Bering Sea Gold: TV Review

Bering Sea Gold Still - H 2012
Discovery Channel

Bering Sea Gold Still - H 2012

Full of working-class grit and vibrant characters desperate to right their precarious finances, Bering Sea Gold delivers a compelling portrait of Alaskan undersea gold mining that will likely tempt some fortune hunters to board the next plane to Nome.

Discovery Channel's docuseries from Thom Beers follows crews who comb the sea for gold.

The concept behind Bering Sea Gold, Discovery’s latest highly addictive blue collar reality show, is fairly straightforward: Mix one part Deadliest Catch with one part Gold Rush, and add a compelling cast of determined fortune seekers.  

Trailing the crews of six slapped together gold dredges as they vacuum up and filter the shallow sea floor in and around the isolated northern port of Nome, the show is a vivid portrait of characters unlike any seen on Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

“Everybody wants to come out here and find the gold. I got news for people, it’s not f***ing easy.” Scott Meisterheim, captain of the Wild Ranger, says in the premiere episode.

Like most of the lanky, smokestained cast of Bering Sea Gold, Meisterheim is up to his eyeballs in debt. Owing roughly $150,000 in missed child-support payments, his need to “land on the gold” in the murky, 45 degree Nome waters is all too palpable.

“I’ve got bills to pay that if you don’t pay, you go to jail for.” Meisterheim tells the camera.

Unfortunately, his path to fiscal redemption is blocked by several obstacles, including Steve Riedel, an obstinate deck hand who lives in an abandoned school bus, and who disappears for hours when sent on simple errands.

“Steve is an idiot,” Meisterheim says. “That is a concern of mine.”

The boats themselves, 20-ft.-plus crafts that look like leftover props from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, are constantly breaking down. When a drive belt snaps aboard The Clark — a rectangular barge fitted with an old Volkswagen engine that runs the ship’s gold sluice — captain Zeke Tenhoff and his art student deck hand, Emily Riedel (Steve’s daughter), head off to scour the scrap yards that ring Nome in search of a replacement.

“Nome it’s off the road system and off the greater supply system,” Tenhoff explains as they pick over the rusted out carcasses of dead automobiles, “and there aren’t a lot of big corporate mainstream supply outlets for things you might need for building a boat.” 

One hundred and eighty thousand in the red owing to hospital bills racked up following a stay for a foot infection, Tenhoff and his “green horn” deck hand live in a Yurt plopped down on the wind whipped beach. Having plunked $30,000 into The Clark over the past four years, every day that his boat is out of the water adds to his financial woes.  

Fans of Gold Rush will recognize the similarities to the process of filtering out gold fragments from heaps of mud. The only real difference here is that said earth is brought up from beneath several feet of water rather than from a mine. And, as with its forerunner, seeing the amount of gold that even the most dilapidated barge manages to bring up in a single day can tempt you to think about booking a summer ticket to Alaska.

“Gold recovery at the end of the day, that’s the big equalizer,” Ian Foster, who has left his job as a social worker to captain the Sluicey, a two-person converted motorboat, “so it doesn’t matter what a dredge looks like, it doesn’t matter big it is, it doesn’t matter how much it cost. Does it recover gold?”

Producers Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch), Philip Segal (Storage Wars), Jeff Conroy (Ice Road Truckers), John Gray (Ghost Whisperer), Sheila McCormack (Wild Justice) and Cameron Glendenning (The Colony) have done a great job in crafting a show that captures all the quirks of its characters and the location in which they live. Filmed so as to highlight the barren landscape, the dirt on truck dashboards, and the smoke that sputters out of burned out motors, the realistic vibe that emerges here is not something the Alaska Department of Tourism isgoing to be too eager to promote.

A knife fight at a local bar that bloodies Shawn Pomrenke, the captain of the biggest ship in the fleet, the Christine Rose, attests that the ambiance of Nome is a tad rougher than the Alaska seen on Northern Exposure.

“Nothing will keep Shawn out of the bars,” Pomrenke’s wife, Jenny, says while tending to wounds on his hand and back. “That’s where he does business.”

While there’s ample tension in finding out whether each craft will uncover enough daily gold to make the short season profitable enough to pay its protagonists’ bills, the real intrigue found on Bering Sea Gold lies in the day-to-day mishaps that befall the cast. 

As Vernon Adkison, the burly owner of the Wild Ranger, puts it, “The goal for this first season is to keep the boat afloat, and to make sure that none of my crew members kill themselves, or somebody else.”

Given the realism of Bering Sea Gold, that should make for one entertaining season, indeed.