BY SCOTT S. WARNER

Family Finds Gold — And Fun While On Vacation

 

There I was seven feet deep in the Merced River, staring at a human skull. Was this a watery grave for some murdered miner from the 1800’s or an early native Indian from the Miwok tribe of the Sierra Nevada foothills?

As I wondered about the origin of my latest find, I remembered what happened to me the year before on a similar trip with my father, brother, and sister. We were finding gold crowns on the bedrock, and I found one in the sluice box that had a partial tooth in it. My dredging partners and I believed we had a body or skull minus a few teeth close by. It wasn’t until the end of the weekend that my family had a good laugh and admitted they had planted the gold teeth in my hole. For the complete story read “The Toothless Miner” in the October, 1992 issue of Gold and Treasure Hunter Magazine.

On this particular trip, I was dredging with my father, my Uncle John Bard, and his son Michael. My Uncle John was an experienced diver who also had some experience at gold prospecting. It wasn’t until I had started dredging on the Merced River that I found out about John’s prospecting experiences. During the 1960’s, John had dredged the American River and had done some prospecting in Alaska.

After talking to John about his gold prospecting experiences, I found that we shared a special bond. It was the love of hunting and finding gold, and sharing your experiences with other prospectors. My Uncle John had it, I could see it in his face and hear it in the excitement of his voice. It didn’t take much for me to talk my uncle into joining me on a dredging trip to the Merced River.

I pulled into East Bagby on the Merced River on a Wednesday in mid-August. I was working a hole upriver and had uncovered a few crevices with nuggets showing. I cleaned the bedrock and left the gold so that my relatives who were arriving later in the week could enjoy crevicing the gold. They arrived Friday and had a great time picking the gold nuggets out of the bedrock. Unfortunately, the gold played out in that location and we decided to move downriver and try a new location. We opened up our new hole and attempted to locate bedrock. We were about seven feet down, which is a little deeper than I like to work with my 4″ dredge. We were working two-man crews. My father and I were in the dredge hole working through about six feet of overburden without hitting bottom. I was getting a little discouraged because of the possible depth of the bedrock and lack of gold in the overburden.

I was working the nozzle when my father tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at something in the bottom of the hole. As I took a closer look at the object, I saw a white cap peering through the overburden. I began to fan the sand and gravel away from the object when suddenly, two eye sockets looked out at me. Well, I almost had a heart attack right there on the spot, and I think I went into a slight state of shock. I jumped out of the hole and started screaming about a dead man. My Uncle John and Michael looked at me in a funny way when I explained that I was moving my dredge because there was no gold, and there were dead people in our hole.

About a half hour later, the shock began to wear off. I decided that I just had to have some pictures of my new discovery, so I went back down into the hole and uncovered the skull. When I lifted it out, I realized something was wrong– it was very heavy. Once I took a closer look, I found out why; it wasn’t bone, but a fake plaster, skull. My relatives from hell had struck again!

I went crazy and popped out of the water screaming obscenities, that would offend most Christian people. They all stood around laughing and enjoying themselves because they had put one over on me again. They had all done a good job setting me up for it. The night before, we had been discussing the history of the Merced River–it was very interesting how they kept talking about all the dead miners who had lost their lives on the river. Needless to say, I was totally embarrassed. To this day, I can’t believe I fell for the old “Hide a skull in the dredge hole” trick. I can hardly wait to see what they have in store for me next year. Maybe I’ll find an arm, a leg, or possibly a full cadaver.

 

By Dave McCracken

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

Dave Mack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am told this is called “treasure fever”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

By Dave McCracken

With comments added by
Brian & Jim McCracken and Eric Bosch

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

Dave Mack

 

Jim with gold  Three guys waving from the dredges

Atlin Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Old mine  Two Cabins
Old mine 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave & Jim with the all-important hot coffee.

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

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

Eric with handfuls of gold  Close up of gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loaded canoe  Canoe departure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian, Dave & Jim showing off a clean-up

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


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

All four of us together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: I smiled at him a lot!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: “No doubt about it!”

Dave: “Yup, we were lucky!”

After notes:

Dave with map making plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dredges in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

 

BY ERNEST PIERCE

Gold Dredging for Fortune and Adventure

 

It was a beautiful June morning in Austin, Texas when my son Evan and I got up to leave for our trip to California. After killing some time getting some last minute things together and calling my Friend Truman to be sure he was ready to go, we finally set out. It was good to know that after months of careful planning and hard work, this trip started off only an hour behind schedule. No sudden problems cropped up–not a bad start at all.

I have learned that if things start to slow you down and nothing falls in place easily, then it’s time to stop and take a good look to see what might be wrong. Usually I find the problem, or the potential problem, and stop it from getting out of hand. This works every time without fail for me, and sure makes things easier all around.

On this trip out to Happy Camp, California, we decided to take a different route to see some more of the country, so we took Interstate 10 through west Texas and southern New Mexico. This is some beautiful country–very nice mountains, rolling prairies, mesas–and it continued that way on into Arizona and southern California. “Man!” It was hot out there. We stopped in Quartzsite about 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, and it was already 115 degrees. “Whew!”

After spending the night camped out with the rabbits at a KOA campground near Bakersfield, we grabbed a quick shower, a bite to eat, and rolled on up Interstate 5. We encountered very little traffic and no problems. Traveling was smooth all the way to Redding, where we got off the interstate to stop in at the Fish and Game Department to get my dredging permit. After a brief bit of being lost in town, we finally got the permit and were back northward-bound toward Happy Camp. (That name has a ring to it, doesn’t it?) I just love this little town–the laid back attitude, the friendly people, and no one rushing around in a hurry. It’s wonderful! It’s great! Just like a little fishing town I lived in on the Texas coast.

Evan and I finally arrived in Happy Camp about 6:30 Monday evening. We had arrived just in time for one of the nightly activities that is put on by the New 49’ers Prospecting Club during the summer months. These things are always a lot of fun and a person can meet some very good people in addition to picking up some good information.

Now, getting up on Tuesday morning wasn’t a problem at all, as we were both keyed up and ready to go. Evan and I started off by getting needed parts and other things at the Pro-Mack shop. The people who work and run this store are the most helpful folks you have ever seen. They will patiently listen to your questions and answer them if they can. If not, they will direct you to someone who can. While I was there, I left a note for our friends, Truman and Ruth, so they could find us without any trouble.

On we went out Highway 96 to a claim that I wanted to try. Two years before, two other friends and I tested parts of this claim and were not too impressed; but I always felt that we didn’t sample the right area.

In looking over this claim, I had spotted an area just past a set of mean-looking rapids that had a large chunk of stone missing from a sheer rock wall which formed an eddy pool about 15 feet by 20 feet. This was right on the inside bend of the river–right when the water started to slow down after the rapids. It looked real good. Sure enough, the water level in the river was low, and it looked like we should be able to work the spot. “Oh Boy,” time to set up the dredge. We drove down to the river about a quarter of a mile above the rapids where there was better access, and put together my five-inch dredge. This went very smoothly which surprised me; because I had extensively-overhauled this Keene five-inch dredge so that it didn’t look like its normal self at all.

The next step was floating it down to the rapids. After looking things over, I decided not to float it through, but to winch it around and over the rocks. About half way across the rocks, we stumbled onto a come-along-winch that someone had lost, possibly the previous year. It had some rust on it; but after a minor application of oil, it worked very well. Moving the dredge took almost two hours to get over about 200 feet of rocks (next time I will float it through and not be so chicken). After resting for a few minutes, we went back to get a load of things we floated to just-above the rapids on an innertube. On the way, I found a seven-pound lead dive weight and thought I sure was getting lucky finding things. Then, getting back to the dredge, I discovered that it was one of my own weights that had fallen off while we were moving the dredge. Oh well!

Evan and I finally got the dredge to a gravel bar on the opposite bank from where I was going to work, and parked it there. I ran a line across the river, got it firmly attached to a boulder on one side and a big tree on the other, then tested it by coming back across hand over hand. Well, OK, I didn’t get all the way back across, but it was fun trying. My son didn’t know what to think of his father acting so silly hanging from a rope going across the water.

I discovered that all this time, while I was stringing the rope and tying it off to the tree, I had been as close as three feet to a wild bee hive. Well, they didn’t bother me, so I didn’t bother them, and that’s the way it stood between us for the rest of our stay in the area. By the way, the hive was about the size of a basketball.

The next part was the most difficult so far because I had to put everything on the dredge and pull it across the rapids without turning over or losing it. So I sat down and studied the current and the flows and calculated how much rope to use, where to tie it and what angle to tie it on the dredge. It helps to understand about this kind of stuff in order to let the river help as much as it can and not fight you.

Well, we launched the dredge. It floated out a little way and then got caught in a reverse current. It floated upstream quite a bit, then shifted into the main current and started across a little faster than planned. About halfway to this side it reached the end of the rope and tried to play like a submarine. Finally the poor thing came up and smoothly settled into the notch in the cliff where I wanted it. Lucky!

Meanwhile, Evan was waving to get my attention and pointing down stream. When I looked, I saw the last few inches of the suction hose dive under water. Good thing the river was making plenty of noise, because what I said about that hose didn’t need to be heard. Oh well, the only thing to do was get my mask on and dive in. It took about ten minutes to locate the hose, then another five or ten to get it back on the bank. The water was about 12 to 15 feet deep where it stopped, and it took four dives in the swift current to even put my hands on it.

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting the dredge ready to go. When it was all done, Evan and I went back to camp, rested for a while and ate supper. We then returned to Happy Camp for the night’s activities with the New 49’ers.

Now I’ll tell you the whole trip is worth making just to attend the activities that are put on by The New 49’ers. I met some of the best people I have seen anywhere at these get-togethers. This night, I met a family from Georgia, and I really liked them from the moment we met. It turned out we were camping in the same campground and they were just around the bend down-stream from my son and me. They also had children the same age as my son, so that worked out great.

Wednesday morning dawned; and, by nine, we headed for the dredge and got it fired up and operating by 10. The water temperature was just right for dredging, very comfortable. Visibility was around 15 feet, and I considered that good. This area had looked great when I scouted it out. Being on the bottom with a suction hose made it look even better.

Working the gravel, I could tell it had not been dredged. When I uncovered an old car frame, mostly rusted away, I knew it hadn’t been touched at least as far back as the 1964 flood. This looked good!

An hour and a half later, when the first tank of gas ran out, I checked the sluice box and saw good color at the head of the riffles. I have a small one-foot square area at the top of the riffles that I can remove the sample carpet from, and so I panned this out. Wow! What came out of that section was the most gold I have ever seen come out of any of my dredging experiences! I have seen some pictures of gold in a pan like this, but it was a thrill to do it myself. I finished panning this down and set it aside to weigh it separately. (It came out to two penny-weight.) The next tank-full of gas that I ran through the dredge produced about the same results. As I cut deeper into the streambed, the amount of gold kept increasing for the next four days.

While I was on the bottom dredging, Evan was busy on the bank classifying some gravel he was digging at a spot I found for him. After he got about half a bucket full, he sat and panned it out. He did very well at this and always had some colors in the pan–sometimes he had a lot of them. Anyway, he stayed dedicated to panning for a longer period of time than I had thought he would. Also, when I would gas-up the motor, I cleaned the top of the sluice. Then I would separate out some of the concentrates to give to Evan to pan out. He really enjoyed this, because there was so much gold coming from the dredge.

It wasn’t all fun and games. I had to move some big rocks out of the way and that was no problem, but the one I waited too long to move was the one that almost got me. Yep, “The Loomer,” that one I just didn’t want to move yet–the one I would get to in a minute–the one that wasn’t really dangerous. Yeah; that one! Sure enough, I took my attention off it and turned to do something else. Well, when it started to move, I actually sensed it and instinctively jumped and pulled my legs up at the same time. It’s a good thing I did, because when the rock rolled, it missed my legs, but nicked me in the arm hard enough to throw me a few feet out of the way. It didn’t hurt, but it stunned my arm for a minute or two. After the silt cleared and I could see the real size of the rock, I set to work moving it out of the way. This rock was about 600 pounds, so it took a while to move by myself. All the while I was moving this thing I was wondering what I was doing this for anyway. But the longer I worked, the less I worried about it. You know that saying about getting back on the horse that threw you? That really does work! I felt better about the whole situation after I worked around that rock and finally moved it out of the way.

On Thursday, when we stopped for the day, we discovered that Truman and Ruth had finally arrived in camp and wanted to know how we were doing. We had split up at Bakersfield so they could go to visit some places around San Francisco; then they went up the coast to Eureka and finally across to Happy Camp. It was nice to have them in camp, so the next morning I took them down to the river to show where we were working. I showed Truman where Evan was digging and panning, so the two of them did that while I went back dredging. (I also showed them where the bees were.) These two people are the best people I know, and I think a lot of them. Truman and Ruth stayed with us for a few more days, and then they had to head back home. But in that time, we sure had a lot of fun and they both learned how to walk on river rocks without slipping too much.

Saturday was a big day back at Happy Camp. The New 49’ers were sponsoring a coin and prize hunt and the big Saturday barbecue. This is an event you don’t want to miss. More people were there than you could find the time to talk to. It was a grand event–lots of prizes and coins, not to mention the real nice folks. The potluck and barbecue-lunch was marvelous and that barely describes it.

Enough of the fun and games, and it was back to dredging the next day for us.

I continued to work that area, and when the hole reached a layer of packed and rotten branches mixed with tree stumps and logs, I spread it out further until I ran out of room to work. After this, I cleaned up the sluice completely, then got back in the water and began to break up the mass of wood to get underneath it. This was the first time I had run into anything of this nature. The stuff would mostly turn to a reddish powder when I touched it and cloud-out the area.

The layer under it turned out to be loose-packed and made of fine crushed stone but had almost no gold. I was expecting to find some big nuggets or a lot of small ones, but it really turned out to be a disappointment; because after getting through it, I found nothing on the bedrock. So, I quit and checked the sluice–sure enough, after panning out the sample carpet I only found 12 to 15 colors, so I pulled the dredge back to the other side to sample there. After sampling several places, I didn’t find any amount of gold to make me stay and work. Sad to say, but if I had tried a sample hole another 100 feet from where I stopped, I would have found another good pocket that produced as much as the one I worked. (It turned out that I was able to return to this area a month later, but that is another story.) I usually keep good records of the time I spend every day actually dredging, so I checked to see what the statistics were on this spot. It turned out that I was only dredging this hole for close to 12 1/2 hours total work-time under water. This produced close to 35 pennyweight of gold. Figure that out and it comes to over 2 1/2 pennyweight an hour. That’s not bad for a five-inch dredge and an semi-beginner who has only two years part-time gold dredging experience.

On Saturday of the next week, my wife Mary flew into Medford, Oregon, where Evan and I picked her up and brought her back to Happy Camp. We had been gone so long, she sure was glad to see that her long-lost husband and son were safe. She also loves Happy Camp and looks forward to going back next year.

All three of us spent the next week going around the area sampling here and there, just having a real good time. I showed Mary how to pan gold and that kept her busy for quite a while. She gets excited when she finds some color in the pan and calls me over to look at it. If there is a more beautiful part of this country than this area of northern California, I don’t know where it would be. The beauty of the countryside as we drive through is a wonder to behold. We really enjoy our trips out there and discover something new every time we visit.

After all this, you might think I would wait until the next summer to come back. But as we were leaving, I was thinking that it sure would be nice if I could return to California sooner than that… Well, it turned out that things arranged themselves in such a way that I came back at the end of August–but that is another story. See you on the Klamath!

Other Adventures with Ernie:

 

 
video subscription graphic
 

By Dave McCracken

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

Dave Mack

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

Diver

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

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

JeepneyTrike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SluiceLocal miners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Miners

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rice

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

Washing MaterialPulling Buckets Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“John & Madel”

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

 

 

 

BY PAM RICHARDS

Finding Friends, Adventure and Gold on The Klamath River and its Tributaries in Northern California

 

Nestled outside a small town called Happy Camp in northern California is a wonderland of wilderness. When Larry and I leave our home in upstate New York for our yearly vacation, this is where we always go.

We both have professional careers in New York; the type of work which includes lots of politics and stress. Larry isn’t the type of person who can sit around and relax. He has to be involved in a physical activity to find some balance. Dredging for gold provides an exciting and demanding diversion from normal everyday life. Larry enjoys the challenge of simply having to strategically move rocks and boulders out of the way on the intuition that mother nature’s golden treasure might be located underneath. I have to admit that I enjoy the activity, too. While I haven’t started diving yet, I make myself useful by operating the winch and helping with the gold cleanup.

Back in 1985, Larry was introduced to gold mining by a friend. The first time he saw gold in the sluice box of a gold dredge, he was hooked. Gold Fever–he has it and there is no cure!

Larry’s most memorable gold mining trip was when he found his first pocket of nuggets in a hidden crack in the bedrock, up on Indian Creek near Happy Camp. He had been mining along and not finding very much when he decided to break open that crack. It was loaded! From then on, every crack has been opened up.

    

Larry’s sister, brother-in-law and eight-year-old niece made the trip to California to join us in Happy Camp several seasons ago. We introduced them to gold prospecting and re-introduced Sharon to camping, which she always enjoyed as a kid. Perhaps because of the friendly quiet time around the evening campfire, it was amazing to watch the family relationship become rejuvenated. Larry gave his niece a nice locket containing some of the gold he was finding and it was an experience she will probably remember for the rest of her life!

As long as we stay able, we will continue to dredge for gold. We started with a 2 1/2 inch dredge and have graduated to a 5-incher. Over the years, Larry has bought a lot of equipment in his search for gold. We have not gotten financially rich from the gold we have found, but we have found some awfully-nice gold; we have had many emotionally-enriching experiences; we have had great vacations, and met wonderful people through the New 49’er Prospecting Organization in Happy Camp.

The interesting thing about gold prospecting, is that when you are following a pay-streak, you never know what you might find. The possibility of “striking it rich” is always right there, That’s one of the things that makes the activity so exciting.

Every summer, The New 49’ers sponsors kinds of interesting activity, including metal detecting hunts, white-water rafting and hiking trips, slide presentations of Dave McCracken’s gold mining adventures from around the world, organized group mining and training projects, and weekly potlucks with wonderful food and the fellowship of many other interesting people on the quest for gold and adventure. Besides the more serious activity of prospecting, there is a lot of other outdoor fun for the whole family.

This year’s vacation started out the same as previous years for Larry and me. We spent the first day setting up camp and getting the dredge into the water. We found a really excellent spot several years ago and have been returning to the same location each year, but the pay-streak we have been working (for years) was almost finished. We knew this because the gold was getting spotty. Sometimes it was rich with big nuggets, and sometimes it was poor. We worked all the first week to find no gold that we would be able take and show off at the Saturday night potluck dinner. Showing off our nuggets on Saturday night has always been a highlight! A lot of 49’er members bring their gold-finds to the weekly potlucks.

Week two started out to be the same, and we thought that we would be returning to New York with no gold this year. On day three, after 45 minutes of dredging, Larry came out of the water. The look on his face was one of disappointment. He said I could look in the sluice box, but there wouldn’t be anything in it. He was right, because he was holding a beautiful 3/4 ounce nugget in his glove where I couldn’t see it. He was not disappointed–he just wanted to see the look on my face when he dropped it into the sluice box.

The sight of that big hunk of gold in the sluice box just made my day–my vacation, for that matter.

here’s a lot more to a gold mining adventure than the gold you get. There’s the beautiful outdoors, the clear nights with bright stars, the great camping and campfire-meetings with new-found friends. There’s nothing better than fresh-cooked trout that you just caught out of the creek. But, I have to say that finding Mother Nature’s hidden gold deposits is sweeter than frosting on the cake!

I had to go home at the end of that week. Larry had another week of vacation, so was able to stay longer. When he came home, he had a little over 2 1/2 ounces of gold. This was one of the best gold-finding vacations we have had. You take what you can get while you are searching for the mother lode! Sometimes its pretty good!

All the money in the world couldn’t buy a better vacation for Larry and I! It is now winter and cold and snowing here in New York. Our thoughts are of our next vacation–hoping we will find bigger and better gold.

 

 

 

 

BY MARCIA STUMPF/FOLEY

True Life Adventure Turning Into a Nightmare in the Dark Forest

 

Out of Gas

After being part-time gold miners for more than 15 years, my husband Bill and I had the opportunity to move to Happy Camp, California, in 1987. We jumped at the chance; this was a longtime dream come true for us. We had been spending our summers mining in the area for a number of years, and there was nowhere else on earth we’d rather live!

Although our southern California home was in a relatively small town when we were young, we were inevitably caught in the urban sprawl that moved ever eastward from Los Angeles. The “culture shock” of moving to a town of less than 1,000 people that was two hours away from “city” shopping took some getting used to, but we thought we’d adapted to it long ago.

However, coming home from a shopping trip recently, we ran out of gas. In our 39 years of marriage, this was a first. The gas gauge is something Bill watches closely, because he loves to wait until he is down to the last delicious drop or two before he fills the tank. After he fills’er up, he always proudly says “Well, I had’er down to less than a gallon,” or whatever. He’s in some kind of contest to see who can let the tank run lowest without running out, only he’s not playing with anyone else.

Driving along our winding river road is a real treat any time of year, but the beginning of each season is especially beautiful. Spring was just beginning to spread her magic wand, and the bright green of new foliage, literally hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides to tumble into the river, dog-wood in bloom, wisps of mist clinging to the rich green of pine and fir, and the fresh grass on the roadsides looking as polished as a golf green presented a picture postcard around each curve of the road. It was spattering rain off and on as we started up the far side of Cade Mountain, ten miles from town, and I could just make out the “35 mile an hour” curve sign ahead when we began slowing down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Why are you slowing down?” Very quietly and calmly, Bill said, “We’re out of gas.” “What?” I asked, thinking I must not be hearing him right.

“We’re out of gas,” he repeated in that same calm, quiet voice (it was very unlike him).

Running out of gas is a larger problem for us than most, because we live in the country and our two-hour trip is through largely uninhabited forest. It had just turned full dark, and we had removed the flashlight from the truck two days before to replace the batteries and hadn’t returned it.

I was still trying to absorb what he’d told me. Then, suddenly, as we slowly rounded a curve, and he pumped the pedal, the truck came to life and he floored the gas pedal. “What are you doing?” I squeaked, as I grabbed for the handle above the door. Thrown from side to side, we lurched along, going alternately fast as gasoline fed to the carburetor, and slowing as the tilt of the roadbed discontinued the feed.

Now approaching the “25 mile an hour” curve sign, we had already taken the 35 mile curve at 50, and our speed was not lessening. “Leave me alone,” he said grimly. “I know what I’m doing.” I began a reply, but stopped abruptly; we’d both already noticed that we were rapidly losing speed, again. Our spurt of gas was gone, and we searched both sides of the road quickly for a turnout. Suddenly, a turnout took on an entirely new perspective.

The headlights finally picked one out on the opposite side of the road, and he spun the wheel hard, saying he wanted the truck pointing downhill, to give us gas to start it again.

As we came to rest, we sat in the darkness for a moment. Then the prospect of walking all the way to town crept in, much as the blackness of the night seeped into the cab of the truck, there on the mountain in complete silence.

“How far is it back to the last house?” I inquired quietly, back in the grips of a panic situation. “Too far,” he said. “If we coasted all the way to the bottom, it would still be miles further than walking to town from here. But if we can just get to the top, we can coast all the way to town.”

“We’ll never make it to the top”, I said. “There are still several curves, and hardly any turnouts! And, it’s a lot steeper from here on.”

This speech made him angry again; and with just a hint of desperation in his voice, he said “Don’t tell me that! I know we can make it to the top!” Now, to really appreciate that statement, you would have to know Bill. To simply say he is pessimistic is much too optimistic. He’s the original “doom and gloom” guy.

“I’m going to rock the truck,” Bill said as he got out. I waited inside while he rocked it back and forth a number of times. When he’d re-entered, the headlights lit up the dark night as he tried the motor again. It started, but the truck wouldn’t move. We’d come to rest in a little “dip,” and it couldn’t get over the top; it just “putt- putted.”

After going through the rocking-thing allover again, he said “We’re going to have to push it up this little hill to get it level. All the gas is running to your side.” Although he didn’t say any more, I knew the thought was there; this was not going to be easy, since I am a complete weakling. And, he’s pretty much right. He’s been telling me for 39 years that his next wife is going to be strong! I couldn’t remember the last time I’d pushed a car and didn’t even want to try. We had a distance of about 12 feet to go, in sparse grass and that slimy, red clay-mud that slips so easily.

Our first attempt, pushing from each side, was a complete failure. Bill then went to the rear of the truck, and we rocked it front-to-back first, giving it all we had and it actually started moving. Struggling and straining, we moved forward several feet. Then a wheel fell into a hole and we stopped to rest. We climbed inside, as it was growing colder. Suddenly, several cars approached, heading uphill. I hit the emergency flasher button, but after the third vehicle passed us without slowing down, I realized that with our headlights shining directly at the oncoming cars, they couldn’t see us, or our vehicle, in the dark–0nly our head lights. It was likely someone from town. But if they couldn’t see that it was someone they knew, they would keep going, and they did. It seemed very quiet each time I turned the flashers off, and we were left in the dark with only an echo of the sound the passerby’s had made.

Our next attempt at getting out of the “hole” did not go well. We rested, and after two more tries, we finally reached level ground with only minor injuries and some mud splatters.

Bill rocked the truck again, started it, and it roared to life! He spun it around onto the highway, and we were suddenly careening up the mountainside like a bucking bronco! It would momentarily die; but as the road slanted, come to life again. We rocketed around a couple of curves, bucking and lurching, but the truck began sputtering her last gasps of gasoline now as the road grew steeper. Luckily, a small wide spot just large enough for the truck appeared on the right, and Bill guided her inside as she rolled to a stop.

This was it. We both knew it. With no room to maneuver and the truck on a steep incline, she’d given us every drop of gasoline she had to give. We sat in the dark silence for a moment. Then, “Lock up your side of the truck-I’m going to lock the back,” Bill said as he opened his door. I gathered up things to take, and put the rest behind the seat. How long would it take to walk five miles? As he came back up to the cab, Bill said “You know, it’s still early. We might stand a better chance of getting a ride to town if we’re near the truck.” That sounded good to me. I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy at the thought of walking to town now that the bears were out again. And it was so dark; I’d step on a skunk before seeing it. I checked my watch-it was just 7:30 p.m. We decided to have a cigarette; and if no one came before we finished, we were on our way.

I leaned against the truck as our situation really began to sink in. Just then, headlights appeared around the curve below us, and another vehicle-no, two of them, rushed out of the darkness. I ran to the back of the truck, stood directly in their headlights, and waved my arms in a distress signal. It worked! The first vehicle slowed to a stop above us. As Bill walked to the driver’s window, I suddenly wondered if I’d been smart-who knew who this might be? Then I heard “Hello!” and recognized the voice as that of Gary Wright, a friend. What luck! And, of all things, he had a five-gallon gas can he’d just filled in town! I didn’t realize just how concerned I’d been until then, and my legs began trembling. I leaned against the truck gratefully as they chatted, filling the tank with five big gallons of gasoline. After many thanks, we stowed his can to refill in the morning, and were on our way. We were silent with our thoughts for the rest of the ride down to the welcome lights of town and home.

Our relief at having the situation resolved was shared with the knowledge that we’d easily learned a very valuable lesson about living in the country. There are always tradeoffs-things you must give up to live in an area, wherever it may be. We consider ourselves so lucky to live where we are that we’d give much more than what’s necessary for all the rewards of living here.

 

BY GENE MEDENWALD

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an experience!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 20–Repaired compressor. A broken piston reed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE’S-THE-BUCKLE?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BY GENE MEDENWALD

 

A partner and I were dredging together, working a hole upstream on both sides of a very large boulder, about six feet across. We were working dangerous, sluffy streambed material near a back-eddy. Material, cobbles and small boulders would slide in unexpectedly from anywhere at any time. Foof! The hole would immediately silt up. Visibility became nil. It was scary! We were both getting gold, but not a lot. We discussed pulling out of the area. We both knew and agreed it was dangerous, but decided to stay in it, “just one more day.” “Maybe we’ll run into some decent hard-pack.”

The next day a large boulder slid in on my partner and pinned his leg to the bedrock. He was just barely able to pry himself free, leaving his boot and the suction hose pinned under the boulder and his dredge in midstream. He swam to the bank.

The first thing I saw when I surfaced at the end of my dive on my reserve air when the fuel tank on my dredge went dry was my partner’s dredge, floating in midstream with a dead engine. The emotional feeling caused by that vision I do not ever want to experience again.

My panicked search for the shore for — what? What was I to do? How long had his dredge been floating there with a dead engine? And then I sighted my partner lying there on the bank with one booted and one bare foot, the ecstasy of happy relief! All the while I had been happily dredging away, totally unaware of the drama taking place six feet away. Oh yeah, the engine on his dredge quit for lack of fuel less than five minutes after he reached shore. Close!

He lost three days’ work while the swelling on his foot went down. It took us both nearly a full day, working with six-foot crowbars to recover his boot and the suction hose from under the boulder. The hose was flattened to about an inch thick.

LESSON:

Take your time, be careful and enjoy yourself. Good grief! There are thousands of easier and more comfortable ways of making a living. If you enjoy this activity, why not do it in an enjoyable manner so that you can continue to enjoy it?

But, even when you are taking your time and you are thoroughly enjoying yourself and are doing everything as right as you can do it, for sure, The Law can still get you!

Late in the season, a fellow miner had to leave for a couple days. As we’d traded favors all season long, and as he apparently thought he owed me one, he invited me to use his brand-new five-inch triple sluice dredge in his absence. I jumped at the opportunity and immediately moved it downstream into my hole. New dredge; prefect equipment. A nicely developed hole, a safe hole with no huge boulder lurking about, although it was in fast water. Minutes after the beginning of the first dive, I found myself completely washed out of my hole and bouncing down the river bottom on my back. For some reason, I found this to be ridiculously hilarious. A vision formed in my mind of a topsy-turvy turtle, bump-bump-bumping his way downstream along the river bottom, arms and legs flailing about, just as silly as I was doing that very second! “Good grief,” I’m mentally telling myself, “And you consider yourself a somewhat experienced dredger. This is embarrassing.” I finally lodged behind a large rock in lesser-current and was able to right myself. And as I still held the suction nozzle, I placed it between my knees and knelt over it while I cleared my face mask which was all awry and full of water. (There was a time in my dredging career when just doing that would have been a near-panic situation.) Then, being able to see again, as I straightened my weight belt so the buckle was in easy reach in front, I began searching for my air regulator which somehow had simply disappeared. So far, I didn’t even have to mentally shout to myself, “Don’t Panic!”

Well, darn. Where is that stupid regulator (right-hand is now firmly grasping the weight belt buckle)? There it is! There’s a yellow line leading right into the suction nozzle!

Well, I was able to extract it undamaged from the suction nozzle and clear it with nearly the last bit of air in my lungs. After resting a spell behind the rock, I went on to put that new dredge through its paces, uneventfully.

Had that experience happened to me early in the season, when I was a rank beginner, for sure it would have been a horrible, traumatic affair. At the time I found it to be a bit funny and certainly embarrassing.

 

LESSON:

Get experience. Practice. Gain confidence. Do it in easy places to dredge, in quieter water close to shore. One of the larger nuggets gotten out of the Klamath this season was dredged up a foot off-shore in two feet of quiet water. With an eight-inch dredge, true; but any first-time dredger with the very smallest of machines could have gotten it, while he was safely gaining valuable experience and confidence before tackling some of the more challenging stretches of the river.

I think you’ll become as convinced as I am that Murphy was, indeed, a miner before he came to immortalize himself with his famous LAW.

May all of YOUR experiences with his Law be funny, hilarious or at the worst, embarrassing-and do your darndest to stay out of its jurisdiction with wisdom, just plain smarts and anything else you figure might keep things going uneventfully and productively for you. Maybe a rabbit’s foot….

SOME DREDGING AXIOMS OF MURPHY’S LAW:

  • Your dredge will run out of fuel when you are moving a large boulder and your first indication of this is NO AIR.
  • Your dredge will run out of fuel just as you are uncovering gold-laden bedrock, which will be covered with three feet of cobbles after you’ve re-fueled.
  • Your dredge always has plenty of fuel left when you are freezing, starving or crosseyed from having to relieve yourself, and are seeking any excuse to end the dive.
  • Dredges never nearly sink from cobble build-ups in the sluice box when you have a friend visiting your mining site.
  • Dredges always run fine when you are removing barren overburden.
  • Breakdowns will occur as soon as you uncover a rich, gold laden pay-streak.
Bad things never happen singularly:
  • If you slip and fall and injure yourself, you will fall on something expensive and break it as well.
  • If you slip and fall underwater with jam-rod in hand while wearing your weight belt, you will fall on your regulator and not be able to find it.
  • It will begin raining furiously the night of the day you neglected to place your support gear six feet up the bank.
  • If something you are not familiar with comes apart, some of the pieces will fall into the river — but you will not know which ones or how many.
  • Anything placed on a boulder in the water will fall off. It will fall into the fast current, not the dead water on the shore-side.
Murphy’s Law applies to all cold water diving protective gear:
  • All wet-suits and dry-suits are made for Alien Beings. They are too large or too small, usually both and in the same suit in different places.
  • Chances are, you will have gone broke before your custom-sized protective suit arrives.
  • You will forget to zip up your dry-suit at least once in your diving career after a rest break. This, however, is such a shocking experience it is rarely forgotten.
  • If you have steel-capped toes in your boots you will drop a boulder on your ankle. If you don’t have steel-tips of course it will drop on your toes.
  • Dry-suits only cost three times a wetsuit, are twice as heavy, one-and-a-half times as buoyant, require only twice the effort to move around in because of the bulk, and are not dry because of your perspiration. They are extremely difficult to get into, nearly impossible to get out of and can be destroyed with one simple mishap of closing the zipper improperly.
  • Hot water systems for wetsuits cost much less than dry-suits and are wonderful, when they work. However…
  • If there is anything sharp or pointed in the general vicinity of your dredge, your hole or access to same, it will puncture your suit.
  • Suit punctures requiring immediate repairs only occur a few minutes before the first dive; never a few minutes before ending the last dive.
  • Weight belts only come loose underwater when both of your hands are occupied.
  • You never lose your weight belt until you’ve loaned your spare to a friend.
  • Ditto on losing your face mask.
Murphy had several spools of rope when he was moved to give his famous Law to posterity:
  • There are many simple ways to coil a long rope, but no simple way to uncoil it.
  • A length of rope left running free from your dredge or swing-line will snag on anything and everything; and, for certain, just right after you’ve put on your weight belt.
  • Floating line is a terrible nuisance as it snags on everything on the river’s surface.
  • Non-floating line is a terrible nuisance as it snags on everything below the river’s surface.
  • The bow-line knot refutes Murphy’s Law. It is the only known thing in the universe that does.
  • Rope, for a gold dredger, exemplifies another famous axiom: You can ‘t live with it and you can’t live without it!
All of the most recalcitrant (stubbornly resistant to authority or guidance)
individuals of eons past have been reincarnated as boulders and armful-size cobbles. Some are mindful of past mothers-in-law:
  • Clear a space to drop a boulder left, and it will roll right; and vice versa.
  • Rocks too heavy to lift, and too small to winch, are usually covered with slime making them too slippery to roll, too.
  • Some distinctive-colored and shaped nozzle-plugging-type cobbles can re-appear in your hole several times, after each time being frustratingly tossed out–until finally, you pick up the dinky thing and walk it 12 feet out of your hole, for good!

Perhaps you have some axioms which have not been listed here?

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

By Dave McCracken

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

 

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

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

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


I was holding on for dear life!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How clear is the water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ernie and his team capturing a little video…

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

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

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

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

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

Base camp

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

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

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

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

These two articles explain the underwater process in detail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Locals observing Ernie do a final clean-up

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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