To earn money to continue studying opera in Vienna, Austria, 24-year-old mezzo-soprano Emily Riedel returned to her home state of Alaska to follow in her eccentric father’s footsteps and take to the Bering Sea as a deckhand on a dredge seeking gold on the ocean floor.
Little did she know that she would wind up as one of the personalities on Discovery Channel’s Friday hit “Bering Sea Gold” — returning with a preview episode on Dec. 28, and its second season on Jan. 4 — and that her on-again, off-again relationship with childhood friend and boss, Capt. Zeke Tenhoff, would fascinate the viewing public.
“Usually,” Riedel tells Zap2it, “when people recognize me from the show, the first thing they’ll mention is Zeke. That’s a part of our story that people are really drawn to. It’s like, ‘You go, girl, don’t let him boss you around.’ Certain people say the same sort of thing to him about me.”
Admitting there’s a “lot of chaos” in the interaction between the two, Riedel says, “I think people sense the chaos. People are really wondering how to connect to it, how to understand it. I don’t even understand it. It’s complicated.
“There was one point where I would have very much been interested in [something long-term] with Zeke. Unfortunately, that was when things were starting to fall apart in our lives and our operation. So, anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
At least, this season, Riedel and Tenhoff can get more than a few feet from each other, since Tenhoff has leased a new dredge, called The Edge.
“It was a dredge that was actually remotely seaworthy,” says Riedel, “unlike our previous dredge, the Clark, which was this floating barge that was made of spare parts found around Nome.
“The dredge that we worked on was beautifully made, floating pontoons, working engines and dredge. The whole thing was incredibly functional. It was overwhelming, actually, for us, because we were so used to a really depressing, barely floating operation.”
But, with greater power and capacity came greater danger for the person underwater in the Bering Sea, operating the hose that sucks gravel, rocks and, with any luck, gold from the sea floor.
“It was also insanely challenging,” says Riedel. “The 10-inch hose ran off of two three-horsepower engines, and there was an enormous amount of suction. The nozzle was wide enough where I could fit my head in comfortably. You can get an a leg or an arm or anything stuck up that nozzle. It can lead to serious injury or death.
“So, for us, we were all terrified of it. It required a lot of muscle to maneuver.”
But Riedel admits that she’s having a bit of an affair with Nome itself.
“I didn’t really start to fall in love with Nome,” she says, “until I’d been living in my beach shack for a while. Last summer, I moved into this shack with no electricity, no running water, no heat except for a wood stove. I was living on the beach in the middle of nowhere. And Nome is pretty much on the edge of the world. You can almost see Russia from Nome.
“It is such a struggle to survive there. You just become bonded to the place. You develop a strong connection to the place rather than other places, because life is so convenient in other places. You go to Nome, and you carve out a living for yourself, by your own resources, by your own strength.
“You’re picking up gold from the bottom of the ocean, and then you’re turning that gold into food and money. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do that, where you are so connected to yourself as a survivor. It’s like this primordial urge to survive that overcomes the struggle.”
If the U.S. economy ever improves, the price of gold might go down, and that could be trouble for gold dredgers. But Riedel isn’t too worried about that.
“Nobody’s worried about the economy recovering,” she says. “It’s going to take a long, long time, especially if Congress ever gets its act together about the fiscal cliff and that whole scenario. It’s kind of disastrous.
“As long as the economy remains in shambles, it looks pretty good for us. I hate to profit off the rest of the country’s pain, but as long as inflation keeps on rising, the price of gold will keep on rising as well, and that’s good for us.”
Asked if she’d encourage others to come North in search of fortune, Riedel says, “I can’t advise them not to. I could say, ‘OK, it costs a lot of money, and there’s a lot of luck involved. You have to be working with the right people. You have to have enough start-up money to get your own operation.’ I could say all that stuff, and all of that stuff is true.
“But I went up there and worked hard. I went there having no experience in the field, and I got lucky. I worked with people who know they’re doing, to a certain extent. I went for it, and I would encourage people to do the same, if they can.
“If you have it in you; if you’re a hard worker; if you’re adventurous … get the hell up there. Why not?”