The following story appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY CHRIS COCOLES
About the only thing Emily Riedel has in common with one Francis Albert Sinatra: they both have/had quite the singing pipes.
Sinatra once famously crooned about hitting it big in the Big Apple. Riedel’s little-town blues are melting away thousands of miles west in Nome, Alaska, a place where dreams live and die in the form of gold hidden at the bottom of the BeringSea.
If I can make it there, I’ll make it … anywhere. But can you imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes trying to do the same in old Nome?
“Or maybe it’s, if I can make it here, I’ll never make it anywhere else,” Riedel deadpans.
She jokes that every time she boards an Austria-bound plane for classical music-inspired cities like Vienna and Salzburg, the flight charts must be screwy because the plane always seems to end up in Nome.
(She playfully blames the Discovery Channel, which chronicles Riedel’s and the other dredgers’ highs and lows on BeringSeaGold.)
But the lure of striking it rich – even amid a setting that’s caused undo frustration, tension and, at times, failure – has swallowed the 27-year-old whole.
“It’s something I find myself not being able to quit doing,” she admits. “Unless I go through intensive reconstructive therapy involving a really insane addiction to the trials of gold mining, I will continue to do this.”
She purchased her own dredge – with modest success – and even called a truce in her feud with childhood pal and onetime boyfriend Zeke Tenhoff to work together during the winter season (they are at odds again as rivals this season). But give her credit for being tenacious, if not stubborn as seasons go by with less-than-prolific profits being made.
“I consider myself dedicated, period. This is a challenging industry – both television and gold mining in their own way,” Riedel says. “But you can’t go halfway in this business, especially after all these years of doing it to not succeed at it fantastically means to have failed. So that’s taken over my head quite a bit. I’m no longer a beginner. What can I do to evolve and be better?”
RIEDEL WAS ASKED IF her time on BeringSeaGold has been a real-life opera. If you count romance, conflict, heartbreak, personal tragedy and more, you have all the elements of a musical epic.
“It’s a grand question because being in Nome is a great drama. I graduated from arts school amid all these divas, and then I came to go gold mining in the Northwest and found more divas,” she says.
(Riedel also points out that – we kid you not – early 20th century German composer Kurt Weill did write an opera about Alaskan gold miners, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, or Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.)
“Everyone here is part of that drama. When I’m in a place like Manhattan or San Francisco or Seattle, I’m never normal but I feel relatively sane or even-keeled,” she says. “But when I’m in Nome I’m this crazy person, this broken-tooth old sourdough. But we’re on our own stage up here.”
Oh, how her classmates at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts would be curious about Riedel’s whereabouts when they meet up for their 10-year.
“It would be a puzzling reunion,” Riedel says with a laugh. “‘You’re doing what?’”
Her alma mater’s more famous alumni include actors Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Mackie, Danny McBride and Anna Camp and several prominent singers and dancers. The school can also claim one of the biggest celebrities in Nome, Alaska.
For that reason, Riedel considers herself as a Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde hybrid – half the sophisticated opera singer and sweet voice, and the other a foul-mouthed, not afraid-to-get-her-hands-dirty Alaska girl. And among the future thespians, dancers and singers she went to college with, this wasn’t the stereotype student on campus. Leaving Alaska meant getting out of her comfort zone.
“I would walk around campus barefoot in the winter. I was the Alaskan hippie and they’d say, ‘What is she doing here at this conservatory and school of opera?’ Everyone else was a lot more classy than I was.”
In hindsight, her time as a gold miner was a lot closer to her roots – Riedel was active performing in Homer, one of Alaska’s most artsy communities – than she might have once believed. She goes as far as saying she needed to experience life like an Alaskan.
It’s not likely any other alums from the university’s Winston-Salem campus would list Nome gold dredger in the what-are-you-doing-now questionnaire. So she can embrace that she’s a little bit eccentric in the two worlds she’s split her life around.
“I didn’t feel entirely right amidst the elitists of the operatic world. I kind of got a little bit tired of them,” Riedel says. “Alaska is in my blood and this state feels right to me a lot of the times. It’s who I am.”
“There’s a certain spirit that comes from being raised in Alaska. You don’t have any preconceived notions of identity. You can be whomever you choose to be. And most choose exactly that. We don’t have any lineage of a certain career. The opportunities are endless, and we’re all raised believing that of ourselves.”
NO PART OF EMILY Riedel’s “opera” existence in Nome is more dramatic than her relationship with Tenhoff, a complicated dynamic that continues to be one of the major backstories of this production known as BeringSeaGold.
When their brief rekindled partnership (strictly professional, of course) deteriorated again as Tenhoff went to work for a corporate dredge owner, they stared each other down on the dock as the subplot thickened. She still considers Tenhoff to be a part of her life through the highs and lows they’ve shared off- and on-screen. She calls him “instrumental” in the journey she’s had a gold miner.
“We’ve grown up in Nome doing this business. The way that Zeke has changed in my eyes has been huge,” she says. “He’s been a lover, a friend, a brother, a bastard enemy. And we’ve found ourselves in situations where we’ve had to do business together, whether we’ve liked each other or not. I can look at Zeke and see a bunch of history or I can look at Zeke and see Zeke as someone to do business with; that’s what I tried to focus on.”
After a disastrous debut to Season 6 – damage to Riedel’s boat, The Eroica, forced her to suspend dredging operations – more mechanical issues cut short a promising dive and triggered tension between the captain and her top-notch diver, Daryl Galipeau. Riedel reported Murphy’s Law to be alive and well in Nome during her stint there.
“The only thing I can do to keep my people around is make sure they keep making money,” she says in an early episode that ended with her crew cashing in 10.76 ounces of gold, worth $12,912. That total didn’t exactly prompt the popping of any champagne bottles from her crew. But this is what Riedel signs on for when she goes back every year.
Riedel believes there are so many gold deposits still undiscovered on the sea floor off Nome that it’s a little easier for herself and colleagues to justify why they keep going back. Some of the other dredges had more success over time, but perhaps that’s even more reason to keep coming back – the body blows she’s taken be damned. On a 1-to-10 scale, Riedel puts herself around a 6½ to 7 as a gold dredger.
“Leadership for me on a boat has been a lot of trial-by-fire and learning on the job – quite often learning on the job. There is a traditional way of doing this; I could have been raised on a boat and could have had a dad who was a captain and was organized,” she says of her dad Steve, who also has tried his hand as a dredger on BeringSeaGold. Like Emily, Steve was also new to the industry when Tenhoff convinced them to give this career a shot.
“I got on a boat before knowing anything about boats. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll take over a dredge; this is starboard and this is port.’ All I have to do is learn as fast as I can and get better.”
Being a woman – on the season six premiere Riedel said at times it’s been difficult for the men to take her seriously – makes the challenge that much greater, though Riedel is defiant.
“The most important battle to me is to do a really good job as a gold miner. What’s important is that I know that I deserve their respect,” she says. “Being told that you can’t do something is an amazing motivator.”
So as the planes continue to divert from Europe or other cities with storied opera scenes and Riedel finds herself back on Nome’s Front Street heading toward the harbor, she understands Nome is – for better or worse – part of who she is, who she’s been and ultimately who she wants to be.
“Six years in Nome. And one of the locals told me, ‘Once you’ve been to Nome 10 years, you can never leave because you can’t function normally in any other society,” she says with a laugh.
“So you learn to function here. And I’m terrified because I’ve noticed this. I’m always so happy for work to be done and to be leaving Nome and seeing my family and that sort of thing. But it’s become increasingly more difficult to disconnect from this place. And I’ve started to feel better and better to come back here. I’ll think, ‘Thank God; I’m back in Nome with the crazy Nome-ites. I’m my old self again.”
Start spreading the news; she is not leaving
Editor’s note: For more on Emily Riedel, follow her on Twitter
(EmilyRiedel23), Instagram (Sluice24) and like her at facebook.com
/theemilyriedel. New episodes of BeringSeaGold air on Wednesday nights (check your local listings) on Discovery Channel. For more, go to discovery.com/tv-shows/bering–sea–gold.