When opera singer Emily Riedel joined the cast of Discovery's "Bering Sea Gold," her main intention was to make money and escape from her life of being a starving artist.
But being the only female among a group of men digging in the Bering Sea for buried treasure taught the feisty Riedel a thing or two about what really matters when your life is on the line.
Fox411.com caught up with Riedel to chat about loneliness, being motivated by gold and the scariest moment that happened to her in the middle of the sea.
Fox411: What was it like being the only women in a field full of men?
Emily Riedel: It was rough, and lonely. It’s been about twenty years since the last female dredger in Nome, and I think most of the men there expected me to give up immediately and go home. I was under extremely close scrutiny as a woman, and I generally got criticized for being a beginner and having no experience, when half of the dredgers up there that summer were also mining for gold for their first time.
Fox411: Did you get any special treatment because you are a woman?
ER: A lot of men thought I was helpless and treated me like a 'damsel in distress.' But instead of flowers, men would drop off pallets for firewood and loan me their skill saws. Being a woman was also sometimes easier because I didn’t have to engage in that primordial, testosterone driven, ‘Who has the biggest engine’ male banter. At the same time, I wanted to be independent and show that I could do the job, so I hated accepting their help, which led to some problems between Zeke and me.
Fox411: What made you think ‘yeah, this is a good idea!”
ER: I never really thought mining for gold was a good idea, but I had a goal to study in Europe, and I've had crazy jobs in Alaska before that have funded my operatic habits. When the chance came to go and work with Zeke, I thought it sounded insane and dangerous, but the thought of working a nine to five job was even scarier. I've been poor all of my life, and I'm sick of being a 'starving artist.' Nome presented the chance to make a lot of money in a relatively short period of time.
Fox411: How afraid were you out here on that crazy dredger?
ER: I was more afraid of showing my fear than anything. I knew Zeke was waiting for me to crack and leave, as most sensible people might when they're faced with diving in forty degree water for hours. And of course, diving for the first time was terrifying. On the Clark, you can have massive mechanical failure at any time. When you dive, you're in freezing water, the visibility is terrible, and you're surrounded by a dozen different lines to get tangled in. One time, I think it was my second time ever diving, Zeke shut off the air compressor by accident. There were so many times I found myself in potentially deadly situations, but the prospect of giving up and leaving was unthinkable. Gold is a fierce motivator.
Fox411: What is Zeke’s best point?
ER: At his best, Zeke is an incredibly hard worker. He's passionate and sure of his path in life, which is essentially to be as anti-establishment as possible. As the ‘Lone Wolf' dredger, he knows exactly what he’s doing and can run his operation without much outside help.
Fox411: What is his worst point?
ER: Zeke's worst point coincides with his best. Sometimes his passion and drive run his mind and body down to a destructive point and he just shuts off. The entire season I felt like the success of our work for the day depended on whether Zeke was in a good mood or not.
Fox411: Your dad was worried at first – how did you convince him everything would be okay?
ER: My dad and I have a unique relationship. I've been on my own since I was 16 and I've proven that I am independent and tough. Though he was worried about me, he couldn't really argue whether I could take care of myself or not. He couldn’t stop me from going to Nome, and I think that’s why he stuck it out dredging as long as he did, even though things weren't going well for him. He didn’t want to leave me alone in that crazy place.
Fox411: Did sparks fly between you and Zeke? Why or why not?
ER: In more ways than one. Nome really tested our friendship. Gold, and Nome, bring out the best and worst in people, and when you work and live in such close quarters with someone, you inevitably have problems.
Fox411: Are you going back for another year on the Clark?
ER: It's so strange to think about it, especially as I am in a place right now that couldn't be more different from Nome. I feel like I have unfinished business with gold dredging, and the lifestyle is alluring... I have never felt more alive than when I was living without running water or electricity on the beach. It's addictive. Nome gets under your skin, not just because of the enormous financial possibilities, but because it's so wild, and so much on the edge of life. Nome is where ‘characters’ go to retire. No one asks questions, there’s no rigidity and everyone has their own set of rules. As far as working on the Clark again… many things would have to change in order for me to work with Zeke again.
Fox411: Do you and Zeke keep in touch?
ER: I'm in Europe, so it's hard to keep touch with America in general. But yes, a phone call every now and then.
Fox411: Do you miss him?
ER: It's complicated. We've known each other since we were babies, and our families are really close, but the distance is good for us right now.
Fox411: What are you doing now?
ER: I'm studying privately in Vienna, Austria, and looking at programs here to pursue my master’s degree in opera. I’m still suffering from post-Nome culture shock and my English is steadily deteriorating in favor of German.
Fox411: How do you go from dredging for gold to opera?
ER: Going from dredging for gold in Nome back to opera is the most schizophrenic thing anyone can do. I sung all the time when I was in Nome, but instead of thinking about the price of gold, whether the weather is good for dredging, and firewood, I’m thinking about French diction, breath support, and auditions. I’ve been trying for years to figure out myself as both a wild Alaskan and an elitist opera singer. It still doesn’t make any sense to me, and it’s my ultimate goal to somehow make the two worlds collide.
Fox411: So do you have … gold fever?!
ER: My gold fever is bad. It started the first time I saw gold on the ocean floor. You feel like everything in the world has suddenly ceased to matter and nothing can tear you away from the sight of the beautiful, luminescent gold just lying there. As I was staring at it, transfixed, I remember thinking “I would not go to the surface for anything.” Which was the precise moment Zeke accidentally shut off my air compressor. So, while gold fever is dangerously powerful, air is still more important.