Before The Pipeline: Clutch Lounsbury

Clutch at the entrance to his drift mine in Ester. (Photo by Molly Rettig)
Clutch at the entrance to his drift mine in Ester. (Photo by Molly Rettig)

Gold is in Clutch Lounsbury’s blood. His grandparents took the Valdez Trail up to Fairbanks during the Gold Rush, and Clutch was on a cat before he could walk. He’s searched in creeks, canyons, and underground. He’s sluice boxed, dredged,and hard rock mined all over the Interior and the Arctic. Today he lives in Ester above an 800-foot mine shaft in the hillside.

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Clutch Lounsbury’s mine on Ester Dome begins from the Arctic entryway of his old cabin and stabs 800 feet into the hillside. The narrow tunnel, called a drift, feels like a secret underground passageway. His dad built it in the 1930s, following a gold vein as it zigzagged through the hill.

“This first 60 feet my dad didn’t have a compressor, he used a chisel and hammer and dynamite,” Clutch said. “That’s how he got in here.”

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Clutch has a white bushy beard and has often been mistaken for Santa Claus.

In his mine it’s dark, damp, and 35 degrees year-round. Clutch and his brother George mined it until 1980, drilling 100-foot core samples into the walls every few feet searching for gold.

“There’s the vein, see that white milky quartz, that’s all there is,” he said. “It’s about 2 inch wide. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re mining. ”

The Lounsburies have deep roots in Alaska. Clutch’s great grandfather built the first church in Fairbanks in 1905. Shortly after, his grandfather followed his grandmother up north.

“I thought he came here lookin’ for gold but actually he was looking for his girlfriend that he went to school with in Oregon,” Clutch said.

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They took a horse and sleigh up the Valdez Trail to Fairbanks and mined on Engineer Creek in Fox. When E.T. Barnette, the founder of Fairbanks, swindled the bank in 1911, his grandparents lost a lot of money and headed back to Iowa. Clutch’s dad was 3. As soon as he turned 18, he hitchhiked back to Alaska with $50 in his pocket.

“Spent the rest of his life in Fairbanks,” he said. “Just like a salmon going back to spawn, ya know.”

His mom grew up in Fairbanks in the apartment above the railroad depot. An old picture shows her playing in the backyard with her pet black bear cub. Clutch was born in 1945 and was moving dirt with his dad by age 2. He mined for coal in Healy and built roads for the state for 20 years, mostly in the Brooks Range. But he never stopped looking for gold. In 1984 he was passing through Boundary, on the Canadian border, on his way to check out a mine in Dawson. There was a beautiful cook named Lorna working at Action Jack’s bar and restaurant.

“When I first met Lorna she had three horses, three sons, three violins, three banjos, and those other two guys I was worried about,” he said.

Lorna wrangled wild mustangs in Reno before moving to Alaska for work.

“I was a cowboy all winter one time,” she said. “My job was to go to the top of the hill and start the mares and the colts down towards the ropers and look down on the Mustang Ranch.”

In the 70s Clutch and his brother inherited claims from their friend in Wiseman, a tiny mining town in the Brooks Range that was only connected to the Haul Road in the 90s. The first big nugget in the region came out of their creek in 1916.

“It was worth $669.50 and it was 35 ounces and 5 pennyweight,” he said.

Prospectors were already building a city in Coldfoot. When they heard about the nugget, they moved their equipment and cabins 10 miles upriver.

“The stampede started that way, the next year they found a nugget twice that size just three miles up the road from my place on Hammond, they found a 60 ouncer and eventually I think it was a 150 ouncer or something,” Clutch said. “There were just huge nuggets all around that area were discovered in the last decade or so.”

The biggest one Clutch ever found is the size of his fingernail. But that’s not why he does it.

“I never really cared about gettin’ rich, ya know. It was an adventure,” he said.

Clutch and Lorna run the Wiseman Gold Camp B&B every summer. Lorna rides her two horses and Clutch works on the local mining museum and prospects up the canyon.

“Who knows, I might run into something,” he said. It’s a lot of dirt between that gold.”

And just like that, he’s off to start looking again.

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