Diving With Emily Riedel of Bering Sea Gold

(TIM BEERS JR/THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL)
(TIM BEERS JR/THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

Discovery Channel’s hit show Bering Sea Gold has seen gold dredger Emily Riedel endure lots of difficulties when it comes to diving.

In this sneak peak of the upcoming Bering Sea Gold: Under The Ice episode (Friday at 9 p.m. on Discovery), The Champagne Kiss-Off, Emily will once again get a chance to conquer her demons in the water:

Here’s the transcript of my interview with Emily from our February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

CHRIS COCOLES When you were younger, maybe dreaming of being an opera star, could you ever have possibly believed you’d someday be a star of a popular television show dredging for gold? How in the world did this happen?
EMILY RIEDEL [Laughs] Not even a little bit, even remotely close. The person who convinced me to come to Nome, Zeke, I remember hearing he was in Nome dredging for gold. And I was at school at the time. And I thought ‘Wow! That’s completely insane.’ But I went up there after I graduated (from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts). I wanted to put together some funds to go to graduate school abroad. And honestly I had no idea. I was at the airport and got this phone call. ‘The Discovery Channel is wanting to come and talk to people about being on a reality show about gold mining in Nome.’ And I just thought that’s never going to happen. What on earth?
And it’s so funny because, growing up in Alaska and seeing so many reality TV shows coming out of it, I was kind of judgmental about that. I had that Alaskan snobbery a little bit about reality television. But I couldn’t even dream of (being on a show).

CC Did you have any experiences or interest growing up around the gold dredging industry? Did your dad do any of that?
ER My dad was as new to this as I was. I was apathetic to gold. I knew that it was interesting and knew that it was pretty. I just never imagined I’d develop the relationship with it that I did. It was a love cultivated from mining it and love cultivated from the search for it. But before that I was pretty indifferent. But I know that a lot of people went up to Alaska and died for it.

CC So I would guess your first love was always singing and performing?
ER Yes. My mom was an incredible singer and performer, and in Homer, where I grew up, there was an incredible hub for the arts, and there were opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been in Alaska. And it remains a very powerful passion, of course.

CC Did you do a lot of fishing or hunting like so many other Alaskans?
ER Sure. It’s such a big part of peoples’ lives who live in Alaska. I kind of had hippie parents and I did a lot of fishing, thank God. I know my way around a salmon actually with no problem. I didn’t do a lot of hunting. But fishing? Yes.

CC Skipping ahead a little b it during your time on BERING SEA GOLD, were you apprehensive about purchasing your own dredge and captaining it in such a male-driven industry?
ER The point where I decided to move on and have my own dredge, I really wanted to do my own thing. I worked with a couple people but it didn’t work out. But I ventured onto my own, it was really because I had no other choice. The only way it was going to work out if I did my own thing. But I really wasn’t thinking about ‘Oh, I’m a woman, and I’m going to try to be the only female captain.’ But this was the task that was before me. It’s an enormous task and I need to make it work. Otherwise, I can’t keep coming back here. I’m very honest with myself and with my skills and abilities. I knew I wasn’t an engineer, I’m not a mechanical genius. But I’m loving this career; I love the premise of gold mining and the entrepreneurial aspect; the fact that it implies so much freedom to harvest your own money off the ocean floor. That’s highly moving to me.
But my modus operandi was I need to make to make this work. I think I can make this work. If this is going to happen, it’s going to me that’s making this happen. It was never a case of ‘Oh sh*t, I’m intimidated by this.’ This needs to happen, and I need to do it.

CC So it has to make you feel pretty good that you’re doing it now with, do you think, some success so far?
ER In the previous season, you had the feeling that ‘Well, that didn’t go well again.’ And I think it was a feeling of that would have made decent TV off of failing of trying to be a successful gold miner. And that was obviously a huge missing part of my experience up there. But without giving away too many spoilers, I can say that (this season) I was able to walk away in a different spirit than what I had before, once you’re able to make some progress in gold mining. It was mostly orchestrated by me going on by myself and finding a good crew. My spirits about gold mining changed completely.

CC Is too far off base for me to suggest opera singing has always been a passion for you, but dredging for gold is more an obsession?
ER [Laughs] I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it that way: the passion vs. the obsession. I think for opera I have nothing but respect for the profession. It’s a very difficult thing. I went through four years of schooling to train my voice, and I have a lot more training to accomplish. Opera is something that I knew was decent, and I knew that I could become more decent. Gold mining, you don’t know if you’re EVER going to have a payday. You don’t know if you’re going to hit the honey hole, or if you’re going to just continue wandering over the Bering Sea wishing that you can find gold. I guess it is an obsession, with the possibility of both failure success. Both are these living possibilities that you have to fight with every day.
Sometimes you have success and it’s great, and then you go two weeks and see nothing. And there are the highs and the lows and the endorphin rushes that you get. Gold is just a fickle mistress. I’m married to opera, and gold is my mistress. And the mistress is always kind of more enticing.

CC But if you had your choice right now, maybe you’d rather be singing in a warm opera house somewhere? Because I’ve watched clips of your singing and you have a beautiful voice. But then there’s the allure of doing your thing and looking for gold. Are both of those an equal rush?
ER For me, singing is purely pleasurable and joyful. But I’ll level with you: I almost quit the show before last mining season. The summer season was such a disaster; we lost a good friend (castmate and dredge deckhand John Bunce committed suicide) and everything kind of fell apart. I was trying to be honest with myself and thinking I’m not cut out for this and was thinking about walking away and putting all my attention into opera. And I went back for ice hunting (she appeared on the winter-themed spinoff, BERING SEA GOLD: UNDER THE ICE) and all of the challenges opened up for me again: How hard it is, the problems you have to overcome, and I couldn’t quit. I cannot leave until I have so much gold it’s disgusting [laughs]. The challenges never stop. So I guess I’m addicted to it. A lot of perfectly normal people want to go to Nome and go gold mining. It just messes with your head and you become this crazy person. You see a little bit of it and you need more; it’s like heroin.

CC Are there days when you are freezing in Nome, Alaska and think, ‘I just want to go somewhere warm?’
ER [Laughs with a pause] The short answer is yes. You’re almost schizophrenic to all the phases that you go through every day when you’re in Nome. There are moments when you’re triumphant and think,
‘I’m never going to stop doing this; I’m going to be a gold miner until the very end.’ But there are other days when you want to find a beach. There are always fluctuating emotions.

CC I hope this doesn’t sound too much like a job interview question, but where does Emily Riedel see herself in 10 years?
ER [Laughs] I think about that a lot. I still want to have a career in opera, and I’ve spent three birthdays in Nome. I’ve been single for three years and I’ll probably be single for another three years. It’s Nome. But what I want out of Nome, is to (find) a lot of gold in the next couple of years and beyond. I want to have a singing career. What I want in 10 years is to be content. If those things have to happen to be it, then so be it.

CC I’m sure everyone asks you about your relationship with Zeke and to reminisce about it. But I’d be curious to know how your life has changed for the better or for the worse because of all that.
ER I can say with absolute confidence that my life has changed for the better now that Zeke is no longer in it. However, it’s a tragedy because I’m estranged from him and his entire family. And our families have been friends for our entire lives. My dad and his dad were friends in high school. And now there’s a very broken relationship that will never be recovered. And it’s unfortunate. But that’s the way it is.

CC You spent some time living in a tiny and cold, waterfront shack in Nome. Tell us some good and bad memories of that experience.
ER [Laughs] I’m so fond of it. That will always remain dear to me. One of the best memories for me is when I settled in there and started a fire. I’m in this wooden shack, and I looked out onto the ocean and it was just me, alone on a beach in Nome surrounded by tundra. Any Alaskan knows that feeling. I can’t even explain it. And, of course, the worst memory is probably waking up with frost on my blankets. Then it was kind of like ‘Oh crap, I wish I could be warm right now.’

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