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 CRICKET KOONS

A life of “Dredgery.”

 

My BH (Big Hubby) and I became interested in gold several years ago. Some friends took BH under their wings for the summer (while I stayed home and slaved) and taught him to dive and run a gold dredge.

Now, let me tell you how I learned to dive, dredge and become the world’s greatest rock man or rather “rock woman.” Good old BH took me down, and we had this custom-made wet suit put together. Now you realize BH didn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart. With a great shape like mine, I defy you to get one of those cute slinky things off a rack! Being a kind, considerate BH, he decided the river was too fast and deep for me to learn to dredge in, so we headed up to Thompson Creek, a beautiful creek about 11 miles out of Happy Camp, California.”Better place to start,” BH says. “Not too deep,” BH says. “Clear water,” BH says.

BH was really looking out for me. What a great guy, right? Let me tell you how it really was. First, I was sure I’d freeze to death even with 100 degree temperatures outside; the water must have been at least 40 degrees cold! During my first day at the creek, we were taking the dredge off the top of the truck. Now, I’m a little on the short side but pretty strong. Anyway, good old BH drives our truck with dredge down pretty close to the water. He climbs on the truck, gives our 5-inch triple-sluice dredge a push, and yells for me to catch it as it slides off the truck rack! Well, after I picked myself up and reminded him my insurance premium had not yet been paid that month, I asked him politely to be a tiny bit more careful about dropping 300 pounds on my head. I had a few other ending words for him, but you just can’t share all the intimate things in life.

When he finally got over his belly roll laugh, I chased him into the creek, and we dove in to catch up with the dredge, which was floating downstream. After I chipped the ice cubes off me, BH tells me that before he can teach me to dive, we have to move rocks. You know, “Me teacher — you new rock man.”

So I picked up, rolled, kicked, shifted, propelled, pushed, and coaxed a few million rocks and boulders of various sizes and created the start of my very first dredge hole. This was all minus the dredge, which was floating by my side without so much as a pop-pop from its engine.

Ahhh, but I was on my way after clearing an area the size of my living room of all rocks and other miscellaneous stuff. I was a ROCK MAN*!**# with experience. I knew I could toss cobbles with the best of them.

Then, it was BH’s turn. He revved up the engine on the dredge, put on his mask, dusted off his sitter-downer and told me to watch very carefully, as he was going to get this hole going and show me how to get some real work done. I watched very carefully and wished I’d left just one rock that I could sit on, but then I am the efficient type.

About 15 minutes later, up popped BH’s head, out comes the air line, off comes the mask, and guess what? Yep, it’s my turn. When learning to dive the first time, it is a good idea to first stand on good solid ground, stick your face underwater with your mask and regulator, and continue to breathe until you feel comfortable about breathing underwater. When gearing up for a dive, always, always start by putting on your air first. Insert the regulator ¾ the thing you breathe through ¾ into your mouth and only then put on your weight belt.

We don’t want you to fall over backwards and drown from the weight! Personally, I’m like a beached whale when I fall on my back; I need help to get turned over.

So, put on your mask, get your BH by the hand and head for the hole. He can show you what to do from that point. If your BH is like mine, he’ll stick the nozzle in your hand, point you in a direction, and tell you to keep going until you bring up the gold.

I did bring up a little gold and learned what to do, with a lot of help from BH. We’ve been mining now for a few years, and I’m starting to get BH trained into my way of doing it. After all, who would know better, BH or me, considering that in this family at least, I’m the ROCK MAN!**$# with experience.

I gotta go now; the coffee’s boiling over on the stove, and BH is giving me directions on coffee making.

See you on the river!

 
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By Dave McCracken

“Planning to Get it Right the First Time”

Dave Mack

Planning for a mining program largely involves the following elements:

1) Legal
2) Location and accessibility of the project site
3) Politics with government and local people
4) Timing
5) Operational considerations
6) Shelter and living-support
7) Specialized equipment
8) Supply of food, fuel, supplies and other needs
9) Security
10) Medical and/or emergency support
11) Communications
12) Personnel

All of these elements are vitally important and each must be managed well to make a mining program successful. I’ll just briefly discuss each element in general terms.


Sometimes, it is necessary to construct your own road into a remote location.

Because every project is different, relative levels of importance will change depending upon local circumstances. To give you some idea about this, I encourage you to read several articles about the challenges we have faced on different types of projects from our own past experience. Reading through the stories will give you insight into why good planning in advance vastly increases the potential for success in any project:

Legal

The serious part begins with acquisition of the legal right to pursue a mining project. While this is always important, the need to protect your own interest increases in proportion to the magnitude of your investment. It also increases in proportion to the potential for valuable success. My best advice would be to make sure your legal rights are secure during the very early part of the development-stages in your mining program.


Because gaining the legal rights to a mineral property can sometimes require substantial investment in itself, it is not uncommon to perform the preliminary evaluation, or even a preliminary sampling operation, before negotiation of legal rights are finalized. In this case, it can be wise to negotiate the final terms in advance, pending the outcome of your preliminary evaluation or sampling.

In other words, you might not want to buy or lease a mineral property until you are certain for yourself that a commercial opportunity exists for you there. And you also probably will not want to invest the resources to prove-out a deposit unless you are certain you can develop a project if something valuable is found. Balancing these two needs is a challenge that must be overcome.

Note of caution: In the event that you will invest your own resources into some preliminary field-work to evaluate a property before final negotiations are completed, some consideration should be given to keeping the results of your initial observation and results confidential. This is so that the information does not undermine your position in the negotiation. While this is not always appropriate (depends upon your agreement with the property-owner), it is definitely something that should be considered during planning.

The bottom line is that you will want to make sure that your investment into a project is going to be secured by legal agreements in advance.

In some countries, dealing with the officials can be the biggest challenge to your project manager.

Another note of caution: One has to be particularly careful when negotiating agreements with private parties and/or government officials in developing countries. Sometimes corruption will undermine the rule-of-law. Under these circumstances, legal agreements may not be enforceable. The U.S. State Department usually publishes a brief risk-assessment about doing business in most countries.

In any event, if you decide to proceed, it is wise to secure the services of competent legal professionals residing in the country where you will do business.

Location and Accessibility


The location of your potential project site(s) will substantially affect the cost and difficulty of pursuing a mining program. Equipment, fuel, supplies and personnel must be transported to the site, and withdrawn when the project is complete. This will need to be accomplished either over land (using roads or trails), by water (using boats) or by air (using airplanes or helicopters).

“Remoteness,” these days, often has more to do with the cost of transport, than the distance things need to be moved. For example, a project site that is accessible by a 2-day river trip on a sizable transport-boat can be much-more easily accessible, than a site that is much closer to civilization, but requires everything to be transported via a 45-minute helicopter ride.

  

As every situation is different, important consideration and cost-analysis must be given to how you will move gear, supplies and people to and from your project site.

The more remote the location, the higher-grade the mineral deposits will need to be to justify a mining project.

Politics with Officials and Local People

Any mining program will find itself interacting with government officials and people who reside in the area where the activity will take place. The politics involved with these various relationships is important to maintain, and always will depend, in large part, upon good judgment and emotional flexibility by the project manager. This is even more true when local people will be hired to help support the mining project.

Environmental considerations fall into this element. Not just the true environmental consequences; but just as importantly, the perceived potential impacts that local people, various NGO’s and government officials worry about — even if their perceptions are not based upon reality. You have to manage the real environmental considerations, and you also have to respond to the way people are reacting to your mining program.

Managing relationships with officials in developing countries is a very challenging and risky business.

Because each situation is entirely different, no matter where you do your mining, the best advice I can give concerning this important element is to make sure you have a level-headed project manager that has some vision and understands that every action will have a consequence.

 

Timing

It takes very specialized people to recover good samples off the bottom of a muddy river.

Effective dredging operations require underwater visibility. Visibility is necessary to execute a planned excavation of a dredge-hole, and also for more than one diver to work underwater in the same excavation.

Muddy water turns visibility to pitch black just inches below the surface. Submersible lights do not help, because they will not penetrate through suspended sediments. So a dredger’s progress in dirty water is reduced to whatever he can or she do by feel. It is a very slow process, and safety-margin for the diver is radically-reduced.

Many mineral-rich areas on the planet have distinct wet and dry seasons. It is important to look into this. Because waterways most-often flow at higher, faster levels during the wet periods – and can also run with poor or no underwater visibility.

More often then not, Rainy seasons create conditions that prevent dredging operations from being effective. It is very wise to plan your sampling and production programs to begin at the beginning of the dry season.

  

Besides making dredging conditions nearly impossible, the rainy season can also turn road-access into a nightmare! As an example of this, check out the following video sequence that I captured on a road in Cambodia during the rainy season:

When operating in developing countries, unanticipated delays can often delay start-up times by weeks or months. So it is better to time such programs to have all the legal matters resolved, important relationships in good order, and equipment ready to go well in advance of the dry season. While this may sound obvious, more often than not, our Pro-Mack Team has been called in to help with dredging programs just as the rains were beginning and the river was turning muddy. The water was so dirty in the following video sequence, that it was pitch dark only inches below the surface:

Starting a dredge-sampling or production program during the rainy season is near to creating a mission-impossible scenario for the project manager. And your divers, no-matter how enthusiastic they are in the beginning, are likely to lose some of thier motivation to continue once they experience the nightmare of a dark and mucky river-bottom..

Still, sometimes you are forced to do preliminary sampling when conditions are not ideal. In this case, it is important to make safety the primary concern and also realize that results will only be a fraction of what can be accomplished under more suitable conditions.

Project operational considerations

This is all about how you are going to do the sampling or production-part of the program. This is the mission-plan. What are you going to do? Where? For how long? Exactly how are you going to accomplish it? Who is going to participate? With the use of what gear and supplies?

Are you going to need a boat to move your equipment, fuel and people around on the river, or are you going to use roads or trails? Will your access to different places along the river be challenged by extreme fast-water areas, or water that is too shallow to float the dredge?

Are you going to set up a single base camp and return there at the end of each day? Or are you going to move the camp as you make progress sampling along the river?

How deep is the water and streambed material? This will affect the type and size of dredge you will need to accomplish the job, how much dredge-power you will need, and how long the suction hose and air lines need to be.

Will you be dredging in fast water areas? This might require you to bring longer hoses to extend your reach while keeping the dredge tucked into slower-water pockets along the edge of the river.

Are there any critters in the water, or along the edge, that you have to defend against? What special gear is needed for this?

In some places, equipment to move big rocks is even more important than the dredge you will use. Are their big boulders that will require special winching gear to move?

Will you need to bring along special tools to cut a trail or to build living platforms in the jungle?

How are you going to recover the gold (or gemstones)? This is a big question that should be resolved as well as possible during the preliminary evaluation, and entirely confirmed during sampling. If a specialized recovery system or process is required, you will need to bring the gear and supplies along with you so you can perform those tasks.

Shelter and living-support

How you will feed and shelter the people who are part of your project largely depends upon the nature of the people involved, how dangerous or uncomfortable the environment is, and how long they will be there.

  

Generally, you will find that helpers from the local village have their own way of providing shelter for themselves and the food that they eat along the river. Sometimes, they don’t require much more from you than a plastic tarp and some rice. I have been in a lot of jungle environments where the local help either brought along their own hammocks and a cooking pot, or already had small shelters set up along for themselves the river.

It is important to address the needs of the local help (which are usually not much) during the preliminary evaluation, and not impose conditions (or food) upon them that they are not comfortable with.

Bringing specialists into a harsh environment from the comforts of civilization requires careful planning. While this may not be true everywhere, it is my own experience that while local helpers are somewhat amused by the special requirements of westerners, they usually do understand that we are not jungle-dwellers like they are. However else they may feel, there is always respect (and desire) for the nice toys and tools that we bring along.

Sometimes, the most important part of shelter is to get off the ground.

The bottom line is that you must bring along whatever is necessary to shelter your personnel from the dangers and any severe discomforts of the environment. Every place is different. A tent goes a long way to keep bugs and (smaller) critters separated from people. Sometimes (often) it is necessary to set up camp off the ground, even when tents are being used. This may require bringing along some wooden boards to put up a platform. Sometimes the platforms already exist, made out of lumber, bamboo or small trees. Sometimes they can be constructed from materials that are present on site. For example, the following video sequence shows a preliminary base camp where tent platforms were constructed from hardwood lumber sawed out of trees on site (with a chain saw):

The locals will know what you need to do to keep your personnel safe from the more serious threats. You will have to use your own judgment how to provide people with support that will keep them reasonably comfortable under the circumstances. It is important to figure this out during the preliminary evaluation.

On many of the projects that I have been involved with, we hired several helpers from the local village that were also good at hunting and fishing. This reduced the amount of food that we needed to bring along.

A word of caution: When hunters bring dogs, it is wise to avoid making very much contact with them. These jungle dogs are loaded with critters that would much-prefer a human host! Hunting dogs generally increase the need to reside off the ground.

Another word of caution: When living with jungle-dwellers, you must be especially vigilant at imposing strict sanitary measures with anything to do with the food and water that you will consume. This is not easy; because your jungle helpers will not understand, and it is near-impossible to overcome normal routines that are part of their life and culture.

There is a lot to be said about bringing along a special cook who will look after the food and water-needs for the personnel on the team that come from non-jungle environments. This must be a person who already understands basic sanitary principles; and ideally, who normally resides within an environment where such measures are practiced. We have found from past experience that it is too late to try and teach sanitary measures to someone (who will prepare your food) after you arrive in the jungle. And since you cannot watch everything that is done to prepare your food, you can find yourself with a whole crew of sick (sometimes seriously) people even before you hardly get started!

The bottom line is that you have to plan on providing food and water that will not make your people sick, and it is important to provide them with a reasonably comfortable, safe environment to sleep at night.

Specialized equipment

As we have discussed equipment needs in other articles, I will not go into them here. The main point is that you must bring along the gear that will allow you to accomplish the mission.

When accurate samples are required where special recovery equipment is needed, and the sampling must be accomplished with portable dredging equipment, it is sometimes necessary to dredge the samples into special, floating catch-containers. Then the samples can be carefully processed on land.

Here is where you can buy Gold Prospecting Equipment & Supplies.

 

Supply of food, fuel, and other needs

It is important during the preliminary evaluation to establish where you will acquire fuel, food and other supplies to support your program. There are many primitive areas in the world that do not have structures, services and supplies like we do in the west, so you cannot just assume operational needs will be readily available. For example, the following video segments show areas where we have had to supply mining projects where even small corner food markets are not present, much less Safeway or Albertsons:

Sometimes, access is such that you can plan for a continuing supply of essentials and other needs as the program moves forward. Sometimes, difficult access requires that you bring everything in at the beginning, or plan on occasional deliveries. To keep costs down, deliveries must often be arranged by local boat traffic or by cart over primitive trails. The following video sequence was captured on a project we did in Madagascar, where local deliveries were made by ox cart:

Occasional or regular deliveries increase the need for dependable communications and financial arrangements so that you can better-coordinate with those who will provide the support from a distance.

As there is no refrigeration in the jungle, it is usually true that hunters will need to come up with something every day to keep meat or fish on the table. Even if local help will provide a local supply of protein, we have found that it is a good idea to bring in a supply of freeze-dried meals or canned goods – just in case the hunters have a dad day. Being hungry is hard on morale!

Security

Security is always a concern on a mining operation, on multiple levels. There is the gear out on the river, the gear and supplies at the base camp, the personnel involved with the operation, and the product that is being accumulated. Understandably, every situation is different; so flexibility and good judgment is required.

Under a lot of circumstances, many security concerns can be resolved by investing some advanced-effort and goodwill into the politics with the village(s) in the surrounding area, and with the local people that are hired to help you. A good manager will strive to find the balance between helping a little with the needs of local people, with getting the job accomplished that he is there to do within the budget he has to work with.

One of the first key people to hire in a mining program is a good interpreter. This must be a person whose politics are not in conflict with the local villages. It is important that you enquire about this, because sometimes there are politics going on that you cannot see on the surface.

One of the first priorities during a preliminary evaluation is to pay a respectful visit to the village chief or elder(s). Bringing along a bottle or two of whiskey to present as a gift (unless it is a Muslim community) is almost always a great inroad, and eliminates the requirement that you drink the local brew (which can make you sick) when making friends.

I always make a strong effort to bond with the leaders of the local village(s). For the most part, it is accurate to predict that politics with the local people will go just about as well as you have made friends with the local leaders. Here is a place where a little time can be invested well.

When visiting with local leaders during the preliminary evaluation, I look around to see what I might bring as meaningful gifts that can be shipped over with the sampling gear if we decide to take things to the next level. I am not talking about spending a lot of money on gifts. Flowers don’t cost very much, but look how much they are appreciated when you present them in a meaningful relationship! Thoughtful gestures go a long way in a new relationship, especially when there is a wide gap between the cultures and the toys being played with.

Being thoughtful in advance can be far less costly than the loss of key gear or equipment by theft, once you are committed to a sampling program.

Some mountain-river environments have very limited access, and not very many people or traffic are moving around. These communities can be rather small, and there are not many secrets. If the general consensus amongst the local people is to support you and/or leave you alone, you will usually not have very many problems with security.

Sometimes you have to resign yourself that there will be a continuous audience of onlookers watching the mining activity along the river. This is mostly because local people have never seen anything like that before. So it may be necessary to work out some reasonable boundaries with the village elders.

  

Whenever possible, we set up camp some distance away from the local village. This is good practice for a number of reasons. But mainly, it sets up a natural boundary (by distance), creating some degree of privacy. I have never been on a project where local villagers did not respect the privacy we created by setting up our camp some distance away.

I have also found that bringing along some small gifts (like extra pocket knives or Leatherman tools) goes a very long way with the most productive helpers. Although, I keep those out of site, and only pass them out after I have managed some initial bonding with some of the helpers. Special rewards to the most enthusiastic supporters can help build productive relationships.

Generally, we have found that if you treat them with respect and kindness, helpers from the local village understand that we are not the same, have special needs that are different from theirs, and possess desirable belongings from another world – which belong to us. If something turns up missing, I usually make an issue of it right away. This can cause the item to turn back up a little later and eliminate future problems in this respect.

Places where your personnel are in danger from other human beings will require site-specific security measures. Some mineral-rich areas have ongoing civil wars, separatist groups or insurgencies to worry about. Some places have people or groups that kidnap outsiders and hold them for ransom as a means of supporting themselves and their political movements. Needless to say, these are concerns that are important to discover during the preliminary evaluation. Such concerns will almost always be outlined within the State Department’s information about the country. The following video segment was taken in Cambodia on a project where it was necessary to maintain our own local security force:

Increased security problems raise the level of cost. Therefore, the mineral deposits must be richer to justify the risk.

Some careful thought needs to be given to how you will secure money, gold or gemstones, sample results and the other valuable possessions during a mining project. This should probably involve a security safe during an extended production program.

During a sampling program, it just might be that the project manager needs to keep the valuables in his personal possession. Waterproof bags are good to have along for this.

A word of caution about this: If you are making payments to others in the field during a project, it is unwise to pay directly from the source of where you are keeping the valuables. For example, opening up the day-pack where you are keeping all the valuables to pay a vender in the village. Because secrecy is the only security you have protecting those valuables, it is better that outsiders do not see where they are being kept. Keep the bigger money-stash a secret from anyone who does not need to know. In a private place, pull out enough to pay for things, holding that money in a pocket, wallet, belt-pack, or whatever.

This secrecy-concept also extends to the gold you recover on a mining program. Especially during production! We always set up the final processing structure well away from local traffic, and only allow those near that should or must be involved. The product is never shown or advertised around. It is also hidden like the money, if there is not a well-anchored security safe where it can be locked up.

Showing large amounts of money or other valuables (relative to local levels of income and wealth) is a sure-way to increase security-risk on any mining or sampling operation.

As long as we are on this subject, you also should be careful with your valuables in hotel rooms within developing countries. Keep valuables out of sight, locked up in a suitcase, on your person – or sometimes the hotel provides a safety deposit box. You have to use your own judgment what is the best way to keep things safe. It can be a big mistake to assume the hotel staff, or even the manager, will not go through your room and belongings when you are not present!

 

Medical and/or emergency support

When setting up a mining program, it is important to establish how and where your personnel are going to receive medical care if they need it, and also emergency support if there is any kind of serious problem.

A lot depends upon how inaccessible the project site is. When there are villages nearby, you can sometimes find some local medical assistance for matters that are not of a serious nature.
The villages sometimes will have a method worked out to manage medical emergencies.

Sometimes you can locate an emergency-evacuation service from a larger town or city that will send a helicopter or small plane to recover someone who needs emergency medical care. It is a good idea to arrange this service in advance, and work out how you will communicate with them in the event that you need their help (at any hour). It is a good idea to arrange a medical-evacuation service, even if there are local medical services available. This is because medical care generally is better as you get to larger hospitals that provide service to bigger populations

   

There is also international emergency medical evacuation insurance available at relatively low cost. This service will send a medical team out to recover you in a medical emergency anywhere in the world when competent medical assistance is not available where you are located. We always require any and all personnel who accompany me on a project outside of America to obtain this type of insurance.

While there are probably many other options for this type of insurance, I have personally had good luck with Travelex Insurance Services (800 228-9792). They provide $50,000 in world-wide medical evacuation/repatriation insurance, plus other benefits, at a cost of around $260 per year. And I happen to know that they make good on it. One of my guys was critically injured in an automobile accident during a project in Madagascar several years ago. Local medical care was poor. So the insurance company immediately arranged to send an airplane with a medical team on board. They evacuated my guy to La Reunion Island (France), where they proceeded to save his life. As soon as he was safe to move again, they repatriated my friend to a hospital in San Francisco. He survived only because of this insurance.

The type of work, and the environment where we perform it, is already dangerous enough. Preventative measures are the best way to avoid medical emergencies. The more remote the location, the more careful everyone has to be.

During preparation for a project, one of the first things we do is have all my helpers go into the local county health department (America) and bring themselves up to date on every inoculation that makes good sense for the location where we will do the project. Because we work in the water, it is important that my guys are up to date on their hepatitis, typhoid and tetanus shots. In addition, county health departments have written guidelines (put out by the World Health Organization) for all areas of the world, listing other concerns (and preventatives) for specific areas.

The three primary ways to get into a medical situation during a project are:

A) Accidents: While accidents do happen, they mostly can be avoided by planning things out well in advance and having responsible people involved who are being careful. Good management and responsible people can generally stay a few steps ahead of Murphy’s Law (Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst possible time!).

 

No matter how good they are at what they do, we never include “wild and crazy guys” in projects where I am asked to participate or provide a team. The risks to the project are too high.

B) Critters: The local people will know what they are and how to deal with them. It is important to find out what the threats are, especially within the water-environment where we work.

Because we dredge in the water during the sampling phase, it is vital to find out what the critter-problems are (if any) during the preliminary evaluation.

When I first visit a potential project site, one of the most important things I look for is to see if local villagers are bathing, doing laundry and swimming in the river (especially the children). It is always a good sign if they are. Life revolves around the water along these river-communities. So if you do not see people in the water, it is important to find out why.

There are plenty of things to worry about in the water – like snakes, flesh-eating fish, flesh-eating reptiles, electric eels, different types of aggressive mammals, and smaller critters that make you sick in different ways. The local villagers will know about them all (if any). They will also know how to avoid danger. When talking to the locals about the potential dangers to divers in the water, I cannot over-stress the importance of having along a really good interpreter – who will take his time and do his absolute-best to establish some dialog and understanding on this important subject.

If there are local villages within the vicinity of where we will do a project, during the preliminary evaluation, I try and visit each and every one of them. Besides the other things that I do during these visits, I also try and find out if there are sick people in the village – and what they are sick from. In addition to gaining an idea if the sickness might be something that could impact upon our project, it also creates an opportunity to return with medical supplies to help the village if and when we follow up with a sampling program. Helping the sick people in a village is a sure-way to make friends.

C) Sanitation: During my visit to the local villages, I also look to see what they are doing for toilet facilities. If they are going right out into the river, we will need to bring along our special full-face dive helmets to reduce exposure to dangerous bacteria.

Often, the primary sanitation-concern is inside your own base camp. Not to get too graphic about this; but it is common practice all throughout the developing world (especially in the remote areas) for people to wipe themselves with their hand, not wash well (if at all), and then go directly into food-preparation. Locals normally can drink water (with apparent impunity) from the river (or a well having ground water exposed to unsanitary conditions from the village); water that would put an outsider into a good hospital for a week (and there probably won’t be a good hospital around under those circumstances)! They use that water for drinking and cooking. Because these are practices everyone does in their community, and they are part of their everyday world, it is nearly impossible to have locals do food preparation for you without substantial risk to your personnel.

The best way to avoid continuous problems with sanitation (can be very serious), is to set up your own camp some distance away from local communities and bring in your own cook. This can be someone from the same country who lives in an environment where sanitary-measures are a normal way of life. Then, your cook must insist that he or she is the only person that comes in contact with the food that you will eat and the water you will drink (and that will be used for cooking). This can be a little tricky when there are hunters or fishermen involved, but it can be worked out.

When initially setting up a base camp, it is important for the project manager to walk through and review all the vital elements that will affect sanitation. How and where are the toilet facilities set up? Does everyone know where to go? Is there tissue paper — and will people actually use it? Is there a place to wash up (with soap)? Where is the drinking water coming from and being stored? Is that being kept well-separated from unsanitary water? Do all your personnel know where to find the good water? How about the cooking water? Where are the cooking and eating-utensils being cleaned up and then stored? Who is cleaning game animals, how and where?

We also always bring a medical kit along. Besides the standard items included in an emergency medical kit, here is a list of items that we also include:

Aspirin
Anti-Rash powder/spray
Domeboro-ear preventative
Ear antibiotics
Eye wash
Hydrogen peroxide
Antibiotic ointment
Pain pills
Internal antibiotics for wounds
Antibiotics for respiratory-infection
Diarrhea antibiotics
Lip balm
Salt tablets
Thermometer
Malaria medicine
Alka Seltzer
Tums (anti acid)

While all of these items can be purchased over the counter in many places outside of America, it is wise in today’s world to obtain a doctor’s written prescription for any items that would require it during international travel.

 

Communications

Several levels of communication are necessary in a mining operation. Communication is usually necessary between project personnel and local helpers, between the different personnel involved with the project, and between the project and the outside world.

For communication with locals, I cannot overstress the importance of finding someone who knows each of the languages very well, who is honest, helpful and genuinely interested in your project. This is just as true when dealing with government officials.

An enthusiastic interpreter will dig for the information that you want to obtain. When communicating with local people on the river, sometimes it is necessary to ask many questions in different ways, to different people, to bring them around to the same concepts that you are trying to express. When you work with people from different cultures who have radically-different backgrounds, often you find that they just do not conceptualize things the same way that you do. A good interpreter is able to bridge this gap and help you get the information you want with some degree of accuracy. He will also help you avoid misconceptions or misunderstandings that can build up stress with locals along the river.

There are plenty of low-cost weatherproof walky-talkies available today which can be very helpful in a field environment where personnel are separated by relative short distances – like between the base camp and where some mining or sampling is being done along the river.

Longer-range radios are often used between the base camp and civilization. Although atmospheric conditions sometimes make this mode of communication unreliable.

Satellite phones keep getting more portable and easier to use as time moves forward.

The cost of satellite telephone systems has come down dramatically during the past few years, and is probably the best solution for a remote base camp’s link to the outside world. Many satellite systems will allow a laptop computer to be connected for data-transfer. This is particularly useful for sending progress reports and images. It is also useful for sending supply lists to whoever is supporting the operation. A satellite telephone is very valuable in dealing with emergencies!

Personnel

I saved this section for last, because it is really the most important. If you study all of the material on this web site, you should realize over and over again that it is the personnel on your project that determine the final outcome. They are the key factor that makes it all happen.

Mining projects are not easy. There are many challenges to overcome. Every decision made by the manager and others involved with your project will move the world in a direction that either contributes or subtracts from the momentum necessary to reach key objectives. Ultimately, the people you choose to play in your band will determine exactly how the music sounds. I have discussed this very important element in other articles:

There are so many details that must be put in their proper place and managed correctly to accomplish a successful sampling program, or a production mining operation, that there is little chance of ultimate success unless the program is managed and implemented by experienced, responsible, enthusiastic people that are strongly motivated to make it all come out the right way.

 

 

BY GENE MEDENWALD

 

 
Recently, after about a two-year absence from gold mining with a suction dredge, I returned to the activity.

I guess I am what is known as “middle-aged.” After the first day of dredging and diving (and not a long day), I found my body wracked with painful protests at what I had subjected it to; I mean aches and pains—everywhere. After the second day of dredging, my aches and pains had aches and pains. Just crawling into bed was agony. Getting out of bed the next morning was no easier.

On the third day, after I had run a tank of gas through the dredge, I found myself sitting on the bank of the river enjoying a coffee break; and the thought came in to my mind:

Why? Why are you doing this, Gene?

Well, I thought, I must like doing it. But then again came the question, why do you like it?

And then I remembered something I’d come across years ago in some obscure reading: Around the turn of the century, there were hundreds of signs posted throughout the Southwest which read: RIDE WITH PANCHO FOR GOLD AND GLORY! The small print on the signs supposedly told in glowing terms of Pancho Villa’s efforts toward furthering the Mexican Revolution and how he needed courageous and adventuresome young men. Some historians have called Pancho a plain and simple bandit and not a revolutionary at all—but that is beside from the point.

The point is, I think I’ve figured out why I do what some people call a totally insane activity: this business of gold mining by diving with a suction dredge…FOR THE GLORY OF IT! There is so little, too little, many say, opportunity for glory in the lives of contemporary Americans. Everything is organized, corporatized, burocratized.

How often have you been in a group of people where everyone does not know everyone else and the inevitable questions comes up, “What do you do?” The asker doesn’t want to know, really, what the person does. He or she wants to know, not what you do, but who you are. And how often when the response is, “I’m a mechanic-painter-doctor-lawyer or typical whatever category,” you hear the flat “Oh.” And there is a decidedly noticeable lapse in the conversation? Well, when the question is put to me and I respond, “I’m a gold miner,”there is no “Oh.” Instead, I must again respond to further questions and remarks like, “No kidding! Where do you do that?” and “Really! Can you actually make a living doing that?” and “Is there really still gold out there? I thought the old-timers got it all?” etc., etc., etc.

The nifty thing is, I think that most people like to put most people that they encounter into comfortable categories—and they don’t have a ready category for a “gold miner.” But what, really, do I mean by this idea called “glory?” Certainly, as regards cocktail party conversation, it is a quality of uniqueness. But it is much more than that. If I cannot define it accurately in so many given words, I can describe it by relating the first five minutes of a typical day of dredging for me.

It matters not if the weather is hot, cold, clear, rainy or even snowing. When I reach my dredge site, the first thing I do is slip out of my small backpack, pull out the thermos and pour myself just a small dash of coffee and pull out a cigarette and lighter from the waterproof pouch…light up, sit back with that dash of coffee and survey the scene before me.

The wildlife…the blue heron is working for his breakfast in the placid shallows as he is every morning. Some mornings, there is a black bear watching me from across the river, and he feels I don’t know he’s there, but I do, but don’t want to him know that I do (why disturb him?). The same silly mallard duck is foraging above the rapids (one day he’s going to begin his frenzied paddling toward the quiet water a tad too late!)…

The flora…two seasons now I’ve watched it turn from the lush green of summer to all of the brilliant yellow and reds and gold of fall to dreary winter drab…

I am here…it is wonderful…I am free…No one is telling me I have to be here, when I have to be here, what I have to be doing here, and how I have to be doing what I am doing here.

The gold I get here is important, very important. For, if I do not get it or enough of it, I cannot continue this life. But, for me, it is truly a secondary significance though a very important one.

And as I finish my coffee and cigarette, I reflect on yesterday’s activities. I got to my dredge site late yesterday. Only ran less than a tank of gasoline. I’d spent almost the entire day helping Larry move his dredge. But I’d volunteered to help him. Because two weeks after I’d arrived here, he helped me move my machine. And I owed him? Not really.

Glory and those who participate in it yield a kind of camaraderie that few humans alive ever have the good fortune to experience. It is not a question of owing. It is a goodwill, man to man, man to life.

And it is not all the proverbial bowl of cherries. The hardships are severe. It is a physically taxing activity to the extreme. Everything is against you. The rocks are sometimes so slippery with moss and slime, it can be dangerous attempting to walk upright. Add a 40 to 60-pound weight belt and it is, indeed, dangerous.

The river’s current is constantly, unremittingly, attempting to wash you downstream. Cobbles and boulders, which one must move constantly and as efficiently as possible, are unwieldy, slippery, cumbersome, heavy and tedious to exasperation. This, when things are going well. I’ve seen a series of exasperating breakdowns drive a grown dredger to tears, and been near the experience myself.

Managing your money in this business is incredibly tricky. One day you may be rich with gold. Pounds of it. Then you may go for 60-days or more without finding more than a few pennyweights. Meanwhile, you have daily operating expenses, daily living expenses, breakdowns which can be costly, the constant risk of uninsurable theft of some or all of your equipment or machinery, and the constant worry of having to set enough aside for the constant and rapid depreciation of your gear and equipment. There have been times when I’ve felt guilt for going into a restaurant to share a cup of coffee with a friend; or buying a pack of cigarettes instead of rolling my own, which is much cheaper.

There is no wonder nearly all miners are single. What lady would want to participate in a venture of such uncertainty? And yet…

Yet, when you see two miners together who have spent the last three or four days in a row underwater to the point where they are obviously taking well-earned days off because of sheer bodily exhaustion, what are they avidly speaking of and gesticulating about? Dredging!

In a very real sense, this dredging activity is almost a kind of madness. And, yes, I am proud of myself for doing what I am doing and for the fact that I am doing it. I bow to no man. In the words of William Hailey:

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

And yet, the dredging-miners for whom I have the most admiration are those who are not only successful and making a living or a very good living at it, but who are doing so with the companionship of a lady-friend.

Being a man, it is of course impossible for me to view things from the point of a woman. Yet, knowing this is not the kind of vocation the typical man embraces, I am doubly sure it is not viewed positively by many of the female gender. The evidence supports me! I have not seen so many lonely single men engaged in one activity since my woeful experience with the military. Yet, contrary to my military experience, I have never met so many dedicated, intelligent, physically virile men of all ages gathered together in one spot in my life.

Glorious men!

If I were a lonesome single lady, an absolute sure-bet for sophisticated companionship would be to drive along a gold-veering river, keeping my eyes out for a machine floating on yellow pontoons. For, underwater, not far away, is one hell of a man — a bit grubby in appearance, perhaps, but only temporarily. One friendly, feminine grin will most assuredly send him immediately to the nearest tonsorial parlor with the day’s take in hand…

But, alas, whimsy is not reality. My coffee cup is empty and my cigarette is smoked down to the filter. It is time to crank up the engines and don the weight belt and the rest of my gear and begin another day of diving for Gold and Glory.

More Stories by this author:

 

 

BY ERNIE PIERCE

“Finding new friends and gold on the Klamath River”

 

It was the end of a real good gold prospecting trip and a nice July morning when my family and I finished packing and headed East on Highway 96 away from Happy Camp. I was very pleased at the outcome of this trip I had dredged up over 35 pennyweight of gold. As we traveled home I thought “It sure would be nice if I could come back before the weather turned cold………”

Well, let me tell you about the power of positive thinking or making a wish come true. We arrived in Austin to find an unusual set of circumstances that allowed me to take the time off, put enough money in the bank for Mary to pay bills for September, and with the rest I started packing and thinking of Happy Camp….

August 26th rolled around and I was headed for California. Yes!! After a good trip I arrived in Happy Camp at 10:30 p.m. on the 28th (Monday).

Tuesday morning I gathered up supplies for my much modified 5-inch dredge, then went to Morgan Point to set up camp. Putting the dredge in the water and getting it set up was interesting, to say the least. I had extended the frame for more stability and added another motor, (an eight horsepower and a five) so it took some time to get things balanced and the sluice set.

The next two days I sampled and fine tuned the dredge so I was getting very good recovery and losing very little gold. I then had to change to another jet tube—I felt I was not getting the suction I should. The replacement jet tube had more power with only one motor (the 8hp B&S) than the first with both going! The dredge could really move some gravel after that. I found out quickly that I wasn’t getting much gold here so I decided to move to another claim.

I decided to go back to the claim I’d worked in July to try a little further downriver from the place I stopped working. Dave McCracken had told me back in July that I might drop back downriver from the pocket I was in and work the top couple of feet of gravel to see how much gold was in it. I didn’t have the time then but felt it was something that should be done. Now, Dave knows what he is doing in the gold dredging business and knows the rivers around the area, so he can be relied on to be correct if he suggests something you could do.

On the way to the claim I stopped at the Savage Rapids claim to help handle some maintenance a group of New 49er’s was taking care of. With the large group that was there it didn’t take very long to get the work done. While doing this I met a very nice fellow from Arizona, Philip, and we formed a partnership to work the claim on up the river.

I really love to camp out in the woods, out away from almost everyone, where you can listen to the insects, the birds and other wildlife. When Philip arrived we got his gear set up, then floated down through the claim to see where to put the dredge, using face masks and snorkles to watch the bottom. I noticed the inside bend of that part of the claim had a lot of large boulders, the current was much slower, and the spaces between were hard packed with gravel. The area looked like the typical gold trap to me! This definitely looked like the place to try a sample.

Going back to the truck we decided it was too late in the afternoon to set up the dredge but we made ready so we wouldn’t lose time in the morning.

Next morning we setup the dredge and got it ready to float downstream. Did I mention to take it through a nasty set of rapids? Well, we floated it near the bad part, then stopped to assess the situation. I showed Philip where I needed him to be to help catch me and the dredge after we came through the rapids. He agreed to do that with no reservations after I explained how I was going to guide it from behind all the way through them. He said he doubted my sanity but figured I knew what I was doing (little did he know).

After he was in position I eased the dredge out into the current (where it promptly turned and went the wrong direction around a large rock). This got interesting real fast when it went in between two large boulders, then got hung up on a third that was just underwater. Here I was, trying to hang on so I would not be swept away from the dredge and to get this thing off the rocks before it flipped over (you can think fast when you need to). In a few seconds I figured where to push or pull, then it was sliding on over that rock and a wild ride was beginning. Whoa, Nellie!!! I got through there and Philip pulled the dredge and me onto the gravel bar. Whew! This sure was a lot more fun and exciting than winching around and over this area.

I figured we’d have to make a few sample holes before finding the pay-streak, so the first place we tried was where the large boulders stopped and mostly smaller ones started. This, it turned out, was the right place the first time. After dredging for just over an hour we checked the sluice. Man, did our eyes bug out… Wow!! We had hit a good pay-streak on the first try. I could see gold all under the screen and in the mat. Oh boy! Screening this down quickly I could see we had a lot of gold so I set this aside to weigh separately. Later we found out it was about 2.5 pennyweight. A real good start. Feeling good, we went back in and dredged until the gas was gone. As we were dredging, we noticed flakes of gold as they were uncovered and went up the hose.

We developed a system of working. this area when we discovered that the gold was indeed in the top two or three feet of gravel. We’d go down till we hit a hard packed layer, work an area about ten feet wide from midstream at an angle up to the bank, then go back midstream and do it again, throwing the cobbles into the area we’d dredged.

I noticed the gold was still coming out of the gravel and off the hard-pack. It sure looked good underwater. When I saw it I showed Philip, and that got us encouraged and going again.

We had some very, very nice gold on this cleanup and added it to the rest. The next day we needed supplies, so into town we went to sell the gold. What we had for approximately seven hours of dredging was eighteen pennyweight of gold. (I measure dredging in hours underwater rather than days). Not bad at all.

On one dive we were dredging around a large rock (about 200 lbs) when we noticed that a lot of gold was in the area around it. We dredged a hole about three feet deep in front of the rock, spread it out some, then realized it was time to refuel the dredge. After taking care of that, back down we went to clean out that area. I forgot about the rock and was standing in the hole about thigh deep leaning on another large rock embedded in the side of this hole, dredging more of the hole out when I felt a grating vibration… I jumped straight up and pushed away from the suction hose which, thankfully stayed in the hole. As it was, the rock still hit my ankle very hard when it slid into the hole and into the other large rock. The suction hose kept them from pinning my foot in the hole. It took another three minutes to move the rock off the hose.

After the close call Philip signaled for us to go to the surface, but I wouldn’t go. What we did was stay down and keep working.

My ankle was hurting badly and I couldn’t put much pressure on it, but I kept right on going. I just placed my ankle against the rock where it hurt, then kept right on dredging until the pain quit. When the gas was getting low we went up for the day. Later at camp we looked at my ankle and it had a very dark bruise about the size of a half dollar, but I could walk very well on it.

A couple of days went by and the gold kept coming up real nice and stayed about the same amount or better so we kept going straight upstream. One day I tried to get a little further out in the middle of the river. This produced less gold so we continued to work the slope of the riverbed where the big rocks were.

Now on Saturday afternoons the New 49er’s put on a potluck dinner and all are invited. This is a real neat affair where everyone gets to sit around, eat, and tell their stories — you know, just really have a lot of fun. Philip and I really looked forward to Saturday night potlucks in Happy Camp even if we did have to drive thirty miles to get there.

Then one morning Philip bent over to tie his shoe laces and when he raised up he pulled his back out. For the next day or so he tried to recover, but when his back didn’t get better he decided to head back home. I enjoyed his company while he was there and missed him after he left.

I got my hands on a wetsuit heater that fits on the exhaust of a dredge engine and installed it. This heats water fed through a hose that fits inside the wetsuit. Oh, wow, it sure felt good to have warm water flowing while I was in that cold water every day. This sure helped to be able to stay in the water longer each day as I could barely stay in for one tank of gas before.

I now was working alone and had to really hustle to move a lot of gravel per day but I just did it and was soon to the point where I was moving an area about fifteen feet wide, about ten feet long, and two to three feet deep every four to five hours. That was moving a lot of material! This was also paying off very well. I was averaging half an ounce of gold every four or five working hours. For the next eight or ten days the area stayed productive and when I worked I found gold. The water was turning colder and I wouldn’t work every day. Two days later at the Saturday night pot luck dinner my nose started to bleed (I never get nosebleeds, ever). I realized I had a bad sinus infection. I took it easy Sunday, but on Monday I was still getting nose bleeds so I decided that it was time to head for Austin.

As this trip came to a close I started to look forward to next summer. I traded some of my gold for the pieces to put together a six -inch dredge. In a few hours I had most of what I needed, so I left Happy Camp with something to keep me busy over the winter.

I reflected that I had indeed had a good adventure. I met and got to know some very good, trustworthy people. I’d accomplished what I started out to do — find more gold and have a better time. The total gold for this trip came to just under five ounces. This was three times what I’d done on the last trip. Not bad at all. So, the target for next summer…..you guessed it, no less than three times what I recovered on this trip. Can I do it? You bet I can! I’ll see you on the Klamath.

 

 

By Dave McCracken

To succeed at gold dredging, you should be willing to take a rather athletic approach toward the work, especially during the sampling stages.

Dave Mack

Gold dredging consists mostly of physical activity. Heavy gear has to be carried around from place to place. Much of your time is spent wrestling with a suction hose, picking up and tossing cobbles as fast as you can, shoving against boulders, fighting to hold your position against the water’s current, packing 60-plus pounds of lead around your waste, swimming back and forth across the river, and pulling dredges around on ropes. There just never seems to be an end to the physical work! This is not bad. Unless you don’t like hard work.

If you have a distaste for hard, strenuous work, if you don’t enjoy it and are generally looking for ways to avoid it, you need to find some line of work other than gold dredging. To succeed at gold dredging, you should be willing to take a rather athletic approach toward work, especially during the sampling stages.

Some people are physically-inclined by nature, and they enjoy hard work. Other people are not so physically inclined, but they are willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to succeed. Such people can be very successful at gold dredging. But, no matter what your inclination, gold dredging requires hard work. There is no getting around it.

I have found, to be most effective, it is best to attack a gold-dredging operation with a rigid work schedule, just like any other job or business-activity. I personally prefer to “pour on the steam” for three straight days. Then, I take one day off from dredging to allow my body to recuperate. The work is physically exhausting on the body if you really pour out the energy. You need to find the appropriate rest-interval that works best for you. Otherwise, your body will get overworked and start breaking down. I use my day-off to perform gear maintenance and the many other miscellaneous chores that are needed to keep the operation running smoothly. I try to get some much-needed free time out of it, as well.

 

 

 

 

My approach is not the only way. I know successful gold dredgers who prefer to work fewer hours each day, or work at a less-intense level of physical activity; but they put in five or six straight days at a time. If we could add up the total units of energy expended on dredging, it would probably come out about the same, either way. It is just a matter of preference and what pace you are most comfortable with. The main point here is that no matter how you cut it, you’ve got to put in the dredging hours if you want to succeed at underwater mining.

When people ask me about gold dredging as a profession, I always answer as follows: “Given the knowledge of how to do it, and the willingness to apply the knowledge, gold dredging is an easy way to make a living, if you are willing to work hard at it.” And, this is the simple truth.

 

 

BY ROBERT MILES

“Whenever I need some money, I tell my wife Karolyn that I’m going down to the bank to get some…the river bank that is. And so far, my belief that the gold is there, combined with hard work and good fortune, has never let me down.” … Jim Britton

 

Jim Britton’s the kind of man who will tell you right off that he’s doing exactly what he’s always dreamed of doing — that’s mining for gold. And even if he’s not pulling gold at the level he’d really like to at a particular point in time, he’s quick to say, “I’d rather be here beside the river enjoying the looking and anticipating the discovery than living in the city and breathing all that pollution and just working at some regular job.

“I was introduced to the Gold Bug at a very early age,” he says with a warm smile that turns quickly into a grin and makes one think that he may be about to spin a yarn. “Probably when I was six or seven years old. Back then, all us kids would watch adventure movies. I was hooked on the ones that had anything to do with gold. Then as I grew up I started reading about the old 49ers, and I just couldn’t seem to find out enough about where they mined and the methods they would use. Still it wasn’t till a few years later when I was out on my own with a shovel and a pan that I really got the ‘gold bite’. It was near a little town called Quartsville, just outside of Sweet Home, Oregon, where I actually found my first gold — about 1/2 pennyweight, and I’ve never been the same since.

“I’ve always believed you’ve got to do your homework, and that includes a lot of research. And in those days I had just began to discover all about underwater dredging, and I figured that since panning for gold was giving me such a kick, I would pull more gold and have a lot more fun if I had a dredge. So I went out and bought myself a two-inch suction dredge, and within no time at all I was pulling two to three pennyweight a day and just having a great time.

“That was really just the beginning,” recalled Jim, “because within a short time I had run into another guy who let me spend some time on his five-inch dredge. After a half an hour of pulling gold with it, I just couldn’t go back to working with my little two-inch. That’s when I had to get my entire family gold bitten,” he reflected. “My dad and mom had always been really supportive of the things I tried to do, but this time they just couldn’t believe that you could really just go out and find gold. Like most people, they figured all the gold was already found. However, within a short time I had them out there with me on the river bank, and by just getting them exposed to the gold I was bringing up with my two-inch, they were gold bitten real hard. Then within a short time, the entire family, including my older brother, was mining with our new five-inch, and we were pulling more gold than any of us had ever seen at one time.”

Like most successful gold miners, Jim Britton has tried working at a number of different jobs, but he says he just can’t get the river and the gold out of his mind. “It’s the thing I love to do,” he reports, “and besides, where could I ever get a job that pays as well as gold mining and has as much job security? There’s been gold miners since the dawn of recorded time, and there probably always will be. Some days I’ll make as much as $800 or even more, and I’ll do it in four hours. Of course, you gotta do your homework, and you gotta pay your dues.”

Jim’s formula for success still begins with a gold pan. “Before I put my dredge into a spot, I’ll pan up and down the bank, usually on both sides of the river looking for the point where the river’s deposited the most color during high water. I’ll have picked a particular stretch to check out, either because my knowledge and experience of how the gold is carried and pay-streaks are formed tells me that here should be good, or because someone else had been working there and either couldn’t locate the pay-streak, or had wandered off the mark and had decided to move on to a different area. By using my gold pan, I can usually get a good idea of where the river is ‘willing to payoff’ or at least where the pay dirt has hit the bank, and there’s where I’ll put my dredge in. I’ll first punch my hole and pay very close attention to the different pay layers. A lot of times I’ll find that the gold is lying four to five feet above the bedrock, and if I’d continue on down I’d just be wasting a lot of time and energy. Other times the bedrock’s where it’s gonna be, so I just have to keep on punching down till I hit bottom, and then I’ll begin a cut straight across the river channel.”

Jim has worked a lot of different areas of the Pacific Northwest, basically following up the different strikes of the old 49ers. He says he’s hit most of the hot spots in eastern and southern Oregon as well as spots in Idaho and California. Right now he’s mining the Klamath River in northern California, using a customized six-inch with a Keene power train and sluice box that is mounted on an R & R Mining frame and float bag kit.

“When I first saw the Klamath it looked mighty big, but within three days from the time I launched my 5-inch, I was into the gold and had enough money to cover my expenses and meet the bills for the next couple of months. I’ve dived this river for two years on a commercial basis, even in the winter when the dredge was white with a layer of ground frost, and the water temperature was probably 45°. Last summer in just three weeks I pulled one and a half pounds of gold in an area we call Glory Hole.”

Jim is also quick to point out that while mining is right for him, it may not be right for everyone. A person’s got to work really hard and be mentally and financially able to stand the dry spells. “I’ve been able to make it work because I’ve got the full support of my wife Karolyn and our two daughters. Karolyn, who lives and works in Vancouver, Washington, makes the long trip up to the Klamath every two weeks, spending the weekend helping to tend the dredge, enjoying the beauty of the great outdoors, and picking nuggets out of the sluice box. My folks have also been behind us a hundred percent, spending ,time at the river as well.”

Everett Gene Britton, Jim’s father, who helped finance that first 5-inch dredge, remained an avid gold miner until his death early this spring, stating in no uncertain terms that some of his very best days were spent panning gold and tending dredge.

In the local area surrounding the Klamath, Jim Britton is known as a man who will lend a helping hand. The kind of person who will take time out of his own diving schedule to get a neophyte gold miner off to a little better start. And he’s an advocate of “miners helping miners” and the necessity of miners working and standing together to protect their rights as granted under the 1872 Mining Law.

“My life is gold,” he reports. “In fact whenever I’m back home and someone comes to visit, my wife will tell them not to mention gold, or I’ll never stop talking about it. I’ve even tried to stay away from the river and the dredge, but it’s in my blood, and I get withdrawal pains whenever I’m away from it. My life is like living an adventure, and if someone would offer me a job at say a $100,000 a year, I would just have to pass it up, because finding gold is what I love and it’s what I’m good at.”

 

BY ULF DANNENBERG

 

The memory is still very clear. When I was a kid about 9 years old, we played Cowboys and Indians in the ruins of bombed-out Hamburg in postwar Germany. We kids consumed the mandatory literature about Billy the Kid, the Lone Ranger, and the exploring of America’s Wild West. Sometimes we read with a flashlight under the bedspread, reading until deep into the night.

These stories had such an impact on me that my fantasies about America nearly became an obsession. The dream that formed in my mind at that time came true in 1965.

My first time in America and I was hooked. I spent the second half of the 60’s in Hollywood, California, became part of the Hippie crowd with all its good and bad things. While I survived all of that in pretty good shape, I was hopelessly spoiled. Unable to go back to the 9-to-5 routine in Germany, I became a world traveler with odd job opportunities that lay left and right along my way of life.

Mining for gold was one of the more adventurous tasks I took on in ’81. The last frontier–Alaska was calling me from afar. My old VW camper was shipped from Germany to Houston, Texas; and after four weeks, I picked it up and was on my way. I made a stop in Phoenix, Arizona and bought a 2″ dredge, together with all the other mining paraphernalia that was needed

The distance between Los Angeles and Fairbanks on a small scale map doesn’t look very far–but drive it and you’ll be surprised. It took me about a week to get there. Fantastic landscape and thrilling wildlife throughout the trip. Breathtaking, awesome, unbelievable, hard to put into words!!

My first mining experience was a bad one. Everywhere I went along the rivers and creeks, I saw huge signs with KEEP OUT, ACTIVE MINING CLAIM. After two days of looking, I ended up along the old Steese Highway some 30 miles out of Fairbanks, working the tailings of one of the old bucket-line dredges they used in the past. The outside temperature was 75 degrees by the end of June; but when I put my hands into the water -brrr – I pulled them out and checked for frostbite. The water temperature was barely above the freezing point, and it took all the fun out of the gold mining.

Disappointed, I left Alaska and went south. A short stop over in Auburn, California along the North Fork of the American River looked much more promising. I recovered two ounces of gold in six weeks – not bad for a beginner with my little dredge.

When I went back to Germany (I had run out of cash), I decided to become a belt-maker. For the next five years, I worked in Spain on the lovely island of Ibiza, making and selling my designer-belts with great success. In 1987, I tired and retired. I had enough funds to be on the road again for the rest of my life and could do whatever I wanted.

Shortly after my retirement, in Germany, I saw a TV special about the New 49’ers Gold Prospecting Association in Happy Camp, California. The impression I got was sound and solid. I was off to California in a jiffy and arrived in Happy Camp in July of 1989. I joined the New 49’ers and scouted out the miles and miles of claims along the Klamath River.

Because of my busted eardrum, deep diving was out of the question. I could only operate a gold dredge in shallow water, hoping to find bedrock in no more depth than five feet. For the rest of the summer, I was finding enough gold to show the folks back home.

I especially like the fringe benefits of mining, like the unspoiled nature, the abundance of wildlife, and the friendly, helpful people. That was something I had never experienced before. Socializing at the Saturday potlucks with raffles, stories and games, made my stay a happy one.

I have returned to Happy Camp multiple times in the preceding years. I can think of no other place where there is more active small-scale mining going on, and so many other people who have similar interests.
The very valuable training and assistance I received from the New 49’ers was thorough and founded on many years of experience. All I can say is – thank you – you’ve been a great help – and I’ll be back!

 

Let me end with a little poem that just crossed my mind:

The summer is gone,
Now is September,
And the end of your vacation is near.
You had a good time,
And you’ll remember –
Back home – frustrations you fear.
Then think of the Klamath,
Its gold and its fame,
Make plans for the upcoming year.
And maybe – who knows –
I’ll be seeing you again,
‘Cause part of my heart is left here.

 

It is getting pretty close to dredging time, and if you are anything like me and the many other dredgers I know, you are probably just itching to get started.

My partners and I, from past experience, now spend the necessary time and energy, before the dredging season starts, in getting all of our equipment repaired-to avoid the otherwise often confrontations with Murphy’s Law.

Some of the standard things we go through are as follows:

Engine and Pump: We always replace the spark plug, motor oil, points and condenser and air filter at the beginning of every season. We also pull the pump impeller to make sure it is not worn or damaged, and to make sure nothing is lodged in it. And we check the pump seal and replace it if it looks the least bit worn.

Air Compressor System: All of the compressors I have seen on gold dredges have reed valves. These are stainless steel plates which allow air to only flow one way through a chamber. These reed valves ought to be cleaned, polished and straightened at the beginning of every season. Some compressors have rubber diaphragms and some have piston rings. These ought to be checked and replaced if necessary. Rebuild kits are generally available for each type of compressor-usually from your local prospecting equipment dealer.

We always open up our regulators and blow them out with compressed air. You will want to check to make sure there are no holes in the rubber diaphragm, and make sure the rubber exhaust seal is working properly. If you have problems with water getting inside your regulator, it is almost always because of a worn out rubber exhaust valve. These are easy to obtain and replace.

It is especially important to open up and clean any check (one-way flow) valves in the air system. We also always soak our air lines in a very mild bleach-water solution before starting a season. We let the airline sink in a tub of the solution to allow the bleach to kill off any fungus which has grown inside the airline. This is to avoid potential respiratory problems from the fungus. The line needs to be thoroughly rinsed with fresh water afterwards.

We check all of our airlines and fittings to make sure everything is working properly-no leaks, and no weak connections!

We thoroughly clean out our air reserve tank to make sure there is no rust, fungus or other substances which could potentially cause problems.

Dredge (Structural): And, of course, we go over the sluice boxes, dredge frame and jets to make sure there are no holes, cracks or other structural problems. And if we find problems, we fix them on the spot. No need to wait until it becomes a more serious problem during the season.

We hit all of the steel with a wire brush and follow up with a fresh paint-job every spring. It’s nice to start the season off looking good!

We go through all of our rope and make sure all of the weak points are cut out and spliced back together, and all of the ends are spliced or melted so there are no frayed ends.

Diving Gear: We go through all of our diving gear, replacing anything that is worn out, patching holes in suits, etc. No need to be any colder than necessary during the early spring!

While fixing up the dredging equipment is not as good as using it, I personally gain a great deal of satisfaction getting it all prepared for the season. And, it’s always a good feeling when I do get out on the river when I have it all together the way it should be. And when “Mr. Murphy” comes knocking at my door, at least I know it wasn’t because I failed to plan ahead.

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