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I work in the Alaska mining industry. I sometimes get paid in gold, but the job comes with long hours and grueling conditions.

Ana Altchek   

I work in the Alaska mining industry. I sometimes get paid in gold, but the job comes with long hours and grueling conditions.
  • Justin Peterson moved to Alaska to pursue mining a little over 20 years ago.
  • The industry has similarities to Australia's FIFO work, but the conditions can be rough.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Justin Peterson, a 41-year-old gold miner in Alaska who has built a TikTok following of more than 20,000 users. This essay has been edited for length and clarity. Insider verified his identity, employment, and salary.

I moved to Alaska from Oregon to find work opportunities in the mining industry about 20 years ago.

I focus on gold mining, but we also have one of the world's largest zinc and lead mines, as well as silver and platinum here in Alaska.

There's a growing TikTok community that documents the perks of working in the mining industry. Although many of these workers live in Australia, I've also built a following on the app by sharing my experience in the field.

But it isn't always glamorous. Working as a miner for over 20 years in Alaska has shown me the challenges of this career path long term.

The perks and downsides to rotational work

Rotational work in Alaska is the same as "fly-in-fly-out" in Australia. It's when companies fly employees to the mining site to work for about two or three weeks straight. Then, the companies fly employees back home for two or three weeks of rest and relaxation, referred to as R&R.

In Alaska, rotational work cycles can last up to six weeks with no break. Mining companies here fly workers from Anchorage or Fairbanks to multiple sites across the state. One of the most common sites is the oilfield of the North Slope.

Construction campsites, like the ones I've worked at, are nice but simple. Operations camps have full-time workers who run the facilities. Some offer amenities like basketball courts or saunas. But most camps have a recreational hang-out area and a gym. They also provide food and housing.

During R&R periods, people can travel or spend their time relaxing.

As someone living in Wasilla, Alaska, with a wife and an 18-year-old son, my travel opportunities are more limited because the cost of living here in Alaska is expensive. But if you live in a cheaper state or you're independent, the lifestyle may pay off more because you can spend more money on travel.

A lot of people who live in Alaska go riding, hunting, and fishing during their "rest and relaxation week." I like to relax or check out the northern lights.

I liked rotational work because I could do my own mining during my time off. It was tough for my family in the beginning, but soon they saw that I was able to make more money and stack up my days off. When we were together, we were able to enjoy our time more.

The mining industry in Alaska is rough

The physical conditions of mining in Alaska are rough.

Winter is especially difficult. The temperature is extreme and can dip down to below -40 degrees. Companies don't usually pause work, and we're expected to work in these conditions.

In some mining roles, you have to dive dredge, which is a form of plaster mining. It requires workers to plunge into freezing water and use a suction hose to vacuum up the gravel on the riverbed. It's one of the preferred ways of mining because it's easy to set up. The best gold is often found sitting on solid bedrock.

Aside from the conditions specific to Alaska, the nature of this lifestyle is also tough. It requires a lot of physical labor which means getting an injury or getting sick could compromise your ability to keep a job.

After my first six weeks of rotational work in 2006, I lost a finger during my R&R week. It was before my first 90 days on the new job so I had to cover the medical expenses alone. Since I wasn't able to fly back out on time because of the accident, I ended up losing my job.

The money can be good, but it depends on the project

I did rotational work for a while, but I'm currently working in the support structure for various mines and oilfield development. In this role as a welder, I work six or seven days a week, but my current job has no "rest and relaxation" time built in the way FIFO or rotational work usually does.

At my current job as a welder, I make a little over $30 an hour, which is decent. I work around 12 and a half hours a day either 72 or 84 hours a week. In a week that I work 72 hours, I make about $3,500 before taxes. That comes to about $175,000 annually, assuming I work 52 weeks without taxes factored in.

I plan on taking about seven or 10 days off in August to see "The Strongest Man on Earth" competition with my son in Colorado. Those are the only days I plan to take off this year because I have to make up for a slow year.

I've made more and less than my current rate during my years as a miner. Jobs with a government contractor typically pay higher.

In other jobs, I made significantly less than I do now, but I was partially compensated with gold. It was an under-the-table sort of verbal agreement with my employer. During that time, I made just over $1,800 a week working nearly 82 hours a week.

Even though I wasn't getting a lot of money on my paychecks, I was able to keep a portion of the gold I found, up to 60 or 100 ounces depending on how the company did.

Gold is easy to sell in Alaska, and nowadays, you can get about $2,400 per ounce. I liked to sell it in small increments of less than $600, so I didn't have to include it in a tax write-off, but you can make more on a sale if you sell it in larger quantities.

My work opportunities are now limited

I've worked 12-and-a-half-hour days, six or seven days a week, for the last year, with only about 10 days off a year. I plan to do this for two more years to save money after a slow year in mining. Then, I want to return to rotational work to have more time to enjoy life.

I don't necessarily want to be working this much in these conditions, but this is the industry I entered and these are the opportunities available to me right now.

My dream would be to work at a remote mining operation camp, like Skookum Gold Camp and Chicken Gold Camp in Alaska, where people outside the industry can find gold and take it home. Then, I could travel during the winter to other mining locations around the world, like Australia.