By Budd Salsig

 

CartoonThe day is just beginning–you and Carl are in the dredge hole. Carl is on the nozzle, and it is your turn to heave cobbles and boulders downstream and out of the hole.

Next hour, you will manage the nozzle while Carl gets to bust his back on boulders. Throughout the day, you will swap around like this. Except when you have to shut down; because it takes two to winch-out a three-footer like the one just upstream that is sitting right inside of the pay-streak. Winching is slow and dangerous work because of rigging, fast water and other challenges which must be overcome.

By now, you and Carl know a lot about boulders and cobbles, in the water or out. Your experience is practical–learned the hard way. But maybe it would help to know, say within ten percent, what a boulder weighs in the water and out. So let’s look at a formula to calculate the weight of rocks in and out of water, by rock diameter. You can easily estimate diameter underwater using hand-spans. You already know that a boulder you can lift underwater just buckles your knees when you try to lift it above the surface. So how much weight is added by lifting it clear of the water? This matters when you are winching, too.

We can figure out rock weights both in and out of the water using a concept called Specific Gravity. We don’t have to weigh the rocks in the air and then in the water. But you could check our results if you want to. Plenty of work has been done on rocks and weights, so we will use existing tables and equations rather than re-invent the wheel.

The definition of Specific Gravity (SG) is: The ratio of the density of a substance (rock) to the density of some pure substance (water), taken as a standard when both densities are obtained by weighing in air. As an example, if one cubic centimeter of gold weighs 19.3 grams, and one cubic centimeter of water weighs 1 gram, then:

Weight of 1 cm3 of ~old SG gold / Weight of 1 cm3 of water = 19.3 gm /1gm = 19.3gm

Or, we say that gold is 19.3 times heavier than water. Water is our standard, and the SG of water is 1.

Now we find from a geology handbook that the SG of most rocks runs from sedimentary (sandstone) (where SG = 2.50); then granite (where SG = 2.73); to basalt (where SG = 3.00). These are typical rocks which you handle all the time while dredging.

Then from Dana’s Manual of Mineralogy, we can find an equation relating Wa (the weight of rock in air), to Ww (the weight of a rock submerged in water), and the specific gravity of that rock:

Or we can rearrange this equation showing the ratio of Ww over Wa, and separate-out the sa-factor, which reveals the weight of the rock underwater:

~ = SG-1 or Ww = ~Wa Wa SG SG

Using our three SG rock numbers: 2.50 for sandstone; 2.73 for granite; and 3.00 for basalt, then:

Ww = 2.50- 1 = L2Q = 3/5 = .6 for sandstone

Ww = .6 Wa SG 2.50 2.50 ~= 2.73- 1 = ill= .63 for granite

Ww = .63 Wa SG 2.73 2.73 ~ = 3.00- 1 = 2/3 = .66 for basalt

Since most rocks end up with SG a little greater than granite, it is reasonable to use the .66 or 2/3 ratio as a general rule. That generally means that Ww = 2/3 Wa.

If Wa is a 10-pound rock above the water, it should weigh around 6.6 pounds when submerged underwater. If Wa is a 300-pound boulder, it will weigh about 200 pounds underwater. Looking at it another way, it is the water which supports one-third of the rock’s weight.

Going back to the knee-buckling maneuver; when you try to lift that 100-pound submerged rock out of the water, it suddenly weighs 150 pounds. Knees buckle! Your winch has the same problem.

Bad back and all, you now have a handy 2/3 rule of thumb!

Let’s go a step further and put together a Table of Average Rock Weights submerged and above the water. For simplicity, we will assume all boulders are river-worn to round-shaped objects (spherical). This way, we can list them by diameter in inches. That will be close enough. You can estimate rock-diameter underwater by hand-spans; that is, from tip of thumb to tip of little finger with your fingers spread. Yours will be around 8 or 9 inches; very easy to check with a ruler.

Let’s do one case in detail to show how it is done: Water weighs 62.5 pounds/cubic foot. The SG of water is 1. The SG of an average rock is 2.75. The rock weighs 2.75 times what the water weighs. Remember, that’s our definition of SG. So, (SG rock = 2.75 x 62.5 pounds/cubic foot (weight of water in air) = 2.75 x 62.5 lbs/cu. ft. (weight of rock in air) = Wa = 172Ibs/cu. ft. (weight of rock in air) Using our handy rule of thumb: 2/3 x 172 lbs/cu. ft. (weight of rock submerged) = 113 pounds while underwater

So a rock which is about 15-inches in diameter will weigh about 113 pounds submerged and 172 pounds above the water’s surface. About the best you can with a rock this size is roll it around underwater. It will take you and Carl both to roll it out of the hole, and a winch to get it out of the water.

That 10-footer in the bottom of your dredge hole is a pretty serious boulder–30 tons in the water, and 45 tons at the surface!

This next hour, Carl is going to be heaving rocks and you will be on the suction nozzle. But before you two get back in the hole, let’s consider if there might be a way to improve the efficiency of rock-removal. Especially on rocks that are too big to roll out of your dredge hole. Can it be done by a single person? The marine salvage people use inflatable air bags to lift loads. Bags are lowered deflated. Then they are connected to a basket-load from a single-point suspension, like a pelican hook. This allows for a quick-disconnect. The bag is inflated with compressed air, just enough to lift the load. A tether guides the load’s rise. There must be an air-bleed to prevent too-rapid ascent. What happens when the air bag reaches the surface and loses lift? This would be a major problem in a shallow river with a swift current. If the air bag can be kept underwater while helping to move rocks out of a dredge excavation, it might work. For example, A15-inch diameter air bag should lift about 60 pounds when it is fully submerged.

Well, I guess you guys (and gals) are ready to get back to that pay-streak under all those rocks. Oh yes, if you and Carl think this specific gravity business is piddling, consider this: The difference between the SG of magma (2.74), and the SG of country rock (2.97), is enough to produce a volcano. With a few additional facts like the depth of the magma, as determined by seismic readings, the resulting height of the volcano can be reasonably estimated. Now that’s a very big deal!

Have a happy 2/3!

 

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

Under many circumstances, it is wise to first verify that a viable deposit exists on a property before a substantial investment is made into production equipment.

Dave Mack

 

How to outfit a suction dredging project, to a large degree, comes back to how you would answer the following questions:

1) What am I trying to accomplish; (sampling, production, or both)?

2) Where?

3) In what period of time?

4) How much of a budget is available for acquisition of equipment and for operational start-up costs?

A gold (and/or gemstone) mining project basically should to be looked at in two separate steps: First you sample to locate a viable deposit. Then you launch into a production program to recover the gold or other valuable minerals from the deposit. Generally, the idea is to minimize investment into a particular mining property until a viable deposit has been located and verified.

Production-equipment is commonly larger and is more expensive to purchase and move around. The logistical infrastructure to support a production operation is usually more substantial and costly than what would normally be required to just go in somewhere for a short sampling program. . So generally-speaking, a production operation costs more to set up and involves more gear and supplies to move around and put into place. Therefore, under many circumstances, it is wise to first verify that a viable deposit exists on a property before a substantial investment is made into production equipment. The idea behind sampling is to minimize risk.

Prospecting Equipment & Supplies

The following video sequence will provide you with a visual demonstration of this very important point:

A typical camp to support a preliminary sampling operation usually would involve just the basic necessities.

The answers to “Where?” and “For how long?” also impact upon your decision about what kind of gear to buy. For example, if you are not tied to just one mining property, and you are prepared to launch a sampling program onto different properties until you find what you are looking for, then it would be a good idea to invest in good sampling equipment that is portable enough to move around the properties which are available to you. In this case, the capital expenditure is not tied to a single property, but rather into a portable sampling infrastructure that can be used for an extended period of time in many different places.

While sampling-gear is more portable, the smaller the size of a dredge, the less volume of streambed material it will process (in the same experienced hands), and the less-deep it will effectively excavate a sample into the streambed. Therefore, you trade-off productive effectiveness and the capability to make meaningful, deeper samples as you reduce dredge-size and gain in portability.

Two Pro-Mack 5-inch dredges were used to find rich deposits on this river in Cambodia, before a 10-inch production dredge was brought on line.

As an example of this, a 4-inch dredge can effectively sample down to around 4-feet deep in hard-packed streambed material). A 5-inch dredge can excavate about twice the volume of a 4-inch dredge down to around 5-feet of material. But the bulk of gear to move around is about twice as much.

A 6-inch dredge can excavate about twice the volume of a 5-inch dredge down to around 6-feet of hard-packed streambed. But the bulk of gear to move around is about twice as much.

An 8-inch dredge can excavate about twice the volume of a 6-inch dredge down to around 8-feet of material. But the bulk of gear to move around is about twice as much.

Here follows a video segment of a typical commercial dredge operating on the Klamath River in Northern California:

Ten-inch Pro-Mack dredge operating on New 49’er properties in Northern California.

A 10-inch dredge can excavate about twice the volume of an 8-inch dredge down to around 10-feet of material. But the bulk of gear to move around is about twice as much. By now, we are talking about a pretty substantial platform. But it still remains portable enough to place inside of an ocean shipping container, and can be towed around on wheels behind a small truck. For example, watch how this recovery platform for a 10-inch production dredge can be moved around by a normal-sized truck. This particular platform was built to ship overseas inside of an ocean shipping container:

These are just guidelines, because conditions change from one location to the next. It does not mean you cannot dredge deeper into the streambed using smaller-sized dredges. You can! But it generally does mean that the deeper you go beyond these guidelines, the less effectively your time will be invested. This is mostly a matter of over-sized rock management. All rocks that are larger than the intake-size of the dredge’s suction nozzle must be moved out of the way by hand. When dredging in an average hard-packed streambed, at the point where an experienced operator gets down through 5-feet of material using a 5-inch dredge, he has so many rocks to get out of the dredge hole that he is lucky to spend half his dredging-time operating the suction nozzle!

Bigger dredges get more accomplished primarily because they will suck up larger-sized rocks.

Under most circumstances, there are a proportionate greater number of smaller-sized rocks in a hard-packed streambed, than larger-sized rocks. So this is really a discussion about effective time-management. Since a larger dredge will suck up a larger rock, it means the operator will not have to move smaller-sized rocks from the excavation by hand. So he or she will spend his time moving even larger rocks out of his way, of which there are proportionally-fewer. This means he will get more done faster, and be able to dredge deeper into the material, before he reaches the point that there are just too many rocks to move out of the way.

Using a 5-inch dredge will mean having to move many, many more rocks by hand that would more-easily be sucked up the nozzle of a larger dredge.

This important reality cannot be overcome by positive thinking or an abundance of enthusiasm (as important as these are to have). We are talking here about the physical reality of how an excavation is accomplished. The size of the dredge-nozzle determines what size of rock can be sucked up (which is fast and easy), and what must be moved out of the hole by hand (which takes more time and effort).

The following video sequence demonstrates this very important point, and also explains why you must be very careful about projecting the true volume capability of different-sized dredges during feasibility planning:

By the way, when conditions allow for it and you want to increase the productive capacity of your equipment, you can also organize two or three separate teams to take shifts using the same production equipment. As demonstrated in the following video sequence, lights can even be set up to do a night shift:

So when deciding what to acquire for sampling or production equipment, it is necessary to balance the desire to get more productive activity accomplished (bigger dredge), with the necessity to remain portable (not so big that you cannot move it around to find what you are looking for). This must be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Here is my advice: Go as big as you are able to without forfeiting the portability that is required for your particular situation. I suggest these important decisions can only be wisely made after at least a preliminary evaluation of the project-area is completed.

Once you have proven-out your deposit(s) by sampling, you can feel more comfortable investing in production equipment and support-infrastructure to develop the project. In that case, bigger is not always better. Sometimes it is. A lot will depend upon the depth of water and streambed where you will be dredging. For example, a 10-inch dredge might not be as productive as a 6-inch dredge in a shallow-water and shallow-streambed area where a larger dredge cannot be floated around easily.

Another example is where shallow streambed material is made up largely of boulders that must be winched out of the way. In this case, some of your money might be better invested into a good mechanical or hydraulic winch, rather than a larger-sized dredge.

A well-done preliminary sampling program should result in a good production plan, based upon what type of equipment will be required to obtain optimum production under the conditions which exist where the gold deposit is located.

I am not going to discuss sampling, production or recovery systems here, because they have been covered in other articles. But since the type of equipment you should acquire is directly related to these subjects, I suggest it is a good idea to review that material very closely.

Some dredges are made to operate from the surface with the use of an automated cutter-head device at the nozzle. These are generally ineffective in hard-packed streambeds that are mostly made up of oversized rocks.

Some dredges are available with hydraulic-powered cutter-heads to help with the excavation. These are mechanical devices that help feed material evenly into the nozzle. They are most productive in doing channel-work in harbors or making navigation channels deeper or wider. Hard-packed streambeds which are made up mainly of oversized rocks and boulders will usually destroy a cutter-head device in short order.

Here follows the normal steps in the development of a mining program:

1) Preliminary evaluation: This is where you take a hard look at the available information about a potential project. Then you go out and have a direct look at the specific location(s) and surrounding area. You are looking at the potential for commercial gold (and/or gemstone) deposits. You are also looking at what it would take to accomplish a preliminary sampling program, based upon all of the information and observation you can bring together. A preliminary evaluation will often result in a preliminary sampling plan.

2) Sampling Program: Depending upon what the objectives are, sometimes sampling is accomplished in several stages. Generally, the purpose of a sampling program is to locate and verify the existence of a commercial deposit that is valuable enough to justify a production operation. Sampling should work out the recovery method upon which the deposit may be developed efficiently. A sampling program can evolve into feasibility planning to develop a mineral deposit.


3) Production Operation: Is full or partial development of the deposit.

While there can be some overlap, equipment needs are usually different in each phase of a mining program.

While each project is different, during a preliminary evaluation, I personally always at least bring along a face mask (so I can have a look at the underwater environment where we would sample), a gold pan and classification screen, zip-lock sample bags and marker pen, map, GPS, camera equipment, local money in small denominations (to buy mineral samples from local miners), a dozen bright-colored ball-caps (gifts for local miners), a bottle or two of whiskey (gift for the village chief in non-Muslim communities), and the other basic things I will need to visit that particular environment.

A sampling program will basically require the same things as will be required in a full production operation, but usually on a smaller and more portable scale. Here follows a basic outfitting list:

Dredging Equipment:
Dredge
Boat (and motor?) and ores
Winching gear and rigging?
Pry-bars
Rope (floating)
Fuel containers
Complete set of tools needed to service the gear

Diving Equipment:
Face mask
Air reserve tank and fittings
Air line(s) & regulator(s)
Wet-suit?
Weight belt & weights
Protective foot ware (steel tips?)
Rubber work gloves (bring spares?)

Clean-up Gear:
Wash tubs
Classification screens
5-gallon buckets
Scraping tool and/or hand scoop
Final concentrating equipment?
Gold pans
Steel finishing pans
Magnet
Portable gas stove
Weight scale
Zip-lock sample bags and marker pen

Support Gear:
Vehicle-support?
Shelter
Cooking & eating utensils
Wash tub for kitchen
Cook stove
Toilet facilities?
Portable chairs & table
Medical kit
Waterproof bag(s)
Ear infection preventative
Maps, GPS and camera equipment
Electric generator?
Camp lights
Paper and pens
Communication equipment?
Flashlights & batteries
Knife
Firearm?

Supplies:
Drinking water and/or filters
Food supplies and containers
Fuel & motor-oil for all motors
Dish washing detergent
Chlorine for sanitizing cleaning water
Laundry wash tub and soap
Hand-wash soap
Tissue paper
Cook stove fuel or canisters
Duct tape
Nylon line (plenty)
Plastic trash bags
Zip-lock bags & plastic containers for food

Spare Parts (priority often depends upon how remote the project location is):
Tune-up replacement parts for all motors
Extra water pump seals and bearings
Extra compressor & alternator belts
Rebuild kit for air compressor
Extra air compressor?
Rebuild kits for dive regulators
Extra dive regulators?
Repair kits for diver air lines
Extra diver air lines?
Extra air fittings
Extra water pressure and intake hoses
Extra water hose fittings
Extra rubber hose seals (each size)
Extra foot valve(intake for water pumps)
Extra suction hose?
Extra face mask(s)
Extra starter & alternator & fuel pump for dredge motor?
Spare tire (if dredge has removable wheels)

 

 
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This story first appeared in Gold & Treasure Hunter Magazine Nov/Dec, 1989 on Page 20.
This issue is still available! Click here.

By Dave McCracken

The efficiency with which the over-sized material is moved out of the way has a direct impact upon how much gravel and gold will be directed up the suction nozzle!

Dave Mack

 

 

Dredging technique in gold-bearing streambeds mainly is focused upon removing the over-sized rocks (any rock which is too large to be sucked up the suction nozzle) from the work area of the dredge-hole. In most hard-packed streambeds, this removal of the over-sized material is the bulk of the dredger’s work. From a production stand­point, a large portion of this work has to do with freeing and removing the over-sized rocks from the stream­bed in an orderly fashion.

Hard-packed streambeds are laid down in horizontal layers during major flood storms. Generally, the streambed is put together like a puzzle, with different rocks locking other rocks into place. Usually, because of gravity, rocks higher up in the streambed (laid down later) are locking lower rocks (laid down earlier) into their position within the streambed.


Because of this, we have found the best means of production is to dredge the hole down a layer at a time. We call this a “top cut.” If you take down a broad horizontal area of the streambed all at once, you uncover a whole strata of rocks which are interconnected like a puzzle. Then, you can see which rocks must be removed first so that you can free the others more easily. This really is the key to production dredging!

Generally, there are two things that drastically slow down the production of less-experienced gold dredgers: (1) plug-ups and (2) “nitpicking.”

The time and energy spent freeing plug-ups from the hose and power-jet cuts directly into how much progress will be made in the dredge-hole.

Plug-ups are caused by rocks jamming in the dredge’s suction hose or power-jet. Everyone gets a few of these. Inexperienced dredgers get many! This comes from not understanding which types of rocks, or combination of rocks, to avoid sucking up the nozzle. Basically, this knowledge comes from hard-won experience in knocking out hundreds or thousands of plug-ups until you reach the point where you become more careful about what goes into the nozzle. I have covered this area quite thoroughly in my “Gold Dredger’s Handbook”

During the past several years, some dredge manufacturers have started building dredges using over-sized power-jets. This means that the inside-diameter of the jet-tube is not reduced in size from the inside diameter of the suction hose, helping to greatly reduce the number of plug-ups a dredger will get while in production. Because of this, an oversized jet would be high on my personal priority list if I were in the market for a dredge!

So, the combination of some practice in learning which types of rocks to avoid sucking up the nozzle, and the over-sized power-jet on modern dredges, will eliminate most of the plug-ups that would otherwise hinder production.

The other main loss of production, which we are all guilty of to some extent, comes from a poor production technique which we call “nitpicking”. Nitpicking is when you are trying to free rocks from the streambed which are not yet ready to come out. Nitpicking is dredging around and around rocks which are locked in place by other rocks that need to be freed-up first. Nitpicking is when you are doing things out of the proper order!

When you find yourself making little progress, the key is almost always to widen your dredge-hole.

Production dredging means moving gravel through the nozzle at optimum speed. This is accomplished by making your hole wide enough to allow the over-sized rocks to be easily removed. As soon as you find the rocks are too tight to come apart easily, it is usually time to widen the hole again or take the next top cut. “Top cut” is the term we use to describe when we take a bite off the top-front section of a dredge hole to move the working face forward. “Working face” is the portion of the excavation that we are mining.

An underwater dredging helper can be a big help to remove over-sized material from the dredge-hole. Basically, there are two completely different jobs in an underwater mining operation: (1) nozzle operator (N/O) and (2) rock person (R/P). The nozzle operator is responsible for getting as much material up the nozzle as possible during the production day. Therefore, it is his or her responsibility to direct how the dredge-hole is being taken apart. The rock person has the responsibility to help the nozzle operator by removing those rocks that are immediately in the way of production.

Since there are plenty of over­sized rocks that can be removed from a production dredging operation’s work area, it is important that the R/P have some judgment as to which rocks ought to be moved first. Ideally, he will pay attention to what the N/O is doing, and focus his or her efforts primarily on those rocks which are immediately in the nozzle’s way.

The rock person should be moving the very next rock that is in the nozzle’s way.

Silt is usually released when a rock is moved out of the streambed. So an R/P must be careful to not “cloud-out” the hole (loss of visibility). This can be avoided by concentrating on (a) moving those rocks that are near to where the N/O is working (this is the first priority), or (b) moving those rocks that have already been freed from the streambed, but not yet removed from the hole.

On occasion, an R/P unwittingly takes over the production operation by randomly moving whatever rocks he or she happens to see. This then causes the N/O to have to follow the R/P around, sucking up the silt which would otherwise cloud-out the dredge hole. This generally results in slowing down production. We have found that it is much better if the R/P accepts the position of being the N/O’s assistant, which allows the latter to direct the progress of the dredge-hole.

The nozzle-operator should communicate with his helpers where he wants to take a cut off the front of the hole.

Since production is controlled by how efficiently rocks can be removed from the dredge-hole, it is important to understand that they must also be strategically discarded in a manner which, if possible, will not require them to be moved a second or third time. Generally, this means getting each rock well out of the hole–as far back as necessary. Good judgment is important on this point. You only have so much time and energy available. How far that over-sized rocks will need to be removed from the hole is somewhat dependent upon how deep the excavation is going to go. Early on, we often must guess about this. Sometimes, the streambed turns out to be deeper than we thought it would be. Then, we find ourselves turning around and throwing all the cobbles further back away from the hole. This is not unusual.

We also must use our best judgment to not waste our limited time and energy resources. We really do not want to move all those tons and tons of rocks any further than necessary to allow a safe, orderly progression in the dredge-hole.

As we move our hole forward, and as we dredge layers (“top cuts”) off the front of the hole, we try to leave a taper to prevent rocks from rolling in on top of us. This is an important safety factor. Also, since the N/O’s attention is generally focused on looking for gold, the R/P should be extra vigilant in watching out for safety concerns. Any rocks or boulders that potentially could roll in and injure a team-mate should be removed long before they have a chance to do so.

The rock-person’s attention should always be on safety. If there is danger, he or she should point it out immediately to the Nozzle-operator.

Some rocks will be too large and heavy to throw out of the hole. Therefore, it is good technique to leave a tapered path to the rear of your hole so that boulders can be rolled up and out. If you cannot remove boulders from your hole, the hole may become “bound-up” with over-sized material. This can create a nitpicking situation. It is important to plan your excavation to allow you a certain amount of (safe) working area along the bottom of your dredge hole so you can stay in balance while working.

If you see boulders being uncovered which are too large to roll out of the hole, you should immediately start making room for them on the bedrock at the back of your hole. You normally accomplish this by throwing or rolling other rocks further behind. This takes planning in advance.

Winch Operator Watching Closely For Diver Signals

Boulder In Sling

Sometimes winching is necessary to remove large boulders or an abundance of large rocks from a dredge-hole. However, because winching takes additional time, the pay-streak usually must contain more gold to justify the time and effort that is required.

The amount of streambed material that you are able to process through a gold dredge will determine the volume of gold that you will recover. Actually, this volume-to-recovery ratio is true of any type of mining operation, whether it is a large-scale lode mine, a small-scale miner using a gold pan, or anything in-between.

The smaller the amount of material that a dredging program has the capacity to process, the richer the pay-dirt must be to recover the same amount of gold. Consequently, a smaller-volume operation often needs to invest more time and energy into sampling to find the more-scarce, higher-grade pay-streaks. For this reason, smaller-volume operations generally spend more time sampling, less time in production; and, therefore, usually recover less gold. But not always!

Having said that, I should also say that successful gold recovery depends upon more than the size of the dredge. A lot has to do with the skill of the operator(s).

As a general rule, gold mining on any scale is volume-sensitive. If you can dredge twice the volume of streambed material, not only can you recover twice the amount of gold, but you may find (many) more lower-grade gold deposits which can be productive when developed. You can also dredge deeper sample holes. This allows you to reach deeper pay-streaks. This is why we always advise beginning gold dredgers to go out and find an easy location where they can practice their basic gold dredge production techniques to improve their speed before they begin a serious sampling program.

It is a good idea to practice your dredging skills, so that you can operate the nozzle efficiently while moving your own oversize material out of the way.

An inexperienced dredge-miner will sometimes be so slow in volume-production, that he or she may miss valuable pay-streaks simply for lack of being able to process enough gravel, or lack of ability to dredge his or her sample holes large or deep enough during sampling. An inexperienced dredge operator also may not even be aware this is the problem.

When you dredge a sample hole, you must evaluate how much gold you recover against the amount of time and work it took to complete the test hole. If you are only moving at 20% of your potential production speed, you easily can make the mistake of walking away from excellent pay-streaks just because you will believe they are not paying well enough.

When we run larger-sized (8-inch or larger) gold dredges, we almost always have at least two divers working together underwater. The reason for this is because running an eight or ten-inch dredge in six feet or more of streambed material requires that an overwhelming number of over-sized rocks must be moved all the way out of the dredge-hole by hand. This varies from one location to the next. But generally, in hard-packed, natural stream-beds, somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the material is too large to process through an eight-inch dredge. This is where second and third persons become a big help. A sole-operator in this type of material, when it is deeper than five or six feet, is going to spend a great deal of time throwing rocks out of the hole, rather than operating the suction nozzle.

The smaller the dredge, the shallower the material that a single operator will be able to manage efficiently. Also, some hard-packed streambeds require that most of the over-sized rocks be broken free with the use of a pry bar. This further decreases the amount of nozzle-time on a single-person dredging operation.

In the final analysis, it is the volume of material that is sucked up the nozzle (in any given location) that determines gold production. However, the efficiency with which the over-sized material is moved out of the way has a direct impact upon how much gravel and gold will be directed up the suction nozzle. So, gold production ultimately is controlled by how well the over-sized material (rocks too large to pass into the suction nozzle) is managed. The nozzle-operator’s focus, therefore, should be on directing the nozzle to suck up the gravel that will make it easier to free more over-sized rocks, rather than indiscriminately sucking up any gravel in the hole. In other words, the Nozzle operator should be actively pursuing a plan that keeps the Rock person busy right there where the action is happening!

If a rock person(s) is added to the operation, he or she must increase the program’s efficiency by at least as much as the percentage of gold which he/they is going to receive. This is not difficult to accomplish if conditions are right and the dredging team is organized.

On the other hand, if you are operating a dredge in two or three feet of hard-packed streambed, adding a second person may not increase your production speed enough to make it worthwhile to pay him for his time. This is because the material is shallow, and you may not have to toss the over-sized rocks very far behind in the dredge hole (less effort required to make progress).

When I am operating a production dredge in five or six feet (or more) of streambed material, I can literally bury a rock person with over-sized rocks, and make my helper work like an animal all day long. I also have to work like an animal to accomplish this. The result is a good-paying job for my helper and a substantial increase in my own gold recovery.

When I find myself working in eight or ten feet (or more) of material, I must have at least one or two (or more) rock person(s) to help me. Otherwise, I will be completely buried with cobbles and over-sized rocks all day long and will get in very little nozzle-time.

All of this also applies to smaller-dredge operations. Your ultimate success will be directly proportional to how much material you can get up the nozzle of your dredge in the right locations. The more efficiently you can make that happen, the quicker you will get your nozzle into pay-dirt.

Large-rock management is important! Since most of the material in a natural, hard-packed streambed will be too large to go through the suction nozzle, the progress and speed of your operation will directly depend upon how quickly and efficiently the oversize (cobbles and boulders) materials are moved out of the N/O’s way. Dredging is not just a matter of sucking up some gravel; at least not in the places where most pay-streaks are found.

As shown in the following important video segment, in most pay-streaks, the only gravel that gets sucked up is that which is found between the over-sized rocks. So the key to continued progress depends upon management of over-sized material:

A cutter-head consists of a rotating series of hardened-steel blades that are designed to cut into sand, clay or classified gravel. It does not have the capability to cut through hard-packed streambeds that are made up of over-sized rocks and boulders.This is the reason that cutter-head dredges do not work well in hard-packed streambeds; because they are continuously up against rocks that must be moved out of the way by divers. But it is too dangerous to put divers in a dredge excavation where a cutter-head is operating.

So, there is a lot of good to be said about organizing a system to get the rocks moved out of your way as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is true in dredging on any scale and regardless of whether you are working alone or with a team.

The reason why larger dredges can get more accomplished in gold-bearing streambeds is usually not because they will suck up more gravel. It is because a larger hose and nozzle will suck up a bigger rock. Every rock that can go up the nozzle is a rock that does not need to be packed out of the dredge-hole by hand. This is the primary factor that speeds things up with a larger dredge.

Another major advantage of a two-person team is the substantial amount of emotional support which a second person can add to the operation—especially when you are dredging in deep material, or when you are sampling around for deposits and have not found any in awhile.

On the other hand, the wrong person can inhibit the operation, either physically or emotionally. So, you must be especially careful to select teammates who have work ethics, moral standards and emotional endurances that are similar to your own.

In my own operations, we have found that the key to good teamwork is in establishing standard operating procedures for nearly everything we do. We also work out standard underwater signals. This takes quite a bit of planning and communication in advance, and it is an ever-continuing process. We have standard procedures for removing plug-ups from the hose and jet. We have standard procedures for moving the dredges forward and backward during operation. And, we have standard procedures for every facet of the underwater work — from moving the raw material that is in front of us, to the placement of tailings and cobbles behind our dredge-hole.

As noted above, volume is the key to success—at least to the degree of success. We take this aspect of the work quite seriously in my own operations — to the point where every single moment and every single physical effort is regarded as important to the operational-moment while we are dredging. You will never find the members of my team socializing or goofing-off during the underwater production hours. We allow ourselves to relax during the off-work hours and lunch break. But during production-time, we are entirely focused on the needs of the operation. We treat the dredging-portion of the operation like a competitive team athletic sport. We are not competing against each other. In a team effort, we compete against the barriers that Mother Nature has constructed for us to overcome so that we can recover volume-amounts of gold. To us, our teamwork is kind of like running a relay race. It is rewarding this way when we really synchronize our efforts.

We try to spend a minimum of six hours doing production-dredging or sampling each day. In our operation, this is normally done in two three-hour dives. Other commercial operators prefer three or four shorter dives. I know one commercial dredger in New Zealand who prefers a straight six, seven or eight- hour dive. What an animal!

I like lunch. But, I also agree with the concept of long dives; the reason being that it takes a while to get a good momentum going underwater. Every time you take a break, you need to get that momentum going all over again. What do I mean by “momentum?” Momentum in dredging is very similar to the beat of the drum in driving music. It is the continuous flow of gravel up the nozzle, with the over-sized rocks being moved out of the way in their proper order at just the right moment so that the flow of material into the nozzle is never slowed down. It is everyone doing whatever is necessary to keep that flow happening. It is about synchronizing the right rhythm at optimum speed, and keeping the beat going!

In fact, team-dredging can be kind of like an art form. It is similar to playing music. Only, instead of notes being played on several instruments to form a harmonious melody, the team produces a stream of coordinated effort, using their bodies to move the suction nozzle and the over-sized rocks, in concert, so that all of the effort works together to achieve optimum momentum and harmony.

In his or her initial enthusiasm, an inexperienced R/P may, rather than move the next rock in the path of the N/O, instead, move the wrong rock and cloud-out the dredge-hole with silt. This causes the N/O to be slowed down (1) because of the decreased visibility, and (2) because he or she must now take the time to move the proper rock out of his own way. This is the equivalent of “playing off key,” or playing the wrong musical selection. Everybody else is playing one song, while the new guy is doing something entirely different. The bottom-line for your dredging operation: less volume through the suction nozzle, and less gold at the end of the day.

On the other hand, there is enormous personal and team-satisfaction to operating within a well-structured team-dredging system. Such a system functions best when the N/O is the conductor, and the R/P plays a supporting role, anticipating in advance and taking every possible action to contribute to the N/O’s momentum.

Four-man team on Author’s commercial operation. Notice how everyone is involved up where the action is happening at the suction nozzles.

This is not just about the next rock which is in the way of the nozzle. It is also about moving the dredge forward a bit as necessary to give the N/O a little more suction hose when it is needed. It is also about the dozen or so other things that are necessary to keep the flow going without a lag.

Volume-momentum is lost every time the N/O has to put the nozzle down to take care of something. That will impact directly upon the success of the operation. Every effort should be made to keep this “down time” to a minimum.

Since volume is really the key, in my own operations, we try to treat dredging pretty-much like a team sport – competitive and physical! When I give my R/P the plug-up signal, he races to the surface to quickly clear the obstruction. He doesn’t just mosey on up there. He moves up there, like running for a touchdown or rounding the bases for the winning home run. This is also the sense of urgency with which he returns to the hole as soon as the plug-up is free. When he sees that rocks are stacking up in the hole, he doubles his pace to catch up. When caught up, he looks around to see where other cobbles might be moved out of the way, without clouding the hole. Or, he might grab the pry bar and start breaking rocks free for the nozzle operator. At the same time, when I am operating the nozzle, I am doing my own job—getting as much material through the nozzle as humanly possible while uncovering new rocks to be moved by the R/P, with the minimum number of plug-ups. And, I do not stop for anything if I can help it. If something else needs to be done, I delegate it to my R/P or other helpers so that I can keep pumping gravel up the nozzle. That’s my job! Everyone’s gold-income depends directly upon how much material is sucked up.

While this statement is also true when you work alone, every effort counts for something in production team dredging. Therefore, everyone needs to pay attention to what is going on in the dredge-hole. R/P’s particularly have to be able to switch gears quickly. At one point, there may be a pile of rocks which needs to be thrown out of the way. The next moment, even before the R/P has moved many of those rocks, he or she may notice something else that is directly impeding the N/O’s progress—like a boulder that needs to be rolled out of the way, or a particularly-difficult cobble which needs to be broken free with the pry bar. The main objective in everyone’s mind should be to support the N/O’s progress. Whatever impedes his progress should be the priority and get immediate attention.
The key to a productive underwater support person is having him or her work to help keeping gravel flowing into the suction nozzle.

The only time I intentionally slow things down is when I am uncovering the gold. I have to keep an eye on that to follow the pay-streak. However, as explained in the following important two video segments, you can also slow down too much by looking. You have to find the proper balance between looking and getting volume up your nozzle:

If the pay-streak is good, I also point out the gold to my helpers as I uncover it. There is emotional gain from this. Everyone deserves the boost. The gold eventually gets spent or hidden away. The memories last your entire lifetime! As demonstrated in the following video sequence, there are few things in life that will give you a bigger emotional boost than finding one of Mother Nature’s rich golden treasures:

As the following video segment demonstrates, once you locate a high-grade pay-streak, it is also very important to invest enough time to locate the downstream and left and right outside boundaries of the deposit. This is to make sure that you are able to develop the whole deposit without burying part of it under tailings or cobbles:

When things get too confused inside the dredge-hole, sometimes the N/O must put down the nozzle and help organize in the hole (move cobbles and boulders out of the hole). But, everyone should be keenly aware of the operational situation that actual production momentum (gravel up the nozzle) has stopped and that it needs to get underway again just as soon as possible.

As noted earlier, and demonstrated in the following video sequence, we take top-cuts off the front of the dredge-hole in production dredging, and we take the material down to the bedrock in layers. We do this because it is the fastest, safest, and most organized method of production dredging:

Sometimes, when conditions are right for it, an R/P may be working right next to the nozzle, breaking the next rock free and quickly throwing it behind in the hole. However, on every top-cut, there comes a time when the N/O decides to drop back and begin a new cut to take off the next layer. The R/P has to pay close attention to this and follow the N/O’s lead. Otherwise, he or she might finish breaking free a rock up in the front of the hole when there is no-longer a nozzle there to suck up the silt. That would be an error.

In other words, the R/P has to keep one eye on what the N/O is doing all the time. Because, if the N/O is a dynamic and energetic person, he or she certainly will not be following the R/P around the dredge-hole. The N/O has to orchestrate the effort. So all of the support-players should be paying close attention and assisting in the N/O’s next move. A good nozzle operator takes apart the hole with an organized method that is easy to follow by the others.

Teamwork also extends up to the dredge-tender on the surface, if you have one. The dredge-tender should continuously monitor the water-volume flowing through the sluice box. If it visibly slows down, he should suspect a plug-up and take steps to locate and clear it. Sometimes, the water-volume has been reduced simply because the N/O has temporarily set the nozzle down over a large rock in the hole. But, on the occasions when there is a plug-up, it is a mark of great teamwork to have a tender handling the problem immediately without having to be told. Volume through the sluice box should also be continuously on the tender’s mind. When gravel stops flowing, he or she should be thinking that something might be wrong.


When the flow slows down through the recovery system, the tender should just assume there is a plug-up that needs to be freed up from the surface.

That same level of anticipation and teamwork should also apply in other areas, as well. When the tender sees that the dredgers are moving forward in the hole, he should ensure that the dredge is being moved forward accordingly. This is so the N/O will always have a comfortable amount of suction hose to work with. As demonstrated in the following video sequence, different-sized dredges require different lengths of suction hose to allow the nozzle operator a comfortable amount of movement and flexibility:

Good teamwork involves a lot of close observation and timely anticipation to minimize the number of actual orders that need to be given and the consequent amount of down-time. Most of the activity is handled by standard operating procedures which require some planning and communication in advance.

As you might imagine, there are some different opinions about all of this. Some people are simply not running any races. This is fine; but they must understand that they do not have the same gold-recovery potential as others who are working at a faster pace—or, with a more organized system.

Generally, you will not hear anyone on my team complaining—especially when it is time to split-up the gold that we have recovered.

There is not anything difficult to understand about successful gold dredging techniques. The process is quite simple. Serious dredging on any scale is a lot of hard work. Volume is the game! The faster, deeper and more efficiently you can dredge the sample holes, the faster you will find the pay-streaks—and, the better you will make them pay. Even with smaller dredges.

At the times when you are not finding commercial amounts of gold, there is at least the satisfaction of knowing that you are accomplishing optimum performance. And, when you do locate the deposits, the sky is the limit!

 

 
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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.

 

 

 
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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:

 

 

 

 

 

BY DAVID KAREJWA

 

 

Dredging is very hard and tedious work at its best. The more we dredge, the more we realize how much time is actually spent moving oversized material out of the way.

Some pay-streaks don’t have any large boulders at all. Then again, some pay-streaks have an abundance of boulders—many of which are too large to move by hand. When this is the case, gold production results no longer depend on how well you can operate a suction nozzle; they depend on how efficiently the boulders can be moved out of the way.

Many of us started by using two-ton come-alongs to pull the boulders out of the way. And while this may work fine on a very small-scale operation, or an operation which only runs across an occasional boulder, it does not work well at all on a commercial scale.

Pay-streaks can be time and energy-consuming to find in the first place. Being ineffective at moving the boulders out of the way can greatly lessen a dredger’s ability to succeed. I have been dredging on a somewhat serious level on the Klamath River during the past four or five years along with a number of other serious dredgers. Together, we have innovated new boulder-pulling equipment concepts which have improved our sampling and production capabilities to an enormous degree.

The most comprehensive demonstration of underwater dredging I have ever seen is contained in Dave McCracken’s video, ” Advanced Dredging and Sampling Techniques.” Detailed winching and rigging techniques are also fully laid out with diagrams in Dave’s book, “Advanced Dredging, Volume 2.” These are highly recommended for those of you who will get serious about winching.

We found that a winch can be mounted on a floating platform, and the platform can be anchored out in the river behind our dredge hole. We use an electric winch in most cases, but new designs are including hydraulic winches.

The platform is anchored to the rear—either by cabling it to a boulder or a tree on the bank, a boulder or a group of boulders in the river, or to a dead-man placed in the river with tailings from the dredge dumped on top to anchor it.

The winch cable and boulder-harness extends down into the dredge hole. Also, the winch controls, on a cable, are waterproofed, and extend down into the dredge hole. When a boulder needs to be winched out of the hole, it is just a matter of slinging it, and winching it back, with all of the winch controls directly at your fingertips. This greatly improves the situation over having to put an additional person up on the bank to operate the controls of a mechanical winch, having to give signals, etc. It allows for single-person operations. While I don’t advocate people dredging alone, a lot of people do. If you are one of them, with this system, you are able to dredge for awhile; and when a boulder needs to be winched, you can simply sling it and drag it out of the way—just like that.

The old way required single-dredgers to sling the boulder, then go up onto the bank to operate the winch. When the boulder got jammed against some obstruction along the river-bottom, the person would have to go back into the water, try to free it up, back to the winch, back and forth, etc., until the boulder was finally moved out of the water. It was a nightmare!

One excellent advantage to a floating winch, we have found, is that the pull is also in an upward direction on the boulder. This helps slide the boulder more easily because of less friction along the river bottom. It also helps get the boulders pulled up and over other obstacles. Consequently, there are fewer problems with the boulder being jammed up while it is being pulled.

Floating winch platforms are relatively inexpensive and easy to construct. They don’t generally need to have much more flotation and size than an average 6-inch dredge. They are not very heavy, and they are easy to float around in the river. In fact, we use the extra deck space on ours to store our extra dredging and cleanup equipment, extra gas, etc.; the things we don’t like cluttering up the decks of our dredge. We place a portable motorized electric generator on the winch platform to keep the winch battery fully charged while we are diving.

Some commercial dredgers on the Klamath River have taken this concept one step further by placing the electric or hydraulic winch on the front of their dredge platform. The dredge is directly behind the hole, anyway. This normally requires an extension of the dredge flotation platform in the front to allow for the additional necessary buoyancy. The advantage to this concept is not having to move around two separate platforms. The disadvantage is not being able to pull the boulders far enough to the rear when you are dealing with lots of boulders.

When you are winching from the front of a commercial dredge, it is also important to keep looking up to make sure you don’t pull the front of your dredge entirely underwater!

This can also potentially happen with a floating winch platform, but it is not normally a problem, because the pulling point is generally from the center of the flotation, as opposed to directly off the front of a dredge.

One local innovative dredger recently came up with the idea of mounting a winch on the front of his dredge in a backwards direction. By also mounting a snatch block under the center of his dredge, under the sluice box, then the pulling point of the winch is centered better on the dredge’s flotation platform. This helps eliminate the problem of submerging the forward part of the dredge.

One point to remember is to never tie off the rear of your dredge to a high point on the bank, or to a highline across the river, when you are planning to winch off the front of the dredge. This type of rigging will pull the back end of the dredge up into the air during rock pulling!

The biggest problem we have run into with floating winch platforms is in the electric controls. We have yet to find an underwater control box on the market which is designed for electric winches. So we have had to waterproof the standard control boxes. This is not all that difficult to do, but it is only temporary. Every few weeks, we find ourselves taking the box apart, and having to rework it.

There is also a potential safety hazard with the electric winches, in that if the controls short-out underwater, the winch can simply start winching! We have learned to create a quick disconnect on the electric cord near the control box. If we lose control of the box, we can unplug it, and the winch will shut down.

One important safety note on this: If you create a safety quick connect using extension cord plugs of some kind, make sure you put the female-side on the power cord. This way, the power cannot be shorted across once the cord has been unplugged. This lesson was learned locally the hard way when a dredger unplugged the control box and dropped the cord into his aluminum boat. He had the cord rigged with a male fitting. The male posts touched the aluminum of the boat, and he was winching!

While it is not particularly difficult to do, it is a bit involved to waterproof the control box to an electric winch—too involved to go into in this article. We use a fifty-foot #14 extension cord; we use a product called Dip-it, and we do a few other things to avoid making the modification so permanent that we cannot easily get back into it to re-do it when necessary.

The advantage to hydraulic winches is in having no problems with the control box. No electricity! This is why I believe the best future platforms will be utilizing hydraulics. For dredge platforms, it is not too difficult to mount a hydraulic pump directly to the dredge motor.

I hope this information has been of as much help to you as it has been to us dredgers up on the Klamath River.

 

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 KITTY NELSON

Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and, at the most inappropriate time!

 

It was spring, and John and I were ready for another adventure on the Klamath River in northern California. We arrived earlier than we normally do, thinking we were really going to get a jump on the season. Well, so much for that idea—the water was raging and visibility was about three inches. We decided we’d do some motorized sluicing while we waited for the water to clear up.

We set up the sluicing equipment on a gravel bar and started shoveling. Within 15 minutes we recovered a one-pennyweight nugget! We took this as a sign—we knew we were going to have a good year!

By the end of June, the water was clear enough to) put the dredge in. The New 49’ers had a new claim downriver, where access was bad — there were no roads in, and it was 250 feet nearly straight down to the water at the lower-end of the claim. But some big nuggets were coming off this claim, and I decided this was the place we wanted to be. All I had to do was to convince John. His philosophy is “If you can’t park at the front door, I don’t want to go.”

 

It took a few weeks before he reluctantly agreed, so it was the middle of July when we finally went downriver to the new claim. First we set up a tent camp so we wouldn’t

have to drive back and forth to Happy Camp every day. Then John decided the easiest way to get the dredge and all our equipment into the canyon would be to strap it onto an old car hood and slide it down. With the use of both our pickups to help, a snatch block, and our friend, David, we slid the dredge down the mountain with no problem.

The next day we took our two dogs and climbed down the mountain with the help of a rope tied at the top of the trail.We chose a likely place to start sampling and set up the equipment.

We started finding gold in our first sample hole, but we received a hot tip about the set of rapids two sets above us, and decided to give them a try. You know, gold always glitters brighter on the other side of the river!

We literally dragged our dredge up two sets of rapids. We spent a little more than a week punching sampling holes, only to decide most of it had already been dredged or swept out by high winter flows. So we decided we’d just float back down, sampling along the way.
By the time we made it to the last set of rapids, the water had really dropped. That meant we had to float the dredge through the swiftest part of the rapids. I wasn’t looking forward to this — I was scared!

John tried to convince me it was going to be easy. He said we just had to feed it through the rapids with a rope; and as soon as it was through, it would float over to the side where the water was calm. Sounds easy, right?

We’d no sooner started the voyage when the dredge hung up on a big rock. John waded out and lifted it off, while I held onto the rope. But in the process of lifting it off the rock, he pulled his back and could hardly move. As he bent over the rock in pain, the dredge (free of the rock) started down through the rapids. The rope began burning through my hands. I couldn’t hold it! I curled myself around the pontoon of our supply-float to get better leverage, but then John fell onto the rope as he attempted to help me hold it.

Then, as the rope burned through my fingers again, John (who was still trying to hold onto it) was dragged over the rocks on his stomach. He saw that the dredge was beginning to sink from the strain we were putting on the rope as it fought against the current, and yelled for me to let it go. What a sick, helpless feeling it was to watch our dredge rushing down the river, out of control!

John, who could not even get up by this time, called to me to run downriver and catch it! He thought that the dredge would float out of the current below the rapids, and over to the side of the river.

I was thinking he expected me to run a quarter of a mile down the riverbank, jump into the water (out of breath and wearing combat boots), swim out into the current to the dredge, and pull it into the shore. I was also thinking “Yeah, right! There he goes again, thinking I’m “Lady Schwarzenegger.” But I ran anyway.

I’d almost caught up to the dredge when some rafters happened to float by. They yelled at me to ask if that was my dredge. I told them yes, and they then asked if anyone was holding it. I yelled “No!” and they said “Don’t worry, we’ll get it for you!”

They paddled hard and caught up with it, and pulled it up onto a sand bar on the other side of the river, tying it off on a rock. Thank God for rafters! Without their help, our summer would have been ruined. Our dredge would have surely been smashed up as it went through the next set of rapids, only yards away from where they pulled it out. We decided we’d had enough excitement for the day and went back to our tent camp.

The next morning my back hurt so badly I could hardly stand up. John was in pain, so we broke camp and went back upriver to our fifth-wheel trailer to recoup.

In a few days we felt better, so we took our raft and 3hp motor down into the canyon to pull our dredge back across the river. All went well, and I said to John, “Maybe it’s fate we ended up here. Maybe this is the spot.” So, we decided to punch a sample hole right there.

We discovered one of the dredge engines had water in the gas when we attempted to start it. We called it a day.

The next day we drained the engine and attempted to get it re-started. After several hours it finally started, but we were so tired and full of blisters that we called it a day again.

The next day, I walked the dogs down the riverbank while John took the raft, and I arrived at our dredge site before him — and he was not going to be happy! A bear had been at the site and had torn up John’s new wetsuit! After that, the bear had tried to eat a bottle of dish soap, and must not have cared for it, because nothing else was disturbed.

After John finally quit yelling about his new wetsuit, we called it a day once again and drove to town to buy another wetsuit.

Coming down the trail the next day, John wore my new 60 lb. weight belt, rather than carry it. The trail was a little loose from so much use, so he veered off to the right in hopes of getting better footing. Halfway down, he hit a yellow jacket’s nest. His first reaction was to swat at the swarming wasps—big mistake! He let loose the rope to start swatting, lost his balance, and rolled 70 feet down the hill, still wearing my 60 lb. weight belt! When he finally came to a stop, he managed to get the belt off and started to run for the river, only to trip and fall a few more feet, landing on a rock. He came out of this little adventure with 5 stings, some bad scrapes, and bruised “buns.”

An hour or so later, after he looked like he’d recovered, I asked him if we were going to dredge, or what? He answered “Why, sure! What else could go wrong?”

The “what else” turned out to be one of the foot valves, which wouldn’t prime. We had to tear it apart and rebuild it. By that time most of the day was gone, and we were ready for a day off.

A few days later, we began dredging at our original spot. The day went very well—no breakdowns, no accidents, and cleanup wasn’t bad, either. After 3-1/2 hours of dredging time, we had 6 pennyweights of gold in our sluice box. Things were finally going our way!

John ran the nozzle, and I was his rock person. I’d built a huge rock wall behind us to separate us from a bad undertow in the middle of the river. John had been caught in it earlier, while we were setting up the dredge. I wasn’t going to take any more chances with it, so I put my cobbles to good use. He decided to move a large rock for me, knowing I would have trouble with it. As he shoved the rock out of the way, he smashed his hand between it and another in my rock wall. Several bones in his left hand were broken. So with our tails tucked between our legs, we headed back to camp.

We spent our downtime doing some sightseeing. But after being out of the water for a little more than a month, John was dying to get back to dredging. Every little bump and jar caused him a lot of pain, but he managed to work the nozzle. We finished off the spot we were in, getting good gold right to the finish. That took about a week. But under better circumstances, it might only have taken a day or so. We then moved forward between the next set of boulders. The amount of gold we were finding dropped drastically, and we decided we probably should have dropped further back on the river, instead. The strange currents in this area probably dropped the gold differently from normal.

It was late in the season by then — the weather was cooler and so was the water. John’s hand still bothered him a lot, so we decided to throw in the towel and head for Arizona.

Even with all the mishaps, this was one of the best summers we’ve ever had. Ask us ten years from now what we did last summer, and we will laugh and recall all of our adventures as though it were yesterday.

We will be back next year. Look for us at the weekly Saturday-night potlucks-we’ll be the couple with all the band aids and bruises!

 

BY GENE MEDENWALD

 

Yesterday’s production was nine pennyweights and 22 grains–just a tad shy of one-half ounce of gold. This was the very best I’d ever done with my five-inch suction dredge. The very best I’d ever done in my life! I was excited. I was obviously getting into a really good pay-streak. The gold was less than half fines, with a lot of wheat kernel-sized pieces, and a few quarter and half-pennyweight chunkies, some attached to quartz.

Things were going good and looking better. Yesterday had been a long day, but not as long as I was able to work; about three and a half tanks of gasoline or seven hours. Today, as planned after the gold weigh-up last night, I was at the river early, determined to put in at least a four-tank day . . . and pull my first half-ounce of gold in a day!

Though the water’s flow was quite strong and the water deep, I had an excellent hole developed and it was comfortable working it. I was developing cuts forward and to the right. First, a layer of sand and small cobbles, then down through a layer of gray and blackish clay-like old hydraulic mine tailings, and finally into a beautiful yellow/orange boulder-strewn hard-pack laden with flecks of yellow gold throughout–and last, onto crevassed and jagged bedrock where the wheat kernels and golden chunkies were. Man, this was FUN! This is what gold mining should be. This is what people have been telling me it is like, and all of this time I kept wondering if it was true and if it would ever happen to me. Now I am really doing it and it is wonderful . . . thoughts like these were running through my mind when suddenly: WOW! Something is pulling on my suction hose. Pulling strong! This is weird. I can’t hold it back! I’m being pulled out of my hole! Rats, it slipped out of my hand. Sheez, now it’s pulling on my airline! I’m on my back, now buffeted and rolling about in the current.

Don’t panic! You’ve still got air. Clear your mask so you can see! Where am I?

That huge boulder; I must be about 15 feet from the ledge; on the other side of the boulder, just a ways, where it is only four feet of water and mild current–get there! I was slowly moving by laborious and exasperating crawling against the strong current, slipping and sliding over the slick and mossy rocks, resisting the constant pulling on the air hose. And while doing so, I was thinking, a little more calmly now, will the strong air line break? If it does, I can always drop my weights and “bail out;” where’s the weight belt buckle, dummy? Yeah, the weights are all at your stomach, the buckle is at your back; pull the belt around so if that air line pops, you can reach the buckle.

Totally exhausted, I finally, made it to the boulder and to the shallow, quiet water and stood up and automatically raised my face mask and spit out the regulator to gasp for open, unrestricted air — and was SHOCKED and dumfounded to discover I was standing in a deluge of water, blasting at me from the sky! And the smell, the foul, disgusting odor, the stench; ack, gasp, gag! Drop the weight belt, the mask, the regulator, the everything and swim the hell away from there!

That is a very brief description of how I experienced and survived an example of Murphy’s Law and several of its corollaries that day.

Experiencing it was frightening — fright caused by what was happening to me physically, fright caused by fear of the unknown. (What in the HECK is going on? Did my hi-line break? Is my dredge towing me downstream to the rapids?) Experiencing it was also incredibly physically exhausting, and nearly debilitating from stench-induced vomit. The cause of all this was simplicity itself: the pressure hoses blew off the dredge pump. No big thing. Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it generally will!

A miner’s suction dredge is, of course, a machine. Lots of moving parts. Lots of things to go wrong. But I was dredging three-fourths of the way across the river; and when a pressure hose blows off the pump of a five-inch dredge with the engine going wide open, and with the current and the hi-line set up just right (just wrong?), the whole dredge becomes a jet boat and zooms before the immense force of water being blown from the pump with great power. In my instance, it dragged me 30 feet across the river bottom, and of course (Murphy’s Law), lodged against the bank, in a backwater eddy chock full of floating long-dead fish and eels, carcasses so rotten that the water intake simply sucked them to pieces and the pump blew them into a huge spume of a rainbow-like arch of solid water under which, by chance (Murphy’s Law), I had the misfortune to surface!

What an experience!

And what a horrible job it was to correct everything and get back to mining for gold.

I reeked of dead fish. There were particles of stinking dead fish and eels all over my wetsuit, and all over my mask (when I finally recovered it after an hour’s search with my spare and snorkel) and the regulator/mouth piece. I had to completely disrobe and wash all of this with lots of soapy water in my clean-up tub. Then I had to hike back to camp for my chest waders so I could extract the dredge from the backwater eddy and the mushed-up rotten fish stew. The Law did display a little grace (pity?) though; because the dredge engine quit running shortly after I surfaced and I at least did not have to wade into the rotten fish stew to turn it off. It was a big job representing a lot of unproductive labor, but I eventually did get back into the river again that day and was able to run one more tank of gas before dark. Needless to say, I did not reach my goal of one-half ounce of gold that day.

At the time when this event occurred, two seasons ago, I must admit I rather soundly cursed Murphy’s Law and all of the gods of wayward, askance, and evil fortune. But on reflection, was it really The Law or just dumb o1′ me?

I had been advised and warned about that pressure hose. I really had. I did nothing about the advice. It was an old but serviceably-good dredge. The flange on the pump had been reduced in size from years of tightening. The pressure hose was old and stiff, and it was really too short.

How silly we are at times, to our own detriment. After several more “blow offs,” I eventually replaced the hose with a longer one, which was cheap and thin and kept getting holes in it which reduced suction intensity . . . only to finally replace that one with a correctly-specified one which again blew off because of the small flange. Finally, I simply had a miner-friend weld on a threaded pipe nipple and used a fire hose fitting like those on the newer dredges.

I could have done that simple alteration before I ever put the dredge in the water that season . . . and maybe The Law would have ignored me completely–well, being miners we know that can’t be true.

The other day a young man up here on an exploratory visit stopped by where I was working and we shared a cup of coffee. During the course of our conversation, he began to elaborate to me the intricacies of the Thomas T-80 air compressor with which my dredge is equipped, as are most suction dredges these days. I listened as politely as I could for a while and then got out my daily log book and began reading a few old entries to him:

May 19–0n the Little South Fork of Indian Creek. Inadequate air. Something is wrong with the air compressor.

May 20–Repaired compressor. A broken piston reed.

May 22–Reed in compressor broke again. Repaired it with last reed in Pro-Mack Shop.

May 25–Reed in compressor broke again. Repaired it with one scavenged off Dave Mack’s spare, at his generous offer. This is getting exasperating.

May 27–Air compressor reed broke again (the fourth one). I am depressed. Visited Dave Mack about it. He says one can expect a reed to occasionally break, usually after many, many hours of diving. Certainly not every other day. Possibly the pulley ratios are wrong on my dredge and the compressor is running too fast? (His suggestion.)

May 28–Spent the day borrowing a pulley tachometer. Took readings off my dredge (not a Keene) and readings on another miner’s Keene dredge. My compressor is running three times faster than his!

May29–Drove to Yreka to obtain new pulleys and belts and made necessary alterations on my dredge. Cannot try it out yet because I used up every spare compressor reed in town. Must wait for new parts to arrive.

June 1–0n Thompson Creek. Hurray! Got new reed for compressor and moved to sample Thompson Creek and have wonderful, wonderful AIR!

June 2–Air compressor broke again. A screw apparently came loose from the problem reed and bounced around on top of the piston until it cracked and shattered the upper reed plate.

June 3–Depressed. Didn’t dive. Repaired air compressor in p.m.

June 8–Moved to Klamath River near Tim’s Creek. Sampling.

June 12–Still getting inadequate air. Took compressor apart and discovered eventually that all of the pieces from the broken reeds, etc., have apparently caused holes in the diaphragm. Replaced same, and for the first time in nearly a month seem to have adequate air.I am not convinced that I can strip down and repair the Thomas T-80 compressor in the dark. I am infinitely more familiar with it than I ever became with my M-1 rifle in the Army.

June 16–Damned near drowned myself for lack of air and panic. Tipped the dredge upside-down with engine running full out. A quick but rather dubious way of stopping the engine!

The Law almost did a final job on me that June 16. I was using a three-inch dredge, one with great suction through 30 feet of hose and was sampling extensively.

I had just made my first dive in quite deep water (for me at the time), probably about 15 feet, and was working off a hi-line for the first time and had gone quite far off the bank into fast(er) water.

Breathing is such an automatic function of our almost magical bodies that the average person, I think, rarely ever considers it. I’ve visited with many diving, dredging miners who have never had an air mishap who barely consider it. It is such a simple function. Exhale carbon dioxide, inhale air.

However, when you are a relatively inexperienced hookah diver and are in deep and fast water for the very first time in your life and, having exhaled and when you attempt to inhale, your body receives nothing, nothing at all, like sucking on a hose with a plug in the other end, that is decidedly an arresting situation!

Your mind immediately goes wild with random suppositions and questions and images. How much air is left in your lungs for your body to use after you have exhaled? How far off the bank am I? Don’t panic! Should I drop my weights now? Don’t panic! N-a-a-h. That’s a chicken’s way out. I’ve got time. Don’t panic! Just keep moving, calmly, toward shore. There is nothing left in my lungs! Don’t panic! (All the while I am scrambling up a soft sand bar toward the river bank, slipping and sliding and being washed downstream by the current.) Don’t panic! I-am-going-to-pass-out-soon-it-is-time-to-drop-the-weight-belt! There-is-a-weight-where-the-buckle-should-be!

WHERE’S-THE-BUCKLE?!

I simply do not remember what happened after that or what I did next. I DID PANIC. My next conscious memory is of a fellow miner holding me as I was floating in the water, gasping and gasping for air, as he kept repeating over and over, “Are you alright?” I was, kind of, alright and The Law didn’t get me down in finality, but just by a bare smidgen. I think my poor friend was much more frightened than I was during those climactic moments.

The scene as he recalled it: as he, too, was sampling, he was peacefully panning the concentrates from his most recent sampling hole and my dredge was purring away about 30 feet off the bank. Then he observed my dredge moving slowly toward shore and when about 15 feet off-shore this maniac erupts violently from the water, his mouthpiece/regulator goes flying through the air, he takes a huge gasp and sinks below the surface again, turning the dredge completely upside down! Moments later, the madman surfaces again, floating on his back and goes drifting downstream toward some rapids, repeatedly gasping for air. The fellow then dove into the river, swam out to me and pulled me to shore.

Later, after we’d both calmed down a bit, we found my suction hose nozzle, my weight belt and my crow bar all directly under the overturned dredge. The conclusion we came to was that I must have climbed up the dredge suction hose for a desperate breath of air, then found the buckle to the weight belt, released the weights and popped to the surface.

The cause of the air stoppage? Bits and pieces of compressor reeds and diaphragm rubber lodged in the airline where the yellow line connects to the black regulator line. Simple! If after each problem with the compressor (which was a problem I had caused and not a fault of the machine), I had simply opened that connection and permitted the debris to blow out, I (and not The Law) would not have nearly killed me.

Also, if I had simply taken the few seconds necessary to drop my weights before a bad situation became a panic situation, nothing really dramatic would have happened. I kind of think macho-ing and diving, like drinking and driving, don’t mix very well.

I am now a more experienced hookah diver and a more experienced dredger and a more experienced miner. I have a giant respect for Murphy’s Law and its corollaries–and I’ve tried to learn from the “anythings” that have happened to me. Some of the things Murphy’s Law have taught me:

Do not dive with crumby, unproven equipment. If you have garbage gear, and your gold production won’t permit purchasing better stuff (and that’s probably why), get a job and save your money until you can buy the right good gear.

Do not skip or postpone the most minute maintenance or repair task. Fix it now, before the next dive, even if it means hiking back to camp or running into town in the middle of the day when you are just entering a great pay-streak

Don’t Dredge Dumb. Use your head. Develop your hole safely and methodically as is described in the book, Advanced Dredging Techniques by Dave McCracken.

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