By Dave McCracken

Showing people how to find high-grade gold has as much to do with developing the proper focus as it does with passing along helpful information.

Dave Mack

 

Running a successful mining operation is one thing. Helping someone else to be able to run a successful operation is something else altogether. During the past several years, we have worked with hundreds of people in basic gold mining techniques and dozens of men and women in commercial underwater mining procedures. We have also had the opportunity to observe many others conduct their own mining operations in Africa, South and Central America, Alaska, Canada, Indonesia, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Madagascar and along the rivers of Northern California. Working with the theories and procedures, you are also working with the person’s ability, or lack of ability, to apply the principles.

A number of years ago, it became apparent that future growth and success of my own commercial activities in this field would depend, in part, on our ability to guide others in successful gold mining procedures–not just in theory, but in actual application. As part of our effort to improve our capabilities, I have personally devoted quite a lot of effort trying to understand why some people (a healthy percentage, actually) cannot seem to acquire the ability of practical application of successful mining and sampling procedures–even though they apparently understand all of the theory behind them.

I personally know a fair number of successful gold miners; some who we worked with and some who learned on their own. Some are successful on a smaller-scale. Some mine gold to support themselves and their families.

I also know a fair number of rather unsuccessful miners, some who we have given some help to and others who would not accept help if their lives depended upon it.

Unquestionably, there is a distinct difference between successful miners, partially successful miners, and those who are completely unsuccessful. A fundamental way to explain the differences is with the concept of wavelengths.

Consider the idea that each person is similar to an electronic frequency radio tuner, and that the universe consists of an infinity of possible frequencies which can be tuned in. I propose a theory that successful gold miners have themselves more finely tuned on a particular frequency than those who are not so successful.

Why is it that sometimes you try and tell a person how to do something better, when the person obviously does not know how to do it properly–but the person won’t listen, won’t understand, wants to disagree, becomes suspicious of you, won’t accept help or rejects your information? Helpful information is coming the person’s way, but the person is not tuned to the frequency to receive and utilize the signal. In fact, he may be tuned to a rejection-frequency.

One of the primary common denominators I recognize being present in successful miners alike is a never-ending drive, or hunger, or urge to get on and stay on the pay-streak during their mining activities. You can actually SEE this drive or hunger as part of their beingness. This urge is similar to an entrepreneur looking for a good investment opportunity, or a businessman wanting to close a profitable deal, or a musician trying to create an exceptional melody, or the drive an athlete has to win a race.

All gold miners WANT to be successful and find lots of gold. The difference is that successful miners CREATE success by learning how to do it, by hustling around to find the best opportunities, and by actually making success happen. The best simply have themselves more finely tuned and focused on the desired wavelength!

Unsuccessful people often allow themselves to be diverted off the wavelength by little losses, or unknowns, along the way–or by little decisions: “I can’t do it,” “I don’t know,” “I’m not good enough,” “It’s too hard, etc.”

As an example, I can look back to my own involvement with gymnastics in high school. I was moderately successful–enough to become co-captain of our team during my senior year. But there were others we competed against who were far better than me.

I look at these kids today who are near perfection and realize that I was never really even in the league. Why? At the time I felt that those who were better had more inherent gymnastics ability than I did. But the truth is that they were more focused into advanced-gymnastics perfection than I was. This made them better gymnasts. There is no rightness or wrongness in this; you end up receiving exactly what you focus upon.

Someone more sympathetic might say that I lacked the proper coaching. And I’m sure thaey are right that exteriour environmental factors play a part in this. But even the best coach cannot help a person who insists upon setting fixed personal limitations.

My ex wife’s son, Derek Parra, wanted to be the world’s fastest speed roller-skater. He finished high school a half year early with honors; and with no money or financial support, moved to Florida where he could be near a world-class coach. He made the world skating team in his first year and took a gold medal at the World Games. When he realized that roller skating would not make it into the Olympic games during his time, he made the very difficult move of switching from the top of the roller world to the lower-end of ice skating. But within several years, he worked his way up to take gold and silver metals in the Olympics. Now that is focus far beyond coaching!!

I’m focused on being the world’s best underwater mining specialist–and on helping others, also, to be very good at it.

In working at this, I am finding that showing people how to do it only partially has to do with passing along helpful information. It actually seems more to do with developing the proper focus. This is why hands-on experience is so enormously valuable in any field.

If I wanted to be an expert at computer programming, I would spend the necessary time learning the basics and then devote myself, at any cost, for a year or two working under the guidance of a proven master. Why? Because the Master is riding directly on the frequency of success in this endeavor. His tuner is locked onto the precise channel I am searching for. My time is valuable. Why spend ten years trying to attain the successful frequency when I can learn it from a master in one tenth the time?

There is a big difference between having an understanding of the theory of mining, and having the ability to apply knowledge perfectly to obtain the optimum result.

The following is a short list of some of the differences I have noticed between successful and unsuccessful people — both inside and outside of the field of gold mining:

Receiving Help: Successful people willingly and gladly accept help wherever it is needed. They also tend to be freely willing to extend a helping hand to others who are in need. Unsuccessful people have a perverted idea of help, sometimes expecting others to do the job for them— and then being suspicious of the helpers, wondering what their malicious intent might be. They might refuse help to others altogether–or help somebody so they can gain leverage over them. Some refuse help from others, feeling they don’t deserve it–or sometimes feel that to accept help would be admitting failure. Such people are almost impossible to help.

Handling Data and Knowledge: Successful people, and those on their way towards success, tend to be hungry for new and more information which they can utilize to boost themselves towards accomplishment. Each piece of useful information is learned with care, sorted properly as to its importance and usefulness, and held in standby as another tool in a never-ending drive for success.

Unsuccessful people often can be spotted trying to be “experts,” trying to “remember” bits and pieces of information to prove to others they know what they are talking about.

Most often, because of lack of true focus on accomplishing a goal, the unsuccessful person also has an inability to evaluate the different degrees of importance of information. For example, such a person might not understand (as far as his ability to apply knowledge in the gold-finding field), that the datum “Gold is six times heavier than gravel” is substantially-more important than “Gold is an excellent conductor of electricity.” An electrician would see the second datum as more important. A successful miner knows the first datum is more important to him, because it is a far more useful tool, by today’s methods, in finding where gold deposits are located.

Focus and Intention: You cannot be an expert at everything. Successful people choose the areas in which they want to do well and focus their attention and intention (getting on the frequency) at becoming good in those areas.

Such people are a breeze to train. If you are not telling them how to do it, they are figuring it out for themselves. Unsuccessful people tend to focus either too narrowly–where they cannot evaluate importance, or too broadly — where they don’t have the necessary attention or intention to follow through. Often, unsuccessful people tend to focus on failure, problems, barriers, or resentments, rather than focus on what needs to be done to get on with progress.

Handling setbacks: There is no one who hates a failure more than a predominantly-successful person! However, many very valuable lessons are learned the hard way by doing things less than perfect the first few attempts–especially when treading on new territory. Successful people generally have enough personal drive to learn from mistakes and keep pushing forward even though there may be some pain and discomfort during the process.

Unsuccessful people tend to collapse because of setbacks, resulting in the primary focus staying on the problems, rather than achievement of the goal of success. After a time, small setbacks add up to a major failure – which eventually results in the person giving up altogether on the endeavor. We see this quite regularly in gold mining, when a person is in the prospecting phase and doesn’t find a pay-streak right away.

The successful person, even while hurt during setbacks, recovers from the loss, re-focuses on the goal, throws off the negative energy, feeds on the gains, and keeps moving forward as best he or she can.

Dealing With Success: Many unsuccessful people don’t do well because they do not feel they deserve to. But most often you will find them consciously blaming others for their problems and failures. Lack of responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions goes hand in hand with failure. Along with this, you will find unsuccessful people constantly upset and resentful at the success of others who are working more energetically towards accomplishment of life’s goals.

I can often tell who my true friends are not; those who are disappointed every time I get into an excellent pay-streak!

Generally, successful miners are happy to see others do well–unless the other happens to be someone who is first to a person’s secret hot spot. A successful miner might be a bit envious of another’s gold find–but probably not resentful. And if anything, he is most likely to spur himself on to work harder to find a better hot spot of his own.

Personal Integrity: This is most important, so I left it for last. What kind of person am I? Certainly there will not be much personal improvement if we are not willing to look at what we are, and be honest with ourselves about what we see.

Don’t like what you see? Change it–don’t bury it! Everyone is somewhere on the scale from heaven to hell. The direction upward is through personal honesty, integrity and willingness to improve those things you see in yourself which you are not pleased with. The way downward is to not look, to hide from yourself, and to be ruled by those things inside yourself that you don’t like…

Cheaters never really win! Because, by definition, a person who feels he must cheat to win is below the level of actually playing the game in the first place. Therefore, cheaters are really living in a game of their own–not truly in communication with those around them. Giving up your true self, your real happiness and your personal well-being, is a huge price to pay for having some temporary material belongings.

There are a lot of unhappy people around who act like they are happy. Look around. What do you think their problem is? However, even their game is not over. Wherever a person finds him or herself, the road continues in two directions.

Successful people win their games by focusing themselves towards accomplishment within the rules of the game. Don’t like the rules? Do something effective to bring about agreement to have the rules changed. Winning the game by the rules brings great satisfaction, and successful people are willing to put out the necessary effort to gain each step along the way. Sure, it’s always a bit more difficult to not take the unethical short cuts which present themselves. But real progress is built upon a solid foundation of the ability to accomplish.

Unsuccessful people can often be found looking for the short cuts, the get-rich-quick schemes, or are willing to bend the rules–or cheat outright to win the game the easy way. Ultimately, such gains are only temporary because they are not built upon a foundation of the ability to create or perform–only the ability to take advantage of shortcuts.

Personal integrity is most important, because a person’s ultimate success in life, or mining, or any other endeavor, starts from his or her own source-point, wherever that may be. A person low in personal integrity may not allow himself to succeed, regardless of how hard we try and train him! The desire to be a successful gold miner, computer programmer, athlete, or good husband, is an impulse that begins and ends with the individual. And if the person isn’t being honest with himself, who he is, what he is, what he is doing, what principle he stands for, and where he truly wants to go, then it’s more than likely the person will not have the necessary drive to become truly successful at mining.

So you can see, there is more to helping a person to become successful than just showing him or her how to do it right. Sometimes, you also have to help get the person onto the success-frequency. And when you have accomplished this, then you have struck real pay-dirt.

 

By Dave McCracken

Raw gold creates an impulse inside of you that makes you want to possess it, to own it for yourself, to hoard it away, to treasure it as your own!

Dave Mack

Not too long ago, while dredging with partners on the Klamath River in northern California, we located a very rich deposit, sometimes recovering as much as 24 ounces of gold per day. This was one of the best gold deposits I personally have ever located!

While some people are skeptical about the subject, the condition of “gold fever” really does exist. I know, because I have felt the heat and confusion on more than one occasion. I have written in the past that gold fever affects different people in different ways, depending upon the basic nature of their/your personalities. How much gold that is being uncovered also can determine the degree to which gold fever strikes. Some people get excited over recovering just a few flakes! What would happen if they uncovered untold riches out of a bonanza deposit; how would these same people react?

When my partners and I uncovered this very rich deposit, we started by finding about two ounces during the first 30 minutes of sampling. Because it looked so good, we decided to drop back on the pay-streak several hundred feet and dredge another sample hole. We recovered a pound of gold the first day we uncovered bedrock. There were pockets of gold deep enough and big enough that we stirred our fingers in it! We undoubtedly could have doubled our production if we had chosen to dredge efficiently, rather than spend most of our time googooling around together on the bottom, screaming at the top of our lungs, patting each other on the back, and uncovering the gold as slowly as possible to prolong the incredible excitement of uncovering a real treasure.

After all, in the end the gold gets traded for money and spent or locked away. And all you have left is the memory of having found it. That is a memory I personally will never forget. It is a memory of an adventure that few people on this planet ever get a chance to experience. It is an experience that gets into your blood, goes directly to your heart and soul, and gives you a case of gold fever that will probably never be cured!

I have heard people, after locating rich deposits, express the wish that they did not have partners with whom they had to share. For me, I am really glad I had partners to share this experience with. Because the experience was so powerful, with so much generation of emotional energy, that it is almost impossible to express it to others who were not there.

More recently, while consulting in Central America, I had an opportunity to get my first look at real gold treasure! I have spent some time looking for it during the past and spent a lot of time thinking about being in the big treasure hunting game, but this was my first chance to see the real thing as it had come out of the ground. Wow!!

I saw gold and jade artifacts which had been created five, maybe six, centuries ago by people who had not even discovered the wheel! Artifacts so rich in detail, beauty and antiquity that they made my heart pound so hard that I could actually hear it. My body-heat came up enough to run sweat down my back. And my emotions energized to the maximum limit just at the thought of owning such things. No gold deposit ever affected me in this way!

I am told this is called “treasure fever”.

Just like many people who get into gold mining, but never experience a really significant gold deposit, I think perhaps a lot of people get into treasure hunting, but never get a chance to really experience “treasure fever” the way it can really be. It is one thing to think about it, speculate over it, plan on it, and experience it on a subjective level. It is entirely another thing to confront priceless treasure head on, to find it unexpectedly—even when you were planning on it. Then you have to deal with the reality of having uncovered incredible riches.

There is something excitingly-beautiful about the aesthetic wave-length of gold as you locate it in its natural from. It creates an impulse inside of you that makes you want to possess it, to own it for yourself, to hoard it away, to treasure it as your own.

But finding gold which has been refined, perfected and crafted into artistic, beautiful, rich artifacts which were valued and hoarded and lost by people long ago, adds a value of antiquity which intensifies the personal emotional desire to keep the pieces for yourself. This is treasure fever!

I sympathize for treasure hunters or gold prospectors who are not prepared for it, who have not organized their program well, and who are (un)lucky enough to stumble upon real treasure!

I say “lucky,” because most treasure hunters today who find really significant treasures are very well organized, utilize modern equipment, and follow proven techniques. They generally are prepared for treasure when they find it. But, even the most successful and experienced treasure hunters will readily admit that they generally were not prepared for the amount of confusion and greed which resulted from uncovering real treasure!

Gold and treasure will test your personal integrity in a serious way!

While treasure fever, or gold fever, can have many negative connotations, it can also have a very positive affect upon people. Treasure fever adds spice to life, gives you purpose and makes life more interesting.

As gold prospectors, we actually experience the adventures most others only touch on lightly by watching the television!


 

By Dave McCracken

So you think you had a hard week, eh?

Dave Mack

 

Log PTWhat prompted this story was when a New 49’er member along the Rogue River last season flagged me down and handed me a copy of Skin Diver Magazine which was dated June of 1974. “You are in there!” he told me. I remembered the magazine article as soon as he handed me the magazine. I thanked him for the magazine, took it home and read it. Boy does that bring back some long-ago memories! The story was a reporter’s account of the “hell week” that I endured with 7 other young men during my fifth week of navy SEAL training (BUD/S), Class 76 in Coronado, California in early 1974.

Way back when the article was first published, I was pretty disappointed that the reporter did not do a very good job in describing how difficult the challenges were for us during that week. There were numerous events that we suffered through which the writer did not even talk about. Reading the article now, considering that he missed a lot of the events (because he was returning to a nice, comfortable hotel each evening to get a full night’s sleep), he did about as good as anyone could do who did not actually go through hell week as an active participant. Those of us that made it through, for the most part, seldom talk about it to others who have not gone through it. “Hell Week” in navy SEAL training is one of those things you can only fully appreciate if you do it.

Reading the article in Skin Diver prompted me to post it on our Internet Forum and challenge our members up there to guess how many of the pictures I am in. There was quite a bit of discussion and some guessing over this. In going back to look closer at the images to see who won my challenge, I came to the conclusion that each image was only a momentary snap shot of just one of many wild and dangerous adventures which took place during that week, not really doing the events much justice.

I’m not sure why it is; but as you start getting older, the major events that changed your life-direction forever become more important to you, and sometimes you want to share some of the interesting parts with those of your friends who are interested.

I am in the sharing mood at the moment. So if you are interested, I will refer back to the original story that was published in Skin Diver Magazine in June of 1974(My comments below will be in better perspective if you read the original story first), and I will add in some of the meaty stuff which the reporter missed altogether because he was having a nice dinner at the Hotel Coronado while several young guys were being given the test of a lifetime; something most people fortunately will never have to experience. Some of this will be a repeat of what I posted on our Internet Forum. Most of it will be new.

Since the writer begins with the subject of drownproofing, we might as well take that up first. I will never forget this terrified guy in the first group of trainees that was shoved into the pool during drownproofing (legs tied together hands tied behind his back) in just the first few days of hell week. It might have been on the first day. He panicked. Just the few times he managed to get his head above the water, he yelled “I quit!” The problem was that the only safe way to quit was to ring a special bell that was miles and miles away from the pool.

As this was just the first group in the pool (deep end), as an important object lesson to the rest of us, in a ritual that I’m sure they had performed many times during the past, all of the instructors lined up alongside the edge of the pool, lowered their heads as if at a funeral, and watched the guy drown. Eventually, after the poor guy (“quitter”) passed out and sank to the bottom of the pool, one of the instructors jumped in and pulled him out. Paramedics on the scene revived him and took him away in an ambulance. I was in the front of the next line of trainees, so I got to watch it all play out directly. This gave the term, “sink or swim” a whole new meaning! It was a very sobering experience. There would be many more. There was zero sympathy for quitters in this program!

Actually, the main purpose of the first phase of training was to push every student to quit. While there was other training going on, the main focus of the bigger first phase program was about quitting or not quitting. I suppose the idea was to weed out the undesirables before the serious training got started in phase two. The instructors were like wolves in the hen house, looking for any sign that someone was having second thoughts. When they found someone, they would pounce upon him with veracity to either get him out of the program or force him to reach deep down inside to find the indomitable spirit which everyone basically has. The instructors cheered in triumph every time someone quit. It was like a contest, leaving the never-ending question, “who will be next?”

Once we reached the pool during the first drownproofing event during hell week, nobody was given an opportunity to quit before getting shoved into the water. If you were going to quit, it was going to be in the deep end of the pool with your hands and feet tied!

This was a very serious business. Here is the object lesson, which has stuck with me my entire life: There really is no quitting; because if you give up, life will just run you over and over again until you finally stand up to it.

It was important to get drownproofing right in the pool. This is because, later in the week, we were shoved off a boat out in the Pacific Ocean several miles off of San Diego, hands and feet tied the same way, in full fatigues with boots on, in the middle of the night, for two, cold, winter hours. That was the coldest I had ever been in my life! But we were already down to about 8 determined young guys by then…

There is an image in the article of Master Chief Estok. Chief Estok was the meanest man I have ever met. In retrospect, he was on a personal mission to make certain that no trainee was allowed into the SEAL Teams that was not supposed to be there. You didn’t go to Chief Estok and tell him about your problems. That would be an invitation to the beginning of your departure from the training program.

Back to Skin Diver, I do not see myself in the image of the 50-foot cargo net. To me, this was the most difficult obstacle in the obstacle course, because it was about ¾ of the way through the course. By then, at least for me, my whole body was jelly and my lungs burned like they were on fire. As the article says, at least at that time, the course record was 6 minutes. My best time was 6:20 minutes, several minutes faster than the average time. That’s because I was going out there to practice during Sunday off-time. I worked out numerous gymnastic moves to get through the obstacles faster. But the one thing I could never master was descending the cargo net hand-by-hand without using my feet. My arms were not strong enough to take a chance at missing a grip and falling. So I was climbing down the back side of the net just like everyone else, which took a lot of time. I watched the course record holder, an officer by the name of Bob Baird, do the course one day. He was able to drop at least 30 seconds off his time by putting his feet out behind him, and using a hand-to-hand method of controlling a free fall from the top of the net. The guy was an animal!

One unfortunate guy fell off the top of the 50-foot cargo net in the obstacle course about mid-way through hell week. He got hurt pretty bad. They took him away in the ambulance that was always standing by. We never saw him again, either. There was not very much sympathy for students that allowed themselves to become too injured to continue. You either made it or you didn’t. Guys taken away with serious injuries seldom ever returned to BUD/S training.

Of special interest to any SEALs reading this, there was a young lieutenant JG in this class who had recently graduated from Annapolis Naval Academy. I will never forget how difficult it was for him on the first day we had to traverse the obstacle course (longest and most difficult in the world at the time). I just knew him as Mister Olson. This was just in the first day or two of of phase-one training in Class 76, long before hell week. There were a lot of guys who were not up to the obstacle course. Guys were quitting left and right, mostly prompted by aggressive instructors because they could not keep up, or because they had that “quitting look” in their eye.

The obstacle course came pretty easy to me because of my gymnastics background in high school. But others were having big problems with it on the first day. Mister Olson was one of them. I’ll never forget him hanging off the “Slide for Life,” about half way through the course. The “Slide for Life” was this long, long slightly descending rope that was strung between two poles. You had to up climb a 30-foot pole. Then, using your feet and hands, you had to shimmy your way all the way down to the other pole. It was a long way. When Mister Olson dropped from the rope (a long way) to the sand about half way through the obstacle, the instructors went into a frenzy trying to get him to quit. Instead, he got up and climbed the pole again and gave it another try. Then he fell off again; got up; and started to climb the pole. Rather than kill him off, the instructors told him to move on to the next obstacle.

Mister Olson was also spending Sunday afternoons practicing out on the obstacle course, and he mastered it in time for us to begin meeting the required times.

mud relaysTwo-man team in a relay race where we had to make summersaults over each other to roll our way through the mud. That was probably the fifth day into the grueling week. We were some pretty tired young men out there!

Back to Skin Diver, that image of the guy with the muddy face is not me. But it could have been any of us. We spent the better part of a full day later in the week doing relay races and different kinds of military reconnaissance exercises in the mud and in cold, shallow water.

One of the most common things the instructors impressed upon us in training is that “it pays to be a winner.” So, all throughout hell week, we were competing against each other for points in teams, and also as individuals. Those two guys who had accumulated the most points during the week were going to be freed from the final event of hell week – which was an all-night treasure hunt covering dozens of miles in search of “the next clue,” ultimately that would lead to the final destination the following morning, which was the end of hell week. So, points were important. We were working together, but we were also competing for points. The mud flats were no exception.

That is me on the left side of the log in the Skin Diver image. Note that I was the tallest guy in the class. Rod Long is the guy next to me. He was the shortest guy in the class. Can you see how he has to reach up to make contact with the log? This was because the instructors liked me. “No pain, no gain!” You had to take this kind of harassment with the right attitude, because they were testing you every minute of the day. There was no place for ego or a disappointment-attitude. There were no rights. There was no safety net. While we worked together, each one of us was completely on our own in the way we positioned personal identity in the training. Rod Long went through the whole week with a broken foot. He told me that it was the constant pain that got him through the week.

Log PTHere is an image of log PT that the reporter got earlier in the week, before so many guys had dropped out:

That’s me on the left in the hell week graduation photo (Skin Diver). There are only seven of us in the image, but eight of us survived the week. Seems like the eighth guy was being treated for some serious shin condition that happens when your feet are wet for long periods of time. Do we look tired or what?

That’s also me in the article kind of standing up in front of the raft during night rock portage. I will include another image below which shows it better. I was in the “bow man” position. Besides having to reach out in front of the raft with long, hard strokes to overcome heavy surf when launching the boat, my job during rock portage was to jump out of the boat onto the rocks with the raft’s bow line and keep the retracting waves from pulling the boat away. This way, the others could get out of the boat and onto the rocks, too – rather than end up getting washed into the water and smashed onto the rocks by the waves. Doing my part required split-second timing. I had to jump out of the boat just as it made contact with the rocks. It was not easy; because in the dark, I could not see what I was jumping onto. The image was snapped just as I was jumping out of the boat. Note that it was pitch dark out there, except for all the lights from parked vehicles on the beach that were shining in our faces, blinding our view.

Surf BoatI will never forget this night. The surf was strong; maybe 5 or 6-foot surging monsters that were breaking just before the rocks. Paddling out through the waves was nearly impossible, because the instructors deliberately waited until a big set was upon us before giving the order to launch. As hard as we paddled, every wave would push us back to where we were in danger of being smashed backwards onto the rocks. It was a sheer force of wills, us against unrelenting mother nature, requiring our combined total physical commitment to break through the waves. Once we got out beyond the surf zone, we had a moment to reflect upon the much more difficult and dangerous task ahead. We had to paddle back onto the rocks through that surf zone — in the dark!

Because it was dark out there, we were not able to see the size or location of the waves when we were paddling in towards the rocks. So we just had to accept whatever came along as we entered the surf zone. Anyone that has ever done any surfing, boogie boarding or body surfing knows the feeling of catching a wave. With these rubber rafts, in the dark, you had to paddle as hard as you could and just hope that the wave would pick you up, rather than crash down on top of you and swamp the boat. If the boat got swamped in the surf, you were a goner!

I will never forget the realization of riding on my destiny as we paddled into the surf zone on our first pass. But we were fortunate to be in just the right place at the right time; and this huge wave picked us up and swept us completely through the jagged rocks, totally ripping the bottom of the boat out in the process. We ended up on dry ground when I jumped out to do my bow man duty. There was a huge crowd of bystanders on the beach. They roared in applause, and the instructors went wild; I had never seen them more jacked up and pleased. “Now that’s the way you do it,” one instructor was congratulating us, over and over, again. We were rewarded by being ordered to knock out a few sets of pushups (30 per set). I was counting my blessings for being so lucky, because only part of that had to do with our performance. We were just in the right place at the right time.

The second boat was not so lucky. Another big wave caught them; but the coxswain was not able to keep the raft from broaching (turning sideways), and all the men got dumped upside-down by the wave directly onto the rocks. Several were then carried out into the water by the receding waves. Then the next wave crashed them right back on top of the rocks again. This happened several times until the instructors finally got them out of the water. Several guys got taken away in the ambulance. They were mangled! We never saw them again. Peterson lost all the skin off the palm of one hand. That had to hurt bad. But he never said a word about it.

Landing rafts on the rocks during a storm, in the middle of the night, is not for sissies. As soon as the ambulance departed and the crowd was pushed back, the instructors ripped into the remaining guys from the second boat crew for their failure and then made them paddle back out to do it all over again; only this time, they were made to use the boat that we had torn the bottom out of. If you ever tried to paddle a bottomless rubber boat out through heavy surf, you know they did not make it very far. The whole second crew ended up awash back onto the rocks. By this time, I think the instructors were feeling heat from the hundreds of onlookers who were watching the entire thing play out. The whole event was beyond brutal.

Rock PortageThat is me on the right, jumping off the front of the boat just as it was colliding with the jagged rocks.

To recover, they ordered our first boat crew to take the remaining good boat back out and show everyone how to do it the right way, again. Mister Olson was a heck of a good coxswain. Those bulky IBS rubber boats were difficult to keep from broaching when riding a big wave. I cannot tell you the number of times we broached and capsized during training. It was pretty common to broach in big, surging waves.

Notice in the images that there are only three of us in the boat? This was probably on the 3rd or 4th night of hell week. We were exhausted. But we did not want to get smashed on those jagged rocks like the other guys did. So we paddled like our lives were in the balance (they were). While our second landing was not as dramatic as the first, we did manage to catch another wave and tear the bottom out of the second raft, as well. There was another whole round of congratulations – meaning that we had to knock out a bunch of push-ups and sing some frogman songs for the onlookers. The three of us won a lot of points for that.

Demolition PitsWe were put through the live fire and demolition fields close to the last day of hell week. I used to have some wonderful images of the explosions going off on all sides of the rafts as we paddled to shore. I also had some images of us paddling out through 8-foot surging waves. Perhaps I can turn them up if I look a little deeper…

The main thing I remember about going through the demolition fields was that I could not manage the noise of the blasts. The instructors told us in no uncertain terms that we were not allowed to cover our ears with our hands. Doing so would be akin to quitting. They said covering our ears would cause pressure-differentials that could burst an ear drum. But I personally believe it is because they do not want a bunch of SEALs out in combat holding their hands to their heads to lessen the shock of intense combat. It’s better if the SEALs are toughing it out and shooting back!

To lessen my own ear pain, I followed directly behind Rod Long. Every time they told us to drop (prepare for more explosions), I ripped Rod’s legs apart and stuck my head between them. By this time in the week, our whole bodies were chaffed raw from never-ending wet, cold and the sand. I knew my helmet was just killing Rod (between his legs). He kept yelling back at me to stop. But every time they told us to drop, my head was between Rods poor legs, every time. Not that it did me any good. My ears are still ringing from that day, and I’m sure they will ring for the rest of my life.

The opening image of the Skin Diver article is me on the ropes. We knew nobody had ever made it all the way across. Chief Estok was using a jeep to loosen and tighten the hand rope, flinging some of us as much as twenty feet into the air. There were points for whoever flew up the highest, and more points for whoever made it closest to the far side, so we all gave it our best. This was mainly for entertainment of the instructors. They were having a blast! We were just doing our best.

eating lunchEating lunch: That is Scotty Lyon standing above us. If you look close, you can see that he has a cigar in his left hand. He used to smoke a cigar while leading the first phase soft sand runs! And those were some hard runs, too!

After the ropes, the instructors allowed us about 15 minutes to eat a box lunch down on the edge of the putrid demolition pit. For our eating pleasure, they tossed some smoke grenades into the water just in front of us. Nice!

Then they had each of us stand up in the stink-water and give a small talk on some subject; any subject. It was pretty hard for me to think of any story that late in the week, and I can only remember that mine was pretty lousy (no points). But Mister Olson stood up and provided a wonderful, detailed story about the life of the apple that he had been saving from his box lunch. Who would think that anyone could be so creative after being put through so much misery? Mister Olson won big points for that story!

Mister Olson Mister Olson giving his story.

The most difficult and traumatic event of the week was not even mentioned in the Skin Diver article. My guess is that the reporter was not invited to this one. It happened just after we had finished several hours of non-stop relay races in the pool on base. From there, it was only a short run (we ran everywhere with rafts on our heads) over to an indoor basketball court (competitive hardwood floor). This is where we went into a one-on-one basket ball tournament. We stripped down to just our bare feet and bathing suits. The game was simple. Whoever sunk the first five baskets anywhere on the full court was the winner. The only rules were no biting, no hitting in the face, and no kicking in the balls. Anything else was allowed. One game was played at a time. The rest of us watched. This event was managed by Scotty Lyon. While we did not know it until later, there was an object lesson he wanted to teach us that had nothing to do with basketball.

Scotty Lyon was the ultimate navy SEAL. He had a long history of running covert operations in many of the hot spots where the U.S. had an active interest (some places where the interest was “unofficial.”) Scotty was the officer in charge of first phase BUD/S training during the time when I went through. He was the person who set the standard that you had to meet if you expected to make it into second phase. The standard was nothing short of actually becoming a navy SEAL, even though you had not finished the training, yet. To make it, you had to demonstrate that you were just as tough and committed to the SEAL standard as the instructors; that you would never quit; that you would always be on time; that you would always be as prepared as possible; that you were always ready to cope when things went wrong (as they usually do), that there were no excuses for failure; and that when the situation demanded it, you were willing to do anything to come out on top.

Scotty was the first adult-figure in my life that acknowledged to me (without saying it) that I could make something meaningful out of myself. Training under him changed my life forever. I was lucky.

This particular event happened sometime around mid-week, so we were some pretty exhausted guys. I had played some one-on-one basket ball in high school with my friends, but I was never good enough in basketball for competitive sports. Most of the other guys were not very good at basket ball, either. That is, except for Peterson, who was a first string player on his all-state high school basket ball team. Peterson could sink nearly every basket from the outside!

With single elimination, it did not take that long for it to get down to just Peterson and me in the final play-off. Looking back on it, I figure Scotty Lyon had it all out planned this way from the beginning. It was going to be the best out of three games. Peterson made short work out of me (5-to-0) on the first game. Then Scotty stopped everything and re-explained the rules to everyone present. The doors to the basketball court were closed and it was just me and seven other students and just a few instructors. Scotty then made it abundantly clear that the event was not about basket ball; it was about winning against all odds. When I tried to tell him that I did not want to hurt Peterson, my objection was forcefully overruled and he said that I was to win on whatever terms were necessary, as long as I did not bite, kick Peterson in the balls, or smash him in the face. This was not a request. It was, perhaps, one of the main object lessons of the entire week.

There was no way I could compete with Peterson in basketball with any chance of winning. We both knew that. Peterson’s mistake was jumping up for the ball when Scotty Lyon tossed it up and blew his whistle (the typical way a basket ball game is started). Peterson got the ball, and I brought him down into a full body slam on the hardwood floor, as hard as I could. It had to hurt, because it took him so long to get up, I had my five baskets sunk before Peterson was back in the game.

The score was one-to-one, and everyone knew that the whole game had changed. This was the ultimate training in unconventional warfare. This was about coming out on top no matter the cost. Scotty Lyon had set us free and ordered us to make war on a basketball court.

Sometime during the second game, the small toe on my right foot got dislocated and was sticking out kind of sideways in a strange-looking direction. All of us had long-since passed the pain threshold to where pain just did not matter anymore (but physical exhaustion mattered a lot). Scotty had one of the instructors tape it to the second toe so we could get on with the final play-off.

Scotty ordered the other 6 trainees to perform doing cheer leading for the final game. Mister Olson was leading the cheers. While I was challenged with my own situation, I was amazed that Mister Olson could come up with cheer leading chants on the spot under those circumstances. He created them out of the frogman tunes we sung on our long runs. It was all so surreal!

On the initial toss in the final game, Peterson did not make the mistake of jumping for the ball, again. He faced off with me (smart). So the ball knocked off of one of us and bounced off towards the side of the court. Since there was nothing present for us to fight over, Peterson decided to chase the ball. After all, he could sink baskets from wherever he got the ball in his hands. As Peterson was a formidable opponent in any game, I was thankful that he was still playing basket ball. He never reached the ball. With the last of my physical reserves, I chased him down, caught him at a full run, and put him into a full-on body slam to the floor as hard as I could, once again. He didn’t get up. I was so winded; it took me about ten tries to sink 5 baskets. Maybe 15 tries. I won major points, but they were not celebrated by anyone. Even the other instructors were shocked at the brutality that I had unleashed upon one of my fellow students. It was grossly unfair to Peterson. Afterwards, Scotty gave us a short lecture that there is nothing fair in unconventional warfare. You win. End of story.

Peterson was hurt, but he still made it through the week, and through the training. We served in a platoon together after we were in the Teams. But there was always some distance between us after that day. Can you blame him? He was on the receiving end of unconventional war from me, unleashed by Scotty Lyon. I was lucky that Peterson wanted to win by sinking baskets. Had he switched gears, as I had, and faced off with me in all-out war, maybe neither of us would have survived hell week on that basket ball court. That would have been true with any of the other guys remaining in our class.

PetersonI’m pretty sure this is Peterson.

For me, this was one of those things you do in your life that you can never forgive yourself for. Peterson was my friend. But we were pawns in a bigger game that we both had signed onto. Scotty Lyon told me clearly that he expected me to win at any cost, so that’s what I did. If I did not incapacitate Peterson, chances are likely that he would have won the game. I was working on almost zero physical reserves. Putting him down hard was the only way I was sure to follow Scotty’s order. All things considered, if I had a chance to go back and do it all over again, I would not change anything. Sometimes life forces you to make very difficult, painful decisions.

Navy SEAL training taught us to think unconventionally – kind of in an “anything goes” sort of way. Mainly, we were taught to always arrive on time, get the job done, and get home again. We were taught in SEAR school (POW survival school with water boarding) to never get caught. Once in the Teams, when we ran operations against other SEAL platoons, you never wanted to get caught – because they would torture you (just for getting caught)! I’m serious about this; SEALs hold each other to a very high standard.

Racing in the mudThat’s me on the right, then Mr. Olson, then John Masters, then Peterson. We would have been racing hard against the other four remaining guys.

As part of our unconventional thinking ahead, Peterson and I drove my motorcycle into San Diego a few days before hell week and rented a full bottle of helium. We used that (when the instructors were not looking) to fill our rubber rafts during hell week to make them lighter. We did not have any cars at the time. So I drove my motorcycle with Peterson holding a full bottle of helium on the back. To us, it was just another exercise (we could have swam the helium across the San Diego bay if we needed to), but it sure got us some surprised looks when we took the highway bridge over to Coronado.

Peterson and I also used my motorcycle to drive miles and miles down the silver strand and bury stashes of chocolate and brandy, so our boat crews could secure a little bit of sugar and warmth during the multiple very long paddles and marches (with helium-filled rafts) down that way during the week. Looking back, it was probably more about getting away with something forbidden by our masters, than a nice shot of warm brandy when we were beyond freezing. Maintaining some indomitable spirit under the circumstances was part of the unconventional thinking the training placed upon us: Anything goes, but don’t get caught!

After notes:

  1. Mister Olsen and I had accumulated the most points at the end of the week, so we both were freed from the last grueling event. All of the others made it through. They reported that it was pure hell. I’m sure it was!

Second Phase ClassSecond phase class: These were the guys I went through second and third phase with. The image was taken while we were doing heavy weapons training out at Niland, California. I’m the handsome young man standing in the truck.

  1. I pulled a groin muscle during a run a few days after hell week on a soft sand run that was being led by Scotty Lyon. Even though it meant getting cigar smoke in my face, I always positioned myself in Scotty’s footprints in the sand. This injury probably would have been alright; except that in BUD/S training, you do not have the option to stop everything and try to explain that you are injured. So I kept running until it was so bad that I was pretty-much hobbling along on a single leg. That’s when Chief Estok asked what the hell was wrong with me in his normal very derogatory manner. I told him “nothing.” Scotty heard the exchange and stopped the run. Then he told me to ride along in the ambulance. I figured that was the end for me. But since I had survived hell week, the training unit kept me hobbling around on crutches while I healed. Rod Long was also rolled back to following class with his broken foot. So we eventually graduated with a different bunch of guys that made it through a different hell week. About half the guys from my original class, including Mister Olson, were transferred to other places, and I never heard from them or saw them, again.BUD/S class 77

Graduation ceremony from BUD/S class 77.

3. Rod Long, John Masters and I ended up in a platoon together (with Peterson) and covered a lot of ground together in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and in other exotic places. We were present during the American extractions from Viet Nam and Cambodia. Have you seen those old history clips of the military helicopters unloading people onto American ships and then being shoved off into the sea? We were there. I have kept in touch with Rod Long over the years, and several other SEALs that I served with. But we pretty much have all gone our own ways.

  1. Mister Olson went on to become a highly-decorated admiral in the U.S. Navy; and last time I checked, continues to serve as one of the most respected leaders in the history of the SEAL Teams and Special Warfare Group. I encourage you to read about him here. Even as a young lieutenant JG so many years ago, he was one of the best men I have ever met in this life. There have been a few others. But I will save them all for another story.
  1. I’ll bet BUD/s training these days is just as challenging, or perhaps even more so, as it was when IHelmets went through. Here is an image sent to me by my old SEAL buddy, Don Stevens, showing a line of helmets (each from someone who dropped out) of a recent BUD/s class. We should all appreciate the young men who are actively fighting for our freedom. They don’t do it for money. They do it for honor, for adventure, for each other; and because the structure provides an opportunity for young men to achieve personal greatness and direction in their lives. Most of all, they do it for God and country.

Note: This story was just about a single, special week that was part of a 6-month training program (now longer, I believe). While there was only one “hell week,” every week was hell. We had to exercise our skills against the instructors during the second phase of training — where the emphasis changed from “quitting” to performing. Making it through hell week was just a step. The standard is so high in this training, I doubt if any student ever took it for granted that he would graduate into the Teams until the SEAL Trident was actually pinned on his uniform!

 

By Dave McCracken & Don Stevens

Have you ever felt like you were way the heck out there all by yourself?

Dave Mack

 

Young DaveDave: Have you ever fallen in love? I mean really falling in love so deep that almost nothing else in your life is even important, anymore? It is a place where the only thing on your mind is wanting to be with the other person. You experience loneliness when the other person is not present; even if it is on just a short trip down to the store. You experience deep fear that the other person will lose interest in you. All you want to do is just be with your lover, together, in happiness.

The first time that ever happened to me was on my initial visit to Hong Kong. I fell head-over-heals in love with a young, beautiful Chinese girl. Her name was Suzy Wong. She was the loveliest creature I had ever laid eyes on!

“I suppose, in early 1975, I would have been willing to swim all the way across the pacific ocean for my first true love!” — Dave Mack

This all happened shortly after I graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) in San Diego. I had just turned 20 years old. I attended Airborne training at Fort Benning (an army school in Georgia where they taught us how to jump out of airplanes at low altitude), and then a special SEAL training school (where they taught us how to jump out of all sorts of aircraft (skydiving from high altitudes with special gear to support SEAL operations). I was a SEAL attached to Under Water Demolition Team 12; and our platoon was soon off on a 7-month tour of Asia, mainly in support of America’s withdraw from Viet Nam and Cambodia. Since America was not yet ready to perform the evacuations, we were attached to an amphibious assault ship, and we spent most of those months traveling around Asia. We actually did not know the war was coming to an end (that was classified). As far as we knew, we were training to go to war. A lot of our activities were based out of Subic Bay, Philippines (A wonderful place, from where I am actually writing this story). We also visited other locations, including Singapore and Hong Kong.Hong Kong

It was in Hong Kong where I met my first big love. Our ship anchored itself way out in the middle of Hong Kong harbor. It was February and March of 1975. We were there for 10+ days of rest and relaxation (R&R). Since our SEAL platoon was only transporting around on the ship, we did not have to stand any watches on the ship and we had no duties to perform there. So our SEAL platoon was given permission to take the entire 10 days off. Our only requirement was that we had to check in with the ship’s Master at Arms at the pier every morning at 9 AM. Since most of the guys in our platoon had rented a hotel room together in Hong Kong, it was permissible for just one of us to check others in with the Master at Arms, as long as we knew where the other persons were.

Others in our platoon had been around a lot longer than me, so they already knew where to go in Hong Kong. This was a special bar where guys from the Teams met up during the evening. I don’t know how these places are established. But it is common to have a single bar in each port of call where Teams guys meet up when in town. These special locations seldom change. This was also true in the Philippines, in Saigon, and I am sure in many other places. So I found myself in the bar during my first evening in Hong Kong. Most of the guys from my platoon were already there when I arrived and the party had already started.

As places go, this was a friendly bar. There were some attractive waitresses who were very hospitable. There was a dance floor out in the middle of the bar where a few sensual dancers were putting on quite a show. One of the guys from our platoon got dragged out onto the floor and the girls seduced him into the action, all to the cheers and encouragement of the onlookers. I was just trying to be inconspicuous, much too shy to perform (or get performed upon) in front of any audience. This was all new and shocking to me. After all, I had been afraid of attractive girls my whole life! I was alright with watching. Luckily, I did not have to participate. I say this with meaning; because if the guys in my platoon knew that I was bashful with women, they most certainly would have forced me to become the main performance. That’s just the way it is in the Teams!

Somewhere in the middle of all that action, this lovely creature introduced herself to me as Suzy Wong. Many years have passed, now; but I recall that she was about my age (in years, but way past me in life-experience), perhaps a year or so older than me. She was very attractive to me, very feminine. She had a very comfortable way of positioning me as the dominant in the relationship. This is something common in Asia; where a woman instinctively places the man in the dominant, masculine position. It is hard to put this into language, because it is mostly about emotional chemistry. The best I can describe it is that Suzy recognized my masculine side in a way that had never happened to me before. It was a side of me that had always been there, but it was Suzy that pushed the button and brought it out. It felt so good to be a man in this woman’s eyes. This happened the moment we met. It was as if we knew each other for our whole existence. Positioned this way, all my normal shyness was gone and it was wonderful to talk with her and just to be together. We fit together like yin and yang.

I was in love!

Suzy worked as a waitress in the bar; but she was permitted to sit with me as a customer provided that I was buying her drinks. That was easy; I just bought her drinks, which she sipped slowly, until it was time for the bar to close.

I was invited to spend the night in Suzy’s apartment long before the bar closed at 2 AM. Before parting ways with my Team buddies, I arranged with one of my Team mates (Bob) to check me in at the pier in the morning. He promised to do it. Then there were plans to meet back up on the following evening at the same bar.

Suzy lived in a very small studio apartment that was located several stories up in a larger building which was overcrowded with people and onlookers. Everyone was speaking in another language, so I had no idea what was being said. But I remember lots of disapproving looks from elderly women as Suzy took me into her room. There was a lot of chatter, mostly which Suzy just ignored.

I had never been in bed with a woman before and didn’t really know what to do. This did not matter. Once in her single-room apartment, Suzy insisted on fully undressing me. Then she took me into the shower where I was washed cleaner than I had ever been in my life. Then she took me to bed and taught me all about the physical expression and sharing of love. It came natural to me and I just went with the flow. Suzy knew how to do everything in a way that allowed me to be in the masculine roll. I had never experienced these feelings before. It was a night truly in heaven. I was overwhelmed with joy and love. It was wonderful!

The following day, Suzy showed me some of Hong Kong. We took a boat tour. We traveled to the border of China and looked over the fence from a vista point. China was off limits in those days. So it looked like a really dangerous place. It was all very new and exciting for a young guy from Waterford, Connecticut. We were having a great time!

That evening found us back at the bar where my platoon officer told me that I was in “big trouble” with the Ship’s captain for not checking in at the pier that morning. I was listed as AWOL (absent without leave). This is a very serious offense in the military. So I went over and asked my Team mate, Bob, what happened. He explained to me and my platoon leader that he was supposed to, but forgot, to check me in at the pier that morning. Once he understood the situation, my Team officer told me not to worry about it; not to bother going to the pier the following morning; to enjoy myself with my girl; Dave and Suzyand that he would straighten out the whole mess and check me in at the pier on the following morning. I asked him if he was sure, because I did not want to be in trouble. He told me not to worry about it.

Suzy Wong and a young Dave Mack on our second night in Hong Kong. Do I look “love-struck” or what?

So I went off and spent another incredible night and day with my wonderful lover. All I can say is that this relationship became the most important thing in my life. Being together with Suzy Wong was the main thing that mattered to me. I was experiencing the most joy and pleasure of my life. I had never experienced such meaningful and wonderful feelings before. I was in love, and I wanted it to go on forever.

When we got to the bar on the third evening, there were MP’s standing by to escort me back to the ship. My officer was also there (the MP’s arrived there with him). He said that he was not able to resolve the problem on the pier, and that I was now classed as 48 hours AWOL. The longer you are AWOL, the worse it is. At some point, it turns into being a “deserter.” This was a very serious problem! My officer agreed to accompany me and the MP’s back to the ship and try and straighten out the whole mess with the captain. We left in such a rush; I only had a very short moment to tell Suzy that I had to go back to the ship. I told her that I would be back. She seemed concerned. Then we were gone.

Once back on the ship, my military ID card was taken away, and my R&R was cancelled for the remainder of our time in Hong Kong. My officer told me that he had done his best, but the ship’s captain did not want to hear any explanations. The Captain was going to schedule a Captains Mass (disciplinary hearing) where we would be allowed to present explanations. But that would not happen until after we departed Hong Kong. I was restricted to the ship. End of story!

Have you ever experienced a panic attack? I am not a specialist in this sort of thing; but I now have enough life-experience behind me to have gone through several emotional upsets that were so severe as to push me over the edge. I know others who have also experienced this. I have personally experienced two kinds of panic attacks. One is from overwhelming fear that comes on suddenly (like in drowning). The other type is when a very serious set of unreasonable circumstances were forced upon me. The internal feeling is similar in both types of circumstances; it is not being able to emotionally manage what is happening to you (to me).

In other words, stuck on that ship by no fault of my own, without even being able to say a proper good bye to the love of my life, I totally freaked out! There were no cell phones in those days. I had no postal address for Suzy. Stuck on that ship, there was no way for me to ever even see her again!

By “freaking out,” I don’t mean that I got violent or loud. Although, that might have happened if they had locked me up in the brig. This was something emotional: I could not accept the reality of being stuck on that ship! Internally, I was spinning around in circles!

We still had the better part of a week of R&R to go in Hong Kong when I got restricted to the ship. It would have been bad enough if the ship had steamed off to some other destination. But it was anchored right there in the harbor, not much more than a mile from where I really needed to be. The situation was just so unbearable; I could not live with it! What do I mean by this? I mean that the only option I could live with was to do something about my circumstances.

Don: When we got to Hong Kong, I had only known Dave for a short while. This was because I had been transferred to his platoon from an active Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) unit in Asia just a few weeks before. SDV’s are small manual-controlled wet-submarines which navy SEALs use to sneak around in. Most of the information is classified.

Cast and RecoveryThis was my 4th deployment overseas and my enlistment was coming to an end. I was discharged in Subic a short time later and then went to Singapore for a diving job with Oceaneering International.

Here are Dave and another SEAL practicing out in the South China Sea “Cast & Recovery” in 2-man teams from a high-speed boat.

I had spent enough time with the platoon to know that Dave was a good SEAL operator and well-respected by the rest of the guys in this platoon. Even though the war was coming to an end in Viet Nam, we devoted nearly all of our time to training so we could be prepared to do anything that was asked of us. As far as we knew at the time, we might have ended up playing some sort of combat role. So we trained hard in all of the SEAL disciplines of that time period.

This was not my first (or last) tour in Asia, and I had already spent plenty of time in Hong Kong. I was not much interested in doing the night scene with the other guys there, so I was spending most of my evenings on the ship.Ambush

On about the 3rd or 4th day we were there, Dave came to me with his plan. One of Dave’s closest friends, John Masters, was going to go in on the liberty boat and bring a set of clothes and shoes for Dave. He was going to position himself almost directly across from where the ship was at anchor out in the harbor, just in front of a tall building a short distance upstream from a yacht club that we could see in the “Big Eyes” (The “Big Eyes” were a huge set of binoculars up on the top deck of the ship which we were allowed to use). Once there (after dark), John would signal to Dave on the ship that he was present. We had special signal flashlights that we used specifically for this purpose.

Another of Dave’s close team mates, Bob Johnson, was not planning to go on shore that evening. Bob had agreed to lend Dave his military ID card. If you were picked up in Hong Kong in those days by any authority without an ID card, you were going straight to jail! Bob and Dave did not look anything alike. But with some improvising, the ID card might help Dave get back onto the liberty boat in case he decided not to swim back to the ship.

Dave’s plan was to strip down to just his bathing suit and swim to the yacht club, meet up with John, get dressed in civilian clothes, go say a proper good bye to his girl and get contact details. Then, his initial plan was to go back to the yacht club with John, strip back down to just a bathing suit, and swim out to the ship. My part in the plan was to lower the rope over the side of the ship so he could climb down and enter the water quietly. Then I was to lower the rope down again exactly at 2 AM so Dave could climb back up onto the ship. It was about 30 feet to the deck from the water. So a rope was definitely necessary if he wanted to get back on board undetected.

While Hong Kong was a friendly port, it’s not like you can leave a rope hanging off the side of a military ship so just anyone could climb aboard! We were in a war (which we were losing). There was a small company of marines assigned to the ship, and they were providing day and night security patrols that were watching the sides of the ship to make sure we were not boarded. If we left a rope Hong Konghanging over the side of the ship, these marines certainly would have found it. That would have created a full alarm. So as soon as Dave was in the water, I needed to pull the rope back up. Only at 2 AM sharp would he have another opportunity to get back up the rope.

If you look close, you can see part of the breakwater that ends in front of the tall building. John’s signal was supposed to originate from the shoreline near the front of the building.

To an average person from the civilized world, what Dave proposed to do in his plan would be wild and crazy. That’s the reason Dave was not in the ship’s brig; nobody in authority ever even considered that someone would swim to shore from the middle of Hong Kong Harbor! But we trained in this sort of thing all the time. The ship was only about a mile out in the harbor. That was not much. We trained to do similar missions on 5-mile swims. In SDV’s we were doing similar missions from very extended distances. We were training to board (and do other things to) ships that were under full steam. This ship was just sitting at anchor. Unless something went seriously wrong, this was a pretty easy program for Dave. The main thing he wanted from me was a commitment to have the rope over the side at 2 AM. He did not want to swim out there and have no way to board the ship! I told Dave he could count on me to do my part, and I meant it.

Dave: John had departed on the liberty boat several hours before. It was dark, so I was just waiting for his signal. I had to watch closely, because it was going to be originating from about a mile away. There were lots of lights in Hong Kong at night. John’s signal was going to be from just a small flashlight. I was watching closely.

Since we had never been to the place before, we were not even certain that John could reach the shore in the planned location. It was in front of a tall building that was right next to some kind of yacht club. We could see that the yachts were moored behind a very long rock breakwater (like a jetty that was parallel to the shore). John was supposed to signal me from a location up towards the end of the breakwater. But we were not sure if he could even get to that spot without entering the water himself (which was not part of this plan). Maybe the place was inaccessible. Maybe there was security. Maybe he could not get there.

If John’s signal never came, it meant the operation was cancelled for that night. Then I would go to work on a new plan for the following night. If the signal came, it meant that he would continue signaling until I arrived. You have to place quite a lot of faith in your fellow Team mates in these situations. Imagine if John signaled and I never arrived. Would he wait for me all night? Imagine if he signaled and then left before I arrived? There I would be in Hong Kong with no clothes! But none of us ever worried about the other doing his part. It was part of the SEAL culture: You always do your part, and you never quit!

Don: Taking my part of Dave’s mission seriously, as soon as it was dark, long before John’s signal was due, I went up and cased out exactly where Dave should go over the side of the ship. It was in this little hidden nook behind some gear on the deck. There was just enough room there to tie off the rope and slip Dave over the side. I was mainly worried about the marines who were patrolling the deck of the ship. We had to get Dave over the side without them seeing him. There could be no delays or noise. About 15 minutes before John was supposed to begin his signals, I went up to the place, tied the rope off, and had it carefully coiled so we could drop it off the side and it would come just short of the water. Everything was ready. Dave would just have to go over the side once he got the signal.

Dave: I figured while John would do his best, there was at least a 50% chance that he would not make it to the pre-arranged destination. This was a foreign country; a place we had never been to before. We did not know our way around. He was going to have to try and get a taxi driver to take him to a location that he could not even name. The location was quite some distance from the pier where the liberty boat was dropping us off. A lot of the taxi drivers did not even speak English. It was a tall order for John to get himself to the designated place on time!

Amazingly, John’s red flashlight signal started blinking in exactly the right place at the exact time that we had agreed upon. I had to look twice to make sure it was him. This was coming from the shore line about a mile away. Once I committed to going over the side of the ship, there was no turning back. I had to be sure. Might something else cause a steady red flashing from over there? I decided John was signaling. The mission was a go!

Don was just waiting for me to decide that I was going to go. I quickly discarded my clothes while Don dropped the rope down to the water’s edge. I handed the clothes to Don and went quietly over the side of the ship, lowered myself down, and slipped quietly into the water. The water was freezing! I had not planned on that! It was also moving swiftly with the outgoing tide. I had taken the outgoing tide into consideration, but had not planned on the water moving so fast!

The ship was using powerful spot lights at night to illuminate the water-area surrounding the ship. We were at war. There was a complete circle of smaller vessels surrounding our ship. They were out there about 100 yards. It is a long time ago, but my perception was that these were venders hoping to sell us cheap goods. All of the area between the ship and these boats was lit up by the spot lights. This was the zone I had to traverse carefully so I would not be seen by the ship’s crew or marine sentries.

We had trained extensively for this. I had to swim as far as I could underwater, then come up very slowly and quietly, with my face turned away from the lights, to get another breath of air. I could only take a single breath. This was to avoid becoming an object on the water’s surface long enough that could be identified (If someone spotted me, when they took a second look, I would not be there anymore, and then they would not be sure what they saw, if anything…).

This was not easy.

Don: Our timing was bad, because a young marine came around the side of the ship just as Dave slipped over the side, entered the water and disappeared from the surface. The marine was very alert, and wanted to know what the heck was going on. I calmly explained the honest situation to the guy. He had just caught a glimpse of Dave as he went into the water. We both watched for a while, and we might have seen Dave come to the surface just for a moment quite a ways out from the ship. Since the marine’s job was to make certain that foreigners were not boarding the ship, he was sympathetic to Dave’s plight and agreed to meet me just before 2 AM to help Dave get quietly back on board. This was very lucky; because someone else might have sounded the alarm and we would have been in a lot of trouble. It goes to show you how American fighting men, for the most part, stick together on the smaller things when someone else is doing something that does not pose a danger to the overall mission.

The marine was impressed, but not surprised, that one of our SEALs would pull a stunt like this. We had gotten to know a lot of the marines riding this ship. They were some pretty good guys. They were watching us train out on the water nearly every day. Your average person views deep, dark water as a dangerous place to go. Because we spend so much time there, SEALs view deep, dark water as a safe place of refuge. Both the marine and I knew that Dave was not in much danger out there in the dark.

Dave: Once I was in the water, there was only one direction to go. That direction was easy, because of the blaring lights from the ship behind me. Even though I was swimming along at about 10 feet beneath the surface, I felt like I was totally exposed by the bright lights. I swam as hard as I could to put distance between me and the ship. The hardest part, as always, was to gain as much distance as I could, and then rise to the surface for air without making any splashes or surface disturbance; none. Even though I was holding true to the single-breath discipline, it felt like there must be 100 sailors and officers watching me from the ship. “Man, was I going to be in big trouble;” this was what was on my mind!

Taking a single breath when you are absolutely starving for air is one of the most difficult disciplines we trained in. The trick was to not push yourself to the point of passing out. But if there was some hostility on the surface looking for you, you had to push it as hard as you could to put distance between you and the enemy. We trained in this technique even with our hands and feet tied. It was nothing new to me. But I was terribly worried about those bright lights staring down at me from the ship!

The Chinese guys on the smaller boats surrounding the ship never even saw me, even though I was within several yards of them when taking several of my breaths. I certainly could see them, comfortable and warm up on their boats. But the last thing on their minds was going to be some guy swimming around out in the middle of Hong Kong Harbor after dark. Asking one of them to give me a ride to shore was out of the question. That would have caused a disturbance that might have alerted the ship.

I slipped quietly under their boats and maintained the single-breath discipline so as to not set them off. Once I was distant from them, I came to the surface and took a careful assessment of my situation. It was not good. The outgoing current was moving much faster than I had planned. I was being swept out to sea! My only hope was to reach the long breakwater that was protecting all the moored yachts. That breakwater was about a mile long. John was on the upstream end. I had drifted so far out with the current; I could not see his red signals, anymore. That was very worrisome. Still, there was only one direction for me to go. I had to reach the breakwater. If I missed that, I would be swept out into the South China Sea.

The water was freezing! We did a lot of cold water work in the SEALs and especially in BUD/S training. Just like hunger, exhaustion, fear, oxygen depletion and severe pain, we had trained in being able to flick an internal switch to turn those kind of intense feelings off and just move ahead.

What else could I do?

My only hope at that point was to switch gears into a full overhand crawl stroke to reach the end of the breakwater. I had to swim as hard and fast as I could. I still had a good half-mile to go. It was hard to keep up the pace. So I stopped every once in a while to look at my progress. I could see the lights on shore sliding by as the tide washed me out to sea. I pushed harder. It was going to be difficult to make my target!

About a quarter-mile away from the breakwater, a huge junk (Chinese boat) came motoring down upon me with the current. I had to stop my swim to keep from being run over by the boat. As they passed by, I could see a bunch of guys peering intently over the side of the junk, trying to figure out what they were looking at that was splashing around out there in the water. It was dark out there! When I asked them in English if they would give me a ride to shore, I thought they were going to go crazy up there on the boat. The last thing they expected to see was some foreigner swimming around out there at night. They exploded with all this chatter in Chinese. Nobody extended any hands down to help me out of the water. Since we were moving along swiftly with the tide, I decided to take my chances by swimming for it. I swam as hard as I could.

I managed to reach the slack water just behind the end of the break water. I had made it. That was a close one!

Climbing up on the breakwater was not easy. It was just piled rocks. There was nothing smooth or level to stand on. I was barefooted and it was dark out there. But my eyes adjusted so I could see the rocks. I had to feel around with my hands and feet to find footings to climb up onto the breakwater. I was shivering so bad with cold that my whole body was doing the shakes. It was hard to find my balance on the slippery rocks. This was not going to be easy! Even as I started my journey, I immediately saw that the breakwater was infested with rats; millions of them!

I hate rats, snakes, spiders and just about all other types of critters. In fact, I often have violent nightmares about them. But at this point, I was so cold and far away from a secure position that I switched another internal piece of hardware to stop caring about the rats. Instead, I placed all of my focus upon just making it along to the next rock without slipping or falling. The rats were running out of my way, dozens at a time. I never stepped on a single one of them. They were fast little buggers! But I could hear their millions of feet scurrying on the rocks. It sounded like something out of a horror movie.

I was just trying to get to John, who I hoped was still on shore near the far end of the breakwater. It was a long way; maybe about the same distance that I had swam. It was slow going, but my pace picked up as I adjusted to the challenge of one rock to the next. I saw John’s signal again when I was about half way along the breakwater. Worried that he might give up and leave, I thought of yelling to him. Then I decided to only do that if the signal stopped. It never did! It was better to not give up my position. I had already come too far.

When I reached the end of the breakwater, I never even slowed down to catch my breath. I dove in and swam the relatively short distance to where John was signaling from. He said my splash into the water from the breakwater caught him totally by surprise, because he was beginning to think I was not going to go for it.

I was so cold, my whole body was numb.

There was nothing further to talk about. I got dressed as good as I could without a towel to dry me off. I felt better with a set of clothes on and with John present. He had some idea how we were going to get out of there. My position in the world had just improved a lot!

I had overlooked sending in a comb with John. So I just did the best that I could with my fingers. I was tired from the mission; the cold really zapped my reserves. But I was not swept out to sea, and I was going to see my true love again!

Even before putting my clothes on, I had already decided that it would be too risky to try and swim back out to the ship. The tidal currents were too strong. If I didn’t get it exactly right, I would be swept away and probably never return to the ship. The thought of doing the whole single-breath discipline for 200+ yards at 2 AM in the morning, to arrive exactly at the rope and get my hands on it as the current swept me by, and to get up the side of the ship without being spotted by someone, felt like mission impossible in my already-exhausted condition.. That water was freezing! And what if Don overslept? Getting out there and missing the rope would have been the end of me…I had already worked out an alternative plan to get back onto the ship…

Soon thereafter, John flagged down a taxi and we arrived at the bar just a little while later. Most of the guys from my platoon were there in the bar, including the officers. Boy were they surprised to see me! But not a single word was exchanged with the officers. They would have been in as much or more trouble as me if it ever got out that I had jumped ship and they knew about it.

Besides, I was only there for a moment to say a proper farewell to my love and get some contact details so I could return back to her later when circumstances would allow. When I arrived, Suzy was there having drinks with another customer. I was in a bit of a hurry, and I just wanted to see her for a moment; so I asked one of the other waitresses to break in and ask Suzy to see me for a moment. When she came over, she made it very clear to me that I was a nuisance for barging in on her while she was drinking with another customer in the bar. That was her job. She was not very happy to see me.

Right there in that moment, my heart was broken into a million pieces.

I had come too far to give up. I asked her for a postal address so we could talk by mail (she had no phone). I told her that I planned to come back and see her as soon as I could make it happen. She gave me an address and returned to her customer.

That was the last time I ever saw Suzy Wong.

To be fair, Suzy never could have known what I had gone through to see her that last time.

Once out of the bar, I bought two rather large quilts from a street vender. Then I returned to the liberty pier. The boat picked us up shortly thereafter. When we went up the stairs to board the ship, I held my big packages out in front of me with Bob’s ID card in one hand. It was sometime during the middle of the night. The MP’s on board just waved me through along with everyone else. They were tuned in to American sailors. It was too dark out there for them to be matching up faces with the small photo on an ID card. Getting back on the ship was easy. I was lucky!

After notes:

  1. My heart was so broken, and I was so exhausted and sick-to-my-stomach, that I overlooked letting Don know that I was back on the ship. So he and that young marine spent the rest of that night with a rope dangling over the side of the ship, waiting for me to show up. Don only found out the next morning at muster that I was back on the ship. He was relieved that I had made it. But, even to this day, he continues scolding me for not telling him that night. I should have. It was a lapse of operational professionalism. I will try and do better next time.
  2. By the following morning, I was terribly sick with vomiting and diarrhea. Another thing I did not take into consideration was that Hong Kong at that time had what was well-known as the most polluted harbor in the world. The raw sewage from all of Hong Kong and the surrounding area was being discarded into the harbor. In concert with my broken heart, it took my digestive system months and months to get back to normal. I am actually lucky that I did not catch Typhoid, hepatitis or something worse!
  3. A Captain’s Mass was held about a week after we departed Hong Kong; and despite my witnesses who testified that they had agreed to check me in at the pier, the ship’s captain found me guilty of 48 hours of AWOL. In view of my otherwise unblemished record in the navy, my penalty was suspended.
  4. Although I was not thinking of it at the time, if I had been caught jumping ship during wartime, I probably would have done 20 years of hard time in a federal prison.
  5. I wrote to Suzy Wong many times over the following months, never to receive a letter in return. Had we not been on a continuous 24-hour standby (to go evacuate our people from Viet Nam, and then Cambodia), I would have taken leave, and gone over to Hong Kong and try to marry her. I would have done nearly anything to have her as my own. But I never heard from her again.
  6. The truth is that I don’t know if she ever even received my letters. I have always wondered (hoped) that she might have been anxiously waiting all that time to hear from me. No matter how hard you try, some things are not meant to be…
  7. Don Stevens eventually returned to the Philippines and married the girl of his own dreams, brought her back to America, and they had three children who are now productive young adults. He and his lovely wife reside in southern California where Don continues to support the navy SEALs and Special Warfare Group as an independent contractor.
  8. Around 35 years passed since Don stepped off our ship as a civilian to start his job in Singapore. We had not spoken to each other since that day. Then, Don found our New 49’er web site a few years back and re-established communication with me. He joined The New 49’ers, and we spent a good part of the 2009 season dredging side-by-side on my 8-inch dredge. Don and Dave dredgingDon has been actively involved with some form of commercial underwater work for most of his adult life, so he adapted quickly to commercial dredging for gold. While we did pretty well in the deposit we were working on K-7, we might have recovered more gold in a different place along our mining properties. Still, we did alright. That’s just the way it is in gold mining. But no 2-man teamhas ever outworked what Don and I can do side-by-side!Don and Dave, along with several guys providing support, dredging on the Klamath River during the 2009 season.
  9. Part of becoming a man is in deciding for yourself about the things that are really important to you and standing up for them even when there is enormous personal risk. There have been a number of times in my adult life when I have done this, but this was one of the first times that I took a huge personal risk for something that felt really important to me (risk of getting caught). Right or wrong, for better or worse, this was the first real love of a woman that I ever experienced. If I had a chance to go back and do anything differently, there is not much that I would change.

Final note: As Don, John and Bob assumed enormous personal risk to help me in my time of personal need, the last thing I ever want to do is get them into trouble. The only reason this adventure came out right was because I got away with it. This continues to be a responsibility that I take seriously. I don’t want any of us to be in trouble with the authorities, especially after all this time has passed. So when people ask me if I really jumped ship in Hong Kong, I always answer: “Most of this story was the way we would have liked it to have played out if it really did.”

What do you think?

 

By Dave McCracken

With comments added by
Brian & Jim McCracken and Eric Bosch

“It was only Pure Luck that got us through this Whole Adventure.”

Dave Mack

 

Jim with gold  Three guys waving from the dredges

Atlin Lake

Note: This story was originally formatted as a pictorial-diary to document and memorialize one of the greatest adventures in my life. My brother Brian presented the pictorial presentation to me as a Christmas present in 1989. Many of the original pictures are included here.

Brain: I have known my brother, Dave Mack, for his entire lifetime. That’s because I was born two years ahead of him. During our growing-up years, Dave was “my younger brother.” Adventure has been Dave’s calling since his earliest days.

We grew up in a navy family. Our dad was a submarine commander during the cold war, so we were moving somewhere else every two years or so. When we lived near the water, Dave’s adventures nearly always revolved around boats. He devoted a winter to building his first row boat in the family’s living room when he was about 13 year’s old (we didn’t have a garage). The following summer, he used that boat to start a lobster-trapping business in Long Island Sound. Saving his money for something more substantial, Dave built his first motor boat in a friend’s garage the following winter – which vastly expended his reach out on the water. He got himself SCUBA qualified when he was 15, and most of his adventures after that revolved around being underwater. I remember he built this tow-sled to drag behind one of his motor boats, which allowed him to get dragged around with the ability to control his depth so he could search the bottom for signs of wreckage or anything else interesting. Dave and one of his friends used that sled day-in and day-out, searching for a sunken wreak that was supposed to be located near where we lived in Waterford, Connecticut. He never found the wreak; but until this day, I’ll bet nobody has covered more of the bottom of Long Island Sound off of Waterford, Connecticut. Dave was a heck of a good fisherman during those early years, and I never met anyone who could spear fish better underwater.

During the times we lived away from the water, Dave’s adventures were all about building forts. All the way back to the third grade, Dave was building them underground when we did not have access to trees. But Dave’s tree forts were the best. He built this fantastic, large 2-story tree fort back when he was in the 5th grade. A bunch of us pitched in to help with that project. We used that fort to make war with our next door neighbors of the time (the greatly-feared Garrett brothers). Those were several local guys of about the same age as us. We were kind of looked upon as “outsiders” because we moved around a lot. Dave came up with a big piece of tire inner tube and rigged a huge slingshot on top of our fort, and we were landing big green apples about a hundred yards over the trees to smack against the (much smaller) tree fort of our neighbors. We couldn’t even see their fort; but we could certainly hear when our apples struck home. In turn, they lobbed pretty sizable rocks in our direction. Those guys were not really our enemies. “Making war” from elevated forts in the trees was fun; something exciting for boys to do. Those skirmishes eventually evolved into battles with BB guns. We were lucky nobody ever got hurt really bad. We lost interest in war with our neighbors when the Garrets and several other local guys, Tommy Tracy and Peter Oats, started a rock band. That’s about the time that Dave really got going with his sea adventures – and I got interested in girls.

Dave’s tree forts were built so well, we used them as a place to meet up (mostly with our girlfriends) all the way until our youngest brother, Jim, graduated from high-school. Jim tore the fort down before he departed Connecticut to meet up with Dave out in California. It must have been a big job taking that fort down!

Being the oldest, I was strongly influenced by our father and was somewhat strong-armed into the U.S. navel academy at Annapolis just after high-school. Dave was much-less of a conformist. Rather than being pushed off on a university by our father, he and his best friend devoted most of their senior year in high school making a camper out of a Chevy step van (bread truck). They saved their money and departed on a year-long trip zigzagging across Canada and the U.S., eventually to end up out in California. After a time, Dave decided to join the navy and try out for the Navy Seals. The Seals were a seriously-dreaded program at that time (during the Viet Nam war), and I’m not sure any of us believed Dave would make it through the training. It was probably more of a surprise to our father than anyone that Dave actually did make it into the navy Seals!

Tent in snowAfter that, Dave and I were fortunate that our time in the service brought us together in Subic Bay, Philippines during 1975. That was another very interesting time. We shared some very hair-raising (and probably illegal) adventures there, as well. But we will save those stories for another day.

This particular adventure started during the winter of 1981. Dave had already been dredging gold for about a year or two and was just starting to figure out how to find the high-grade gold deposits. I was between jobs at the time and invited myself to spend the winter of 1981-82 dredging with Dave on the Trinity River in northern California. There was snow on the ground, man; it was freezing! We lived in a timberline tent, heated by a wood stove. Dave lived out there in that tent for the better part of three years. It was something you adjusted to after a while. Dave and I took turns on the cooking detail. We ate a lot!

Now, anyone that knows Dave, knows that he is a hard-pusher. “No pain, no gain!” You had to get the work done if you wanted the gold to add up. End of story! We dredged as hard as we could nearly every day.

We were dredging right out in the middle of the Trinity River about 8 miles upstream from where we were camped. To minimize the pain involved of trying to get into a diving suit out in the snow and mud, we were getting into our dry-suits in the warm tent and then driving up to the claim. All we had to get around with at the time was Dave’s Honda motorcycle. I used to ride on back, balancing a fuel container on each side of the bike, hugging Dave with my legs to keep from falling off the back. There was often snow and ice on the road. We used to get some pretty strange looks from others who were driving cars. But it was just another day to us. No pain, no gain!

The water in the Trinity River that winter was ice cold, sometimes down in the mid-30’s. We were doing two long dives in that cold water every day. We would stay in until our bodies were so cold, we could not take it any longer. Sometimes, even before lunch, we would do jumping-jacks on the bank to get some heat fired back up in our diving suits. Our toes were so numb, they were beyond feeling. The second dive of the day was always the hardest. Many times, we stood there and dared each other to be last, “one, two, three, go!” and we would both be still standing there looking at each other, sometimes laughing at our situation. It was hard, but we did it. Placing your face in the water was like getting smacked in the head with a power slap; it stung something awful and gave you a splitting headache! I always dreaded that part of it.

Still, we were recovering quite a bit of gold for our effort, including some nice, big nuggets. It wasn’t enough to get rich. It was enough to get by. Uncovering cracks that were loaded with gold on the bottom of the river, sometimes even pockets of gold, was serious adventure! We were hoping for a real bonanza, but we just found steady gold.

Dave with bottle of goldIf Dave wasn’t filling up spice bottles with gold, he would just keep sampling around until he found a richer gold deposit!

If the gold prices in 1982 were the same as they are today, we would have been making some serious money! But as it was, we were having to sell a lot of the gold we mined so we could pay for fuel, food and the other costs. We were keeping the nuggets, though!

One day, Dave suggested that we should spend the upcoming summer season dredging in Alaska. I immediately jumped on the idea and ran it by our younger brother, Jim. Jim had never done any gold dredging, but he had been getting an earful about it from Dave and me. Jim immediately signed onto the plan. Dave then ran the idea by one of his best dredging buddies, Eric Bosch. Eric could not have been more than about 18 years old at the time. His mother, Anita, told Eric he could go with us on the condition that we also take along her young black lab, Sadie, to help protect us from grizzly bears. Eric & Sadie jumped right on board. That made five of us. One day I suggested to Dave that we bring a cook along so we could devote most of our efforts to mining. So Dave arranged with this strange old prospector named “Joe” to go along with us on the trip. Joe had a 3-inch dredge. In exchange for cooking and cleaning up after the rest of us, Joe was going to be allowed to mine for gold in his spare time. That made six of us.

Jim: This was a life-long dream come true for me; going to Alaska with my brothers on a gold mining adventure! Everyone else was just as excited about it as I was.

Brian: After taking some time to prepare, we all met in Big Bar, California in Mid-May of 1982. Big Bar is a small community nestled along the Trinity River. Dave had already acquired a beast of a Dodge Power Wagon that was in pretty sound shape. When Jim and I arrived in Big Bar, Dave and Eric had nearly finished building-up an 18-foot box trailer that we would pull behind the truck. The trailer would be used to haul Dave’s 6-incher, three 5-inchers and Joe’s 3-inch dredge, along with all the support gear and supplies that we needed. Then it was to serve as a cook shack and bunk house once the gear was removed. We located and installed propane and 12-volt lights, along with a very large, old propane freezer. We installed a wood stove with a removable smoke stack. This was a lot better than a tent!

Dave: Brian and Jim both grew full beards before they arrived so they could look the part of “Alaskan miners.” They looked pretty good, too. So they were real disappointed when I asked them to shave the beards off. I was warned in advance by some Canadian friends that we should not go up there looking all rough and burly, especially if we planned to do any business in Canada. I predicted in advance, if the opportunity presented itself, that we might want to stop in British Columbia or the Yukon Territory on the way to Alaska and do a little mining. Eric and I had already trimmed ourselves up even before Brian and Jim arrived. We were going to play it safe and project a clean-cut image.

Brian: There was still more work to do when Jim and I arrived on the Trinity. We all jumped to it, and we departed exactly on schedule at 10 AM on the first of June, 1982.

We had mounted an old camper shell and had removed the back window out of the truck so that the six of us could ride together. We had no plans to stop until we reached Alaska, except for fuel and meals – which we made for ourselves (mostly sandwiches) to save money. Eric’s small row boat was tied down to the top of the camper. We were really loaded!

Jim: The first part of the trip was really hairy. This was because the trailer was wandering around dangerously behind the truck – especially if we got going faster than about 45 miles per hour. As hardy as that Power Wagon was, our trailer was packed full to the top with heavy gear. All we started with was a bumper hitch. We could not load any more weight in the front of the trailer without fear of breaking the truck. There was so much weight on the bumper, sometimes it felt like we were pulling a wheelie down the highway!

In Portland, Oregon, we finally decided to stop and buy an anti-sway bar that connected between the truck’s bumper and the trailer hitch. That made all the difference, and we were able to pick up the pace. After that, we started making pretty good time, shifting off with the driving, taking turns sleeping in the back. We traveled day and night.

Eric: We started going through tires on the truck shortly after we got on the road. Before we reached Whitehorse, I believe we replaced every tire at least once. The trailer tires had plenty of tread on them when we started, but they were old and could not take the heavy load, especially once we reached the Alcan Highway in Canada, much which remained unpaved at the time.Alcan Highway

Brian: We drove straight on through, day and night, hour after hour. But we had a reliable tape deck and brought along some great music. We were rocking out to Pat Benatar, Sticks, the Alman Brothers Band, Santana, Steve Miller and other rock n’ roll music that each of us had brought along. The rule was that whoever was driving got to pick the music. Our old companion, Joe, from an earlier generation, was having visible trouble adjusting to our music, but he was not really complaining, yet. That came later. For the moment, we were moving right along. We were on the Alcan Highway by the third day.

Never mind that we were in June; it was cold once we began driving through the Canadian Rockies. It was like 14 degrees during the daytime and got really cold at night.

Jim: One morning at around 6 AM, just as it was getting light, I was driving along (dirt road) at about 50 miles an hour; and just like that, it was everything I could do to keep the steering wheel in my hands. Everything was flipping out of control!

Brian: I looked out the window and saw the trailer right next to us! I remember thinking, “What’s going on?” It turned out that we got a flat back on the trailer, and then broke one of the bolts that held the leaf spring to the trailer’s frame, causing the trailer to fishtail all over the place. We were quite fortunate that we did not completely jackknife and roll both the truck and trailer right there. That would have been the end of our trip, big time! We were lucky!Trailer with broken wheel

We really did a number on that wheel, but we were feeling lucky that we had not lost the whole trailer!

Eric: It was our first flat on the trailer. We also destroyed the wheel rim. This was not just any rim; it was something special from an old trailer axle. Fortunately, we had brought two spares. Unfortunately, to place more weight in the front of the trailer, we had stored both spares all the way in the front of the trailer. That was a mistake we only made once! So there we were on the side of the Alcan where we needed to unpack nearly the entire trailer just to get at our spares. We all felt pretty foolish about that. This is one of the things you learn on a trip to Alaska: Plan on getting flats!

While Dave and Jim worked on unpacking and repacking the trailer, Brian and I drove the Honda motorcycle 20-miles back to the nearest town to find a hardened steel bolt that would reattach our leaf spring. This was a bit of a challenge, since Canada is on a metric system, and the bolt went along with a bushing that had to fit just right. It took us a while, but we finally found what we were looking for. The store had three in stock. We bought all of them!

Alcan HighwayWhen we returned to the trailer, we were about frozen to death! The temperature was below freezing. Brian and I had to take turns driving the Honda, because it was so cold on the guy in front. When we got back to the trailer, Dave and Jim were waiting for us with the spare tire ready to go. In all, we only lost about half a day.

Dave: The bigger problem was that we were going through our money much faster than we had planned. Pulling that heavy load, the Power Wagon was only getting about 4 miles to the gallon of gasoline; 6 at the most, even when we were going down hill. We had to buy things along the way that we had not planned for, especially tires. After we blew the second tire on the trailer, we went into a tire store and bought 4 brand new ones. It was too risky to run the Alcan with such a heavy load on those old tires!

Out of pure luck, we also were able to find another spare rim for the trailer. This turned out to be very fortunate, because we lost another rim one day when I was driving. We had just topped another hill, and I was manually applying trailer breaks as we descended the other side. We were totally overloaded, and the last thing we needed was to get going too fast down a hill on a dirt road!

I’ll never forget driving down this hill and getting passed up by a wheel that went right by the driver’s side. It was going quite a bit faster than we were. Maybe it was sleep depravation, but I could not put any logic to it. My first thought was that it was someone else’s wheel. But we were the only ones out there! About the time the wheel bounded off the road and out of sight down a steep hill, it occurred to me that it might have been one of our own wheels. Sure enough, when I looked in the Northern Lightsrearview mirror, I could see that the break drum from the rear left wheel on the trailer was down rolling on the road. Great! Luckily there was no serious damage. But it took us hours down in the brush before we finally found the wheel. The lug bolts had torn right through the rim, rendering it useless. But the tire was still good.

Eric: One night, we came up over a hilltop and the entire sky was lit up in a blaze of bright-colored white, yellow and red electricity. It was so dramatic and sudden that we pulled the truck over to the side of the road and had this very serious discussion, trying to decide what was going on. We finally came to the conclusion that there must have been a nuclear war. We turned on the radio for news, but there Dave & Ericwas no reception out there. There were also no other vehicles on the road. We even had some discussion about turning around and going back home. That’s when Joe, who was dozing in the back of the truck, sat up and said, “No, you knuckleheads, those are the Northern Lights!” The entire sky was on fire with an electric light show. We grew quite accustomed to this later in the trip after the midnight sun would disappear, again.


Brian:
It took us a full five, long non-stop days to reach the town of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. We were down to our last 200 Dollars. That wasn’t even enough to get us up into Alaska! Basically, we were broke! We found a camping area just outside of town, set up some tents, and took a timeout to get some real sleep, clean things up a bit, and take stock in our situation. Our financial situation was not good. We were going to have to come up with some money!Joe and Brian

Even though we were out of money, Joe was always asking us to buy something else that he needed to do the cooking properly for us.

Jim: We were just young guys in those days, and we had already invested all of our savings into this trip. There was no more! By the nature of the way we were raised by our father, looking back on it, I don’t think any of us even considered the idea of asking him for a loan. Not that he wouldn’t have helped us. Sure he would have. But the price to pay for telling our dad that we had gotten ourselves stuck up in the middle of nowhere with no money would have been way too much to pay. We would have looked for dishwashing jobs before we did that!

Dave: I knew an American gold buyer who was based out of Whitehorse during the summer months. It was something about the Dollar exchange between the Canadian and U.S. currencies that was making it work for him and the Canadian miners that he was buying gold from. He told me to look him up when we reached Whitehorse. I had his phone number. So I gave him a call as soon as we had a chance to catch our breath. He invited me over to his office. Jim and I drove the motorcycle over there from where we were camped.

Jim: The first thing we learned in Whitehorse was that Canada was strictly enforcing a motorcycle helmet law. We barely got into town, and were sternly scolded by an RCMP officer (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) from the open window of his cruiser on the far side of the street. He yelled at us so loudly that I thought we had joined the Marines. He was a totally no-nonsense dude. He said, “Get some helmets on or else!” We said, “Yes sir!”

Dave: After advising my friend of our situation, he suggested that he could introduce us to some of his clients that were recovering hundreds of pounds of gold from ancient gold deposits located adjacent to Pine Creek near Atlin, British Columbia. This location was more than a hundred miles from Whitehorse (that is a 3-hour drive on today’s roads according to Google Earth). My friend was pretty certain these Canadian miners would allow us on their creek since they were not doing anything with it. And if not there, my friend said we would turn up others near Atlin that would allow us to dredge on their property.

Atlin has a fantastic gold mining history; it is one of the richest areas in all of Canada. The standard dealwas 10% of gold recovery to the claim holders, and another 5% finder’s fee for my friend. That seemed more than reasonable to me and my partners!

Wide view of campWithin just a few days, we had made 10% deals with several claim owners in the Atlin area. Let me just say that while America might be the super power, generally speaking, we do not even come close to matching up with what the Canadians are doing with mining. The miners who we were being introduced to were operating whole fleets of huge earth-moving machines. They were literally removing hundreds of feet of overburden to gain access to extremely rich layers of pay-dirt. When they saw our tiny 5-inch Keene dredges, it was only politeness that kept them from laughing out loud at us! I’m sure we made for amusing discussion at the local bar, because we heard about it later. To them, we were just playing. Besides, they had zero interest in Pine Creek, because their forefathers had already mined the creek…

Brian: We found this wonderful place to camp up on Surprise Lake, which was about 15 miles upstream from Atlin on Pine Creek. It was an organized campground with a pit toilet, but we were the only ones there. The surroundings were outstanding! We didn’t know it until we pulled in there, but this turned out to be a renowned fishing area with glacier-fed lakes (cold), beautiful rivers and creeks, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was now mid-June, and there was still 3-to-4 feet of snow on the ground in some places. Surprise Lake overflowed to begin the lower stretch of Pine Creek.

Unloading at the lakeUnfortunately, the entrance into the campground was very rough and we broke a leaf spring on the trailer getting into the campground, something we would have to replace before we could leave.

Eric: After unloading all the mining gear and setting up camp, I decided to row out on the lake and see if I could catch any fish. Mainly, I was just happy to get out of that truck. The guys kind of laughed at me when I first went out there. This was because they were used to fishing on lakes in America where you usually have to work hard to catch even a small fish. I had a nice big fish in the boat after my first cast! That sent the other guys running for their own fishing gear. Then, everybody got into the act and we were catching fish like crazy! Later, Jim and I rowed over to the other side where a small creek was emptying into the lake, and these same fish were trying to get up the very shallow creek in such large numbers that we could have gathered up as many as we wanted.Lake Camp

We were the only ones out there camped on this beautiful lake that was full of fish!

Dave: One thing we noticed as soon as we got into Canada was that things seemed a lot more expensive there than what we were used to. This was even more true when we got out to Atlin. Just a medium-sized jar of peanut butter was like $10. And we were some hungry boys. Since our money needed to be spent on fuel for the dredges, we felt we needed to do something drastic to get some meat in the freezer.

Jim: The day after setting up camp at Surprise Lake, Eric and I went hunting on the Honda. There were all sorts of primitive roads out there, and we had to be careful to not get lost! As we started driving around, it became clear almost immediately that we were in the middle of a massive, historical gold mining area. There were old miner’s shacks and old mines around nearly every bend! Gold prices were very low at the time, so most of the buildings and mines were abandoned. There was hardly anyone around, except for an occasional person or two we would see driving around from time-to-time. It seemed pretty safe to go on an unlicensed hunting trip.Eric & Jim going hunting

Eric: We had brought two weapons with us on this trip. The first was a shot gun that we literally had loaded and ready for potential bear attacks. The second was my trusty Winchester 30-30. This was my personal favorite hunting rifle. I had knocked off a lot of dear using this gun. Since I was familiar with the 30-30, Jim agreed that he would drive the motorcycle and let me take a shot if we spotted any game.

 

 

 

Old mine  Two Cabins
Old mine 2

Similar to the way we underestimated the fishing, we realized how plentiful the game was before we had traveled more than about a mile away from camp. Jim followed the road around this bend; and there was an entire herd of these huge animals right out in an open meadow. We didn’t even know what they were. It was meat! They were so close; I didn’t even have to get off the back of the motorcycle to nail one. He went down in a single shot!

Driving through mudJim: Dave and Brian had gone off in the truck to case out where we would begin our dredge sampling program on the following day. So Eric and I went back to camp and got one of the tarps that we had brought along, some knives and some trash bags. Then we spent the rest of the entire day cleaning that big animal and packing hunks of meat to our freezer in camp. We stocked it completely full of meat. We then dragged the remaining carcass off out of sight to help feed the wolves (which were surely there). When Dave and Brian returned later that afternoon, Joe already had steaks cooking on the Barbie! Things were looking better. Worst case, we could just eat fish and meat until we started mining some gold. We were not going to go hungry out there! But our money shortage forced us to place a severe limit on what we would spend on food in the store.

Power wagon at high speedBrian: Before deciding where to begin sampling, we spent quite a bit of time driving around the surrounding area. As they were in their spring thaw, the side roads off the beaten track were mostly wet and muddy. We got stuck several times even with the 4-wheel drive. Ultimately, we decided the best way to deal with the muddy sections of road were to hit them hard and fast so the momentum would carry us through. Boy, that old Power Wagon was like an army tank!

Here was Brian charging through a bog at about 60 miles an hour!

Dave: The local claim owners that we were working with owned several miles of Pine Creek. But there were only a few places which allowed direct road access. So, on the following day, we launched a 5-inch dredge and decided to knock out a sample hole right there where the road met the creek. There was still snow and ice on the edges of the water. The creek was ice-cold! We all had dry-suits to keep our core temperatures intact. But I got a migraine headache that hurt so bad that it turned my stomach every time I stuck my face in that water; no exceptions!Jim thumbs up

Jim giving the thumbs-up signaling that we were recovering gold on the first sample.

Amazingly, we got right into pretty rich gold on the first sample hole! The gold was sitting right on top of a layer of hydraulic tailings, under about two feet of hard-packed streambed material. This was gold that was lost from old-timer recovery systems. There were a lot of fines and flakes. There were also some nice gold nuggets! We were making money on the first day. Things were looking up!dredges on pine creek

Production dredging in the first gold deposit we found on Pine Creek.

We launched my 6-incher on the following day and decided to shift-dive the dredges, one person down on each of the two dredges at a time, while the other two guys had a chance to warm up. We wanted to do some production dredging in the deposit to see how the gold was going to add up before we committed the other two dredges.

It was going pretty good. But, things were so expensive up there, it didn’t take long to realize that we needed to find a richer gold deposit if we wanted to come out ahead after all the costs. When I say “come out ahead,” I mean we wanted to come out way ahead!

Here is the sun at about 3 O’clock in the morning!

Midnight sunEric: By this time, it was not really getting dark at night. The sun got smaller, kind of like the moon; but it never really got dark. This had the four of us out on the creek until very late in the day. Working in the cold water gave us insatiable appetites! This all came to a head one evening when we returned to camp and Joe had not cooked nearly enough food to feed our hungry appetites. He was also complaining bitterly that he had no way to get to the creek after we went off for the day — so he was not able to get any mining in. Joe generally had a negative emotional attitude. He was just made up that way. His negative emotions were something that had been dragging on all of us for the whole trip. It all came to a head that evening with the rest of us fiercely growling (in hunger) at Joe that he must feed us more! We were so angry at him; I believe Joe thought we were going to kill him. This is not an exaggeration. From then on, Joe was fearing for his life!

The meals were much bigger after that, and Joe was sending each of us out with three thick peanut butter plus two cheese sandwiches per day. We were using most of the gold we were mining to buy more food at the local store. We were eating it all.

Joe never got in a single moment of mining. All his time was devoted to meal preparation and clean-up. He was quiet and sullen. He was very hard to read, but we could all sense his resentment. We were not sure if he was worried that we were going to kill him, or if he was perhaps planning to poison us. We were all regretting that we had brought him along.

Jim in dry suitWe had to back out of our dry-suits one person at a time to keep from being swarmed by millions of hungry mosquitoes!

Jim: The mosquitoes along pine creek were so ferocious; that to keep from being eaten alive, we each had to get out of our dry-suits one person at a time, with the other three guys waving the mosquitoes off. The (big) mosquitoes would literally swarm us in clouds!

Brian: After we got a few ounces of gold ahead, we made a special trip in to Whitehorse and sold it to Dave’s friend (he paid us $260/ounce at 70% of the spot price), and we used the money to stock up on fuel, food and supplies. We were filling two 55-gallon drums with fuel in the back of the truck. Fuel and supplies cost us much less in Whitehorse, than in Atlin.

Dave: One of the T-80 air-breathing compressors from the two new 5-inch dredges we had bought from Keene Industries lost a bearing on the first day. I called Jerry Keene and asked if he would please send us a replacement. He said no problem. So I gave him a General Delivery address for Atlin, British Columbia. One of our 5-inchers was going to be out of action until the compressor arrived.

After a few days of working this first gold deposit, we decided it would be best if Jim and Brian continued to work it to produce income, while Eric and I, who were the most experienced, started a serious dredge-sampling program on Pine Creek. We needed to locate a richer gold deposit!creek

The claim owners were coming down every few days to see how we were doing. They were impressed with what we were recovering, surprised that we were finding any gold at all from the creek. They were also showing us some of the larger nuggets they were finding. The claim owners were into really big gold, and lots of it!

Eric: Since the creek was accessible by road up there, Dave and I just started up by Surprise Lake, dredging sample holes as we drifted downstream towards where Brian and Jim were dredging. The water was freezing, so we shifted off, each taking turns. We didn’t find very much gold during the first few days, so we were starting to get a bit discouraged. Still, Dave and I had learned from previous experience that the only way to win was to continue the best we could with enthusiasm.

fast waterDave: Eric and I had just successfully maneuvered the dredge down through a very bad set of rapids. This required him to run downstream with the dredge to get it lined up just right. I was downstream with a rope and had to pull the dredge across the creek just at the right time, to keep it from smashing into some boulders out in the current that certainly would have flipped the dredge over (which would have been a disaster). The operation went smooth and we were pleased with ourselves. We set up to do a sample hole just below the rapids. It was my turn.

After getting through my blinding headache, I dredged a sample hole right out in the middle of the fast water. The streambed was only about a foot to bedrock, so the sample was completed pretty fast. I only saw a smidgen of gold on the bedrock; it was not what we were looking for!

As I was dragging the suction hose back into the slower-moving water towards the side of the creek, it occurred to me that I ought to try a sample there. That was a moment of fate. To this day, I remember the thought process playing out: “Should I or shouldn’t I?” You have to have your mind and emotions in the right place to find high-grade gold. It is a lot about getting dialed into the right wavelength. Since the streambed was so shallow to bedrock, I decided to dredge another hole. That single decision changed the outcome of this whole adventure, and that of the others who were with me! A whole philosophy could be built up out of this single idea that virtually every decision we make in our lives affects the final outcome for each of us, and perhaps, to some degree, for all of us!

In closer to the bank of the creek, only about 6-inches into the streambed, I could see that I was getting into something entirely different than what we had seen in any of our earlier experiences along Pine Creek. This was a much harder, older material. I immediately saw the gold spread all throughout the material. Unbelievable; we struck it rich!

I took a moment to uncover an entire pothole along the bedrock that was completely filled with gold nuggets!

Eric: Dave came up and told me to bring my mask over and take a look. As painful as the cold water was, I already knew he must have turned up something really good. Heck, he was only in three or four feet of water! When I stuck my head in the water, I could see the gold even before I dipped down closer to take a look. The small area he had uncovered with the dredge had gold spread all over it. It was the richest gold deposit I had ever seen!

Dave: After Eric got a look, I took an hour or so and tried to load the sluice box with gold. I wanted it to be the most abundant clean-up I ever had. The streambed material was just pocked full, all throughout with gold. The cracks and holes in the bedrock were completely full of gold. It was, by far, the richest deposit I had ever seen. One thing I noticed was that the streambed material was so hard that it was coming apart in clumps. I didn’t give much thought to this, mainly focused on getting as much material sucked up into the dredge as I could.

When I ended the dive, I was disappointed that there was not more gold in the dredge’s sluice box. The riffles should have been overflowing! Don’t get me wrong; there was a lot of gold there. But there should have been more! Then it occurred to me that I should look at the dredge’s tailings…

Eric: The box was loaded with gold when Dave came up. It was, by far, the best clean-up I had ever seen. There were beautiful nuggets up to ¼-ounce in size. The riffles were loaded with flakes. I just could not believe our good fortune. It was soooo amazing how things had changed for us in just a single sample hole!

Then Dave put his mask on and looked at the tailing pile. He came up and told me to take a look. I don’t recall that either of us were experiencing cold-water headaches at that time. I could see that the tailings pile was almost entirely made up of streambed clumps of hard-pack that remained full of gold. The clumps had washed right through the sluice box carrying the gold along. It looked as though there was more gold in the tailings, than we had recovered in the sluice!

Dave and I devoted the remaining part of the day scooping all those tailing into our clean-up tub. We then broke up the material as best we could to release the gold. After our clean-up, we floated down river to where Brian and Jim were just finishing up their day. It was late; maybe 8 or 9 PM. But, by the light in the sky, it might just as well been five O’clock in the afternoon.Eric with first clean-up

Eric showing off our first serious clean-up. It was around 8 ounces for about an hour of dredging.

We were all in a celebration mood that night! We probably worked till 2 AM doing final clean-up on all that gold, rocking-out with Pat Benatar, Led Zeppelin, Steve Martin and some Rolling Stones. Joe saw our gold and immediately retreated to his tent. I suppose I was closest to him of anyone on the trip. He had completely separated himself from all of us, including me. The only feelings coming from Joe were resentment. It was starting to feel very wrong for us to have someone with that much resentment preparing our food for us…

Dave: We had to come up with a new plan on how to work this very compacted streambed material so we could avoid washing clumps of gold right across our recovery systems. These days, we would just hook up a pressure washer to break up the gravel. But this all happened long before low-cost pressure washers were on the market.

Finally, we decided that we would sacrifice the following day making a trip into Whitehorse and buy some geology rock picks at the local prospecting store. We would sell some gold and stock up on supplies. I had also received a notice from Canadian Customs to stop by and pick up the T-80 compressor which had been shipped by Keene.

Jim: Not having any better ideas, and being worried about Joe, Dave, Brian, Eric and I began taking turns sneaking out into the forest and burying our rapidly-growing stash of golden treasure. Over top of what we were selling for expenses, our stash started adding up big-time as soon as we got into the rich deposit.

Brian: Our plan was to place all four dredges into this extremely rich gold deposit. We were going to float the two dredges from downriver upstream about half-mile to get them there. We were going to lower the other 5-incher down over the hillside with a rope as soon as we got the replacement compressor installed. It was looking like we could turn this into serious gold production. We figured we still had two months remaining in our season. We were gearing up!

Dave: Our first stop in Whitehorse was at Canadian Customs. They had sent a pick-up slip to me in care of General Delivery in Atlin. I went to the counter totally unprepared for what happened. After giving the slip to the lady, she brought the box over and set it down on the counter. I could see that the box had been opened. Without any fanfare, she looked me right in the eye and asked me what it was. I told her that it was an air compressor for a portable gold dredge. She then freaked out and demanded to know what I, as a U.S. citizen, was doing with a gold dredge in Canada? That’s when I realized this was not going as planned.

Improvising as best I could, I told her we were actually on our way to Alaska and stopped to do some fishing on Surprise Lake. I told her that we broke the compressor when we unloaded our trailer so we could have a living space on the lake. She wanted to know if we were gold mining in Canada, and I told her no (this gal knew a liar when she saw one). Then, she explained that I had no need for the compressor; and that I could pick it up when we passed through on our way to Alaska. Her boss was listening in. He seemed like a nice guy, older and more calm. He told her to give me the compressor. I took it and made a hasty retreat.

I have not been back up to Canada since then, so I don’t know the way things are these days. But back in 1982, the Canadian Customs authorities and RCMP officers were some no-nonsense, very serious officials! We had also got (forcefully) yelled at by the local RCMP officer near Atlin for driving the motorcycle around on the back dirt roads without wearing helmets. There was no politeness in the demeanor.

Jim: On the other hand, during our short time there, we had made friends with some of the local people – who were as hospitable as anyone we had ever met. We were buying some supplies in Atlin, going to the post office, using the pay phone in town to call home, and doing other business there. In our running around, we had gotten a chance to meet several other Canadians that were actively mining. They had extended open invitations for us to operate our dredges on their claims.

It turns out the Forth of July is also a big holiday in Canada, and the local mayor actually sent someone up to our camp one day to insist we go down and play in the annual fast-pitch softball game. We spent the entire Forth of July making friends with the very hospitable locals in Atlin. Everyone was really nice to us!

Dave: My encounter with the lady in Customs changed everything. It was clear from our conversation that our days dredging in British Columbia were going to be limited. Until I walked into Customs that morning, we had no idea that we were not allowed to mine up there. My understanding was that America and Canada have a mutual agreement which allows citizens from both countries to mine in either country. And while this is most-certainly true in America for Canadians (or anyone else who wants to operate a gold dredge in America), Canada turns out to have some very substantial bureaucratic steps that an American must take (before you even enter into Canada) prior to doing any type of commercial mining up there. At least that’s the way it was in 1982.

Eric: We went from Customs directly over to the prospecting shop and bought some geology rock picks, the kind with hard-pointed tips. We were going to use those to pick apart the gold-laden hard-pack on the bottom of Pine creek before dredging it up. The idea was to break the gold loose from the other material so it would get caught in our recovery systems. We also pitched out enough dough for two motorcycle helmets. Then we loaded up on groceries and fuel and returned to camp.

Jim: Our feelings of exhilaration from the day before now had a dark shadow hanging over us. We did not want to be in trouble. But we also did not want to walk away from all that gold!

Dave: Have you ever experienced the feeling of “impending trouble,” even when you don’t know exactly where it is going to come from? It’s like you know that powerful forces are organizing against you. It is the feeling of “being in trouble,” even though it has not caught up to you, yet. I saw the determination in the lady from Customs. This was not over. It was just starting!

Still, since we had made our discovery in a place along Pine Creek that could not be seen from the road (even though we could see from down on the creek when vehicles passed by up on the road), we believed that we could get some days of dredge-production on the creek before anything was going to happen. Actually, we were not even certain that anything was going to happen. The gold deposit was Lowering Dredgesso rich; it was only going to take a few days of production to put us in really good shape!

We lowered the other 5-inch dredge down a steep hill on a rope to get it set up in the rich deposit as fast as we could.

Brian: With uncertainty hanging over us, we decided to drop the other 5-incher down over the side of the hill (with the new T-80 compressor back on board) and leave the two other dredges down near the creek access road for a while. This would allow us to get more time immediately dredging in the rich gold deposit. It was a good plan. After getting the second dredge down there and set up, we did shift-diving well into the first night, using two dredges side-by-side.

It had to be about midnight by the time we got back to camp. Joe was about to have a nervous breakdown when we pulled in. He was like an old mother hen, giving us a hard time about getting home so late while dinner had been ready for three hours. Actually, it occurred to us later that he might have been frightened to be in camp at night alone. This was grizzly country!

When we showed Joe the concentrate from the day’s production, he shut right the heck up and returned to his tent. The concentrate was loaded down with pounds of beautiful golden flakes and nuggets. It was just an unbelievable sight to behold!

We reheated our own dinner and ate quickly. Final clean-up took several more hours to complete. Now we were filling up bottles with gold. Some of the nuggets were too large to fit in the standard-sized 4-ounce bottles that we had brought along, so we emptied out spice bottles of their contents and started filling those up, too! I remember it was Eric’s turn that night to sneak off into the forest and find a hiding spot for the gold.

We hid the gold in a different place every night, carefully refilling and covering past hiding places so nobody would catch onto what we were doing.

Dave: One of Joe’s responsibilities was to be first up in the morning and get the coffee going. Since this was done inside the trailer, and I was bunked in the trailer, I was always up as soon as I smelled the coffee. Joe always poured me the first cup, because he knew I was going to want it as soon as I rolled out of my sleeping bag.

The following morning, I heard Joe come into the trailer, but did not hear him preparing the coffee. Everything was quiet, but I knew he was there. So, after a while, I rolled over and peaked out of my warm sleeping bag at him. Joe was just standing there, holding his crotch with both hands. Both of his eyes were rolled back in his head. He had flipped out on us! Concerned, I asked Joe how he was doing. Without even looking at me, he said, “I gotta get out of here!” He clearly meant it. So I told him I would arrange to get him on a bus towards home that very morning. He went off to pack his things. I made the coffee.

After getting breakfast and lunch together, we all drove into Atlin and dropped Joe off at the Greyhound station. A bus went through there every day. We bought his ticket home, gave him a few hundred Dollars for food, and slipped him two ounces of the beautiful gold that we had recovered just the day before. He was so surprised when we gave him the gold, we could see that he was having second thoughts about leaving. But we had already bought his ticket, and it really was time for him to go. So we each said our goodbyes to Joe and could see that he was crying as we pulled away in the truck. That was the last any of us ever saw of him. Some years later, Eric said he heard that Joe died of a stroke sometime shortly after returning to America.

After that, we started bringing the motorcycle with us to the claim. Each day, when we were winding down with the mining program, one of us would return to camp and cook dinner and pre-make lunch for the following day. We took turns. As much as we all got used to Joe, things were a lot lighter around camp after he was gone. We turned the music up louder!Jim and Dave with coffee

Dave & Jim with the all-important hot coffee.

Jim: Yeah; I remember one day it was my day to cook and I decided to take a short cut with Dave’s motorcycle back to camp. Dave and I were always into motocross riding when we were growing up. As I came down this hill, I drove through what looked to be a puddle and buried the Honda in muck all the way to the handlebars! As hard as I tried, I could not get the bike out of the water alone, so had I to hike back and get the guys to help me pull it out of the stink-hole. Dave was (rightfully) pissed off about that, because he loved that bike. He spent the next day in camp flushing all the water out of the engine and getting the bike operational, again. I’ll never forget the first time he pushed down on the kick starter and a whole bunch of dirty water gushed out of the exhaust pipe. I looked around, and Brian and Eric were doing everything they could to keep from laughing. We didn’t really lose much production out of it. The rest of us just worked all the harder to keep the dredges running while Dave fixed the bike.

There were no more short cuts with the Honda allowed after that!

Eric with handfuls of gold  Close up of gold

Eric showing off the clean-up from our second day; more than double
what we did with a single dredge, but only in a few hours of work.

Eric: Our second production day with the two 5-inch dredges was much better than the first, even though we lost quite a bit of the day getting a second dredge into action and moving everyone’s dive gear to the new location. The deposit consisted of around two feet of black-colored very hard-packed material. It was laced full of gold! This special material would disappear once we got out into the creek a ways. But the rich material extended right up under the bank. It was on the second day that we recognized that we were dredging directly under an old water ditch that had once followed alongside the creek. Remnants of the old ditch could still be seen for a long way. Best we could tell, the old-timers never mined under the ditch. This was a near certainty, because if they had, the old ditch would have been gone, and we could still see parts of it.

Jim: But that black material was really slow to work. We had to manually pick the material apart with our little rock picks.

Overview of rich depositDave: These days, we would just plow through that hard-pack with a low-cost high-pressure washer. One of those would have had us going dozens of times faster. As it was, we were only able to dredge a small fraction of our real production capability. Still, for what we were doing, the deposit was building up our gold reserves very quickly.

The rich gold deposit also extended up under the stream-bank.

Brian: Towards the end of one day, right on schedule, one of the claim owners arrived to see how we were doing. He didn’t have any trouble finding us and climbing down the hill using our rope. When we showed him the gold we recovered, he about had a heart attack! He was also quite pleased. And you could tell right off that he was reassessing the potential of these yellow-pontooned dredges of ours. When we explained that our deposit was extending up under the bank, he offered to send a tracked excavator over to remove the overburden for us. How’s that for hospitality? We accepted his offer with great appreciation! We would not need his help for several days, because there were still plenty of the underwater portions of the deposit accessible to us.

Dave: Whenever we took the truck anywhere, it was usually Brian who did the driving. As the oldest brother, he had always been the most experienced driver. So he just naturally took up that role in our program. That is, except for the days when Brian returned to camp early to cook dinner. Brian made wonderful spaghetti where he would add in nice hunks of different kinds of vegetables and meat. Everyone liked that.

Since we were doing so well with the gold, we voted unanimously one day to up our daily ration of jelly and milk-honey on the peanut butter sandwiches. This was a big morale-booster, because we were getting tired of these thick peanut butter sandwiches which only had a little sweetener on them. BullwinkleCanada has this special, fresh milk-honey mix that is to kill for on a peanut butter sandwich!

One morning, we were driving along Pine Creek in the direction towards the claim; and out of nowhere came this mammoth of a she-moose. No horse ever got this big! It came running out from the side of the road, generally in the same direction as we were going, except at an angle to cut us off. She was right on top of us before we even realized she was there! We were driving about 40 miles an hour, and she was going faster. When she bumped the side of the truck, we went into a slide right off the side of the road. Brian managed the slide just right to keep us from toppling over in the truck. The moose just kept on going. There was a pretty sizable indentation in the driver’s side door where the moose bumped into us (nothing more than a nudge).

That moose was not afraid of us a bit. Clearly she was showing us who the boss was. I’m certain she nudged us on purpose. I was in the passenger seat, so I probably got the best look at the animal. There is one point where she dipped her head down and looked right in the window at us, and I remember thinking that she had that very same silly smile as Bullwinkle the Moose in the television cartoons!

The whole emergency was over in 10 seconds and the moose was already long gone. We sat there for a moment in silent disbelief, and then broke out into hilarious laughter.

Brian: Actually, my read was that the moose was trying to knock us off our feet. On that slippery dirt road, had I allowed her to make full contact with the truck, we probably would have spun around and rolled.

Eric: It was late spring. She probably had a young calf around somewhere close and was just trying to keep us away. Good thing we were not walking up the road that morning!

Two dredgesJim: Work continued pretty-much the same for a few more days. We were limited by how much black material we could pick apart underwater. It was very slow going because the water resistance would only allow you to pick so fast. After a while, my arm would get so tired from the activity, it would go numb. Then it would be someone else’s turn for a while.

Taking shifts, we kept two dredges running side-by-side for long hours into the night. Since we were not using them, we removed the other two dredges from the creek downstream, and stored the components in a tent and under our trailer in camp to make the mining components less visible.

Brian: One day, these people drove into camp and launched this big canoe into the lake. They were using an outboard motor for power. The two guys loaded the canoe completely full of supplies and prospecting gear. We sent Jim over to talk with them. They said that once you get off the main road up there in a boat, there is an entire universe of rich mining country that has never even been prospected before!

Loaded canoe  Canoe departure

Jim: The prospectors were friendly. But they were committed to their own program, only talking as they were loading their canoe. It would have been overstepping to ask where they were going, and they didn’t offer anything up on their own. Once the canoe was loaded, they parked their car up in the campground, and off they went. We never saw them again.

Dave: But we watched them motor across the lake, and we were all thinking how that would be a wonderful, romantic way to launch a future prospecting trip…

SadieEric: Sadie turned out to be a wonderful companion for the whole trip. She also played her important part in warding off dangerous animals. We made her into an outside dog, but she didn’t seem to mind. We depended upon her to sound out if any bears (or moose) decided to visit us during the night. None ever did, probably because she was there. Even though we locked the back door on our trailer when we went to the creek every day, Sadie would remain tied up there so any visitors would have to contend with her in our absence. Nobody ever bothered any of our stuff for the whole trip. We were all glad we brought Sadie along, and I’m sure she was glad to be there with us. We delivered her safely back to my mom when the trip was over.

Brian: Atlin during 1982 was a small, friendly town. My perception was that all or most of the inhabitants were involved with gold mining in one way or another. There were no secrets in that little town. Everyone there had known what we Americans were doing with our yellow dredges. It started off as a friendly joke to them.

Dave: But when we got into the really rich gold, the claim owner, and sometimes his partners, was coming down towards the end of every day to see how we were doing. They were clearly impressed. One day, the claim owner actually made the comment that we were doing better than they were! And that would not have surprised me, because they were having to clear hundreds of feet of overburden to gain access to the very same ancient layer that was directly exposed to our dredges.

Dave, Brian and Jim with goldThere are a number of good reasons why I should not say how much, but we were getting a lot of gold. This was probably our undoing, because news of our discovery must have traveled all around Atlin and elsewhere. The amount of gold we were pulling out of the creek was no joke!

Brian, Dave & Jim showing off a clean-up

Jim: But the gold was not coming for free. Some days we would go to the creek at 7 or 8 in the morning and not return to camp until almost midnight. Dave was pushing us really hard. Nobody was complaining, though. We didn’t know how many days we had left before we were going to get bounced from this rich deposit, so we wanted to make the most of it while we could.


Eric:
I was the first one to spot the RCMP patrol car drive up the road one day, going towards our camp. I pointed it out to Jim when it drove by. Jim just rolled his eyes back in this “here comes the problem” look. I nodded to him.

All four of us together

We asked one of the claim owners to snap this picture of the four of us. The picture was taken
at the height of our gold production, about a day before the heat came down upon us.

Dave: When Brian and I came up for a break, Jim and Eric told us the patrol car was probably up in our camp looking for us. We had been expecting trouble from the authorities ever since my visit to Customs in Whitehorse about a week before. In fact, we were surprised that it took them so long to show up!

While we were there on the bank discussing our options, we saw the patrol car drive right past our location, headed down towards Atlin. Our truck was parked behind the claim owner’s gate and out of sight, so the officer didn’t know where we were at. We decided to finish out our day on the creek. While the going was slow with those rock picks, every minute of dredging-time was adding serious gold to our reserves.

Brian: On a notion, the following morning, we sent Jim into Whitehorse on the Honda to sell some gold for traveling money, and to buy a replacement leaf spring for the trailer. It seemed wise to get ourselves ready if a quick departure became necessary.

Jim: That was a long, cold drive on the motorcycle even during the daytime! I was wearing the helmet and my best winter clothes, but I still had to stop frequently to warm myself up. The trip took a long time. When I got to Whitehorse, I sold gold to Dave’s friend first. Then it took a while, but I found a replacement spring and a few more bolts to repair the trailer. Then I made the very long drive back to camp.

Brian: We decided to park the truck even further down the access road by the creek where it would be harder to find in case anyone was looking for us that next morning. This meant we had to make an extended walk up the road in our dry-suits, but we decided it was better to stay out of sight.

Dave and Eric were down dredging when I spotted the patrol car drive by the first time. A little while later, the officer drove back down the road going the other way. We knew in our guts that he was looking for us. You know that deep, aching feeling in your belly when you are in trouble? That feeling was growing in me.

Eric: The patrol car drove by two more times while we were eating lunch.

Dave: I was sitting there on a rock eating a sandwich when I saw my brother, Brian, dive behind a rock to keep from being seen as the RCMP officer drove by. That’s when I knew it was time for us to leave. How things came out on this project was really my responsibility. The original idea was to stop in Atlin and mine gold just long enough to get well again. We had already far-exceeded those expectations. When Brian dove behind the rock, I felt deep internal pang of irresponsibility. I have been living on the edge of some kind of trouble my entire life. It is quite something else to put others through it; guys that are not used to being in trouble with authority.

After just a short discussion, Eric, Brian and I unanimously agreed that we would float the two dredges and all of our support gear down to where we had parked the truck, load everything up, take it all back to camp and stow our gear. The following day, we would go ask for some assistance from the claim owners in dealing with the authorities. It still was not clear to us that we were really doing anything wrong. The claim owners had told us they believed we were within the law.

Brian: As soon as we reached camp, Dave and Eric went right to work on our final gold clean-up so we would not have any visible gold lying around if the officer showed up in camp.

On a hunch that we were in trouble, the first thing I did was load all of our remaining meat from the freezer into trash bags. Then I dumped it all into the pit toilet there in the campground. I also emptied the trash. It was not easy to let go of that meat. But we had switched gears into damage control.

Dave: When the clean-up was finished, I immediately went and hid the latest gold out in the forest. It was a good thing that I did. Because just after I returned, five or six official vehicles came driving into camp. The local RCMP officer was leading the pack. As they were pulling down onto the flat, I told Brian and Eric to just keep taking the mining gear apart and allow me to do all the talking. Brian made some kind of comment like, “Sounds good to me!”

I walked up to the officials as they were getting out of their vehicles. There were several RCMP officers in their unfriendly, no-nonsense mode. It reminded me a little bit of boot camp where the drill instructors always treated us like low-life worms. There were several officials there from the Department of Environmental Control. They were not friendly. There were two officials from the official Canadian Mining Office. The superior of these seemed to be in charge. He seemed like a nice guy that you could talk to. He asked me what we were doing.

I walked him over and showed him that we had broken a spring on our trailer and explained that we had to remove all our gear from the trailer to have a safe place to sleep. He wanted to know if we had been using the mining gear, and I told him some local claim owners had given us permission to play around in the creek. He wanted to know if we found any gold. So I showed him our bucket of concentrates and told him we were doing pretty well. He and his assistant borrowed some of our gold pans and worked some of the black sands down in a wash tub. The boss was impressed, but his deputy told him it was a poor showing. It really was a poor showing!

Brian: While the mining guys were talking to Dave, all the other officials spread out and started looking around at everything in the camp. I remember hoping with my most sincere prayer to the universe that they were not going to go up and look in the pit toilet. They looked in the trash cans there, but they never went into the toilet. Good thing; because if they looked, they probably would have seen all that raw, frozen meat laying in there. That would have been the end of us!

Eric: After a while, both patrol officers came over and started grilling me about the gold we found. I told them we were mainly fishing and that we had only played around in the creek just a little bit. I told them, “There wasn’t much gold.”

It was very interesting; because both RCMP officers seemed really nervous. They each had a walky-talky in their hands, held out in front, like perhaps someone else was monitoring the conversation. Perhaps they were accustomed to handling more hardened criminals than we were.

Dave: The patrol officer then came over and grilled me. This was the local guy from Atlin that was so impolite to us about the motorcycle helmet (riding around out on back dirt roads). He could have just as easily informed us politely that we needed helmets in Canada even when riding out in the forest. Why all the yelling? He was yelling at me now, it was common knowledge all over Atlin that we were recovering kilos and kilos of gold with our suction dredges. I just calmly waved that off as something that happens everywhere we go. “You know how stories get started; there is nothing to it”

In anger, the local RCMP officer informed us they were going to search our truck and trailer. The other officer was going to search our truck. “Go for it,” I gave him permission, and I followed him into the trailer. He looked in the refrigerator; but it was empty, except for some butter and a partial bottle of local milk honey.

He saw the 30-30 and shotgun on the wall and asked if they were loaded. I told him they were not. I watched him struggle with the internal decision to not check the guns. There was ego involved here, and he didn’t want to look foolish trying to open the breaches of unfamiliar firearms to take a look. It was a good thing he didn’t look, because it actually turned out both guns were fully loaded. We had normally been unloading them during the daytime, but I guess we overlooked it with everything else that was on our minds.

I gather that loaded guns would have gotten us into a lot of trouble if they wanted to push it.

While the officer was searching in our internal storage compartments, Brian came up into the trailer and was kind of crowding us. I couldn’t figure out why he did that, but just kept my mouth shut while the officer searched. The officer also felt Brian crowding us and didn’t like it. He ordered Brian out of the trailer. But his search turned up nothing of interest inside the compartment, and soon we were all standing in a group outside.

Eric: I was just a young guy in those days and didn’t have much experience in business. But I was learning a lot from Dave and Brian, both who had received some similar management training during their younger years. They were managing our mining program with the use of a production graph. Every day, after our final clean-up was weighed, they would carefully mark the number of ounces on the graph and connect the line from the previous day. Their management approach was to do whatever was necessary to make the curve move upwards in a steep direction every day. After marking daily results on the graph, we would have some discussion about what we could do on the following day to push the production results even higher. We were always coming up with a new idea. Mostly, it was just about working long, hard hours in the creek. Dave is one of the hardest pushers I ever met. But we were all pushing together to make each production day better and better. There was not a single day we didn’t push the gold production higher than the day before, some days it was double. The production curve on our graph showed nearly a vertical line. Production was so high after the first few days in the rich deposit; we had to add another sheet of graph paper to the top of the first one just so we could log the growing amount of ounces that we were getting every day!

Brian: I was standing there outside the trailer watching the officer go through our stuff, and then had this nightmare awakening that our production graph was taped to the wall inside the trailer right there in plain sight. All of the information was right there on the graph, from the pennyweights we found on our first day, to the kilos we were getting during the final week.

The officer had not recognized the graph on the wall for what it was, yet. The only thing I could think of to do was distract him. So I moved up into the trailer and started looking over his shoulder with Dave while he was searching. This made the officer suspicious, nervous and mad. He told me to get out of the trailer. Shortly afterwards, he followed me out. Unbelievable; he totally missed our production graph that was in plain sight on the wall!

The other officer didn’t find what he was looking for in the truck, either. We were not hiding any gold there.

Dave: Actually our biggest luck was that they did not take the film from our cameras!

Eric: When the searching was finished, the local officer gave it one more forceful try, “We know you guys found at least 100 kilos of gold in the creek; the news is all over Atlin. Either come up with the gold right now or you guys are going to be in a lot of trouble!”

Dave: I looked him right in the eye and told him he could have all the gold we found. “It’s all right there in the bucket of concentrates,” I told him. Everyone present knew we were lying. They declined to take our bucket of concentrates.

Brian: By now, it was pretty late in the day, and the officials from Whitehorse had a long way to go to get home. There is no doubt in my mind that they would have forced us to follow them back to the impound-yard in Whitehorse right then and there, but one of our leaf springs was missing off the trailer. We could not go anywhere. It really turned out lucky for us that we broke that spring!

Dave: After some discussion on his hand-held radio, the local RCMP officer ordered us to get our spring repaired and go to Canadian Customs on the following day. He was talking to me. I was listening very closely, “You will repair that spring and be at Customs tomorrow in Whitehorse.” I said, “Yes sir.”

Eric: You could have picked up their disappointment off the ground when they all drove out of there. They really expected they were going to make the mega-gold bust; it was going to be big news on television!

Brian: As soon as they drove up the road, I tore the production graph off the wall and used the propane stove to burn it. Everyone else just looked on with disbelief that the officers had overlooked it.

Dave: I wasted no time grabbing the bucket of concentrates and flushed them into the lake. That, just in case they changed their minds and decided they wanted to use them against us.

Eric: We didn’t like the way they were always holding their walky-talkies out in front of themselves. It was like they had someone else listening in all the time. We were actually a little worried that they might have bugged the trailer and truck, and perhaps just went a little ways up the road to listen in on us. So we met quietly out in the middle of the campground and made our plan.

Brian: The most difficult part to work out was what to do with all that gold. It was far too much to effectively hide anywhere in the truck or trailer. We strongly considered the idea of hiding it really good and then return to retrieve it later, once the heat was off us. But ultimately, we decided to take the risk of getting the gold up into Alaska that very night where it would effectively belong to us. This was the largest risk we took on the whole trip!

Dave: Seal Team 101: When being stalked in enemy territory, sometimes it can be better to take an unexpected, bold initiative. It was already late in the day and we had a broken trailer. They did not expect us to depart until the following day. We would leave as quickly as we could!

Eric: The trailer was already jacked up so we could put the spring and wheel back on once Jim arrived. So we hooked up the truck to keep the trailer from rolling, and we just started loading our mining gear as fast as we could. We had already done it enough times by now to know exactly how everything had to fit back in.

Brian: We were very worried about Jim arriving back with a spring. This was a really old trailer frame, and we were not sure if we could even find a replacement spring in Whitehorse!

Jim: I was so cold from driving the motorcycle all that way that I could barely talk through my shivers when I drove into camp!

Eric: We cheered like it was a sports event when Jim arrived back with the replacement spring. I installed it while the others finished loading the trailer and filled Jim in on the latest events and our departure plan.

Dave: The plan was to have Brian and Jim lead the way with the truck and Trailer. Eric and I were going to follow behind a ways on the motorcycle. We had all the gold in a heavily reinforced back-pack. The back-pack was heavy. But that was nothing compared to the weight on our shoulders with the worry of getting caught with all that gold! I was 90% certain that the Canadian authorities would anticipate our move, or perhaps be notified of our changed location because of some kind of location beacon attached to our truck and trailer when they were in the camp. So we were expecting an ambush (road block) somewhere between camp and the main road.

Brian: We went over the plan several times just to make sure we all had it right: If we came up on law enforcement or a road block with the truck and trailer, I would turn on the emergency flashers.

Eric: If we saw the emergency flashers on the truck, Dave and I would back-track with the motorcycle and find a place to stash the back-pack full of gold.

Dave: And if law enforcement came up behind us on the Honda, we would haul-butt ahead of the truck and trailer and get up out of sight so we could stash the back-pack.

Brian: If Dave and Eric came up on us quickly with the motorcycle, it was going to mean law enforcement was coming up from behind. Once Dave got past us with the motorcycle, I was going to take the middle of the road, blocking anyone from chasing Dave and Eric on the motorcycle.

Eric: That would allow us time to hide the gold.

Jim: We would all stick to the same story that we did not pack the trailer with enough room to load the motorcycle. So we had to drive it to Whitehorse.

Brian: We waited until 11 PM to depart, believing it was less likely the cops would be waiting for us somewhere along the road. Actually, we were on pins and needles for the first 20 miles or so of our trip, figuring that was most-likely where they would be waiting for us. But they were not there!

Dave: It was the best plan we could come up with under the circumstances. The only thing we didn’t take into consideration was how cold it was going to be out there on the motorcycle! After about an hour on the road, my shivers turned into shakes that were threatening to crash the motorcycle. Eric was holding on behind. He was freezing, too!

Eric: Dave was so cold; he was shaking in big convulsions! We still had a long way to go. There was no way we were going to make it all the way! I was also freezing. It had to be below 10 (F) degrees out there. Plus, that heavy weight of the back-pack was getting to my back. It felt like I had the full weight of a 70-pound weight belt on my shoulders!

Dave: Knowing that Eric and I could not make it all the way on the Honda, I decided the only thing to do was catch up with Brian and Jim in the truck and talk them into taking a shift.

Brian: Everything was going along just fine. We only had about another hour to go before we reached the main paved road to Whitehorse. It was unlikely we would encounter any law enforcement after we reached the main road. Jim and I were in the truck with our fingers crossed.

Jim: Then I noticed in the rear view mirror that Dave was coming up on us fast.

Brian: I saw Dave speeding up on me and about had a heart attack. “Oh crap,” I thought. “Here come the cops!”

Jim: Dave and Eric went by us fast, then slowed down and stopped right in the middle of the road. Both of them got off the bike and walked back to the truck.

Brian: I was still trying to figure out if the cops were coming. I remember thinking, “What the heck?”

Jim: Totally shivering through his words, Dave told Brian that he and I needed to take a shift on the Honda. Those were the last words I wanted to hear; I had spent the whole day on the Honda. But it was clear that Brian and I were going to take a shift, or we were going to have a fist fight right there in the middle of the road.

Brian: I was so relieved that the cops weren’t coming, I didn’t even argue!

Eric: The transition took place fast, and soon we were on our way again. I remember that the heat was on full blast in the truck, and I was so cold I could hardly feel the warmth! That last leg of the dirt road was the only time during the entire trip that Dave Allowed Sadie up in the front seat. I put her in my lap to collect some of her heat. Good old Sadie was just happy to finally be up in the front seat with the boys!

Jim: Brian agreed to drive, since I was already dog-tired. Riding on the back of that bike, I looked up and the entire sky was on fire with the northern lights. The weight on my shoulders felt enormous. I’ll never forget how dramatic that was under the circumstances!

Dave: While it was not part of the original plan, we stopped just short of the main road and loaded the Honda in the trailer. Not being able to figure out any better places to hide such a big load, Jim and Eric removed the door panel on the front-passenger side of the truck and hid the gold in the door. There was hardly enough room, and the window would no longer work. But it was the best we were going to do under the circumstances. We needed to keep moving.

Brian: We were some tired puppies when we pulled into Whitehorse about an hour later. It was sometime in the middle of the night. Dave, Eric and I were dredging that morning, had removed two dredges from the river, had our whole confrontation with the law, broke camp, and here we were in Whitehorse. It had been a long, long day. But it wasn’t over, yet!

Dave: Our plan was to have Brian and Eric drive all our gear and the gold up into Alaska before the start of business on the following day. Jim and I were going to wait in a hotel room until they called us from Alaska. Then Jim and I would go to the Customs office and try to resolve our problems with the Canadian authorities.

Eric: I was envious of that nice warm hotel room (with two beds) as Brian and I drove out of Whitehorse. We were on our way to Tok, Alaska.

Brian: We must have looked at the map wrong when we were making our plan. As Eric and I were driving up the road, he started looking at the map to estimate our progress, and we realized we had a lot further to go than we thought. It turned out to be over 500 miles between Whitehorse and Tok, more than double the distance we had planned on. Even today, when the roads have improved a lot, Google Maps says that is an 8.5 hour drive in a car (without a trailer).

Dave: As nice as it was to lie on a bed in the room, I was too nervous and worried to sleep. There was not going to be any way to know if Brian and Eric made it up into Alaska until they called us. If they got caught, I was sure we were not going to hear from them at all!

Jim: What if they got caught? Dave and I were going to be stuck in that hotel room in Whitehorse until we got some word from them!

Dave: The following day was a Friday. We had to get in to resolve matters with Customs before the weekend, or we were going to be stuck there over the weekend and have to deal with Customs on Monday. They ordered me to be there on Friday!

Jim: We were still waiting for a call at breakfast-time in the morning. I went out and brought some take-out food back to the room. Dave made a short call to the claim owners in Atlin to tell them what had happened. We were planning on leaving their cut of the gold with Dave’s friend, the gold buyer.

Dave: But the claim owners told me to hold onto the gold for them, because they were going to drive into Whitehorse and help us with the authorities. They told us to wait for them at the hotel. Reinforcements were coming!

Jim: We were still waiting for a phone call from Brian and Jim when the claim owners arrived just after noon. They understood our desire to wait a bit longer. After waiting around a while, they gave us a local number where we could reach them when we were ready.

Eric: Brian insisted on driving all the way. Sometimes, to stay awake, he opened his driver’s-side window for a blast of cold air. That sent me into shivers every time. It was like the road to hell! We had the music blasting, but neither of us were listening to it.

Brian: Our hope was to have all our stuff out of Canada before the start of business on Friday morning, but we still had hours and hours to go. I knew Dave and Jim had to get the business done, so I was pushing it along as hard as I dared. The road was really rough in places.

Eric: I was dozing off into more unconsciousness when Brian hit a really deep hole in the road.

Brian: I remember seeing the hole too late and thinking, “This is not going to be good!”

Eric: That poor, overloaded truck and trailer hit that hole in the road, and babooom; it sent us jack-knifing down the road something awful! Brian was wrestling back and forth with the steering wheel, and I was sure he was going to lose it and we were going to dump our whole load right there on the road, only about 50 miles away from Alaska.

Dave: By 2 O’clock on Friday afternoon, I was really sweating it. No word at all from Brian and Eric. What to do? What to do? Should Jim and I go in and try to resolve with the authorities before we were sure our stuff was out of Canada? I decided to give it another hour. I was absolutely exhausted.

Brian: I came very close to losing the truck and trailer; as close as you can come. I mean if we jack knifed an inch further, there would have been no saving the day. It was sooooo close! But I managed to regain control and applied breaks. Something was broken bad. We could hear and feel it dragging on the road. This was awful! The rearview mirror showed the trailer listing forward at a sickly angle.

Eric: The big bump had caused both bumper bolts on the left side to completely sheer off the truck frame. That side of the bumper was dragging on the road. It is a miracle that the trailer ball was even still connected to the bumper! Dragging it down the road caused the bumper to bend out of shape really bad! It was going to be hard to fix out there alongside the road.

Brian: Eric and I got right to it. It was about 2 PM on Friday afternoon. It was only going to be about an hour to reach Alaska if we could get going, again. There was still enough time…

Eric: We had to unhook the trailer. Fortunately, we had taken to leaving all our tools, extra parts, the tall jack, and even our splitting maul in the back of the truck. We had also bought extra bumper bolts from when we had trouble earlier on the trip.

Brian: So there we were, Eric and I, out on the side of the Alcan Highway using the tall jack to try and force the mangled bumper back up so we could get some bolts back through the left side of the truck’s frame. It was hard! The jack slipped off several times, but we kept at it from slightly different directions, each time getting a little closer. When we got the first bolt through the hole in the truck’s frame, we had to tighten it down to pull that part into alignment. Then it was clear that we were not going to get the second bolt to go. It was not even close to lining up!

Eric: So Brian says, “Let’s just hook up the trailer and go!” I said, “Are you crazy; it’s never going to hold!”

Brian: We just needed to make it to the first pay phone over the border. I decided we would get there sooner if I just drove slower. I know it was risky. But there was no way we would make it on time if we had to take the whole bumper off the truck and try to straighten it out by banging on it with a splitting maul Road to Alaskaright there on the side of the road.

The road to Alaska; beautiful, but it was heck on wheels and bumpers!

Eric: I was holding my breath every inch of the way once we got back on the road. Every bump in the road, and I was thinking, “That one is going to do it.” Brian was pushing it up to 45 or 50 miles an hour in places. If we lost the bumper again at that speed, there is no doubt in my mind that we were going to lose the entire trailer!

Brian: If the trailer gave us any more trouble, I was prepared to park it somewhere and just drive up into Alaska with the gold. The gold was worth many times more than the entire trailer package. The gold was also the one thing we had in Canada that would have gotten us into very serious trouble!

Dave: At 3:30 in the afternoon, I was on the edge of a panic attack. Then the phone rang. It was Brian. They had made it into Tok, Alaska. No problems. He gave me the name of an RV park where they would be waiting for us. Before he hung up, he said, “Good luck with the heat, brother!”

Jim: Man. I cannot tell you how much of a relief that was!

Dave: But we were not out of trouble, yet! I called the claim owners, who were not far away. They came over to pick up Jim and I; and we arrived at Customs at about four O’clock on Friday afternoon. I was expecting fireworks!Jim

My younger brother, Jim, is a really nice guy. He was supposed to help bring these angry Canadian officials around to feeling good about us.

There’s something important here about the chemistry between the McCracken brothers. Brian is the oldest; so he is the one who followed most-closely in our father’s foot steps. He is the smartest of the three of us in book learning. He always got straight A’s on his report card, graduated from the U.S. naval academy; he’s the intelligent one. As the second in line, I have always been the nonconformist; strike out on my own, “get er done” kind of guy. I am an organizer. Jim, as the youngest, turned out to be the nicest guy in the family. Not just nice; he truly cares. When he smiles at you, you naturally want to like him. When you talk, he actually listens to you and you get the feeling that he cares. Jim is a really nice guy!

And that’s why I asked Jim to stay back in Whitehorse with me and help try and reconcile things with the Canadian authorities. Up to that time, I was not able to do anything to break through with the officials there. In fact, I had been yelled at during every single encounter with the Canadian authorities! None of us wanted to be “Wanted” by the law in Canada. We had to fix this!

Jim: So Dave’s plan was for me to allow him to do all or most of the talking (lying). My job was just to be there, smile a lot, try and build understanding with the people we were going to see; I was supposed to establish something friendly on a human level.

The truth is that I was scared as hell we were going to jail!

Dave: When we arrived at Customs, we were pleasantly surprised that the claim owners had also arranged for the Mayor of Atlin to be there, along with their crack-shot mining attorney, to provide us with support. It felt really good to have friends right at that moment!

We all walked in the front door of Customs together. The lady that I got the compressor from thankfully was not present, so I had to explain who we were to another official. He flashed on it right away and said they had been expecting us. That brought others out of an inner office almost like they had all been waiting back there. Without any delay, one of the officials told me to follow him so he could show me exactly where to park our gear. As I suspected, they had planned to impound everything!

Jim: That’s when Dave came out with the speech that he had been practicing all day long, “To demonstrate good faith, and to prove to you that we have no intention of breaking any laws or rules in Canada, we have already moved all of our gear from your country up into Alaska.”

Dave: Boy that stopped them all in their tracks. Visibly angry, the guy said, “You were ordered to bring everything here to Customs today!” I said, “No; the officer ordered me to be here today. So I am here with my brother, Jim. The others moved on to Alaska with all the gear that everyone was objecting to. It seemed like the correct thing to do, to show you our good faith in not wanting to break your rules.”

Jim: They were mad as hell! One of them suggested that there wasn’t enough time for us to get the gear up into Alaska and they could put out an all points bulletin for our truck and trailer on the highways. I just kept trying to project a friendly calmness unto the officials, “We are your friends. We don’t want to break your rules. We are good guys. This is no big deal…”

Dave: But it was a big deal to them! My best guess is that they intended to confiscate all our stuff and send us back home on a bus. They were going to make an example out of us!

Jim: That’s when the claim owner spoke up and asked what the problem was? He told them that he owned the property and had given us permission to play around on a recreational scale – and that’s all we had been doing.

Dave: The Customs guy answered that we were not playing around, “They were doing serious mining!”

Jim: That’s when the lawyer asked them how they knew what the Americans were doing? “You guys never even saw what they were doing!”

Dave: “But we heard,…” the official started in. He was cut off by the claim owner who was getting more heated up by the moment, “You heard what? A bunch of bar talk? Nobody goes through the gate on my property without my permission. I was down there watching what these Yanks were doing. Compared to what we are doing on the claim, I can get testimony from every miner in Atlin that they were just playing around!”

Jim: Then the lawyer reminded the officials that Americans are allowed to prospect around on a recreational scale without having to notify anyone. The Customs guy that was doing all the talking certainly was not convinced.

Dave: It was about then that the Mayor of Atlin spoke up in anger, “We are in an economic recession! Why the heck are you guys chasing away the only tourists Atlin has seen all summer? These are nice people. They have spent their money in our community. They have attended our events. How can we ever expect to attract visitors if you guys are trying to make criminals out of them over this kind of nonsense?”

Jim: That was the winning argument. The older official who was listening in quietly stepped up and said, “Never mind! This is over. If your gear is not yet up in Alaska, please see that it gets there without further delay. If you intend to use it again in Canada, make sure you declare the gear properly at the border before you enter into Canada. If you intend to mine for gold in Canada, please contact our mining department in advance of your arrival and make your formal declarations. This meeting is over.”

Dave: Yes; that was the same supervisor who told the lady to give me our compressor several weeks before. He was a nice guy.

But they also had no witnesses, no pictures, no gold, no concentrates, no dredges, nothing!

Jim: I smiled at him a lot!

It was exactly 5 PM on Friday afternoon when we walked out of Canadian Customs. Dave and I were so relieved; we were falling all over ourselves to thank the lawyer and the Mayor of Atlin. The Mayor told us to come back anytime, “You guys will always be welcome in our town.”

Dave: The claim owners dropped us off at our hotel. As we had already passed their share off to them earlier in the day, our immediate business was over. They invited us to come back whenever we wanted, and we said our goodbyes. We all felt a little sad that this part of our adventure had come to an end.

Jim: When you make friends with them, Canadians will stand right up and stick by you. Those guys were really concerned that we did not get into trouble with the authorities!

Dave: While it was late on Friday afternoon, there was still plenty of daylight left; so Jim and I gathered up just the few things we had and checked out of the room. The hotel was right there alongside the main road which led in the direction of Tok, Alaska. Eager to put some distance between us and all that trouble, we thought we would try and hitch a ride out on the highway.

Jim: But we had used up all our luck on that day. In several hours of standing out there in the cold, not a single car or truck stopped. Both Dave and I were totally exhausted. So after a while, we went back over to the hotel and checked back into the room for another night. Then we caught a bus to Tok on the following morning.

Dave: Once we boarded the bus, I knew we were free. That was a close one! I’ve been close to trouble (almost caught) many times in my life. This one with the Canadian authorities was one of the most stressful of all.

Jim: Yeah; that’s about the most trouble I have ever been in!Brian

Brian – “I can’t tell you how much better we all felt when we all made it to Tok and still had all our belongings!”

Dave: We met up with Brian and Eric in Tok on the following afternoon. They had already completed the bumper repair and did some other maintenance duties. The rig was ready to go. But we decided to relax for an evening and just catch up with ourselves. We were feeling pretty lucky at the moment. A lot of different things had gone our way when they just might not have.

Brian: “Had anything at all gone wrong, we would have lost all our gear and certainly all the gold.”

Eric: “If they caught us trying to run with that hoard of gold, I’m sure they would have put us all in jail!”

Jim: “No doubt about it!”

Dave: “Yup, we were lucky!”

After notes:

Dave with map making plans

Dave in Tok, looking at maps, working out the next plan.

By the time we arrived in Alaska, it was mid-August and most of the mining season up there was already behind us. To make the best of what we had left, we decided to dredge in a free section of the South Fork of the Forty Mile River, near the small town of Chicken. By “Free area,” I mean there were no mining claims allowed there at the time, so anyone could prospect for gold.

Just within a few days of sampling, we found a location that would produce about an ounce of fine gold per day for a single guy on a 5-inch dredge. This was pretty good. I had set an once of gold as a minimum daily standard long before we arrived in Canada or Alaska. In those days, that was about $270. Today it is many times that. The thing is, I had already discovered from my own painful experiences that you can go around and spend weeks and weeks sampling and not find a deposit that will pay an ounce per day to a 5-inch dredge. Eric, who also had plenty of dredging experience, was also satisfied with the deposit.

But my two brothers wanted more “shock and awe!” An once per day was really poor when compared with what we were finding in Atlin. They wanted more of the really rich stuff! I wanted more of that, too. But the reality was that we were unlikely to find it, because we were on an entirely new river that we knew nothing about. We didn’t have much time left in the season!

In all the time I have dredged, I have only seen one place as rich as Atlin. That was in Cambodia at a later time. Take Atlin out of the equation back in 1982, and an ounce per day was pretty good. Here is the thing about gold mining: Once in a while, you get a really nice bonus. Then, when it is finished, you have to readjust yourself to what an acceptable gold deposit is. In my own experience, a person working alone on a 5-inch dredge, recovering an ounce of gold per day, is good enough. Otherwise, you might spend all of your time and resources looking for something better and never find it!

Brian and Jim ultimately decided that they had already done well enough for the season. So within a week or so of arriving in Alaska, they arranged a bus tour home through the Inland Passage. Later, they both agreed that they were very happy they chose to do that; they said they covered some of the most breathtaking wilderness scenery on the planet. They arrived home with their gold a few weeks later.

Dredges in Alaska

Dave and Eric dredging side-by-side on the South Fork of the Forty Mile River in Alaska.

Eric and I decided to finish out our dredging season on the South Fork of the Forty Mile River. We worked two 5-inchers side-by-side up there, pushing it hard, nearly every day. Sadie continued to keep a close eye on our camp, because we were still in grizzly and moose territory.

We made occasional supply trips into Fairbanks, which we found to be a nice place with friendly people. The river water was about 70 degrees when we first arrived there, but it did not take long for the days to grow short and the nights to grow cold. We finally decided to call it quits on the 4th of October when ice was forming on the sides of the river. The water was 34 degrees; and while Eric was prepared to continue, he readily agreed the season was over the day I decided it was not worth another ounce of gold to suffer through yet another cold water headache.

They got their first heavy snow in Chicken the day after we pulled out!

Knowing that we were going to be driving all our stuff back down through Canada, Eric and I decided it would be wise to mail our stashes of gold down to California in care of Eric’s Mom, Anita. She had already looked into it, and I remember her telling me very clearly, “The only safe way to ship gold through the U.S. Post Office is by registered mail!”

The U.S. Post Office in Chicken, Alaska in those days was in the very same building as the local restaurant and bar. In fact, the very same person who would sell you a draft beer on one side of the counter would do your postal business just by walking a few steps over and helping you across a different counter. In other words, the bar tender was also the postmaster. I’m not making this up!

When Eric and I went in to see the postmaster about sending a registered package, she told us they were not doing registered mail out of Chicken. She told us, “Certified mail is just as good!” We had quite a lot of discussion with her about our package being very valuable and we did not want to take any chances at losing it. Ultimately, she convinced us that certified would be alright. Man were we young and naive!

Eric’s mom still had not received the package several weeks after we mailed all our gold (mostly accumulated from Atlin)! Anita kept explaining to me on the phone that a registered package can be tracked and insured, because it gets signed for every time it changes hands, and it is kept in a locked safe when it is not moving. The only way to track a certified package is when it arrives and someone signs for it. What happens in-between is anybody’s guess! But it was too late to change the way we sent the package!

Eric: Both Dave and I were feeling really foolish having been talked into sending all that gold in a certified package. “Stressed out” is an understatement!

Dave: When the package still had not reached Anita after 3 weeks, I pretty-much decided that the Postmaster never sent it. After all, we had all but told her that the package was full of gold. The box was heavy! The only thing really going on around Chicken while we were there was gold mining. Even the Postmaster’s husband was a gold miner! So she must have had a pretty good idea what was in our package.

It is human nature to adjust yourself to whatever you have, or whatever you don’t have. I had overcome quite a lot to keep that gold; and I had it long enough that it became part of my life-planning. That gold had become a very important part of my life! I was going to take the winter off, rent an apartment and write my two books on Advanced Dredging Techniques. This was my big plan. It was the way I was balancing all the pain I was suffering in that cold water! I was banking on it. Now the gold was gone!

Eric: I personally was not convinced that the Postmaster stole our gold, but Dave felt it was time to shake things up.

Dave: On the verge of another panic attack, I decided I was going to go confront the Postmaster about stealing our gold! On our way over there, we decided to call Anita one more time to make sure the package had not arrived. I didn’t have much hope.

Eric: “Your package arrived!” my mom said, as soon as I got her on the phone.

Dave: I about had a stroke! I also felt bad about suspecting the Postmaster. Good thing we called or I would have really stirred up a hornet’s nest over nothing. After the phone call, we went up and told the Postmaster the package had arrived. She looked about as relieved as I was! We then confided that the box was full of gold. She said she figured as much the way we were so worried about it. Nice lady!

Eric: My Mom said the box looked like it had gone through the wrong end of a machine. She said it looked more like a cardboard bag, than a box. This was probably because of all the weight inside the box!

Dave: Before shipping, Eric and I had transferred all our gold into 35 mm plastic film containers and plastic spice bottles that we spray-painted black. We taped the covers so they would remain closed. We used all sorts of packing to try and stabilize everything inside the box. It seemed fine.

Eric: My mom said there was a pretty sizable hole torn in the side of the box. When the Postmaster in Auburn (California) set the box down on the counter, one of the film containers (full of gold) rolled right out onto the counter!

Dave: So Anita was asking us on the phone how many containers we loaded in the box? When we told her how many, that was exactly how many were still in there. Unbelievable luck!

Eric and I decided to take the scenic route back home through Dawson City, Yukon. There was only a single Canadian official at the border station when we arrived there. He waved us right through (whew!).

Dawson City was about abandoned when we were there in early October of 1982. We drove the historical streets in awe; there is a lot of mining history in that place! We stopped for lunch, but were the only customers in the restaurant. Clearly, the tourist season was already over in Dawson City. We vowed to return there, someday.

Eric and I took it slow and easy on our trip back down to California. By then, we knew the driving limits of our overloaded rig. We were not in much of a hurry, deciding not to depend upon good luck alone to get us home. How much good luck can you depend upon?

My brother Brian returned to San Francisco and started a general contractor’s business which became highly successful. He is still doing general contracting there today.

Jim got involved early in the High Tech revolution and worked his way into a partnership in a very successful company that installs and maintains administrative software programs for municipalities all across America.

While both Brian and Jim have spent time visiting with me in the gold country, our trip to Alaska was the end of their mining careers.

Eric and I mined together as partners and best friends for quite a few years. He helped me start The New 49’ers, and we even did a mining adventure together in Borneo, Indonesia. Later, he put himself through professional welding school; and as a result of a lot of hard work, Eric has become a Project Supplier Quality Supervisor at Bechtel Oil, Gas and Chemicals. That is a really good job, and he will likely stay with it until retirement. He is happily married and raising three sons in Weimar, Texas.

I have spent most of my adult life involved with gold mining, and am still out there getting my share of the gold. Last summer, I nearly made my “ounce per day,” every day, along the Rogue River in Southern Oregon.

Final note: You will notice that I have not included any images of all the gold recovered together, or even of our clean-ups during the final 10 days or so that we were dredging in Atlin. This was deliberate. When I tell this story to others, the most common question I am asked is, “How much gold did you guys recover in all?” Isn’t that what you have been wondering? And I always roll my eyes up and answer that it was a lot, but it was not as much as I make it sound, “You know how these gold stories get exaggerated over time!”

As I said earlier in the story, making sure the adventure turned out as a winning experience for my brothers and Eric still remains a responsibility that I take seriously. I don’t want any of us to be in trouble with the Canadian authorities, especially after all this time has passed. In fact, my existing dredging team and I have recently been invited by a mining company to return to British Columbia. I would like to be able to go up there, again without fear of being tossed in jail for past misdeeds. With that in mind, my best answer is, “Most of this story was the way we would have liked it to have played out, rather than the way it really did.”

What do you think?

 
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By Dave McCracken

“These gold prospectors were sending pay-dirt
to the surface from 30+ feet deep in liquid muck!”

Dave Mack

This was somewhat of an informal preliminary evaluation into several areas of the Philippines to see if we could find any promising commercial dredgingopportunities there. A longtime close friend of mine and fellow gold dredger, John Koczan, had been spending a lot of time in the Philippines with his job, so he knew his way around pretty well. John and his wife Madel made the necessary arrangements to move us around the country for a few weeks.

Diver

I personally spent quite a lot of time in the Philippines when I was in the navy. So I already knew the country to be very friendly towards Americans. Most of the people in the Philippines speak some amount of English. The country is rich in natural resources. The infrastructure is quite good; especially the roads and communication systems. Supplies and services there are readily available at relative low cost. And the mining laws seem to encourage mining exploration by American companies.

Since I had other business in Asia to take care of first, John, Madel and I agreed to meet in Manila, which is the Philippine Capital. Manila is a busy place. The entire modern infrastructure that we are used to in the West is present there, although traffic can be a problem if you are not careful with your timing.

JeepneyTrike

“Jeepneys and trikes are the primary modes of public transportation in the Philippines.”

Public transportation in the Philippines is very effective. Regularly-scheduled buses are destined to just about everywhere. Jeepneys and trikes are the primary mode of moving people around the townships and cities. Jeepneys are like vans with a jeep-like look to them. You see them in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors. Up to a dozen or more people can ride in the back. A standard fee of about 10 cents (6 Pesos) is charged for a ride in almost any single direction. Trikes are basically a side-cart motorcycle. There are zillions of them. For about a Dollar (50 Pesos), you can hire a trike to take you one way to nearly anywhere in town.

I captured the following video segment on a bright morning in Manila while John and Madel were arranging to rent a car for us to drive north to Angeles City:

Angeles City is about an hour drive to the north of Manila. It is the home of Clark Air Base, which was once America’s largest military base. The base (huge) has since been turned back over to the Philippines. They have converted it into a free economic zone. A very large shopping mall has recently been put up there. The Angeles City area is where John had been doing quite a bit of business. So this seemed like a good place to launch our own sampling expeditions to elsewhere in the Philippines.

John and I began by researching all the historical information we could gather about the proven gold bearing locations in the Philippines. Our research indicated that the best gold potential is in Mindanao, one of the most southern islands of the Philippines. The problem with going there on any kind of extended commercial venture is that Mindanao is the place within the Philippines where Muslim extremists maintain a stronghold. The Philippine military is down there with American assistance unsuccessfully trying to put them out of existence. Because of potential danger to outsiders, John and I ruled out Mindanao right from the beginning. We figured there is no good reason to lose your head over gold!

As we allowed ourselves only two weeks for this expedition, we decided to do a preliminary evaluation into two separate locations. The first was a gold-bearing area in the north of Luzon near the city of Baguio. This area is well known for historic gold mining activity. It took us the better part of a day to drive up there from Angeles City on a very good highway. Baguio is a very nice place, way up in the mountains. With pine trees and cool air, it kind of reminded me of the mountains in California.

“We were very encouraged when we first saw this clear-running river with so much bedrock exposed along the banks!”

One of our first stops in Baguio was at the Department of Mining & Geology. We were looking for information and maps concerning the historical gold mining areas. Our hope was to find a sizable gold bearing river where local technology has not allowed deeper river high-grade gold deposits to be mined by previous activity. To our surprise, the Mining & Geology officials there welcomed us in with open arms, provided us with all of the available information that we desired and offered to escort us out to a gold-bearing river which they believed was most likely to provide the type of mining opportunities that we were looking for.

Interestingly, none of the mining officials we spoke with in the Philippines had any idea what a suction dredge is or how it works. We did our best to explain it. But our final realization was that it is vital to bring along several DVD’s of my basic dredging video on these types of expeditions.

We devoted the next full day to an expedition to a sizable river located in the mountains some distance to the east of Baguio City. The following video sequences were captured soon after we saw the river from a heightened position in the mountains:

We soon met up with several local miners (woman) who were panning and sluicing along the river. They were kind enough to show us the gold that they were recovering. Their gold consisted of just a little bit of fine colors in every pan; not much different than what we would expect to recover along New 49’er properties along the Klamath River near Happy Camp in Northern California.

SluiceLocal miners

“Local village miners were panning and sluicing small amounts of gold from the river.”

John and I took a few pan-samples of streambed material and also turned up some color. The big question in our minds was how rich the high-grade pay-streaks were going to be at the bottom of the river. The main problem, though, was that the average depth of streambed material looked like it was going to be more than we could manage with suction dredges. While there was some bedrock visible along the sides of the river, it was mostly slanting into the river at a steep angle, and most of the streambed deposits appeared to be very deep.

The challenge in prospecting for high-grade gold deposits with a suction dredge is to find them in shallow enough streambed material that you can gain access to the gold without being overwhelmed by too much material to move out of the way. This area generally looked to have too much streambed material along the river-bottom for us to gain access to pay-streaks in most areas. So, John and I quickly ruled out the likelihood of a commercial opportunity for our type of mining.

The officials with us told us that they did not know of any other (larger-sized) river in the area that would fit our needs. Later that afternoon in Baguio, the mining officials suggested that we go have a look at the gold potential near Legaspi. This is a gold-bearing area located on the island of Bicol further to the south. The Mining Director in Baguio made a phone call on our behalf to his counterpart in Bicol. Sure enough; there was some active “gold dredging” going on down there, and we were invited to have a look. This sure felt like a lucky break!

Rather than drive all the way down to Bicol, John, Madel and I decided to fly down there from Manila and hire local transportation to get us around. In the parking lot of the airport upon our arrival in Bicol, John was able to negotiate a reasonable rate for a van and driver to accompany us for several days.

One of our first stops in Bicol was at the Department of Mining & Geology to meet with the Director there. He was expecting us. In short order, he assigned one of his people to assist us with whatever we needed. That person supplied us with maps and information, and some instructions to our driver where to take us. While the official was willing to accompany us to Legaspi, he suggested that our reconnaissance might be more productive without him, since the type of “dredging” we were going to see was against the law. Apparently, because it is so dangerous, laws have been passed to prevent people from pursuing the particular kind of mining that we were going to see. The official suggested that the people doing this type of illegal mining might be more open to us if mining authorities were not present. We took his advice and just went along with our driver.

Upon our arrival in Legaspi, our first stop was at the local Mayor’s office. From long experience at doing these types of reconnaissance missions, we have discovered that it is usually best to check in with the local authorities before going out in the field on a prospecting expedition. This is the respectful thing to do. As is often the case, the local Mayor was happy that we checked in with him, and he assigned one of his personal staff to accompany us on our expedition. This was good, because the staff person (who became our guide) knew right where to take us. He was also able to introduce us to local miners in such a way that they were more open to giving us information about what was going on.

Local Miners

“Local miners were recovering some gold from the beach sands, but the amount
of gold did not appear to create any commercial opportunity for the type of dredge mining that we do.”

In Legaspi, our guide first took us to the beach, where local miners were recovering small amounts of gold from the beach sands using sluicing devices which were built on stilts to position them above the small waves washing up on the beach. Here follows a video segment that I captured which demonstrates the beach mining activity:

While the beach miners were recovering some gold there, John and I could not envision any kind of commercial dredging opportunity, so we moved on.

Next, our guide took us to a river estuary-area where apparently some bucket line dredges had operated during the past. We could see some of the tailings that were left behind. There, we found several active family mining operations that were recovering gold from river-bottom gravels using more sluices standing on stilts. Here follows a video segment that I captured while we spent some time with one family of river miners:

Again, while there was some gold being recovered from the river, without doing some preliminary dredge sampling of our own, we could not identify any commercial opportunity for ourselves.

Our main interest in Legaspi was to have a look at the ongoing dredging program that we had been hearing about. We kept reminding our guide about this, but he believed that type of mining would not fit into the type of opportunity we were looking for. Still, we wanted to see what it was all about, so our guide finally agreed to take us there. That involved a considerable ride in the van over some pretty rough roads.

Rice

“As we got closer, I could see that there was some kind of
mining operation going on from beneath the submerged rice paddy!”

Washing MaterialPulling Buckets Up

“Right image: Miner pulls canvas bag to surface from about thirty feet deep, where a diver filled the bag with ore.”

When we finally arrived at the “dredging” site, all I could see was a very large rice paddy. There was no river or other open water to be seen anywhere! As our guide led us on a trail across the rice paddy, I could see that there was some kind of digging activity going on at the far end. When we got closer, I recognized that it was an active mining operation!

These miners were recovering gold from bottom gravels that were located about 10 meters beneath the surface of the rice paddies! Because the paddy was flooded for an ongoing growing season, it meant that the miners were excavating a tunnel straight down through 30+ feet of mucky water, and then drifting (tunneling) along the bedrock at the bottom to fill canvas bags with pay-dirt. The canvas bags were then raised to the surface by others using a rope, where the material was broken up (a lot of clay in the material) and directed through a sluice box to recover the gold.

Each rice paddy diver received his air for breathing underwater through an airline that was connected to a makeshift air compressor which was taken from an automotive air conditioner, powered by a small Honda motor. No hookah regulator was being used by the diver. Hookah regulators do not work very well when you try to use them in muck! I know, because I have attempted it! These rice paddy divers were getting their air down 30+feet in the muck by just placing the end of the airline in their mouth and holding onto it with their teeth! Holy Mackerel!

Here follows a video segment that I captured which demonstrates the mining activity these rice paddy divers were doing. Please take note how far the man at the surface pulls up the rope to finally bring the canvas bag of ore to the surface. That’s how deep underground the diver was actively filling canvas bags! Is that amazing, or what?

While these rice paddy miners were recovering enough gold to help support their villages, John and I still could not see any reasonable way that we could implement suction dredge technology to their situation that would create an improved commercial opportunity.

I have to say that these were perhaps the most qualified underwater prospectors I have ever met to work on a commercial dredging program if and when we ever put one together in the Philippines or any other nearby country. Anyone who is able to mine gold with nothing more than an airline stuck in his teeth, while extracting pay-dirt from submerged shafts 30+ feet under liquid muck, is certainly alright with me! Imagine how well guys like this could perform on a suction dredge in clear, shallow water?

On our way out, our guide brought us by another active mining operation where hard-rock ore was being brought to the surface by rope from an underground hand-mining program. The ore was being loaded into wooden sleds, and then dragged to water by a water buffalo. There, the ore was being crushed by hand methods and panned down to extract the gold. And while they were recovering goodly amounts of gold for their effort, John and I still could not identify any commercial opportunity for the type of mining that we do.

“John & Madel”

All in all, our expeditions were productive in that we discovered that the people of the Philippines are very friendly, hard-working, and definitely have their doors open to allow modern exploration companies to look for commercial opportunities there. It just turned out that the two preliminary places we decided to look at were not suited for the type of mining that we do.

 

 

 

By Dave McCracken

“Dredging for Diamonds and Gold During the Rainy Season…”

Dave Mack

 

Author’s note: This story is dedicated to Alan Norton (“Alley”), the lead underwater mining specialist who participated in this project. Under near-impossible conditions, Alan made half of the key dives which enabled us to make this a very successful venture.
There are very few people I know, if any, with more courage, dedication and enthusiasm to successfully complete a difficult mission, than Alan.

If I can make it go right, I try and go overseas at least once or twice a year, usually during our winter months in California, to participate in some kind of a gold mining or treasure hunting adventure. Sometimes I am paid as a consultant to do preliminary evaluations for other companies. Sometimes I just go on my own. Doing these projects in remote and exotic locations is kind of like going back into time, or like going into a different universe. It is always a great adventure! Sometimes, on these different projects, everything goes smooth and easy. Sometimes we uncover fantastic riches. Sometimes we find nothing at all of great value. And, once in awhile, conditions are extraordinarily terrible and put all of our capability and courage to the final test. Such was the case on our recent testing project into the deep, dangerous jungles of southern Venezuela.

Venezuela lies on the north coast of South America along the Caribbean Sea. It is a South American country that ranks as one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of petroleum. Before its petroleum industry began to boom during the 1920’s, Venezuela was one of the poorer countries in South America. The economy was based on agricultural products, such as cocoa and coffee. Since the 1920’s, however, Venezuela has become one of the wealthiest and most rapidly changing countries on the continent. Income from petroleum exports has enabled Venezuela to carry out huge industrial development and modernization programs.

Columbus was the first European explorer to reach Venezuela. In 1498, Columbus landed on the Paria Peninsula. In 1498 and 1499, the Spanish explored most of the Caribbean coast of South America, and Spanish settlers were soon to follow the explorers.*

Almost all Venezuelans speak Spanish, the country’s official language. Indians in remote areas speak various tribal languages.*

I personally was contacted by an American investment group that was in partnership with a Venezuelan mining company. They hired me to spend around thirty days doing a preliminary testing evaluation on a concession (mining property) the company owns in the deep jungles of southern Venezuela. The property was reported to contain volume-amounts of gold and gem-quality diamonds. A river flows across the concession for approximately twenty-five miles.

The company had purchased a 6-inch dredge along with the support equipment. They wanted me to complete a dredge sampling program to see what kind of recovery we could obtain from the river. I brought one other experienced dredger along by the name of Alan Norton. Alan and I had spent several seasons dredging together on the Klamath River in northern California, and I had learned years ago to always bring at least one very capable teammate along when doing diving operations in the jungle environment. This proved to be a really wise decision!

We flew into Caracas, which is the capital of Venezuela, a very nice, modern city with big office buildings and hotels creating a beautiful skyline. Caracas enjoys the reputation of having one of the best night-lives in the world. Poverty is also visible along the outskirts of the city where thousands of people live in small shacks called Ranchos.

The company put us up in the Caracas Hilton where we spent a comfortable night, only to fly out the following morning to Ciudad Bolivar–which is a fairly large city, and the diamond capital of Venezuela.

Upon arriving in Ciudad Bolivar, we were promptly met by representatives of the company, along with the company’s bush boss, an American adventurer by the name of Sam Speerstra. Sam would make a good match for Indiana Jones. It was quickly apparent that he loved danger by the way he drove us through traffic to the small landing strip that we were to shortly depart from on our way to the concession. Sam had us unpack our bags while he arranged to have the aircraft pushed out onto the runway by a half dozen or so airport workers.

The dual engine aircraft was not in the best state of repair. The engine shrouds were held on with bailing wire, some of the cargo doors were held together with duct tape, and the instrument panel was held in place with safety pins, some which were not holding very well.

Sam enjoyed my apprehensive observations of the plane while our baggage was being loaded. Proudly, he told me the aircraft company we were using had the best record of non-accidents in the whole country. However, he also said the landing strip on the concession was quite small and hard to get into because of a large hill that had to be dropped over quickly in order to touch down at the beginning of the runway. In fact, he informed me the company had lost one of its planes trying to land on the concession during the week before. I asked if anyone was hurt. “All dead,” Sam responded, with a smile on his face. And he was serious! .

While, for proprietary reasons, I am not able to divulge the exact location where we were operating, I can say that we were at least several hundred miles into the jungle south of Ciudad Bolivar, towards the Brazilian border.

In this instance, we were asked to do this preliminary evaluation just as the rainy season was getting started. Shortly after taking off in the dual engine plane, we began seeing large rolling clouds. The further south we flew; the larger and more dense the clouds became.

About halfway to our destination, the pilot put down on a small landing strip in a relatively small village to pick up a full load of mining equipment which he had to leave there the day before. He had not been able to get out to the concession because of the almost zero visibility caused by the heavy rains and clouds. As we landed on this strip, the first thing we noticed was a completely wrecked plane that had crashed there. This added to our apprehension and to Sam’s sense of adventure.

It took about an hour to pack the airplane completely full of mining equipment. Since we had to remove the seats to make room for gear, Alley and I were directed to lay up on top of the gear that was stacked up in the belly of the plane. No seat belts! And the plane was loaded so heavily, even the pilot was not sure whether or not we were going to make it off the runway when we took off. We barely made it, and the plane was very sluggish to fly for the remainder of that trip.

We were in and out of clouds for the remainder of the flight, much of the time with zero visibility outside of the airplane. Occasionally, we would break through the clouds and see nothing but dense jungle below us as far as the eye could see in any direction. This was the Amazon! Sam took the time to educate us on the many different types of animals and insects which would certainly devour us if we were to have the bad fortune of crashing. Tigers and jaguars, driven out of some areas by villagers, only to be more hungry and ferocious in other areas. Six-foot long electric eels, called Trembladores by the natives, capable of electrocuting a man with 440 volts, and man-eating piranha were all through the rivers and streams, according to Sam. He told us of bushmaster snakes, the most dreaded vipers in all of South America. Sam said he personally had seen them up to twelve feet in length with a head about the size of a football. “Very aggressive–they have been known to chase a man down.” Sam said you could see the venom squirting out of the fangs even as the snake started to make a strike– one of the most horrifying experiences he had ever seen. “But, not to worry, I brought along a shotgun just in case we get in trouble,” Sam told us as hundreds of miles of jungle passed beneath us.

After quite some time, at a point when the clouds cleared away just long enough to see, Sam pointed down to a short runway cut out of the jungle. At first, we could not believe we truly were going to try and land there. Sure enough, it was the base camp for the concession. We made one low pass over it. The base camp looked large and well equipped. There was also a small local village right near the base camp. The landing strip was filled with puddles and looked to be mostly mud. Alley and I were a little nervous after Sam’s big buildup, and we had very good reason to be nervous.

In order to land on the strip properly, the pilot had to fly just over the treetops, around a ridge, to drop quickly over a hill almost into a dive to get low enough, fast enough, to meet the beginning of the runway. The pilot’s skill was very good, although it is the only time in my life I have ever been in a plane that actually tapped the tops of trees as it was going in for a landing. The thump, thump of the trees hitting the wheels of the plane put me in somewhat of a panic. But it was all for nothing, because within seconds we were safely down on the runway. The pilot and Sam seemed to think nothing of the hair-raising landing experience. Alley and I felt like cheering that we were still alive. This was the mental state we were in when we arrived in the jungle. And it was just the beginning!

Local villagers came out to help us unload the plane. They all seemed like very nice people. After having a chance to load our gear into the bungalow, Sam gave us a short tour of the base camp. The whole area was fenced in. There were numerous screened-in bungalows for the various crew member sleeping quarters, a large kitchen, an office, and a large screened-in workshop area. The company had spent a lot of money getting it all set up. There was a jeep and two off-road motorcycles—all in a poor state of repair. They operated, but without any brakes.

After we had a chance to relax a bit, Sam insisted we go meet the “Capitan,” who was the chief of the local village. We had to arrange for several boats and a small group of local Indians to support our operation along the river. Sam explained to us that public relations were very important and that we must go over and have a friendly drink with the Capitan. We assumed Sam was bringing the Capitan a bottle of Scotch or Brandy or something as a gift. But that’s not the way it happened. Sam preferred to drink the local mild alcoholic beverage called Cochili. This drink is made by the local Indians from squeezing the juice out of a special plant that they grow. The juice is allowed to ferment in the open air for several days or weeks, depending upon the weather. It is a milky white-like substance with clumps of bread-like soggy goo (kind of like pollywog eggs), along with some greenish-brown mold mixed in–it was great to behold! It smelled almost as bad as it looked.

We met the chief, who looked totally wasted on something–probably the Cochili drink. And immediately upon our arrival, the chief ordered some children to bring glasses and drink for everyone. Promptly, our glasses were filled to the rims. Sam quickly downed his first glass, licked his lips, smiled and said, “This is all in the name of good local public relations!” To be polite, I downed half my glass and did my best to choke back my gag. The stuff tasted terrible! I realized my mistake right away when one of the kids immediately took my glass and refilled it to the brim. Alley was paying close attention and slowly sipped his drink, and I followed suit. There was no place to spit if out without being seen, so we had to drink it down. Sam put down three or four more glasses and shortly was slurring his Spanish in final negotiations with the chief. I’m not really sure they understood each other concerning any of the details, but everyone seemed happy with the negotiation.

It was a good thing that the rainy season prevented the remainder of our mining equipment to arrive in the jungle for the next two days. Because I spent the next few days with a severe case of the jungle blues. I was popping Lomotil tablets left and right to try and dry up my system and finally started making progress on the third day in the jungle. Man was I sick!

Alan boasted that he never had a case of diarrhea in his life and that he never would. Sam spent several hours every evening drinking Cochili with the local Indians who would accompany us into the jungle. He was getting to know them better.

The weather was hot and muggy, although the heavy rains had not started yet in earnest. The jungle was alive, especially at night when the jungle noises were almost deafening. It was certainly not a nice place to go for a friendly, evening hike. We were glad for the fence that surrounded the compound.

On the third day, still weak from the fever, but feeling like I should be productive at something, I decided to take a motorcycle ride on the new jeep trail which had recently been hand-cut several miles to the river. Why is it that I always know when I am going to come upon a nasty snake just an instant before I see it? As I rounded the first corner on the trail, a large viper took off ahead of me up the trail faster than a man could run. No brakes! Finally, I stopped the bike, turned around, and returned to camp to rest up some more.

“Once the rains started, the water was so muddy we had zero visibility underwater and had to find our way through the broken branches of submerged trees by feel”

The remainder of our gear finally arrived on the following day. We assembled everything to make sure it was all there. It wasn’t. We were missing the assembly bolts for the six-inch dredge; we had only one weight belt; and we had no air reserve tank for the hookah system! This was not good!

We finally ended up using bailing wire to hold the dredge together, and had to settle for hooking the airline directly to the dredge’s air compressor. One weight belt was all we were going to get—not much margin for error! The entire operation would depend upon us not losing that single weight belt.

On the following day, all the equipment was packed to the river by the local villagers. This was not an easy two-mile pack, because the trail was very muddy and was quite steep up and down the whole distance. Alan and I were using one of the motorcycles to get up and down the trail, which was a real adventure with no brakes.

One very interesting thing about this jungle is that huge trees, for no apparent reason at all, come crashing down. At least several times a day, we would hear huge trees crashing down in a deafening roar. On one occasion, Alan and I were returning to base camp on the jeep trail. We had just come up that trail fifteen minutes before. As we were going down a muddy hill and rounding a bend, we ran smack right into a huge tree which had just fallen across the trail. Good thing I was driving! We smashed into the tree with both of us flying off the bike. Luckily, neither of us were hurt more than just a few bumps and bruises, although the front-end of the motorcycle was damaged. Chalk up one more for the jungle.

During the time while equipment was being transferred to the river and set up, we took several airplane rides to survey the section of river which we were planning to sample, and to make arrangements at a small village (with a landing strip) about twenty-five miles downstream to obtain fuel and some basic supplies as needed during our sampling trip. Once we started, we would not be in contact with the base camp until our sampling project was complete–which was to be about twenty-five to thirty days later. In flying around the area and landing on the two strips, it soon became apparent that the pilot was very skilled. While he definitely was flying by the seat of his pants, the conditions were normal and it was no big thing (to him). Sam just had the advantage of prior experiences at the concession and was psyching us out–all in fun. It only took a little while to catch onto his game.

One of the things we quickly learned in the South American jungle, is that you never stand still for more than just a few seconds. Otherwise, a steady line of ants, mites, and other meat-eating critters will crawl up your legs, inside or outside your pants, and go to work on you. We had plenty of mite bites–which hurt, itch, and generally drive you crazy for about five or six days before they start healing. And, we learned to never brush up against bushes as long as we could help it, for fear of getting fire ants all over us. They sting like crazy!

We never allowed our bare skin (especially bare feet) to come in contact with the bare ground in or around the camps. This is because of chiggers. Ants were everywhere. Whole armies of big ants could be seen to follow a single file line up and down the trail for a mile or more, carrying torn up leaves from a tree which was actively being stripped clean by other ants. The whole jungle was crawling with life. Every square inch had some creature that was starving to take a good bite out of us. Perhaps it was the muggy weather, or maybe weakness from the jungle fever, but my first impression of the South American jungle was that it was doing everything it could to suck the life energy out of my body.

On more than one occasion, some huge animal would go crashing through the jungle just a short distance from where we were standing. We never saw the animals, but had the continuous feeling that some huge cat or wild boar was ready to come smashing in on us. And, of course, the shotgun was never in my own hands when this occurred, which was probably a good thing for everyone else in the vicinity.

“We allowed the natives to swim in the river first to make sure there were not going to be problems with piranha and Trembladores”

While we were packing gear, one of the village-helpers came running in to show off a bird spider he had caught and skewered on the end of his machete. This spider was bigger than my hand; it looked like a huge tarantula. According to the natives, these fearsome spiders catch birds to feed on, not flies, in their webs.

Our first few days on the river were absolutely, breathtakingly, exotically beautiful. The sun came out. The river was low and semi-clear. The water was warm, but just cool enough to give us satisfaction from the muggy air temperatures. We did not need wetsuits other than to protect our bodies from scrapes and bruises. We dredged a half dozen or so easy sample holes. Gravel was shallow to bedrock. The first camp was quite comfortable. The Indians were using their bows and extra long arrows to catch great-tasting fish. Everything was perfect. I remember wondering why I had such a problem adapting to the jungle in the first place. It was like paradise on the river, and we were even getting paid to be there!

We allowed the natives to swim in the river first, to make sure there were not going to be problems with piranha and Trembladores. This is not a bad thing to do. We did not make them swim first. They simply dove in. We always watch for this in a jungle environment. The local Indians know what it is safe to do. After watching the Indians swim for quite some time, we decided it was safe.

The natives live under grass roof shelters–often with no sides. They hang hammocks from the supporting roof beams and sleep at least several feet off the ground. Since Ally and I don’t sleep very well in hammocks, we brought along cots, instead. On our first night in the jungle, Sam insisted the cots would be just fine on the ground. They had short legs which put the cots about six inches off the ground. Alan and I both had sleeping bags which could be zipped up. Sam simply had one dirty white sheet. About midway through the night, Sam’s cot collapsed on him. Shortly thereafter, he was dancing around the camp yelling, “Fleas!” He was barefooted, and the natives spent the next two weeks picking chigger eggs out of the bottom of his feet with sharp pointed sticks.

Let me explain chigger eggs: These critters somehow lay eggs inside the pores of your skin. The eggs grow larger and larger, causing an open sore. It keeps getting worse until you realize it is not just a mite bite. The egg has to be removed with a sharp piece of wood, kind of like a toothpick. The eggs I saw were about the size of a soft, white BB when removed. It was explained that this was really a sack full of eggs. The trick was to get rid of them before the sack broke. Otherwise, the problem was severely compounded. Apparently, the dogs carried these chiggers all over themselves. We were instructed to not pat the dogs for this reason. It was a good lesson for us, and we learned it quickly from Sam’s experience.

We had a three hundred-foot roll of half-inch nylon rope with us for the mining operation. The following day, Alley and I allocated one hundred and fifty feet of that rope to be used to tie our cots up into the shelter beams to keep us well away from the ground. Our Indian guides were quite amused by this. The rest of the rope was used in the dredging operation.

On about the fourth day on the river, Sam returned to the base camp to supervise the other surface digging testing operations. Our cook became extremely angry soon after Sam left. I later found out that he was contracted by Sam to spend only five days in the jungle. Sam left without taking him along. He was stuck with us in the jungle for the next twenty days or so, and we all paid for his anger in the food he prepared for us. We would get fresh-made pan-fried bread every morning that was so saturated with oil that you could squeeze the oil out of it in your hand. This, along with a can of sardines for breakfast. We got leftover bread from breakfast for lunch, along with more sardines. We also got sardines with stale bread for dinner. The cook was basically on strike. Luckily, there were plenty of banana and mango trees along the river to supplement our diet.

“It was easy to follow the tributary because it was running straight black mud”

But we had our attention on other matters. The heavy rains began on the day Sam departed. In one night, the river rose up at least fifteen feet. And it roared! Entire trees were washing downriver. It was a torrent. The water was the color of brown mud. The river rose up and spread out into the jungle, making the whole area into a huge, forested lake. There were no riverbanks to be found in most areas. Our own camp was within four feet of being washed away. We knew where the river was only because of the swift moving water. Some of the river was difficult to travel upon, because it was flowing through the treetop canopy, which was occupied here and there by huge nests of African killer bees and other hornets and varmints. It was a nightmare!

On top of that, the natives caught a hundred-pound Cayman (alligator) with a net out of one of our dredge holes where they had been fishing. It was certainly big enough to take a man’s arm off. At that point, the natives told us these animals came much larger on the river.

That was the day Alley decided to come down with his own bout of jungle fever.

Since Alley was incapacitated, I chose that day to hike back to the base camp and have a talk with Sam about the adverse diving conditions. Although we had recovered some diamonds and gold already, I was not comfortable with the recovery system for diamond recovery. I also was not excited about diving in the swollen, muddy river. I would like to get a look at what is going to eat me before I die! Even the natives, who were standing in line to dive in the clear water, absolutely refused to dive in the river once the rains started. This was definitely a very bad sign. Sam managed to get the big boss on the radio and I explained the problems to him. In turn, he told me that his entire company was depending upon the results of my sampling project to justify further investment in the project once the rainy season tapered off. “It all depends on you, Dave.” I told him we would do the best that we could.

The next day, Alan was so weak from diarrhea, that he was barely able to get out of his cot to do his duty outside of camp. I felt my own duty was to go do some sampling with the help of two natives as my tenders. Rather than dredge on the main river (which was raging), I decided to test one of the main tributaries which had the reputation of having lots of diamonds. The natives left me to keep an eye on the dredge, which was tied to the canopy of some trees at the mouth of this tributary, while they hacked a trail through the tree branches several hundred yards up this creek–which was now an endless lake out into the jungle. It took several hours for them to make the trail with their machetes. It was easy to follow the tributary because it was flowing straight, black mud, compared to the brown color of the river water.

While I was standing on the dredge waiting for the natives to finish the trail, a huge bee buzzed by my head. Within a couple minutes, there were about a dozen of these bees buzzing me. They were really mean! I had my hat off and was flailing around wildly trying to keep them away. There was no place I could go off to, to get away from them. Finally, I had to jump into the water and hide underneath the sluice box. This is where the natives found me when they returned. They were quite amused.

It took quite some time for us to drag the dredge up this tributary, because the branches were just hacked off at water level. I was looking for a place we could work off of a streambank, but eventually gave up on that idea. The water was simply too deep. I ended up throwing the suction hose over the side of the dredge, primed and started the pump, put on my seventy-pound lead weight belt and other diving gear, crawled over the side and shimmied carefully down the thirty-foot suction hose. The problem was feeling my way down through the submerged tree limbs to find bottom. There were logs and branches everywhere. I was in total darkness–complete zero visibility. Everything was done by feel, sensation and yes, fear. I finally found the bottom and estimated it to be about twenty-five feet deep by the amount of suction hose I had remaining with me on the bottom. It was scary down there!

After seeing the Cayman on the day before, I had visions of being grabbed by a huge alligator, and other visions of being grabbed by a huge python. A strong voice from inside my heart was telling me to end the dive. It was too darn dangerous! Any emergency would have me and my airline all tangled in the branches. Having to dump the weight belt would put an end to the entire program, because we only had one weight belt.

I decided that I should complete the sample after all we had gone through to get me on the bottom. This is what I was being paid to do.

As I dredged into the gravels on the bottom, by feel, I discovered more buried branches and logs. These, I simply tossed behind me just like I do with oversized rocks. I got into a pretty steady routine down there and was making good progress. But the strong picture of huge alligators and pythons was right there with me all the time. Do you know the feeling you have when watching a scary movie when you know something terrible is just about to happen? And when it happens suddenly it scares the heck out of you? This was the state I was in when something heavy jumped onto my back. I let go of the hose, turned on my back, and kicked this thing off of me like a crazy man–like I was fighting off an alligator. Then I realized it was just one of the water-logged heavy pieces of wood I had thrown behind me.

This was a terrible feeling of terror and embarrassment. I’m serious; I was so scared, I wanted to crawl right back up into my mother’s womb. I was left wondering what the heck I was doing there. Why was I doing this? It was nuts!

It is impossibly-difficult times like this, and how you manage them, that contribute to the definition of your personal character and integrity. And I freely admit that staying down there to finish the sample was one of the most difficult challenges I have ever overcome. This was a total mission-impossible situation! After a moment to get myself refocused, I turned around and finished the sample hole to bedrock. I carefully shimmied back up the suction hose, coiling my airline as I went, to make sure it was not tangled in branches. When we cleaned up the sluice boxes, we were rewarded with several gem-quality diamonds, one which was quite large and handsome.

“I let go of the hose, turned on my back, and kicked this thing off of me like a crazy man!”

When I got back to camp that night, Alan was still sick in his cot. I did not hesitate to tell him of my experience. I also told him he was doing half the diving from then on, starting the next day, with or without jungle fever!

And that’s the way it went for the next twenty days or so. We completed four samples per day, with Alan doing half of the diving. Some days, the river was so high we had to tie off on branches of trees out in the middle of the river. We would take turns watching for trees being washed down the river, and would pull each other out by the airline every time this occurred, to keep from getting snagged by the trees and dragged down river.

The diving was extremely dangerous. Each time one of us went down, we did so knowing there was a definite possibility that we would not live through it. The only other option was to give up. But, we had originally agreed to do our best to overcome the difficult conditions. That’s how we got the job in the first place. We didn’t really have any other choice. I look back on it now and can enjoy the adventure. At the time, however, it was not any fun at all. It was crazy!

The biggest problem was the lack of an air reserve tank on the dredge. Sometimes it would take as much as ten minutes to feel a way down through the submerged branches in the total darkness. We had to find a path. There was no easy, fast way to get back to the surface. Cutting the weight belt loose would probably be sure death. Not only that, but we would probably never recover the body! No reserve air tank meant almost no margin should the engine quit for any reason–which, luckily, it never did.

However, the heat from the compressor did melt the airline, causing it to blow off altogether when I was down on one dive. We run the airline around our neck and through our belt for safety. With no air reserve tank, we were able to hear the compressor working underwater by the vibrational sounds coming from the airline. I had just spent quite some time finding a path to the river bottom and started dredging gravel, when my air supply was abruptly cut off and I no longer heard the compressor noise from the airline. But the nozzle was still sucking. I stayed there for a few seconds trying to understand the problem and what to do, when suddenly my air supply returned and I heard the compressor noise again. I almost just kept on dredging, but decided after all to go up and see what had happened. When I got to the surface, Alan was holding the airline onto the compressor output with his bare hand. He got a pretty good burn out of it. An inexperienced underwater miner never would have known what to do. Alley saved my life. This is one of the reasons I seldom do these projects alone.

“He made his bow out of the core of a hardwood tree, using a machete to carve it exactly the way he wanted”

As we progressed with our sampling further down the river, the natives would move all the gear to new camps every three or four days. Some camps would be reconstructed out of already-existing structures. Other camps had to be built from scratch, using plastic sheeting for the roofing material.

Our main native guide was named Emilio. He was a real jungle man in every sense of the word. He walked with a limp because of an earlier airplane crash in which he was the sole survivor. His family hut had been hit by lightning several years before, and everyone in the hut was killed except Emilio. He was a real survivor! One night, he went hunting with our shotgun–which was only loaded with a single round of light bird shot. In the darkness of the jungle at three o’clock in the morning, Emilio snuck right up on a five-hundred pound female wild boar and shot it dead–right in the head. We had good meat for several days, and even the disgruntled cook cooperated with some excellent meals.

Emilio taught us how to hunt with bow and arrows–mainly for fish. But, he was able to bring in a few chicken-like birds on several occasions. The meat was tough and stringy, but that was probably because of the cook. He made his bow out of the core of a hardwood tree, using a machete to carve it exactly the way he wanted. The arrows were made from the same hard material, using poison from snake venom on the tips for big game hunting. The natives did not have any modem weapons whatsoever, other than the shotgun we let them use while we were there.

Even Emilio refused to dive during the rains. And, our doing so considerably raised the natives’ evaluation of our physical abilities and bravery, even if we were greenhorns in the way of the jungle.

Each Indian we met was very skilled and uncanny in jungle survival. They could tell a boat was coming up the river three hours before it arrived by hearing the change in bird sounds. You will never find a harder bunch of workers anywhere.

The canoes we used were also carved
out of the trunks of hardwood trees. A skilled native takes about six months to make a good dugout canoe, which sells for about sixty dollars. Mostly, the canoes are paddled. But the more affluent natives do have outboard motors, which make the canoes go along at a pretty good clip. The natives are very skilled at driving the

canoes over top of submerged logs and through rapids. A lot of the time the boats were loaded so heavily that there was only about a half-inch of freeboard on each side. Yet, we never swamped a boat.

The gold pans they used, called Beteas, are also carved out of huge logs. Several classifications of screens are used on top of the Beteas to classify material and screen for diamonds. The natives have a special way to quickly rotate the screens, which causes diamonds to move to the center of the screen where they are easily picked out. It is quite something to watch.

Many native miners only go after the diamonds. They know they only need to find about one or two diamonds a year to make it worth their while for the extra things they want. Otherwise, the jungle provides for all of the basic survival needs of the natives. They are quite self sufficient.

“I was running down the trail at full speed like a mad man out of control, swinging my hat about

The natives received about two dollars a day in wages and were happy to get it up until the end of our project. We wanted to extend one more week to really finish the job right. However, the natives made it clear that no amount of money could sway them from going back to harvest their gardens on time.

While we were hauling our gear along the mile and a half-long trail to the landing strip, I was swarmed by African killer bees. It was terrifying! I heard them coming from quite some distance away. It sounded like a bus coming through the jungle. First, there were only a few bees around me, then a whole bunch. In panic, I was running down the trail at full speed like a mad man out of control, swinging my hat about. Then they were gone. I put my hat back on only to get stung right on top of the head. I felt completely spent. It was time to go home.

When we returned to the base camp, we found out Sam had plenty of problems of his own. At least half his sampling crew had to be evacuated from the jungle due to an outbreak of malaria and yellow fever. When we arrived, he immediately needed our help to Griphoist the jeep out of a creek that it had crashed into. Apparently, the jeep had a problem jumping out of first gear while being driven down a hill. The lower gears needed to be used to keep the jeep from going too fast, because of the no-brakes situation. Sam was driving the jeep down a steep hill with four natives in the back. It popped out of gear and they made one mad roller-coaster ride to the bottom, only to smash right through their man-made bridge into the creek. Miraculously, no one was hurt and the jeep wasn’t wrecked. We managed to get the jeep back onto the trail and hightail it back to the base camp just as total darkness descended on the jungle. Sam looked at it as just another great adventure; just another day in the life of a jungle-man!

Our trip back from the jungle to Caracas was relatively uneventful, except that I was able to buy a nicely-cut diamond in Cuidad Bolivar for pennies on the dollar at U.S. prices. I presented this to my (ex) wife when I returned home and she was quite pleased to have it mounted on a ring.

Over all, our project was successful. We found diamonds, and we found some gold. We did exceptionally well considering the impossible conditions. The largest diamond located on the concession while we were there was over eight carats. But that came out of one of the test pits on Sam’s digging operation. We never found gravels deeper than three feet to bedrock, and there was very little oversized material to move by hand–other than submerged logs. The area would be a breeze to work in clear, slower water–like during the dry season. Everyone involved was impressed with our test results. We submitted a proposal to do a more extensive test/production project with more men and larger equipment, but internal politics within the company ultimately killed the program altogether.

I’ll say this: If we ever do go back, I guarantee it will not be during the rainy season. And we will have a cook who can find no better pleasure in life than to feed us well.

* The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987 Edition.

 

 

 

By Dave McCracken

Sometimes, you will find that you are as close to winning as you can be, even though things have never looked worse!

Dave Mack
 
A short time ago, my dredging partner and I were sampling in a new section of river. We were looking for high-grade pay-streaks, dredging test holes, and hadn’t had any luck from five very well-done samples. We floated down to a new section of river, where the water was very fast. It was on the inside of the tail-end of a bend of the river–an excellent place to find a high-grade pay-streak.

The problem was that we hadn’t found a single speck of gold in the previous five sample holes. This was uncommonly-bad! Usually, we at least find some showing of flood-gold in every test hole in river-dredging. For the most part, I had decided that this section of river must have been very low-grade. We had about a half-mile left downriver to the next river access–where we would be able to pull the dredge back out of the river. So, we decided it was worth a few more sample holes as we drifted down in that direction.

This new section of river had slow water towards the bank. I had it figured that the pay-streak would be located out under the fast water — which is often the case. I don’t know why, but mother-nature often has a knack for hiding her natural treasures in areas which are more difficult to get into!

We set up the dredge in the slower water alongside the bank, got everything running, and I started the sample hole right out on the edge of the fast water. Once the hole was down far enough to protect me from the current, I pushed the hole out under the fast water where I figured the pay-streak would most likely be. This was very difficult, because the force of water was pushing very hard against the suction hose and my airline. I just muscled the work through against the current, but it took a great deal of effort. I was in that zone where heavy effort, physical pain, and emotional stress are all the same?

The suction hose was swept back into the current several times, which required me to go back, drag the hose over towards the bank, pull it back upstream, and get it back out into the sample hole. All this, to keep pushing the hole further out into the current, and deeper towards bedrock.

When I reached bedrock, I uncovered it slowly to see if there was any visible gold in the cracks. All I saw was a few small flecks–nothing to get excited about. It was gold, however; and seeing it on the bedrock was encouraging. It was the first gold we had seen in that section of river. Seeing the flecks on the bedrock meant that I was beginning to dial into the right wavelength!

Having it in mind that the best gold would be further out into the current, I pushed the hole in that direction. The further I pushed, the more difficult it was. The bedrock out there showed no gold. My arms felt like spaghetti!

So I pulled back into the original place where I spotted the gold flecks on bedrock, took another small cut off the front of the hole, and worked it down to bedrock slowly so I could see if there was anymore gold. I did not see any. So I assumed this area must also be low-grade and decided to call it quits.

As I was dragging the dredge’s suction hose in towards the bank, the thought crossed my mind that I ought to test the inside of the dredge hole–over towards the slow water.

If the streambed material had been deeper, it is likely I would not have tested toward the inside. Why? Because I had it in my mind that the pay-streak was out under the fast water; not under the slow water. But, because the streambed was shallow, and I had seen some gold on the bedrock where I first touched down, I decided to take a quick cut off the inside of the sample hole.

Sure enough, I spotted several small flakes of gold on the bedrock. So I took a larger cut off the inside, pushing towards the bank. About halfway down to bedrock, I started seeing flakes of gold in the gravel–kind of like Christmas. On the bedrock, I uncovered a pothole full of gold; it was about eight ounces in all–about half of it was jewelry gold. And that began one of the richest pay-streaks we ever found!

There is a lesson in this!

Everything we do, everywhere we go, is the result of the decisions we make. Sometimes we get going on a path which is just not the right direction! This is not just in gold mining. Sometimes the signals are there, telling us we are going the wrong way — often by the amount of pain and discomfort and effort it is taking to keep moving in the wrong direction. Have you ever found yourself in a major difficulty — only later, sometimes much later, to realize that it was one of the best things that ever happened to you?

The lesson is to never give up hope! Never say die! Sometimes, you will find that you are as close to winning as you can be, even though things have never looked worse. This is especially true in gold mining.

This is not to say that you should keep pushing hard in a direction that is not working. It is to say that if one direction does not seem to work, take it a little further, and then look around for another way to go. Don’t get fixed in one mind-set. Ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish, and keep your awareness open and your imagination working to find the available opportunities to accomplish your goal.

We manage group gold mining operations in northern California just about every other weekend during the spring, summer and fall months. During these operations, it is my personal responsibility to make sure that silt, sand and gravel are not washed back into the river off the bank from our tailings-water. This requires continuous effort to keep tailings water directed along the natural contours on the land outside of the river. Sometimes I spend a lot of time running up and down the bank trying to stop the water or slow it down. One thing for sure, if you stop the water in one place, pretty soon it is running down the bank somewhere else! Gravity is a force of energy that never stops.

In many ways, this is not dissimilar to a person’s intention to accomplish a goal. Sometimes, we will find our immediate progress slowed down or stopped altogether. But if we maintain our intention, and study the barriers to our progress, we can usually find other ways to make progress. The key is in maintaining the intention, keep pushing along, and having a little patience.

The best things in life usually take a little time to accomplish. And the best memories often come from the accomplishment of difficult goals.

 

 

By Dave McCracken

“Pushsay, Pushay for your lives!”

Dave Mack

 

Our driver yelled, “Pushsay,Pushsay, push for your lives!” My friend of many years, Sam Speerstra, was managing this project. Sam is an “Indiana Jones” character from way back. Go with Sam, and you are sure to fine some adventure. He was the one who got me into diving for diamonds in Venezuela during the rainy season a few years ago. What a nightmare that was! Sam also introduced me to Madagascar, which is where this adventure took place. We were prospecting for high-grade gold.

“Hurry, give it everything you’ve got. I hear trucks coming!” Sam was driving us in an old Toyota pickup truck that probably already had a couple of hundred thousand miles on it. It was a wreck! The engine kept cutting out as we were working our way up the steep grade of a remote mountain, somewhere in darkest, undeveloped Madagascar. Sam’s swearing got progressively more descriptive and deafening as the engine problems got worse. We were pretty close to the top when the engine finally quit. It was in the middle of the night on a blind corner of a pretty busy highway. Most of the trucks traveling the highway did not have headlights; they travel by moonlight a lot in Madagascar!

Sam Speerstra, modern “Indiana Jones”

They speak French in this particular country. My French is lousy, but I understood the message. As soon as the engine quit, three other guys and I were out of the truck and pushing uphill. We already knew there was not a single pull-off behind us for several miles. We had been watching for pull-offs! There were also no guard rails. The embankment was very steep. Visibility was non-existent; the moon was not out this night. We were in near total darkness. We could hear the trucks coming from both directions on the highway. Sam was steering the vehicle as we pushed, yelling “Pushsay, Pushsay!”

We barely got the Toyota off the side of the road just up from the blind turn, when big delivery trucks passed by from both directions. The one coming downhill only had one dim headlight. It was moving in low gear. It probably didn’t have any brakes.

Once off the road, Sam stepped out of the vehicle, slipped, fell down the hill and ended up face down in a muddy ditch. The cussing started all over again. No one could find a flashlight to fix the engine. The guys figured it was a problem with the fuel injectors being too loose. They tightened them up in the dark, by feel.

E-r-r-r-r-er, E-r-r-r-r-er, E-r-r-r-r-er…Next we found the battery was too low to start the engine.

Sam decided the best thing to do was push-start the Toyota backwards downhill, around the blind curve in the darkness. What else could we do? We pushed, he steered. We tried three times. The engine would not start. That was when Sam admitted that the Toyota never push-started in reverse! We ended up in the same place on the blind curve where the Toyota originally conked out. “Pushsay, Pushsay for your lives.” Back up the hill we pushed the Toyota once again. I started looking for a place to sleep. There was only one sleeping bag in the truck, so I started quietly planning how I was going to find it first—while the others discussed the problem in French.

Pretty soon, a big delivery truck coming up the hill was stopped by one of the Frenchmen involved with our operation. I did not understand everything that was being said, but it became clear that no one had a working flashlight and no one had anything to tow with. The truck did have a long piece of wood in the back. It looked to be about 20 feet long. It was a rough-cut 2X6. They decided to use it as a push rod from bumper to bumper. Sam was going to attempt a jump-start going forward up the hill.

My biggest concern was getting over the top of the mountain. From there it was downhill to the village where we would put up until morning in a hotel—with real beds. We also had not eaten dinner yet. The main concern of Sam and everyone else was not destroying the license plate on the Toyota. What’s the big deal about a license plate for a broken down old vehicle? Without the license plate being nearly perfect, there were serious problems with “Les Polisia” at the many security checkpoints throughout the country! Damaged license plates were cause for harassment. Destroyed or missing license plates were cause for seizure! The severity of the offense would rule how much money it would cost to buy ourselves out of trouble at each checkpoint.

I was mainly hoping to get over the hill and down to the village where we could find a place to sleep that was off the open ground.

Pretty soon, the push rod was placed between the vehicles. Not being able to stand back any longer with dinner and a real bed predominant in my mind, I over-rode everyone’s objections by placing the push rod on top of the Toyota bumper, under the license plate, through the hole and up against the spare tire. This way, they only had to hold and balance the push rod against the front bumper of the big truck. Sam gave the signal and off they went—uphill. I watched. It looked like the Keystone Cops in the dark. Five big guys (two were passengers from the big truck) holding the push rod against the big truck’s bumper, running along in front of the big truck as they went faster and faster. Sam popped the clutch in second gear and the Toyota roared away in front of the truck, in the dark with five men being dragged behind, holding onto the push rod. They had to let go, because Sam took off like a shot, not wanting to take any chance of the truck quitting again.

When the men let go of the push rod, it dropped to the ground, pushed up against the license plate, and pop, off went the license plate, sailing into the darkness, over the steep embankment. The men were so upset, I thought they were going to cry. No use in crying over tomorrow’s problems. I urged everyone back into the truck so we could get going before it quit again.

Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves checked in to a reasonably comfortable hotel, by fourth-world standards, and eating dinner—and sharing a warm beer. The next day we found the license plate. It was only slightly damaged. Yes, life is good!

 
video subscription graphic
This story first appeared in Gold & Treasure Hunter Magazine Nov/Dec, 1998 on Page 24. This issue is still available! Click here.

By Dave McCracken

You never really know what might lurk deep down in the depths of a muddy, tropical river…

 

This story is dedicated to my long-time loyal friend and fellow adventurer, Ernie Pierce. Ernie and I did three prospecting trips to Madagascar together, of which this is just one of the stories. He played a very important part on this project in working out how to increase fine gold recovery when processing heavy sands through standard riffles within the sluice box of a suction dredge. Ernie has an enthusiastic, magic disposition for being able to work out solutions to challenging problems in the field. He also overcame the primordial fear that every human being has of going down into deep, black underwater holes (where dangerous monsters lurk, if only in your imagination). I don’t know very many people who are willing to do that! It has been one of my greatest pleasures, and it has been a personal honor, to participate in adventures alongside of Ernie in California, and in multiple other interesting places all around the world.

It was difficult to see into the deep canyon, because it dropped off so steeply, and because the driver was veering around the bends in the road so fast, racing the Toyota Land Cruiser down the mountain road. This road had no guard rails to prevent us from plunging a thousand feet into the abyss. So, while I would like to have taken a better look at the breath-taking scenery, and I should have captured this part of the adventure with my video camera, all of my personal attention was riveted on the bumpy, narrow, winding road in front of us. I was scared that we were going to fly out over the edge to a certain and violent end! Once in a while, though, I did get a glimpse of a large river cascading down a steady series of natural falls. What an wonderfully-spectacular place! And I did manage to capture the incredible, wild river in the following video segment at one place where we stopped for a moment so I could relieve myself:

The traffic obstacles that posed the most serious threat to our safety were the pain-stakingly slow, and what appeared to be an endless procession, of supply trucks that were inching their way up and down this very steep grade, taking advantage of the lowest gear they had, to save their brakes, those that even had breaks! Our driver, as did all the other drivers of the smaller vehicles moving in both directions, had the hair-raising
challenge of passing the slower vehicles without running into something coming from the other direction. One blind curve after the next placed us almost entirely in the hands of fate. Our driver had no way of knowing whether a vehicle was or was not coming from the other direction, as he committed our vehicle to many of the “go-for-it” passes that we made.


I was holding on for dear life!

Madagascar was colonized by the French, so driving is done on the right side of the road. Being on the right side of the road put us dangerously-close to the precipice! At the high speed we were traveling, I was certain my time had finally come this late afternoon! On several occasions, by my calculations, there was no possible way that we were going to make it around the next curve! There just wasn’t enough room on the road to get past oncoming traffic without our wheels slipping over the edge of a very deep canyon. I couldn’t even see the canyon’s bottom! Each “go-for-it-pass” succeeded, either by divine intervention, or by the incredible driving ability of the young Malgasy man at the wheel.

I have lived a pretty gifted life, and I find myself counting my blessings pretty often. It’s not that very much was given to me; I have pretty-much had to climb the painful ladder of success several times. The end-result is all the more sweet when you have to work hard and sacrifice greatly to get there. I have lived on the cutting edge of danger a good part of the time; this is really true! There are not that many more things I feel I need to do before I meet my end of this life. So I find myself saying every once in a while that when the time comes, I am ready to move on to whatever is next. A lot of people say they/we are not scared to die. And you really feel that way when you are saying it! But we only feel that way when we are not looking death right in the eye! When sudden death lurks near, I feel the terror just like anyone else!

As quickly as the hair-raising ride began, we suddenly found ourselves safe at the bottom of the mountain. The immediate danger was over. We were graciously treated to a hot meal and a comfortable bed in the best (and only) hotel in the small village located at the base of the mountain. It was great to still be alive!

This was my fourth expedition to Madagascar in search of gold. Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island. It is located about 400 miles off the south-east coast of mainland Africa. The country is approximately 1,200 miles long by 400 miles wide (at its longest and widest points). So it is no small country. The country is extremely poor, one of the poorest nations on earth. It is also extremely rich in mineral wealth. Especially in precious stones! Madagascar is an incredibly beautiful and scenic country! For the most part, the country is nearly undeveloped. Although, there are some larger towns that are quite developed. I captured the following video segment in the capital city of Antananarivo, a place where I have spent quite a lot of time:

This preliminary dredge sampling program was on behalf of clients who own some gold mineral concessions in Madagascar. Ernie Pierce was along to assist with the sampling. We were there to get a preliminary idea of how much gold we could recover using suction dredges on two large rivers. We already knew gold was there because of an earlier expedition that we made into both locations to do a preliminary evaluation. Local gold miners were mining gold all over the place. They were mostly panning river gravel alongside the active river. Some were shoveling gravel from the active waterway in the shallow areas. Others were shoveling deeper-water areas out of dug-out boats, using the longest-handled shovels I have ever seen. The native miners were getting gold from everywhere!

As this area was accessible by road, the logistics for setting up a dredging project were not too bad. We arrived with a substantial contingent of people and equipment. We had enough support to move us around, set up our camps, cook for us, do laundry and take care of all our basic needs.

The company we were working for had quite a substantial base camp located where the end of the road met this river. There was a mess hall, some hot showers, individual bungalows; all the comforts of home! Unfortunately, the river near to and downstream of the base camp appeared to have deep sand deposits everywhere. There was no bedrock showing anywhere along that part of the river. Our initial impression was that the sand deposits in that lower section of river were going to be too deep to penetrate using our 5-inch sampling dredge. So we made a plan to pack all of our sampling gear and a fly camp (only basic needs) several kilometers upstream where the streambed deposits were shallow to bedrock. Our intention was to float down river, dredging sample holes through the entire distance back to the base camp.

After initially settling into our fly camp, the primary task at hand was for Ernie and I to determine whether or not the gold here was present in sufficient quantities (over a large enough area) to justify a production dredging program on this river. Ernie captured the following video sequence showing myself, Sam Speerstra (project manager) and Jack (Malagasy manager of our local support team) finalizing a sample plan after our camp was set up alongside the first river:

We spent the better part of a rather uneventful week dredging sample holes on this first river. Interestingly, while local miners were supporting their villages panning gold from placer deposits alongside the river, we could not find any high-grade gold deposits inside the active waterway. Ernie and I devoted long hours to making sizable excavations through hard-packed streambed material to bedrock. And while there was some amount of gold present everywhere, we could find no places where gold concentrated enough to justify any type of production dredging program. While we could speculate about the reasons why, the important thing was that we ruled out the possibility of a commercial dredging program in this area. This was what we went there to do. End of story!

As we did not bring anything extra with us when we packed our gear into the upper area of this river, I was not able to capture video until we arrived back down near the base camp. The video link just above includes a sequence that I took while we were dredging the final sample in front of the base camp. See how deep the light sand and gravel deposits appear to be? We did not expect to find the bottom of this loose streambed material, and we didn’t. But our sampling plan required that we at least try in several areas.

After spending a week on the first river, we were eager to relocate ourselves and our sampling infrastructure over to the second river that we intended to sample, which was several hundred miles away. That process took several days to accomplish. Prospects for commercial dredging opportunity on the second river looked much better to us during the earlier preliminary evaluation. We decided to save this area for last so we could devote most of our time there.

Normally, the first thing we do before making a sampling plan on a new section of river is walk, boat and/or swim the entire length if we can, to see what is there. This allows us to look everything over to see where the best opportunities appear to be. If lucky, we will come upon local mining operations. Those will communicate a lot to us about the prospects. This is because local miners, having spent generations prospecting for gold in the area, will already have a good idea where the best potential opportunities are for the type of mining that we do.

The following video segment found us making a plan on the first morning after we arrived at this second river. The person talking is Sam Speerstra:

Note the active shoveling operations in the river behind where we were pulling the dredge upriver.

How clear is the water?

The first and most important fact of note about the second river was that it was flowing with muddy water. Too bad! Water clarity is the first thing I look for when evaluating a river for dredging. Will I be able to see anything when I get on the bottom of the river? The answer in this case was an emphatic “NO!” This was pretty disappointing to me, because I had been assured by Sam months before, when we proposed the sampling program, that I could depend upon having clear water in this river. As it turns out, this particular waterway drains many thousand acres of upstream rice paddies. It never runs clear!

This was not Sam’s fault. It is nearly certain that you are going to get wrong information from locals in these types of places. With the help of even the best interpreters, communication and understanding tends to break down on technical things. What is clear water to me, and what is clear water to a rice farmer in remote Madagascar, are sure to be widely-different perceptions of reality. Especially when he has never even seen a face mask or a diver before! Over time, on the important things, I have learned to keep asking the same question over and over again in different ways. In doing so, it never ceases to amaze me how many different answers we come up with! Sometimes, no matter how many different ways you pose the questions, you can still never arrive at an answer that you have much faith in. This is not because the locals are lying. It is usually because their perception of the world is so vastly different than ours.

You have to be pretty flexible when conditions turn out not to be the way you expected them to be…

Sam Speerstra is the modern incarnation of “Indiana Jones.”

Sam Speerstra is the true-life incarnation of “Indiana Jones.” Sam has gotten me into and out of more (mis)adventures than anyone should experience in a single lifetime. The last dirty river Sam had me diving in was full of crocodiles and electric eels. That river was a nightmarish diamond project in Venezuela.

Without visibility, there was no way of knowing for certain what was on the bottom of this deep river! I’m not talking about the gold; we can figure that out through careful sampling. I’m talking about the critters!

When I initially evaluate a tropical river for a potential dredging project, the second condition that I evaluate after water clarity is whether or not there are life forms present that are potentially dangerous to me or my helpers. I do this mainly by visual observation. First, I look to see if the local people are working, washing, bathing and swimming in the water. If they are, and they appear healthy; I generally assume that the river is alright to dive in. Although, locals always have a stronger resistance to higher levels of bacteria in their local rivers. So our standard medicine kit on these projects always contains a supply of the best antibiotics to prevent serious types of internal or external infections.

I also ask the locals about sickness and dangerous critters. However, the problem with asking about critters in the water lies with the interpretation. You cannot depend upon only one inquiry or interpretation. For instance, I will never forget the size of the alligator I saw along a river in Borneo several years ago. This was after assurances from our local jungle-guides that alligators did not even exist there. We had been dredging the river several weeks when I suddenly encountered an alligator which must have been 18 feet long! It turned out that these man-eaters were being called “dragons” (not alligators) by the local village people! So I have learned to frame the most important questions in numerous different ways, and I keep asking them over and over again to different locals as I am trying to find things out about a new area.

A lot of local natives were in the river where Ernie and I wanted to sample, so it was probably safe — at least in the shallow portion. You never really know what might lurk deep down in the depths of a muddy, tropical river…

Ernie and his team capturing a little video…

I have accomplished quite a few dredge sampling projects in dirty water. It is a very scary and difficult business. The work involves going down into deep, pitch-dark, frightening places “in the blind,” with no visual assistance. I know that there are live creatures down there that do not appreciate my intrusion into their territory (unless they intend to eat me). To move around cautiously, I have to feel my way by sticking my hand or foot out into complete darkness, feeling around for what is there. Most of the time, before going down, I don’t even know how deep the water is. Sometimes I have to find out by shimmying down the suction hose, reaching out tentatively with one leg at a time to see if I can touch bottom. I am in a state of heightened awareness, desperately hoping that I am not going to touch something that is big and alive. All the while, I am wondering, “How far am I going to have to go this time?”

It is one thing to read about this in the comfort of your computer within a safe environment and feel like you can do it. But you are not exactly the same person when you are dangling dangerously in the dark. You might be the same basic identity; but other parts of you (like terror) get switched on at full volume. I suppose you would really have to go through the experience to fully-appreciate it. Until you do; take it from someone who is used to living on the edge: Diving down in deep, muddy, tropical rivers is not easy!

Muddy water creates total darkness about three feet beneath the water’s surface, sometimes less. So, all you can see down there is what is in your imagination. Do you remember those terrifying nightmares that you had when you were a kid? They still lurk in your subconscious. When going down into deep, dark, terrifying physical places, memories of nightmarish dreams are brought immediately back to life. If you are someone who doesn’t think you are afraid of anything, you ought to try diving in deep, muddy, tropical rivers! You will find there that your deepest fears are just below the surface of your normal, everyday life.

Let me try this a different way: Do you know that feeling when someone startles you at just the right (wrong) time and frightens the heck out of you? Just for that split second, you feel a deeply-seated fear; right on the edge of a panic attack? That is exactly what you experience when you go down into the deep darkness of a tropical river; especially on the first dive.

Nevertheless, over time, I have learned to deal with dirty water. This does not mean that I am not still afraid. I am! It means that I have worked out a way to proceed. Dredging in dirty water is a much slower process. Everything must be done by blind feel, and therefore with care. The process is all about taking control over a single space in the darkness. You get to know every rock in the hole and every obstruction which defines the space. Sometimes, there are submerged trees or other obstacles that you must be very careful around to prevent your airline from becoming snagged. You must dredge alone in dirty water. Otherwise, you cannot toss rocks or roll boulders out of the excavation without a good chance of hurting someone else down there that you cannot even see.

Base camp

Several years ago, my lead diver on a dirty-water sampling operation in Cambodia had a portion of his ear bitten off by a fish. One quick bite and it was gone! That created lots of blood and drama to slow the job down! After that, none of the other guys that I had brought with me wanted to dive. Who could blame them? But we still needed to complete the job; that’s what we do! Surprisingly, it was the lead diver who had to continue the diving on that particular job. I did a little, too; but, that was mainly to show the other guys that I would not ask them to do something which I personally was not willing to do. We wore full dive hoods and dive helmets to protect ourselves from the biting fish, whatever it was. We never saw the creature that took the bite! And as it went, just a few more dives to finish the job proved-out one of the richest gold locations I have ever discovered. But underwater, we couldn’t see a thing!

The primary consideration in assessing a dirty river is how much more time we need to allow ourselves to get the job done in an underwater environment where the divers cannot see anything.

This is one main factor which nearly always undermines the commercial viability of a sizable dredging operation. Who is going to go down and run a 10-inch dredge in zero visibility, 6 hours a day, for a living? The gold deposits will have to be very rich to support this kind of program. I have found several underwater gold deposits that are moderately rich, but they are protected by dirty water conditions. The deposit that we found in Cambodia, for example, would make a dredging operation a lot of money if the diver-visibility problem could be overcome.

People often ask why we need to send divers down in the first place to conduct a gold dredging program. They want to know why the excavation cannot be managed from the surface using mechanical arms. The reason is that sizable rocks along the river-bottom must be moved out of the way of the suction nozzle. Otherwise, one oversized rock (too big to go up the nozzle) after another gets in front of the suction nozzle, blocking further progress until it is moved out of the way. Because of this, with few exceptions, there is no other effective way to proceed without putting divers down into the depths.

These two articles explain the underwater process in detail:

When Ernie and I first started watching the local gold miners on this particular river in Madagascar, we relaxed our fears; because even their small children were bathing and playing inside the river. This was a good break for us!

Now it was just a matter of deciding where to do our sample holes. Ernie and I used a two-pronged strategy that we have developed over the years for these situations. First, we dredge sample holes near and in line with where the local miners are actively achieving positive results. Most high-grade gold deposits follow a common line down along a waterway. For example, see how the following important video segment shows how the many local digging operations inside the river are following a common path. If you look closely, you can see tailings remaining from previous digging activity right on the same path. To get our own sampling operations off to a good start, we usually begin along the same path in the river where most of the local miners are working:

Secondly, Ernie and I offered financial rewards to the local miners for each place they showed us to dredge where we could find lots of gold. Such places are usually in the deeper areas where locals cannot gain access using the gear at their disposal. A “grande” reward goes to the person who shows us the place where we find the most gold. Wow, this incentive sure got Malagasy miners talking; and we started to find a lot of gold!

We moved our sample dredge in direct line with where local miners were doing well working out of dug-out canoes using long-handled shovels. This got us into rich gold right away!

Since we could not see how deep the water was in this dirty river, and because we had already established that there were some deep deposits of sand and loose gravel along the bottom that we wanted to avoid with our 5-inch dredge, before doing dredge samples, we used a long steel probe to find areas along the established gold path where the water was not too deep for us to reach bottom, and where we could reach hard-packed streambed without having to go through a deep layer of sand first. The following video segment shows how we performed this important pre-sampling process:

In one location, I decided to sample directly underneath a native “boat-mining” operation. I did this because I noticed the natives were working the location very aggressively. This is always a good sign! They were using long-handled shovels, about 20 feet long, from anchored boats well out into the river. The water was at least 12 feet deep! These shovels were especially designed to bring gravel up from deep water. The natives were very good at it. Have you ever tried shoveling material from underwater? Nearly all the material washes off the shovel before you can get it to the surface. Not with the Malagasy boat miners, however. They were bringing up full shovels every time. The material was being panned at the surface.

The following video segment provides a firsthand look and explanation of the boat-mining which we saw when we first arrived at this river. Seeing this type of active mining along the river by local miners was very encouraging, and immediately helped shape the sampling plan which Ernie and I would follow:

As it turned out, local miners from the boat-mining operations had plenty of gold to sell! They were anchoring their boats out in the river by driving hardwood poles deeply down into the streambed material, and then tying their boats off firmly to the poles at the water’s surface. The boats needed to remain stationary to allow the miners a firm platform from which to work the hard-packed streambed material along the bottom of the river. Consequently, we could look along the river and see many stakes remaining from earlier mining activity. Unsurprisingly, most of the stakes followed a common line down the river as far as we could see. We still needed to confirm it by sampling, but Ernie and I had a pretty good idea where the high-grade gold line was located in this river even before we unloaded our sample dredge from the truck. This was good!

The following video segment shows how we went about our sampling program. Notice the wooden poles out in the river? Because there was zero visibility underwater, you will see that Ernie had to keep jumping up to peak his head above water to steer himself and the dredge out in line with the poles. Where the water was too deep for that, we had to shimmy up the suction hose to have a look. Sometimes, it was so difficult to find our way in the dark, that we first positioned the dredge out on the river using ropes, and then shimmied down the suction hose in the dark to take a sample:

Ernie and I felt it was important to get one sample directly under one of the active boat-mining operations. This was so that our clients could estimate the value of gold deposits that local miners were developing in the river, and to see if they were excavating all the way to the bedrock. I was the one to dredge that particular sample. To accomplish this safely, we paid those particular boat-miners to stop digging for a few hours while I was under their boat.

As we had to drive our dredge out past the middle of the river to reach their hole on the bottom of the river, it was quite a challenge to find their hole in the pitch dark. When I finally found it, I was amazed to discover that they were actually penetrating deep into the hard-packed streambed material with their long-handled shovels. This must have presented them with a substantial challenge, because the cobbles were tightly interlocked together. At the bottom of their excavation, I found that their shovels were touching on bedrock, but that there was no way for them to take up the highest-grade material which was resting directly on bottom. They also were not able to clean the natural gold traps inside of the bedrock where most of the gold should have been. Too bad!

Being mindful that I was dredging in a high-grade deposit that had been previously located by other miners, I did not stay under the boat-miner platform any longer than it took to dredge up about a cubic meter of the hard-packed pay-dirt off the bottom. The material was only around four feet to bedrock; an easy place to dredge even in the dark water. We recovered a lot of gold proportionately to the volume of streambed that I processed. My estimation is that the river could produce 5 ounces of gold per day in dirty water using a 5-inch dredge.

The following video segment shows the gold we recovered from this sample, and captures my summation of what we needed to do to complete our preliminary sampling program on this part of the river:

 

 

The gravel being brought up from the river bottom by local miners was panning out very well!

As it turned out, the local miners were greatly impressed and worried by our dredging machine. They watched the volume of gravel wash across our sluice box, while they were bringing it up one small shovelful at a time. Prior to our arrival on the scene, they were the biggest and the best miners around! They could put two and two together, however. After our test under their boat, they began 24-hour boat-mining operations in that location. You could see their campfires down by the river (for light) burning all night long. Within a few days, there were a dozen boat-mining operations going full blast, 24 hours a day. They were worried we were going to return and dredge up all their gold. As good as their discovery was, we were not going to do that. Our sampling thrust thereafter was to determine if the high-grade streambed material extended downstream; and if so, how far?

There was certainly high-grade gold at the bottom of the river!

I’ll never forget Ernie’s first deep, dirty-water dredging dive. I could see that he was pretty nervous about taking the dive, so I offered to walk (crawl) him out into the river for the first time. He agreed to this. After everything was up and running, I took Ernie by the hand and crawled alongside of him in total darkness out to the middle of the river. It was a long way out to where Ernie was going to help finish the sample that I had already started. We grabbed onto the suction hose and dragged the dredge out into the middle of the river, instructing the dredge-tenders to allow the dredge to follow our bubbles. The water was about 12 feet deep in the middle of the river. I could tell that Ernie was having a difficult experience by the way he was gripping my hand. He was holding on for dear life! Finally, Ernie had enough and he began giving me the signal that he wanted to go back to the shore. I got the message immediately from the way he was grabbing me with both hands and jerking me toward the dredge. After we returned to the surface, Ernie told me that he was just “not up to it.” He had that look of panic in his eyes, a feeling I personally know very well! There is no use in trying to push anyone into doing something while they’re in a state of fear and panic. As I have said, it is not easy diving in dirty water! We all have a limit, beyond which we are not willing to go!

Instead, I urged Ernie to do some initial sampling in shallow water so he could get a feel for it. He could work standing up, with his head out of water, if he needed to. Ernie was up for this and immediately went to work closer to the shore. We needed to get some samples over there, anyway. A few minutes later, on his own determination, Ernie went bravely out into the middle of the river and was taking samples from the particular area where we really needed them; in line with where the locals were getting the most gold for their effort. Dirty water dredging is an experience you really have to ease into at your own pace. Ernie adapted quickly, and was soon working efficiently. I could tell this by the continuous gravel which was washing across the dredge’s sluice box.

Locals observing Ernie do a final clean-up

 

Each of us has our own personal limits. Would you walk a tight rope suspended a thousand feet in the air between two tall buildings? Most of us wouldn’t! What would it take to get you to do it?

It takes a lot of personal courage to go well beyond our normal comfort zone into the realm of personal terror. The type of work I do often allows me the opportunity to watch others confront their own personal limitations. In defining this particular character trait of an individual, it is unfair to make your judgment based upon where the initial limits are. True courage is tested when a person is confronted with the need to go beyond personal limits, no-matter where the limits are! I was very honored that day to be present when Ernie overcame very personal and serious fears, and went out into the middle of the river to help accomplish what we were there to do.

On one occasion, Ernie came up the suction hose in a real hurry! I saw the dredge bob up and down as he pulled himself up the suction hose. As it turns out, Ernie was walking around on the bottom of the river (total darkness), and he stepped off into a “bottomless hole”. When he got to the surface, Ernie said that it all had happened within a split second. He suddenly found himself dangling like fish bait from the end of the 20-foot suction hose directly over the “depths of hell.” Luckily, the weight of his body did not pull the suction hose free from the power-jet. I have had the same experience happen to me in dark water. So now, I am careful to take only small steps, feeling my way along the bottom slowly to avoid frightening surprises!

One of the most important things to do in any sampling program is test the efficiency of the recovery system that is being used. To do a proper job of it, you must establish how much of the target mineral (gold, gemstones or whatever) that your recovery system is not catching when processing the raw material from each sample. You cannot just assume the recovery system being used is providing 100% recovery. You have to make regular tests of your tailings using other recovery equipment that can provide the most accurate results possible. During a preliminary sampling program, this usually means careful panning of random tailing samples.

On this program, since we had plenty of very experienced local panners giving us support, whenever possible, we directed our dredge tailings over near the riverbank where our helpers could pan everything that passed over the dredge. They would then show us what we were losing from the dredge.

Since our most important samples were dredged out in deep water, Ernie and I ended up building a wooden box that we were able to suspend from its own floats and catch all the tailings from our dredge. After each sample was complete, while we processed the dredge concentrates through our special concentrator, local miners would carefully pan all our tailings for us.

As it turned out, our losses from the dredge initially were quite substantial. This river had a lot of fine-sized gold that was just passing through our recovery system into tailings with sand. Within the limitations of the tools we had available to us in the field, Ernie and I tried different ideas to improve the dredge’s recovery system. Ultimately, Ernie came to the conclusion that the classification screen needed to be raised further away from the riffles in our sluice box. This allowed more water flow to help the riffles to concentrate. Working this out in the field gave us important insight into what would be needed in the recovery system on a commercial dredge in that area.

The following video segment shows the process we were following to work out how to recover the substantial amount of fine gold we were finding in the river-bottom deposits on this river:

 

 

 

 

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