"Gold Rush" the reality mining show set in the Chilkat Valley’s Porcupine mining district, won high ratings in its debut season on Discovery Channel last year, but has its success translated to a boost in the number of visitors here?
During its first season filming in 2010, Mayor Jan Hill and others expressed hope that the show would help promote Haines as a visitor destination, providing the kind of publicity the town could never afford to buy.
Officials with the Haines Borough’s tourism department and the operator of a tour created to exploit the show’s success this week said that the show has generated interest, but not many visitors – so far, anyway.
Tammy Piper, who works as an assistant at the visitor’s center, said her office gets inquiries about the show, including e-mails from prospective visitors asking whether they can pan for gold around Haines.
Piper said she thinks a few visitors have come to town because of the show.
"Definitely inquiries are happening. People come in and ask where (the mine) is and how can they get there, but increasing-wise, I couldn’t give you any numbers. It’s definitely a question that’s coming up more and more at the office," she said.
Veteran tour operator Joe Ordonez fashioned a Porcupine gold rush tour last summer to capitalize on the show’s popularity. Before independent tours were moved off the Port Chilkoot Dock, Ordonez offered Porcupine tours directly to passengers walking off cruise ships landing in Haines.
"We really thought people would be dying to do this tour. We thought they’d be walking off the ships asking, ‘How do I get to the Porcupine?’ That didn’t materialize," Ordonez said. "To be honest, it wasn’t a big seller this year."
His tour includes showing visitors mining equipment seen on the show and panning for gold at John Schnabel’s Big Nugget Mine, an operating placer mine next door to the one featured on "Gold Rush" last year.
Ordonez is hoping the show’s second season – which features Schnabel’s teen-age grandson Parker operating his grandfather’s mine, and "Dakota" Fred Hurt working the claim next door – might turn things around.
The show recently filmed Parker in a Haines High School classroom, and a recent episode mentioned "Haines" by name, a deviation from last year’s show that identified the mine’s location almost exclusively as "Porcupine," and only briefly showed the younger Schnabel.
Porcupine exists solely on the map. A one-street, mining boom town a century ago, it was abandoned more than 50 years ago and its last buildings were bulldozed down in the 1980s.
"I think there’s going to be more exposure for the town. Last year it was hard to tell where Porcupine was. If there’s more mention of Haines, people may be clamoring to go on this tour. We’d hope so, anyway," Ordonez said.
Ordonez also is hoping Schnabel, as teenage heir to an active mining claim, will attract viewers. "It’s a good angle, to have him working at the mine, then going back to high school. That’s interesting to people."
Parker Schnabel may be the deciding factor in the tour’s success. Ordonez said it’s up to Schnabel to decide whether to pitch the tours to passengers off cruise ships as a "shore excursion," the most lucrative tours in the region, with a virtually guaranteed customer base.
"It’s a matter of working it out with Parker. He’s taking over the (mining) business. It’s not strictly my decision how far we go with this thing and what size we get," Ordonez said.
A successful tour might fulfill a longtime dream of mine owner John Schnabel. Schnabel, 91, built a lodge at the mine site, erected road signs and printed brochures for gold mine tours he envisioned about 20 years ago. Ordonez is recycling some of Schnabel’s brochures for his operation.
In an interview this week, Parker Schnabel declined to say whether he’d pursue the shore excursion angle. He said he hasn’t discussed that with Discovery Channel’s film crews, who were at his mining operation daily this year between May 1 and Oct. 1.
Schnabel also declined comment on what other scenes from Haines might be included in upcoming broadcasts of the show.
Tour operator Ordonez said the majority of clients on his tour were familiar with the show. He described an incident last summer when his tour bus encountered "Dakota" Fred Hurt, the other local miner being filmed by Discovery. "They were moving some heavy equipment and had stopped traffic and Dakota Fred was there, and they were just thrilled."
Ordonez said the tour fits into a four-hour time frame for cruise ship shore excursions originating in Skagway, but getting ships to bite is another matter. "They’re not chomping at the bit to sell tours to Haines from Skagway, let me tell you."