temperatures as crews ice dredge. The chill carries throughout the series as confrontations often take place between crews and sometimes within teams. The action is narrated by the king of reality show’s wild work-sites, Mike Rowe.

Alaska Gold Diggers (2013, one season) was a modern day chapter of the Gold Rush story, complete with Californians racing to Alaska to find their fortune. It features mom, Sara Jane, and her four makeup-and-drama caked daughters who comically, and sometimes even successfully, work the family’s gold mines in Nome and outside Fairbanks.

Still digging for reality TV mining shows set in Alaska? Stay tuned for the upcoming Rivers of Gold, set in Nome, and other upcoming programming prospects.