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By Dave McCracken

“Planning to Get it Right the First Time”

Dave Mack

Planning for a mining program largely involves the following elements:

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

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


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

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

Legal

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location and Accessibility


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

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

  

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

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

Politics with Officials and Local People

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

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

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

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

 

Timing

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

Project operational considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelter and living-support

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specialized equipment

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

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

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

 

Supply of food, fuel, and other needs

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

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

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

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

Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Medical and/or emergency support

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Communications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personnel

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

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

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

 

 

BY JOSEPH F. GROUT

Preparing Yourself Properly for a Gold Prospecting Adventure

 

Each summer, thousands of prospectors head for the high country in search of gold. However, not all of these prospectors are from the mountainous regions which they will be entering. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of prospectors are from flatland areas of the Midwest and East. Therefore, it is an easy observation that you prospectors should take some extra precautions and attempt to prepare yourselves for what you will encounter in the high country.

Obviously, one of the best things you can do to help ready yourself for a high country expedition is to get in shape. Luckily, there are many exercises that will help you get into top physical condition, but you must be willing to discipline yourself and stick with your exercise program.

Basically, there are four elements to a S.A.F.E. prospector fitness program.

These elements are Strength, Ability, Flexibility and Endurance. While everyone is born with ability, the other three elements are the things that must be worked on.

If you are serious about starting an exercise program, it is important that you stretch for several minutes prior to each workout. This stretching will improve your flexibility and help you become more limber.

Maybe the most important thing that a would-be high mountain prospector can do is build his or her strength. After all, you must be physically strong if you are going to carry a backpack into a remote wilderness setting!

If you are serious1y interested in building strength, it is important to work with a given weight until it is easy for you to perform several repetitions without any problems. As soon as your starting weight becomes easy, add more weight! However, if you are mainly concerned with muscular endurance, which most prospectors are, then you should probably stick with lighter weights, adding more repetitions to a set.

Some weightlifting activities I utilize when preparing for a high mountain prospecting trip are the bench press and leg press. The leg press is probably the most important of the two, as it helps your legs build strength, which is vital, due to the fact that your legs will be your transportation.

After you finish a workout, you should cool down and do a few more minutes of stretching, as this will help prevent your muscles from tightening up.

Building endurance is another important part of any prospector’s life. Every spring, after a lethargic winter, I attempt to build my endurance by taking long walks. Walking is an enjoyable endeavor that you can do by yourself or with others. There is no need to walk at a fast pace; and as you walk, relax and take in any sights and sounds along your travel route.

Normally, if you are a prospector, you are also an outdoors person. This means that you may have fish and wild game in your freezer. Both fish and wild game are excellent foods. Therefore, as long as we cook these foods with low fat and cholesterol in mind, they will fit in nicely with our exercise program.

Now, let us suppose we are healthy and fit as a fiddle. The next step before traveling to a destination is deciding what items we need to take with us. This is where things can get tricky, because most people attempt to take far too much. As you are deciding what to take, keep in mind that everything you take will be in your backpack, which is of course carried on your back. Whenever I go high mountain prospecting, I normally hike as high as timberline and sometimes even higher. Therefore, I like to keep my backpack as light as possible while still carrying the essentials.

Some of the items I carry are: a light-weight sleeping bag (capable of keeping me warm in very cold temperatures), toiletries, a first-aid kit, a Eureka Mountain Pass tent, a pair of cotton gloves, a gold pan and classifier, a suction bottle, vials for gold, rope, an extra set of clothes (two sets of socks), fire starters (wax strips), weatherproof matches, a small camp shovel, topographic maps of the region I am in, some military MRE’s (food), fishing tackle (flies, leaders and line), a telescopic fly rod, a mess kit, a poncho, and a firearm of some kind. I also tie a military coat and stocking cap onto the outside of my pack, as the temperature at high altitudes can get surprisingly cold. On my military web belt I wear a hunting knife and a canteen, with a canteen cup.

While I realize that these items are the bare essentials, they will have to suffice; because more weight is impractical. Remember, you are going to do a lot of climbing, so keep it enjoyable.

As soon as your destination is known, you may want to consider staying at a motel in a high mountain town for a couple of days, before entering the forest. Staying a few days at a motel or local campground will help you become a little bit more accustomed to the altitude you have entered. If you attempt to head right into the mountains without becoming acclimated to high altitudes, you may experience altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is caused by the thin air your body is unfamiliar with. I have learned, through a very scary personal experience, that altitude sickness is something to be taken very seriously. Remember, you cannot beat the mountains; and if you think you can, you will find yourself getting beat! Respect the mountains and your trip will be much more enjoyable.

Entering the wilderness is a great experience that is almost indescribable. It is easy to find yourself imagining that you are the only person around for thousands of miles. For instance, when I go to the mountains, not only do I prospect, but I also take plenty of time to enjoy the solitude and great trout fishing that the high mountain streams and lakes offer. When in the deep forest, I can think my own thoughts and do what I like. It is a feeling of independence, where only the most hearty and rugged individuals can make it!

Enjoying the mountains also requires that you have a basic understanding of weather patterns. You don’t want to become caught in a serious storm. Keep in mind that lightning is very common in the mountains, and you should try and avoid bad weather.

Upon reaching a suitable location for a base camp, the real adventure begins! I make a good camp and then, feeling1ike a child on Christmas morning, I grab my gold prospecting gear and begin searching for a likely place to try my hand at panning. Normally, I enjoy panning along small creeks. There is something mystical about panning along a creek!

The key to finding high-grade gold is in knowing how to prospect, and in having the right attitude about it. If you don’t have much experience in it, I would advise that you attend some training and gain some experience under the watchful eye of seasoned professionals before striking out on your own. This will save you lots of time in trying to muddle through the learning curve on your own.

My first day of panning is usua1ly short-lived, because there are many camp chores that need to be done. Gathering wood for a small fire is critical. A small fire provides warmth and a means of cooking the trout that I catch.

Fishing for trout in high mountain lakes and streams is something that all prospectors will enjoy. The trout, normally not very big, are scrappy fighters and are just about always ready to hit a properly-presented fly. Some of the flies I regularly use are the western bee, black gnat and royal coachman. However, the fish at this altitude are not picky and will hit almost anything.

The mountains have been a home away from home for my family for 100 years. They have seen my grandfather, my dad, and myself enjoy all that they have to offer, providing us with an understanding of what it takes to be responsible and self-reliant.

While I have not become rich yet by prospecting for gold in the mountains, I have found enough gold to pay for my entire prospecting trip. The experience of a high mountain prospecting trip, however, is worth more than any monetary return to me. Especially when I find a deposit of gold nuggets!

Still, I have not given up hope of striking something rich. That possibility exists; and, I suppose, is the thing that makes prospecting in the high country one of the best adventures available to man – or women!

Becoming a high mountain prospector may not be for everyone, because it requires an able-bodied, physically fit person who has a strong mind and a desire for adventure. If you believe that you have these characteristics, what are you waiting for? After all, there is no time like the present to experience the adventure of a lifetime!

 

By Troy (Hank) Donovan

 

 

Book graphicTo become a successful gold prospector, research must top your list of things to do. Research will provide you with a never-ending source of future prospects. Experiencing the joy of being in the field, while enjoying these exciting and rewarding activities, should be a major priority for everyone. Furthermore, repeated trips going into the field, being successful, attaining your goals, and coming home with golden treasures is what puts the icing on the cake. The main ingredient to help ensure success in gold prospecting is taking the time to do truly adequate research and planning.

Research is the “all-important” first step that needs to be accomplished. Learn everything you can about the activity. Read appropriate books and magazines, and speak to other people with the same interests. The Internet provides many vital connections. E-mail other enthusiasts. This will prove to be very useful in the future, and can help you now! There are many web sites worth examining. Thousands of Internet sites are just bursting with useful, valuable information which can help you.

Another very important component of research is putting lots of time in the field. The time you spend in the field provides you “hands-on” familiarity with your equipment and the areas where you are prospecting.

These hints are just the tip of the ice-berg of research. Become familiar with your equipment. Start to develop an intimate “feel” for what you are doing, and what you are looking for. Make some good connections through various prospecting clubs and associations and Internet sites. Then, it is time to begin the arduous, but rewarding, task of developing some of your own “hot spots.”

“Hot Spots” are places waiting to be discovered—by you! These places are located all over the west. Often they are referred as “virgin sites,” No one with a metal detector or a gold pan has ever been there (except for you!) “Hot Spots” can also be forgotten sites; places that very few people know about, today. These may have been explored by earlier generations of prospectors; but with today’s technology, they are worth checking out again!

To discover these sites, begin searching at your local library. Doing your research in the library can be a very mundane process. Spending hour upon hour sorting through maps and old newspapers, while not being entirely certain what you are looking for, can be very frustrating. More importantly, it can be time-wasting. To avoid this waste, go to the library with purpose, and be focused on your task. Are you hunting for old placer mines? Abandoned lode mines or their tailings dumps? Old hydraulic mining areas? Decide what you are searching for. Then narrow your search-effort, allowing yourself to use your time more efficiently.

Historical newspapers from the area of your interest can be a resource tool. I bounce back and forth, scanning microfilm, alternately searching through old books and maps. By acting like a metal detector with discrimination, I scan for key words, and ignore irrelevant information.

Maps, as you can imagine, may be a gold mine! To find these old maps, ask the librarian if they have a room dedicated to your State and/or County. Most libraries have rooms, or at least special sections, that are packed with local history! Many times, these areas are pretty disorganized. But such disorganization might actually be to your advantage. Maps and books which are buried in old boxes might be exactly what you are looking for! For a nominal price, some mail-order catalogs will also provide you with maps that can be helpful.

Sometimes, modern maps can produce clues from yesteryear, while providing you with leads from which to do further research. Often, browsing through a map, you will notice gulches, creeks, mountains, and roads that have interesting names. For example, on one of my gold prospecting research sessions, I came across a small creek called “Sluice-Box Creek.” Doing further research, I discovered there was a large population of Chinese miners working the area during the 1890’s. Little prospecting had been done since that time! Here is a prospect that might be worth checking out this next season!

Old maps often actually show the exact location of old mines, sometimes even including the names. Then searching for the names can sometimes give you valuable information about the mines. Modern GPS electronics can then help you locate those old mines in the field!

There is nothing really difficult about all this. It takes time; and it all requires a proper state of mind. The best things in life don’t always come easy. So you have to allow yourself some time.

It is very important to keep all of your information and leads well-organized. I suggest that any photocopies that you make from books and micro film should have a notation of the author, title, and date of the publication from which it came. This might be important in the future. When you discover at some later time that you need more information from the source, you will more-easily know where to find it again! Many times while doing research, you will find both useful and useless information. Keep all information you find! I cannot count how many times I have gone through my papers, finding a new piece of information that I had not noticed before, or information that was not important previously, but is now!

It is also a good idea to keep a journal. This can be a very useful tool while out in the field. Many times, you may come across something interesting while out prospecting. Mark the location using your GPS. You might want to do some related research at a later date. By pinpointing interesting prospects on your map, and writing some useful notes, you will be prepared to go the library and possibly locate some historical information on the particular site.

Remember, research is your best possible tool to help develop potential new prospects. The more time spent on research, the more you will be rewarded with productive sites to discover new “golden treasure.”

 

BY DICK TURNER

A chronological account of the development of treasure and gold locators from 1830 to 1930.

 

As all gold hunters know, we are blessed with high-technology instruments to aid our searches for precious metals. Nuggets can be identified in a highly mineral matrix, thus eliminating unnecessary digging of unwanted material, and the Goldspear will locate even gold dust. However, none of these sophisticated detectors appeared overnight, nor was any one man responsible for the invention of metal detection.

THE PIONEER
If any one person could be regarded as the inventor of metal detectors, I will nominate English geologist and mining engineer R. W. Fox. It was Fox who first discovered that electricity will flow through metallic ores as well as solid metal objects. Thus, circa 1830 he devised a simple metal locator which consisted of nothing more than a battery, several metal rods and a suitable length of wire. His first method of detection was as follows: one metal rod would be driven into the earth where the suspected vein of ore was located; it was connected to one terminal of the battery. The other battery terminal was connected to a floating wire. Other metal rods were driven into the ground at several different points and successively touched with the floating wire. Where a spark occurred, it was an indication that metal was present. Circa 1870, this device was modified to two rods insulated from each other in a common probe and connected via battery to a bell and plunged into the earth. When contact was made by metallic ore, nugget or metal pipe, the bell rang, thus indicating the presence of a conductive object.

THE INDUCTION BALANCE

In 1879, Professor D.E. Hughes demonstrated to the Royal Society in London his Induction Balance (I.B.). Its purpose was to study the molecular structure of metals and alloys. However, Hughes and his instrument maker, William Groves, soon recognized the potential of the I.B. as a metal locator, and several were supplied to various London Hospitals for locating metal objects in human bodies. The Royal Mint used the Induction Balance for assaying metals and detecting forgeries.

The well- known American inventor George Hopkins modified the I.B. for locating metallic ores, treasure chests and the like. In fact, the Induction Balance forms the basis of most metal detectors we use today.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS

On June 21, 1902, the London Electric Ore Finding Company filed an application at the British Patent Office for an entirely new type of metal detector. This was a very advanced instrument for its time, having a range of one hundred yards. It operated as follows: a bank of batteries supplied a high-voltage, heavy-duty current to a spark generator; its output was chopped by a motorized contact breaker to achieve a signal at audio frequency, which in turn was fed to two transmitter probes driven into the earth. At a suitable distance away, two similar probes were connected to receiving apparatus, and equipotential lines of conducting material (ores or solid metal objects) could be plotted.

This company also developed an underwater spear-type detector which was used in locating gold bars in the wreck of the LAURENTIC, which was torpedoed during World War 1. This was a discriminating-type detector which could distinguish between gold and other metals. Unfortunately, the patent specifications are very brief and no illustrations are enclosed, hence we lack full information of how this detector worked.

Electric Metal Locating Company of Chicago took a different approach to metal detection, and based their instrument on the Wheatstone Bridge principle with two ground probes as sensors. A similar principle was employed by another American inventor Fred H. Brown who, in one of his patents, actually specifies his detector as being suitable for locating buried treasure.

THE WIRELESS AGE

With the very rapid development of wireless techniques during World War I, it was only natural that this technique would be adapted to metal locators and prospecting equipment. One of the first pioneers to exploit this technology for locating buried treasure was Englishman George Williams, who was the wireless operator aboard the salvage ship RACER during the recovery of gold from the wreck of the LAUREN TIC. Being fully conversant with wireless techniques, and seeing the somewhat primitive treasure locators available then, he decided he could improve the existing technology by designing a Radio-Locator (as metal detectors were known then).

In the book, “DIG FOR PIRATE TREASURE,” the author states that, “Williams had a metal detector of his own invention and used it to good advantage in Panama.” This surely must be the greatest understatement ever made relating to buried treasure. Further on, the author goes on to say that Williams “unearthed some wonderful stuff, including gold pots, candlesticks, silver bells and many historical things. A solid gold ball seven inches in diameter with a cross on top and gold leaves underneath.”

On January 7, 1928, The London Times newspaper reported that Williams found “a solid gold altar two feet high,” while C. B. Driscoll in DOUBLOONS expands the finds list even further. He also describes the Williams’ detector as a Transmit-Receive instrument operating at radio frequency. Williams, with his locator, arrived in Panama in July 1925, hence he certainly was one of the pioneers of T-R technique (see author’s note).

At approximately the same period of time, Radiore Company of Los Angeles developed a large-scale metal prospecting apparatus operating at fifty kilohertz.

Circa 1926, SCIENCE AND INVENTION magazine published construction articles under the title, “The Radio Gold Explorer.” So we see that even amateur gold hunters were catered to. By the mid-1930’s, there was an abundance of gold and treasure locators, the most notables being: the Alpha by George Maher, Terrasearch from Engineering Research Corporation, Radioscope by Goldak, Inc.; and, of course, Metalloscope from Gerhard Fisher. The Metalloscope was undoubtedly the most popular treasure finder of all time having survived in continuous production right up to the solid-state era, hence the M-scopes of the current Fisher line of detectors.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this article, I have attempted to give historical development of metal detection during the first 100 years of the use of electricity and electronics for this purpose, although other devices, mechanical (Dip Needle/Miners Compass) or physical (Pendulums/Divining Rods) were in use for several hundred years prior. As no reference books are available on this subject, I have relied on patents and articles published elsewhere to gain the necessary information. However; there are large gaps in my knowledge. For instance, the technical information and illustrations of the George Williams’ detector. I would be very pleased to hear from anybody who can supply further information. Please write to me direct at: 34 Nelson Gardens, London E2 7M, England.

 

By Sam Radding

How to Determine what “Good Gold” Means to You

 

Damp soilThe meaning of “Good Gold” is a matter of perspective and experience. This phrase is generally used in terms of quantity and ease of extraction. A couple of old-timers, sitting around the fire talking gold, will often have enough shared-experiences to know what the other means by “good.”

“This soil is very damp.”

The captivating nature of gold brings out different emotional responses from each of us.

The problem lies in the fact that just about every novice miner starts with little or no knowledge of the realities in the activity of gold prospecting. Our story may serve to shed some light on what to expect from your own first few mining trips.

Jean and I live in San Diego. To start with, our part of the country is very dry. So, a lot of the gold hunting is accomplished using a dry-washer. There are a few placer areas within an hour’s drive of our house, but they have very limited access and the gold tends to be pretty sparse. We tried some gold panning and found a few specks of gold; but from what we could determine from the local prospector’s club and friends, the Pot Holes would be a better-than-average place to start. This area is about a three-hour drive from San Diego, and is near Yuma, Arizona, but still in California.

Dry-washerBuilding a workable dry-washer would be a snap. I have always been good at figuring out how machines work and how they should be constructed. Ten minutes with a friends’ bellows dry-washer was enough to get me started on our own machine. A few days later, we were packed and driving to the desert with our newly-built dry-washer and an old 3-horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine. I just had to test my new creation. When it comes to gold, to me, now is always better than later.

Our maps were good, so we had no trouble finding the bridge across the American Canal along with the road to the open recreational mining area just southwest of the old 3 C’s mine. The road in had a few rough spots, but nothing that our little Vega station wagon (with three-inch ground clearance) could not make. By the way, this location still remains open to anyone; and to this day, it is still productive.

The big problem was where to start. Book gold is a lot different than real gold. The books we read were small and the maps and locations where gold would be trapped seemed fairly straight forward. The Pot Holes was huge; and of course, we wanted to work in the best spots. We wanted to find some “Good Gold!” I had read several articles about the importance of prospecting and sampling before you decide to invest the bulk of your resources to any particular area.

Jean and I do argue on occasion; and as it turned out, picking-out our first dry-washing spot was a perfect time to disagree (Thirteen years later, so we can minimize disagreements, we now have two of almost all the equipment we use.). After about fifteen minutes, we jointly settled on a small wash. There were a few tree roots and some exposed bedrock to work. This wash was about a hundred yards from where we parked the car. After packing our gear to the site, we set the engine and dry-washer in place; with the engine upwind to keep it free from the dust generated by our dry-washer. Then, with the dry-washer delivering about 90 beats per minute (possibly a little fast for the conditions we were working), we proceeded to dig and feed gravel to the dry-washer for about a half-hour. We had brought along some water for the purpose, so we practically ran back to the Vega to pan our concentrates. Much to our surprise, we had almost no gold. We just had some small specks.

Our next spot was just down from where our first little wash emptied into a slightly larger dry-wash. The opposite bank looked good to me. There was some exposed bedrock, and the overburden was only about a foot deep. The digging was very easy; and after an hour, we decided once again to check our progress. I was impressed this time. There were lots of little flakes. Jean was not so favorably-disposed. It still looked like specks to her; and after a short time, it began to look that way to me, too. Another move seemed to be in order. We spent the next two and a half days moving from place to place, from specks of gold, to specks of gold.

Jean was getting a little frazzled, and I was getting more and more frustrated. I wanted to go back to the place that impressed me on the first day. The bank on the small wash gave up about 1 pennyweight (about l/20th of an ounce) of gold in an hour, even if they were only small specks. To us, it did not look like very much gold and I didn’t know if it was good or bad; but that spot seemed far better than the other places we had dry-washed during the past few days. I really wanted to go back.

Jean went back to camp to make lunch and I picked up the dry-washer, engine and the pick and shovel and started off to my spot. After about ten steps, I heard a rumble. My first thought was that it couldn’t be thunder, not here. A quick glance over to the west set me straight. Over my head, it was sunny and blue. A few miles away, it was dark, very dark. Even I knew that it was impossible to dry-wash in wet material.

The thunderstorm might move the other direction. But at worst, I would have a little time to work. I hobbled to my spot, carrying over 75 pounds of gear and equipment, and quickly set up the dry-washer and engine. If it was going to rain, then I was going to shovel as much material through the dry-washer as it would take. I worked hard as the storm crept closer. The first big drops of rain arrived about an hour later. Ten minutes after that, our dry-washing was finished for this trip. I had kept the riffle tray dry as I had been told. Dust and moisture in the riffle tray cloth create cement, and that combination will not pass air. No air means no gold; which in turn, means stretching a new cloth for the dry-washer.

Everything else was wet. We panned-out my concentrates, and our total gold for the trip filled a two-pennyweight vial and half of another. We had over 3 pennyweights, most which came in two hours of dry-washing at my spot. It still looked like specks, but there sure were a lot of them. Our problem was that we had no yardstick by which to judge “Good Gold.” Back home, we told some mining friends about our spot in some detail and about how we had done. We thought there might be some more gold there and we were going back in a couple of weeks, after things had dried out a bit. Our more-experienced friends were impressed when we showed them our gold from our very first prospecting trip.

If you have never dry-washed, you must remember that any moisture in the pay-dirt will make any dry-washer less efficient. An easy way to check for water-content is to squeeze a handful of your pay-dirt into a ball. Then open your hand. If the ball falls apart, the material is very dry. If the ball breaks into several smaller sections and tends to crumble, you are working with slightly-damp material. Most dry-washers will run this material, but the efficiency will be diminished somewhat. If the ball stays intact or breaks into two or three parts, the pay-dirt must be dried before running through the dry-washer. On a good day, most dry-washers will lose between 10% and 20% of the finer-sized gold which remains trapped in small dirt balls. They pass right through the machine!

When we got back to our spot three weeks later, the site had already been cleaned out. We did get a little more gold, but we later found out that a few of our more-experienced friends went in there before us and recovered about two ounces of gold during our absence. From that time forward, both Jean and I had a little better understanding of what the term “Good Gold” means!

To this day, I still have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when it comes to where we are working and what we are finding. Most gold prospectors that we meet find this an endearing, if not a foolish, trait to have. I am getting the idea that when it comes to gold, you have to be careful how you conduct your business affairs!

If you are just starting out, whether you are working on a river, stream or in the desert, or whether you are using a dry-washer, sluicing system or four-inch dredge, recovering a pennyweight of gold an hour is making “Good Gold.” Two-to-five pennyweights in a day’s work is fairly good for small equipment. I personally average a little over two pennyweights per day when I am sniping (finding gold with hand tools and a face mask) on my favorite rivers in the Mother Lode area.

Over the years, I have built over a hundred dry-washers, both the bellows and constant-air types. I have written books on the home-construction of small-scale mining equipment. Jean and I spend most of every summer looking for gold. More gold is always better than less gold; but to me, I feel I have done well if my final clean-up produces over two pennyweights in a day. This is my personal yardstick for how I am doing. The amount of gold we find is important, but we are also enjoying what we are doing.

Here is where you can buy a sample of natural gold.

 

 

BY DON PADGETT

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.

Dave’s Books & Videos

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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Dave McCracken

It is common to find rich gold deposits in shallow streambed material out under the fast water where nobody has ever ventured before!

Dave Mack

Something we have known for quite some time is that pay-streaks, often very rich pay-streaks, exist in the fast water.

At first, this may seem contra­dictory to our general understanding that high-grade gold deposits form in areas of the waterway where the water slows down. However, we must keep in mind that pay-streaks are created during major floods. During a major flood, a sudden drop in the bedrock can cause a very good gold trap, like the riffles in a sluice box, but on a very large scale.

If you turn on a garden hose at slow speed, the fast-water area is found directly where the water flows out of the hose. But when you turn the water-pressure up, momentum forces the water farther out. This condition also occurs within the river during a major flood. Areas where the water runs fast during low-water periods are likely to be drop-zones for gold during high water. The heavy momentum/velocity area will be forced farther downstream, leaving a drop-zone for gold just below the bedrock drop. This explains why you can often find pay-streaks under rapids when the river is flowing at low-water levels. It also explains why you seldom find pay-streaks within the first slow-water area below a set of rapids when the river is running at low levels.

Another reason why you are likely to find gold in fast water is because dredging in fast water is more difficult. Therefore, others are less likely to have mined there before you – including the old-timers. For this reason, fast-water areas can often be virgin territory — meaning places where the original streambed material remains in place from thousands of years of natural geologic activity.

  

What exactly is “fast water?” This depends upon each individual person’s viewpoint. It is primarily a matter of the diver’s comfort level. To some people, if the water is moving at all, it is already too fast to dredge. Other dredgers are able to dredge in water moving so fast that the air bubbles created by the turbulence eliminate all visibility. After diving in really turbulent water, a person’s equilibrium can become so disoriented that he/she can hardly stand up without weaving around, as if intoxicated.

Several years ago, a friend and I were operating a five-inch dredge in some very fast, shallow water. Because of the extreme turbulence, one of us would work the nozzle, while the other would hold onto the dredge to keep it from flipping over. The water was so swift that my friend was swept out of the dredge hole time after time. Once, he was carried away so fast, he didn’t have time to untangle himself from his air line before he reached the end of it. The air line was tangled around his neck! There he was, flopping around in the current, like a flag snapping in a stiff breeze, tethered by the air line around his neck and struggling, unsuccessfully, to regain his footing in three feet of water. After he got safely to the bank, we both laughed so hard that tears were streaming down our faces. That was emotional stress blowing off. Fifteen minutes later, I was the one bouncing in the current behind the dredge, facing backwards at the end of an air line caught between my legs. Needless to say, my friend thought this was pretty funny, too! Dredging in fast water can be fun and exciting (not to mention the gold you can find). But, you must be aware of and prepared for the dangers involved. There is very little margin for error if you get into a situation that is beyond your ability to manage. We all have our limits!

SAFETY

Notwithstanding all the excitement and gold, safety should always be the most important personal consideration. You are the one out there in the field with the responsibility for using good judgment about what you can safely do, without cutting your margin for error too close. The river does not have any sympathy for people who “get in over their heads.” I’ve known several dredgers who lost their lives by over-stepping their personal safety boundaries. It only takes a single mistake. The rest can happen very quickly. Even I have come close to drowning on more than one occasion! All the gold in the world is not worth dying over!

For the sake of safety, it makes good sense for you to not dredge in water that is faster than you are comfortable with. You will have to decide what that is. It is best to practice first in slower water, to gain experience and confidence.

One important thing you should remember about working underwater: Everything may be calm and under control right now; but five seconds later, you can find yourself in the most life-threatening emergency you have ever experienced! This is even true in slow water. But, fast water gives you less margin for safety if you make an error or anything goes wrong. You should not dredge in fast water if you are unable to control the various problem-situations that could develop. You need to anticipate each problem that could possibly arise and work out your response, in advance.

Contrary to what many people believe, being swept down river by the current is not the major concern. This is a normal-happening in fast-water dredging. As long as you have your mask clear and your regulator in your mouth, being swept down river by the current is generally no big deal. That is, of course, unless you are dredging directly above a set of falls or extremely fast water.

In most cases, the “fast water” you are in is not a steady flow of current. It is usually turbulent, varying in direction and intensity. A swirl can hit you from the side and knock you off balance. Or, sometimes it can even hit you from underneath and lift you out of the dredge-hole and into the faster flow. If you get swept down river in fast water, you usually just need to grab hold of the river bottom and work your way over to the slower water, nearer to the stream bank. This movement is normally best-done by continuing to face upstream, into the current, while you point your head and upper-body towards the river-bottom. That posture will nearly always drive you to the bottom where you can get a handhold on rocks or cobbles to anchor yourself down. Then, you can work your way upstream, through the more slack current near the stream bank, and back out to your work-site again. This is all pretty routine in fast-water dredging.

Getting a hole started is one of the most difficult challenges in fast-water dredging. Once you even get just a small hole started into the surface of the streambed, the suction nozzle in the hole can serve as an anchor to help hold you there against the current. There will also be several cobbles behind you to use as footholds, which also make it easier to hold a position there. After the hole has been expanded to the point where you can get at least part of your body inside, you will find significant relief from the effects of the current’s flow. But, it can sometimes be a real challenge until you do get to that point! At times, you may find it necessary to start your hole in slower water, then gradually work your way out into the faster current.

One of the main concerns when dredging in fast water is having your mask and/or your regulator swept or knocked off your face. This situation is one that can cause a person to panic, especially when both mask (vision) and regulator (air) are lost at the same time.

PANIC

There is not a single a person among us who won’t panic, given the right (wrong) situation. People who say they will never panic under any circumstances are just not facing reality and, obviously, have never come close to drowning. I believe it is better to understand and acknowledge your limitations before you get into trouble. The closer you cut your safety margin on safety issues, the more aware of your limitations you should be. And, the more important it is to plan in advance how you will react to certain types of emergencies. It is already too late to make such plans the moment something bad happens!

For me, it takes a lot of personal discipline to stay under control when an unexpected rush of turbulent water jerks my mask off and drags me, blindly and chaotically, down river. This has happened to me on several occasions. I know that under those circumstances, it would not take much more confusion (e.g., air line getting snagged, my body being banged against something, losing my balance, getting a breath full of water from my regulator, etc…) for me to totally lose control and freak out (panic).

I have worked with several guys who have a higher tolerance from panic in the water than I do. And, I know others who feel panicky as soon as they put their heads underwater, even under perfectly-controlled conditions. We are all different, and we each have our own particular point at which we will panic in different circumstances. Everyone has a limit. These limits can actually change from day-to-day, depending upon what other things are happening in our lives. It is better that we not delude ourselves about this. If you allow yourself to get overly-confident, and continually put yourself into situations that can take you beyond your limit, sooner or later you will almost-certainly find yourself tested in a life or death situation.

Panic is a survival-mechanism that takes over when your mind is convinced that your life is in grave danger. At this point, your animal instincts take charge and deprive your intellect of the ability to reason things out. Panic tells you that there is no time left, that you are literally fighting for life just before unconsciousness. The situation demands that you spend your last/maximum physical effort to remove yourself from the danger that is about to mortally injure you or cause you to lose your life. Panic is a horrible, terrifying, and, sometimes, embarrassing experience that happens when your normal, rational self loses control, and the animal-part of you takes over.

There are milder versions of panic. Someone might “panic” and do something silly or foolish in a business or a personal setting. That is not the type of panic that I am talking about here. I’m talking about the raw physical panic that grips you at the moment you realize you may be at the point of losing your life.

There is always a chance of getting into serious trouble any time you are working under the water. Trouble underwater is serious because humans cannot breathe water. There is no margin. You are either breathing air or you are not. It is an immediate emergency when there is no air. Such emergencies can happen in a split second, any time you are in a dredging environment.

TAKING EXTRA PRECAUTIONS

Other types of underwater vulnerabilities are especially present during fast-water dredging activity. Some of this vulnerability is because it is sometimes necessary to weigh yourself down more-heavily with lead weights to stay on the river bottom. Extra weight is needed to give you the necessary stability and leverage to control the suction hose and nozzle and to move rocks and obstacles out of your way. The demands of dredging activity require divers to be so heavily weighted down, that it is impossible to swim at the surface without first discarding the weights that hold you to the bottom.

One of the most serious dangers to a dredger is the possibility of being pinned to the bottom by a heavy rock or boulder. All of the oversized rocks that cannot be sucked through the dredge nozzle must be moved out of the hole by hand or with the use of winching equipment. When undercutting the streambed, or taking apart the dredge hole, there is the possibility of larger rocks rolling in on top of you. This possibility increases when you are working in turbulent, fast water. The erratic changes in the pressure that the water exerts on the exposed streambed material, inside and around the dredge-hole, can cause boulders to loosen up and roll into the hole. These same boulders, if located in a streambed where the water is running more slowly, might not loosen up the same way, if at all. For this reason, a fast-water dredger must take extra precautions to remove all larger-sized rocks when they are exposed. One of our mottos is: “You have to get the boulders before they have a chance to get you!”

When working in fast water, all of your normal safety precautions, preventative maintenance measures, and common sense instincts must be scrupulously observed. Fast water may be thought of as a liquid flow of energy that is constantly challenging you and your equipment. Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) is always at work in fast water. It is hard enough to deal with the things that you cannot anticipate will happen. You will have enough of these as it is. But, if you neglect to take action with respect to those things that you can reasonably expect to go wrong, you will almost certainly fail in your efforts to dredge in fast water. If it is wrong, fix it now, before it gets worse!

 

OPERATIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

My dredging partners and I have found that it is physically possible to dredge in water that is too fast for the safety of our dredge — even the kind of dredge that has been designed for fast water. Therefore, the need to operate in an environment that is safe for your dredge is one of the major limiting factors in fast-water dredging.

Most fast-water dredgers add more flotation to their dredge platforms to give more stability. This can be done in different ways, including additional pontoons, inflated tire inner tubes, PVC pipe material, Styrofoam, etc.

One of the main considerations when adding more flotation to a dredge is to avoid increasing the drag against the current. Additional drag causes problems in two ways:

1) The fast-water current puts more strain on your dredge, frame, and tie-off lines.

2) More importantly, the surface-tension caused by all that additional water dragging around the dredge makes it difficult to work near the dredge when you are in the water (which can be a particular problem when you are trying to knock out plug-ups from the suction hose near the dredge).

Another goal when adding flotation is to keep the floats as narrow as possible. A wide set of floats is more likely to be tossed or dragged around by the turbulent flow of fast water.

Generally, when working in fast water, I try to find a location for the dredge where the water is a bit slower, just next to the fast water where I plan to work. This way, I can enter the river in slower water and work my way out underneath the faster water, adding suction hose as necessary.

Otherwise, if we position the dredge directly in the fast water, it will become necessary for the divers to contend with fast water when entering the water from the dredge. This can be done; but it makes the operation more difficult – especially, when the dredgers need to climb back onto the dredge.

Also, the buildup of cobbles and tailings near the dredge can add to the surface-tension and create an even faster current flow under and around the dredge.

When you are set up with the dredge positioned off to the side in some pocket of slower water, your suction hose will be running perpendicular, at least to some degree, to the flow of the fast water. That much hose exposed broadside to the current creates enormous drag, which can cause the suction hose to kink usually within a foot or so of where it attaches to your power jet. Hose-kinks will cause continuous plug-up problems, so they must be avoided. Therefore, you may find it necessary to disconnect the suction hose and cut off the section that has been kinked. However, you cannot shorten your suction hose very much before you lose the amount of operational flexibility you need for freedom of movement while dredging.

Suction-hose kinks can usually be avoided by setting up a special harness to support the hose in fast water. This is often done by rigging one or two extra ropes down from your main tie-off line. The ropes are fastened to the suction hose at points which will allow the hose to be flexed back by the current, but not to the critical kinking point. You must allow the hose to flex back. It is the bend in the suction hose which allows you the movement to expand the size of your dredge hole.

It is best, when rigging a fast-water harness, to rig it in conjunction with your main dredge tie-off line. This way, the entire dredge and suction-hose harness will move together, as a unit, when you need to move the equipment forward as your dredge-hole progresses.

Suction hose support booms are standard equipment on the commercial Pro-Mack dredges.

Larger and commercial dredges may be equipped with booms, which can be extended out in front and used to secure a suction-hose safety harness. In this manner, when the dredge moves forward, the suction-hose safety harness moves with it, as in the situation above.

Another concern in fast-water dredging is to keep your suction nozzle and hose from being swept out of your dredge hole. Sometimes, the current will put so much drag on the suction hose that it takes all of your strength and energy to get any nozzle-work done at all! In such a case, you can relieve the main strain of the drag by tying a section of the suction hose to a large rock at the rear of the dredge hole or some other anchor point further upstream. When doing this, always leave enough slack in the hose to allow you to move the suction nozzle forward as your dredge-hole progresses. Also, be sure to remember to untie the suction hose from the river-bottom before you move the dredge. Otherwise, you can damage the hose by causing kinks in the middle! If you kink the hose in the middle, you will have to replace the hose!

We have also worked out a way to extend the suction hose, swing it out on a pendulum line, and anchor it in place using a spare weight belt.  This method nearly eliminates all of the hose drag for the person managing the nozzle.

When you take a lunch-break or knock off for the day, you can anchor your hose and nozzle by either piling rocks on the suction nozzle or by tying the nozzle to a large rock in the bottom of the dredge hole. It is not any fun to start a production-dive by having to work against the current to get your suction hose back up into your dredge hole, because the fast water blew it out after your previous dive. But, of course, all fast-water dredgers get many chances to experience this. It is a normal part of the routine!

One important safety point: When using ropes underwater, it is a bad idea to use any more than is absolutely necessary. A lose rope is poison to divers underwater, especially in swift water! Always cut off any excess rope or pile rocks on top to hold it down. If there is a length of loose rope flopping around in the current, something (like your air line) always seems to get tangled in it. Loose rope under water is dangerous!

Your air line can be another source of problems when dredging in fast water. Always be sure to get all the loops out of your air line before starting your dive. Otherwise, the current can pull these loops into kinks, which can immediately cut off your air supply. Not fun!

When you turn around in your dredge hole to roll boulders, toss cobbles, or do any of the many other things associated with production dredging or sampling, get into the habit of exactly reversing your turn when you face forward again (turning back counterclockwise is “cancelled out” by turning forward clockwise). This practice will help prevent you from putting lots of loops in your air line during the course of the dive. Each loop is a potential kink that can cut off your air supply in fast water. Each loop also increases the amount of drag being brought to bear on your air line in fast water.

If you should get a kink in your air line that cuts off your air supply, you can usually get some immediate relief by pulling your air line in toward your body and letting it go. When you let it go, the pressure is temporarily removed from the kink, and you can usually get a single breath of air. I always try this once, quickly, when my own air is suddenly cut off. If that does not give me immediate relief, I crawl right over to the surface so I can properly correct the problem.

If you are experiencing any difficulty with a kinking air line, your best course of action is to immediately remove every single loop in the line. Getting rid of the loops will require you to rotate yourself in circles, going in the appropriate direction, until the air line is straight again.

Several years ago, I was dredging in fast water with a guy who had to repeatedly dive out of our dredge hole because of a kinking air line. After about the fifth time, I suggested that he take the time to straighten out his air line to fix this problem. This remedy only worked for a short time, because he had developed the habit of turning around and around in the dredge hole as he was moving rocks, which just created more and more loops in his line. Fifteen minutes later, he was diving right back out of the dredge hole again.

These days, you can buy a heavier-type of “safety” airline that will prevent kinking in all but the swiftest of fast water. I recommend this heavier air line to anyone who plans to dredge in swift current.

By the way, your air line is also your direct connection to the dredge and to safety. When you connect your air line to the dredge, even in slow water, it should be wrapped around the dredge frame several times before being attached to the air fitting on the dredge. Most air fittings are made of brass. If you should need to use your air line to pull yourself to the dredge in an emergency, it is better that you not have to depend solely upon the strength of a brass fitting!

Nearly all experienced dredgers are aware of the fact that their air lines are an extension of themselves while under water. Especially in fast water, it is very important that you not allow your air line to tangle around parts of the dredge, underwater obstacles, and/or the air lines of other divers in the dredge hole. If you cross over the top of another diver’s air line, keep that in mind, so you will be sure to cross back over it again when you return. Each time you go to the surface, to remove a plug-up or for whatever reason, take a moment to untangle your line from anything it may have wrapped around. As a standard practice, all dredgers should always untangle your air lines each time you return to the surface for any reason. I personally never end a dive without first freeing my airline completely, so it will be ready for the next dive.

One of the persistent problems of dredging in fast water is the heavy drag on your air line. This can normally be solved by pulling some slack-line into the dredge hole and anchoring it against the current with a single cobble placed on top. This will allow some slack air line between you and the cobble. You want to be sure that your cobble-anchor is not so large that you cannot quickly free your air line in an emergency. Also, when you leave the dredge hole, don’t forget to first disconnect your air line from your anchor.

Full face masks are generally not well-suited for diving in swift water. Since they are larger, with substantially more surface area, they are more likely to get accidentally dislodged from your face. This can happen when the mask is bumped on another diver, or an obstacle, or when turbulent water catches it, especially from the side. To further complicate matters, when a full face mask fills with water, the regulator usually does as well. Having to clear the water out of your mask and regulator at the same time can be more difficult and contribute to a panic situation. I personally find that I am more prone to feeling panicky when something goes wrong inside of a full face mask. If your reactions are similar to mine, you may want to avoid using a full face mask in fast water.

DO’S AND DON’TS!

In any kind of a dredging operation, fast or slow water, it is wise to become familiar with your surroundings as your first priority. Before you begin work, make sure you know the easiest and most direct route to crawl over to the surface in the case of an emergency. Don’t wait until an emergency happens before you think about this. By then, it is too late!

Here is some really good advice: Do not tie yourself into a dredge hole in fast water to keep from being swept down river. It is bad enough having a heavy load of lead attached to your body! If you have to tie something, tie the suction nozzle from a point further up river (with no loose rope flapping in your face). Then hold onto the nozzle to keep yourself steady and in place, while you get the hole started. Get rid of the rope as soon as you have a hole started!

Generally, the most effective way to maintain your position in fast water is to streamline your body properly, with your head and chest close to the river-bottom and your rear-end slightly elevated. This posture allows the water-flow to push you down, toward the bottom, so you can get a better footing. Begin creating your dredge hole as soon as you can. The hole will help anchor you in place. The larger you dredge the hole, the easier it gets.

Some dredgers try to solve their stability problem by putting a lot more lead on their weight belts. Sometimes in turbulent water, more lead can be a help. But, be extra careful when walking out of the water on the slippery bottom, so you don’t overload your ankles and knees and injure yourself.

Most importantly, it is very unwise to solve your fast-water buoyancy/stability problem by adding a bunch of additional weight belts. Take it from me; it is hard enough to get one belt off in a hurry, without compounding the emergency with three of them! Sometimes, you cannot manage the needed extra weight without 2 weight belts, but you must understand that a second belt substantially reduces safety margin in an emergency. Additional belts tend to shift around so that the quick releases are in different places, often behind you where it is more difficult to release them during an emergency. Difficulty in finding them in an emergency can contribute to a panic situation and put your life at risk.

Whatever else you do, early in your dredging career, it is wise to discipline yourself to never try and swim for the surface in an emergency while wearing your heavy weight belt. It just doesn’t work! In a panic situation, your body will want to go immediately for the surface instead of removing the weight belt. I have personally saved two people from drowning who were trying to ”swim for it” with their weight belts on. By the time they realized swimming was not going to work, they were in too much trouble (panic) to get their own belts off!

This does not mean you can’t get a good footing on the bottom and jump up to the surface for one quick breath of air. You can do that in an emergency, as long as the water is not too deep or fast. But, if you cannot crawl over to the surface quickly, your first priority should always be to get the lead weights off as soon as possible.

Keep in mind that you usually cannot see the quick-release buckle on your weight belt while underwater. This is because your face mask blocks your vision at that angle. So, it is important to practice locating the quick-release buckle by feeling for it. It is also very important to keep your belt from shifting around, so that the buckle always remains directly on the front of your body. One of the problems we already noted when wearing more than one belt, is that the top one tends to shift around. There is not much you can do about that. So with two belts, you should be prepared to find the top buckle behind your body!

You may also find that it is better to first remove your work glove before trying to release your buckle in an emergency. When I get in trouble, the first thing I do is get rid of the glove on my right hand!

These are all things you must be able to do quickly and instinctively before venturing into fast water. A wise skydiver would never jump out of an airplane without first receiving enough practice and instruction in how to find his rip cord. Similarly, a dredger’s life should be just as well protected by having a confident ability to release your weight belt quickly in an emergency.

Some of the weight belts on the market also include a suspender harness. The only ones I recommend are the ones that have a quick-release, D-ring on one of the suspenders that allows the shoulder harness to come loose on one side when you release a single waist belt buckle. Otherwise, in an emergency, you may find it too difficult to get out of the suspenders, even if the waist belt is released.

All this advice is coming from a guy that has devoted a large part of my life living on the edge. You can sit there in the comfort of your computer reading this stuff and feel quite certain that you can manage any or all of these things if they should come to pass when you are out dredging. But when the severe emergency happens, you are not the same person. You are a maniac!

You should always keep an eye on your diving buddy while dredging in fast water. When we dive with multiple dredgers on an operation, it is standard policy for us all to keep track of each other. If one person needs to leave the dredge-hole or go to the surface for some reason, he always lets someone know he is leaving. Otherwise, when a diver suddenly disappears, we immediately go looking for him. A person in serious trouble underwater only has about 30 seconds to get it together. This is not much time. What good is diving with someone else for the sake of safely, if you are not paying attention to what is happening with him/her, especially in fast water where there is so very little margin for error? A tender, or anyone else resting at the water’s surface, should be paying close attention without distraction when there are dredgers down working in fast water.

If all of this has frightened you, that’s good! That means I have accomplished my goal of alerting you to the dangers inherent in fast-water dredging. Being alert to, and fearful of, those dangers is the starting-point for making your own preparations and contingency plans for dealing with them – before you start working in fast water.

What is fast water? It depends upon the individual. An experienced dredger might be much safer in a typhoon of fast, turbulent water, than an inexperienced person would be in slow, shallow water near the bank. The key for each person is to begin learning in a safe and comfortable environment, gain valuable experience over time, and never attempt to do anything that you cannot easily manage, with safety.