Placer miners at work

Placer mining is relatively simple as long as you don’t expect to make a profit; but it becomes much more difficult if your intention is to make some money. If you want to make some money, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to learn from other people’s mistakes, than to put yourself through the school of hard knocks. By far, the most common mistake I see is inadequate or improper sampling, which is often due to gold fever. Other mistakes are: not properly cleaning up bedrock, not researching the past mining history of your area, and starting a mining venture under-funded.

Placer miners diggingFirst, we will cover sampling. A common remark I hear is why put the time, effort, money, etc. into sampling when it can be better-spent on actual mining and making some money? All too often, individuals lose thousands of dollars on their mining ventures; but had they done some sampling and found out that the ground was too low-grade to mine profitably, they would have only spent hundreds of dollars. I have seen an individual go broke trying to mine ground containing less than $2 of gold per yard when there was un-mined ground about 300 yards away running slightly over $100 per yard. That is not a typographical error; it is one hundred dollars. This is, of course, an extreme example; but all too often rich ground is missed. Even before sampling, a literature-search is in order to get an idea of the ground’s value.

Another common mistake is not separating overburden from pay gravels. Novice miners frequently like to run low-grade overburden. This is because the more gravel they mine, the more gold they recover. While mining everything on a property will maximize the amount of recovered gold, it could bankrupt a person at the same time. If the overburden only contains $2 of gold per yard, and your mining cost is $5 per yard, then you are losing $3 for every yard put through the wash plant.

On the other hand, if you can strip low-grade overburden for $1 per yard, then you have saved $2 per yard which can be directed toward mining the pay gravels.

Gold sample in panOften, new miners leave a lot of gold values in the bedrock. Some highly-fractured bedrock may have values several feet below the surface. The deepest I have ever read about was a Canadian mine going down nine feet into bedrock to get all of the values.

Most often, the bedrock values will be in the top two feet of bedrock. Once you mine the top six inches, check the next six inches to see if there are still enough values to make it pay. Once again, you must evaluate your mining costs for ripping up bedrock to determine if the effort will pay adequate dividends.

Starting a placer operation under-funded is another common mistake of novice miners. It is a mistake to count on finding some profitable ground to pay off debts right away and carry you through the rest of the season. Unforeseen problems have a way of cropping up, such as equipment breakdowns or a severe water shortage later in the season.

Even though most individuals reading this article won’t be running a large-scale mining operation, these tips should help you toward a more profitable operation even on a smaller-scale. Maybe, with some increased sampling or more efficient mining, you just may find that big nugget this season!

About the Author: Steve Hicks is a geologist specializing in sampling gold placers. He has previously worked a number of years as a mineral examiner for the BLM in Alaska and Montana. Presently he is doing placer consulting work and residing in Livingston, Montana.


By Dave McCracken

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

Dave Mack


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987 Edition.







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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By James B. Wright

Learning to interpret sound anomalies on your metal detector.


Noise comes to those who would use an electronic metal detector in three different basic forms:
1) Locally generated sounds (such as motors, river rapids, people talking, etc.).

2) Equipment-generated sounds (whistles, squawks, buzzes, etc., from equipment maladjustment or defects).

3) And a third noise, which is the sound of a good piece of equipment operating the way it should.

The counter-measures which must be taken against the first two types of noises should be obvious. Kill the engine, stop the talking or wear headphones which prevent outside noises from entering the ear. And, of course, adjust the equipment properly, or have it fixed, and learn to adjust it properly.

The third type of noise is the good type. It is the noise that is created when a good instrument is set up right and working most-efficiently. This noise is a “frying” sound, kind of like rain on a quiet lake, the wind through the pines, a gentle rapid on the river or a crowd at a ball game. It is a good, clean steady hiss. On a meter, it may be a steady deflection of 25-40% of full-scale.

Unfortunately, you cannot have sensitivity without this type of noise, simply because noise is built into all physical processes and all of nature.

What is “noise” as used in this context? One good example is the sound you get from your television set when it is tuned to an unused UHF channel. This is when you see snow on the TV screen. What you are seeing and hearing is the composite of a large number of random electrical impulses, all continuously being generated by the very atoms which make up the television, as well as those which make up the earth, the atmosphere, the sun and the rest of the cosmos. This is the sound of Nature doing her thing!

So, what’s the point of all this?

When you send a signal into the ground and try to detect a response from bits of gold, or from other types of deeply-buried chunks of metal, you are usually dealing with a very weak return-signal amid a sea of pre-existing natural “noise.” The detector must identify and amplify the desired signal and try to discriminate against the unwanted noise.

This is where the user becomes a part of the detection system. Because human hearing is able to pick out signals buried in noise better than any piece of electronic gear (except for certain radar equipment which is gawdawful expensive).

Why then must we not only tolerate noise but appreciate it? Because, if your equipment is so sensitive that it will sense the intrinsic “noise” of Nature, it will sense an equally-weak signal from your target. If your detector sounds-off on hot rocks or black sands, it is alive and well and doing its job.

Your job is to learn to hear and interpret the anomalies in the noise, the “whisper” that is just slightly different, the smallest change in the pitch of tone.

This is what weeds out the expert from the rest of the pack. He (or she) is like a good sonar-man, picking out the submarine while ignoring the chatter of the whales, the fish and the other noises of the sea.


By Dave McCracken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lesson in this!

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

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

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

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

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

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



By Dave McCracken

Given your available resources, what are you trying to accomplish in the time allowed on this project?

Dave Mack

Knowing what to do in gold prospecting is only the first step. Beyond that, you must actually apply your knowledge to real life situations in the field. The inability to properly apply mining knowledge in the field is the primary cause of unsuccessful gold prospecting operations.

I have talked with prospectors who knew exactly where the sample holes should have been dug or dredged. They could even point out the specific places and give the reasons why. But, for various reasons, the holes were never dredged, or the sampling plan was abandoned before it was completed. Their failures were not necessarily due to a lack of willingness to work. Some of those guys were doing plenty of physical work every day! But, they just did not seem to be able to channel their work-energy into those areas that were really essential to get them into gold. They could not stay on track!

This is not only a matter of following through with a single plan. Sometimes, people are unwilling to depart from some course of action once they get started into it. Sampling requires more emotional flexibility than this. Many times, we are just guessing, or hoping, when we begin a sampling operation. Then, as we sink our sample holes, if we are paying attention, we learn more about the area and are able to adjust our sampling plan accordingly. We learn where the gold path (the highway that gold follows in the waterway) is more likely to be by finding out where it isn’t. We find out that the streambed is too deep in some sections of the river by dredging test holes in places where we can’t reach the bottom. We have to be prepared to adjust our sample plan each time we learn something new.

A lot of this comes back to identifying and taking the proper approach. This process begins with the fundamental question: What am I trying to accomplish in the time allowed to me on this project? And the second key question: Given my available resources, how is the best way for me to accomplish that? If you answer these questions with integrity, and then direct your activities accordingly, you will be on the right track.

Sampling technology is easy. Gold follows a path in the waterway and deposits at the bottom of hard-packed streambed layers. You find the deposits by first completing sample holes across the waterway to establish where (laterally) the gold path is located, and in what layer (depth) of the streambed it is found. Then, you sample down to the depth of that layer, along that path, until you find the deposit you are looking for. That is the essence of sampling technology, wrapped up in the last three sentences.

So what makes it difficult to apply? It’s the internal, emotional struggle involved in not knowing where the gold is. It’s easy to get discouraged after working hard to complete several test holes in a given area and not finding what you are ultimately looking for. Discouragement can override a person’s willingness to stick with a sampling plan. People give up on areas that have not yet been properly sampled. Negative emotions can obscure your recognition of positive signs. We all struggle with this. In fact, this is the main struggle you have to overcome in gold prospecting.

Sometimes, only small traces are the first sign that a gold deposit is near. These small traces of gold are exactly what we are looking for! We must then follow these traces to see where they lead. So we cannot allow our own personal discouragement distract us from looking for the small signs that lead us into the high-grade gold deposits.

Stop and think about this for a moment: If we already knew where the gold was, we would not have to sample. We could just go into production! But, if it were that easy, someone else would have already taken all the gold. The reason there is so much gold remaining in today’s waterways is because it is not visible. And, since no one can see it, most people believe it is not there.

In view of the fact that you don’t know where the gold is when you start sampling (or even know that it is there at all), your real personal challenge is to diligently adhere to your sampling plan, while watching very closely for the signs that will direct your search to those places in the waterway where the deposits are most likely to be found. This, in essence, is the game you are playing in prospecting. It is a game to stay ahead of your own discouragement.

The knowledge about what to look for is secondary to your willingness to apply yourself to the task of recognizing the positive signals when they are there. Your success depends directly upon what you do with the information you receive from your samples. These decisions are made internally. To make them correctly requires focus and discipline.

I often see people get discouraged when they fail to find a rich gold deposit in the first sample hole. We all experience this to some extent. But, this happens only because we have allowed ourselves to set unreasonably-high expectations. The sampling process is never about a single sample hole. Rather, it requires us to spread out across a waterway to find the “gold path,” no matter how many sample holes that may take. That’s the mission. Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 samples. Sometimes it takes more. How can you expect to guess it right on the first try? Isn’t that an unfair and unrealistic expectation?

It is better to view sampling as a quest to find and follow the gold trail up into the deposits, instead of just dredging a sample hole, or even a series of sample holes. What are we trying to do? Find a deposit, right? So, our job is not to simply put down a sample hole. It’s about finding and following a trail. This is what you need to be thinking about. This is the wavelength you need to dial into. Then, your focus will be where it belongs.

Don’t allow yourself to get too discouraged if a sample hole does not turn up a rich deposit. Instead, feel good about finishing one step in the series of steps necessary to track down a gold deposit. Analyze what you have learned from the sample. Consider how this new information should affect the way you proceed in your overall sampling program.

Can you see why personal application is the key to success or failure? No matter how much you know, if you are not out there actively, passionately, diligently sniffing out the path that gold follows as it lays down deposits in the waterway, you are not going to find very much, unless you are just plain lucky.

Consistent success depends on applying the right basic approach.



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By Dave McCracken

“Planning to Get it Right the First Time”

Dave Mack

Planning for a mining program largely involves the following elements:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location and Accessibility

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

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


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

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

Politics with Officials and Local People

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Project operational considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelter and living-support

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specialized equipment

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

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

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


Supply of food, fuel, and other needs

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Medical and/or emergency support

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




During my fourteen years of mining throughout the United States, with a variety of gold mining equipment, I’ve seen and processed a lot of black sand. And since the mining equipment I’ve used has ranged in size from gold pans and suction dredges to Caterpillars and heavy equipment, its been possible to approach “fine placer gold recovery” and its liberation from black and blonde sands from virtually every level.

Learning in any form takes time and usually a lot of practice, which all too often includes making a few mistakes. So I might as well begin this article by admitting that I’ve certainly left my share of gold on the ground, even after all the hard work of getting it out of some of nature’s most elusive hiding places.

Liberating gold from black sand can be a very difficult process, especially when the gold is extremely fine. The finer the gold, the more difficult the recovery seems to be. And whether you’re an experienced miner or a novice, it is certainly a waste to walk away from your fine gold, leaving it half processed in a pile of black and blonde’ sands at your clean-up site along the river bank or in your campground. For example, let me relate a true story of one of my own recent experiences:

During a recent winter, after a fairly good dredging season, the cold water and my own curiosity caused me to wander around and check out some of the black sand piles (left behind by other miners) I had noticed earlier in the season. Knowing from my own experiences how miners tend to lose gold during clean-up, I took along my gold pan to test with; and sure enough, in the first pile of sand I found two nuggets (about 1/4 and ½-pennyweight) along with plenty of color. I immediately went back to camp and returned shortly with my shovel and some buckets which I used to transport the heavy black sands back to my campsite where I do my own clean-ups. I use an industrial-type spiral-wheel which is larger and faster than the typical gold wheel sold in most mining supply stores. Gold wheels will do a great job of fine gold recovery providing they are set up and used properly. And since every wheel and concentrate deposit is unique, your ability to tune your wheel and work your sands will be the critical factors affecting your fine gold recovery, not a particular brand name.

During the past few months, I’ve also been running the final clean-ups from a number of mining operations along the Klamath River in northern California. In most cases what were only five gallon buckets of “previously processed” black sands magically changed within a few hours into literally pennyweights and ounces of liberated fine gold. You can just imagine the surprise and excitement experienced by these dredge operators when they saw that the black sand byproduct they had so very often considered “nearly worthless” or “unrecoverable” was in fact valuable and could even pay a substantial portion of their operating expenses.

Most of what I’ve learned was to a large extent the result of associating with some of the best clean-up men in the gold mining fields of Alaska. They had been liberating gold for more than fifty years when I first met them, and many are probably still at it today. If there is a single and most important key to unlocking the mysteries of fine gold recovery, it is “the basics always work.” So if you’re in fine gold, and you’re not able to recover it, remember to return to the basics.

What follows is a simple step-by-step process of the basics of fine gold recovery:

Without Classification, Liberation is not Possible

Virtually every piece of modern mining equipment currently available in local mining and equipment shops has its own inherent system of material classification. To classify, in mining terminology, simply means to separate the material (rocks, gold, and sand) by size and/or weight (usually by size). It only makes sense to take this process even further in handling the clean up of your concentrates.

Classification is often accomplished by using screens of various sizes or meshes, and while many gold miners choose to buy these screens from their gold mining supply store, it is not unusual at all to see lint screens, window screens, and even kitchen sifters alongside a clean-up operation. Classification screens come in many sizes: 4, 8, 12, 20, 30, 50, 100, and even smaller. These numbers represent the number of openings per linear inch. For example, a 4-mesh screen has four holes per linear inch or 16 holes per square inch, and allows material to drop through which is smaller in size than about 1/4 inch smaller, actually, because the wire in the screen takes up some of the space.

With a little practice and experimentation you will find out which screen will work the best for you and your particular clean-up operation.

Beginning Your Clean-Up

Start your clean-up by removing your concentrates from your sluice box. Next, use your #4 screen to classify and remove this spectrum of material, checking closely for nuggets and large, flat flakes. Surprisingly, many miners fail to inspect closely because they are working a deposit that only seems to produce fine gold. Nuggets can be lost because they are simply thrown out in this important stage of the process. Usually this first step is done right at the river bank, making what you must carry back to your camp less cumbersome. Now screen your materials though your #8 screen. What’s left on top of this screen will be easy and quick to pan at the river. Take what falls through the screen back to your wheel for processing.

Using Your Wheel

It is very important to go through the above steps before attempting to use your wheel to process your concentrates. Remember, the wheel works on the principles of weight, angle (pitch), and water-flow. In the following steps, you’ll be first separating the blonde sands from the heavier black sands. This process is called the “first split.”

This separation should be done using your wheel’s fastest speed if you have a variable speed wheel. This split will take a little time, but remember that if you were panning this material it would probably take as much time or more, and may not be as effective for fine gold recovery. Many people purchase a wheel to reduce the amount of panning time in their clean-up operation, as well as recovering more gold.

At this stage, you’ll want to pull the black sands and gold from the blonde sands. It’s okay if a small portion of the blondes are drawn up along with the blacks in this first split.

We have found that skimming the lighter sands off the top of the material being processed in the wheel (not in the riffles) can be more effective than allowing the tailings to simply run out of the wheel with excess water.

The best demonstration of how to use a gold wheel that I have ever seen is in Dave McCracken’s video, “Modern Gold Mining Techniques.

When running this first split, the wheel will pack just like the riffles of a dredge. When this occurs, for better results, you can spoon material from the bottom of the wheel up onto the riffles. We also seem to get better results by spooning material onto the drier section of the wheel so that it passes into the flow of water as the wheel turns. Watch yourself very closely because this is the step where many of the larger flat flakes are lost simply by scooping the material out of the wheel too soon. Once this split is complete, you should find that you have cut your material in half or more.

Now you should have what we call salt and pepper sand and gold. If you have only black sands at this point, you have probably lost some of the finer gold already. Look closely; and if this is the case, stop, back up and rerun this split again. Remember, the wheel will only recover as well as the skill of the operator permits. So take your time and make sure you’re not losing your fines at each stage of the process.

Next, classify the remaining concentrates once more using a #12 screen. This time you’ll only have half as much material so it will go very fast. The material on top of the screen produces your bigger gold; and if you’re in good gold, you’ll be able to still see it lying all over the surface of the screen. Sometimes, I find it easier to dry and run a magnet through the sands. This approach will usually remove 50% to 80% of the magnetic black sands, leaving your gold and just a little material to pan or blow off. These gold particles and flakes should be bright and beautiful and can be put in your gold jar.

Now it’s time to tackle the material that dropped though the #12 screen by running it through the wheel. When using a variable speed wheel, this split should be processed at the slowest speed, and the pitch of the wheel should be set at a steeper angle. Use a moderate-to-slow water flow, adjusting the wheel to pull just a little black sand, and all the gold. Once you’ve run it through, simply adjust the wheel a bit steeper and rerun this gold-laden material once more, only this time just pull the gold.

This process will leave you with all your gold, and perhaps just a very small amount of fine black sand. I find that if you dry this final product, it is very easy to blow the remaining black sand of by sorting through it on a clean piece of paper and blowing gently. It is a nice way to end your day!

And finally, if you’re having any trouble in your clean-ups, remember to return to the basics by watching your classifications, checking what you’re about to discard on a regular basis, and by making sure that you’re not leaving your fine gold for someone else to recover simply by re-running your old sand piles. I hope these hints are helpful, and good luck with your future clean-ups.

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This story first appeared in Gold & Treasure Hunter Magazine Nov/Dec, 1991 on Page 29. This issue is still available! Click here.

By Dave McCracken

It is nearly always important for a prospector to target his or her sampling efforts to reach the bottom of hard-packed streambeds.

Dave Mack


Successful mining in streambeds is generally accomplished in two steps: (1) prospecting and (2) production. This is true on any scale of operation. First, you need to find a gold deposit, usually a pay-streak. Once the deposit is located, then you can concentrate on a production program to recover the gold from the deposit.

Prospecting generally consists of digging or dredging sample-holes in different locations, then comparing the results of the different samples. Through trial and error, the positive signs are then followed into high-grade gold deposits.

In a waterway, the first effort should be to locate the common path along which most of the gold typically travels. Sampling is then performed along that path to find the pay-streaks. This system is thoroughly outlined in Gold Mining in the 21st Century, and Part 1 of Advanced Dredging Techniques.

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The following video clip also demonstrates this very important principle:

When you are sampling, you should nearly always be looking for hard-packed streambed material. “Hard-pack” is created at the bottom of waterways during major flood-storms.

Generally, a winter storm, even a large winter storm, will not create enough turbulence and force within a river, creek or stream to redeposit the compacted streambeds that are already in place along the bottom.

Flood-storms of the magnitude to redeposit streambeds do not occur very often.

For example, on the Klamath River in northern California, where my own team dredging operations take place during the summer months, we believe the last time that a substantial amount of hard-packed streambed was formed was during the 1997 flood. An even larger storm took place in 1964. In many places, a 1964 flood-layer was laid down on top of a much older, harder-packed, virgin streambed — one formed perhaps thousands of years ago.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of storm that it takes to create hard-packed stream-beds, take a look at the following video sequence I captured just down river from Happy Camp during the flood of 1997:

So, it takes a major flood storm to move and lay down a hard-packed streambed. And, it takes a super-sized major flood storm to create enough force and turbulence in a river to break up ancient streambeds and redeposit them as newer hard-packed streambeds along the course of the waterway. This happens only very rarely.

The reason that hard-pack is important to a prospector is because gold nearly always concentrates at the bottom of hard-packed, flood layers. Therefore, it is nearly always important for a prospector to target his or her sampling efforts to reach the bottom of hard-packed streambeds.

The following video sequence shows exactly what hard-pack looks like. I captured this video during a Group Mining Project in a location where we were recovering a rich gold deposit from the bottom of an ancient streambed layer resting on bedrock:

Gold is about six times heavier, by volume, than the average weight of the sand, silt, and rocks that make up an average streambed. Because of this disparity in weight, when streambed material is being washed downriver during a major flood-storm, most of the gold will quickly work its way down to the bottom of the streambed material that is being carried along by the raging flood waters.

In the following video segment, watch how fast the gold penetrates average streambed material once it is placed into suspension. The second video segment provides a visual demonstration of this very important point:

Because the gold is so much heavier, it will work its way down along the river-channel more slowly than the other streambed materials. During major flood-storms, most of the gold moving in a waterway will be washed down across the bedrock, or across the surface of hard-packed streambed that is not being moved by the storm. At some point during the storm, gold becomes trapped out of the turbulent flow by dropping into irregularities, cracks and holes that are present along the surface over which it is traveling.

Placer Geology

As shown in the following video segment, other heavy materials, like lead and old iron objects, also travel and deposit in the same places as gold. These other materials can sometimes lead you right into a rich gold deposit:

Because of its enormous weight, gold also deposits much earlier during the course of the storm than the streambed material which eventually seats itself on top of a pay-streak. As the storm begins to taper off, and the water-forces begin to slow down, particles of gold will start dropping out of the flow. Along the path where most of the gold is traveling in the waterway, traces will be deposited, with more substantial pay-streaks forming within the larger, low-velocity areas. These gold deposits are being laid down even as the (much-lighter) rocks and gravel are still being washed down river with the storm flows. Streambeds form later in the storm, when the water-turbulence tapers off enough to allow the rocks, gravel, sand and silt to drop out of the flow and form a seated bed along the bottom (over top of the gold).

Streambed material that lies in on top of a pay-streak will nearly always be hard-packed. The reason for this is that if there is enough force and turbulence to move substantial amounts of gold in the waterway, then there is also enough force to create a naturally-formed streambed on top of the gold as the same storm tapers off.

How do natural streambeds form? First, the storm needs to be powerful enough to rip up the streambed material, put it into suspension, and wash it down the waterway. This process is similar to gravel washing through a sluice box, only on a much larger scale. During the later course of the storm, as the water-force and turbulence starts slowing down, natural obstructions or traps along the river-bottom will allow certain key rocks to become lodged or seated. An example might be a flat rock that drops into a bedrock indentation, with the forward edge of the rock pointing slightly downward into the flow. The water-current then holds the rock to the bottom. With this rock in place, new locations are formed for other rocks to become lodged. Smaller rocks, sand, gravel, and silt will fill every gap and crevice in a manner similar to the mortar used to cement layers of brick. More rocks then fall into place. More filler then packs the spaces created between the rocks, and the bed forms.

Hard-packed streambeds form mostly with the flat rocks lying horizontally and slightly tipped downward against the direction of the current. The way in which streambeds form during major flood storms leaves the bed-material seated and compacted together, much like a mechanical structure. In dredging, we call this structure “hard-pack.” Most of the gold in present waterways is covered over by hard-packed streambed. So it is very important to know what it is. The following video segment shows you exactly what to look for:

For substantial amounts of gold to move within a waterway, it requires a major flood-storm with enough power to blast up some of the pre-existing hard-packed streambeds. This is because most of the existing gold in the waterway is trapped below existing hard-packed streambeds.

It is the abrasive action of the streambed material (more like a huge band-saw), as it is being washed down along the bedrock during major flood-storms, that causes bedrock channels to cut deeper into the earth over geologic time. When such a storm tapers off, new hard-packed streambeds will form over top of the gold deposits.

“Loose-packed” material consists of sand, silt, rocks and gravel which possess little or no natural structural cohesiveness. When you dredge a hole down through loose streambed material, it keeps sliding in on you. Digging through loose-pack can be like trying to dig down through a pile of sand or gravel. The material keeps slipping into the hole. This makes for a much more difficult sample hole if the material runs deep.

Sometimes, loose material is resting on top of a hard-packed streambed and must be moved out of the way first, before the hard-pack can be properly sampled.

When you dredge a test hole through hard-pack, the streambed will generally hold up the wall surrounding the hole. In fact, many of the old-time operations tunneled underneath hard-pack. This was/is called “drift mining.” Sometimes they even tunneled directly under active rivers!

It is also important to be able to identify tailings. Tailings are easy to identify, as long as you understand how streambeds are mined. Tailings do not look either like hard-pack or loose streambed material.

When hard-packed streambed is being mined, the cobbles and boulders (i.e., rocks that are too large to pass through the recovery system) are tossed back onto a pile behind the production area. As the production area moves forward, piles of boulders and cobbles are left behind in place of the original hard-packed streambed. Sometimes, sand, silt and gravel that is processed through the recovery system is dropped on top of the cobbles. Later, winter storms also wash sand, silt and gravel across the top of the cobbles. The sand, silt and light gravel then filters down and fills in most of the space between the cobbles. Therefore, tailings usually end up as loose stacks of cobbles with sand, silt or light gravel filling the spaces.

A large flood-storm may wash the tailing-cobbles away at a later time and redeposit them into a newly-formed hard-packed streambed. Or, as in the case of the 1964 flood in northern California, rather than wash away all of the cobbles, many of the piles were leveled off by the storm, and a new layer of hard-packed streambed was deposited directly on top of the loose cobbles. When we dredge sample holes in those locations, we usually find a hard-packed streambed on top of the tailings (loose cobbles). If gold traveled in that part of the waterway, we find it concentrated at the bottom of the hard-pack, sitting on top of the tailings. Underneath, we find loose cobbles with sand and silt between them. These usually go all the way to bedrock. We find very little gold on bedrock, because it has not yet been directly exposed to a major flood storm since being mined.


Some waterways will have several different natural streambed layers, each with its own concentration of gold resting on top of the layer or bedrock below. Different streambed layers usually exhibit a different color and compactness. The “contact-zone” between the layers is generally pretty easy to spot. Within the contact zones between layers, and on top of bedrock, is where you will find most of the gold concentrations. Those areas, then, should be the target of your sample holes.

As shown in this following video segment, sometimes the highest-grade deposits will be found up on top of a layer of hard-pack in the streambed:

Seldom will you find rich pay-streak gold deposits associated with loose streambed material. However, it does occasionally happen. These occurrences are almost always the result of winter storms, and the resulting run-off, eroding away a hard-packed streambed along the bank — which washes the gold down into the waterway to rest with the loose material.

There are areas in Africa where streambeds consist entirely of loose gravels – sometimes which carry substantial amounts of gold and/or gemstones. But this is an exception to the rule.

Effective sampling is the key to a successful mining operation. And, when you are sampling, you should be looking for hard-packed streambed layers. Watch for the gold concentrations along the bottom of these layers, because that is where you will usually find them.



By Dave McCracken

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

Dave Mack

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

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

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

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





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

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