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

By Dave McCracken

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

Dave Mack

 

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winch Operator Watching Closely For Diver Signals

Boulder In Sling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BY STEVE HICKS

Placer miners at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BY DAVID KAREJWA

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Dave McCracken

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

Dave Mack

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987 Edition.

 

 

 

By James B. Wright

Learning to interpret sound anomalies on your metal detector.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what’s the point of all this?

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Dave McCracken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lesson in this!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

By Dave McCracken

There is always action and controversy of some kind going on in the gold mining business. I guess that’s why most of us like it so much!

One thing about participating in gold mining or prospecting, is that it is never boring. Nor is any part of the administration of the gold mining industry boring. There is always some action going on!

This is one of the things which makes our industry so interesting. People who participate tend to be non-conformists by nature, or at least on a temporary non-conformist quest of some kind.

Some people get involved in gold prospecting as an escape from the humdrum of their normal, everyday existence; get up early, go to work, come home, watch TV and go to bed, try and pay the bills on time, etc.

Getting out into the great outdoors on a quest for adventure, even on the most remote possibility that something of value may be found, is enough of a lure for many to pursue prospecting activities. In some cases, it is not the gold which is of primary importance. When found, the gold is just a bonus to many participants. The real treasure is the opportunity to get physically and emotionally free of our normal, everyday existence. This is refreshing and revitalizing. It gives us a chance to put things back in a more balanced perspective.

It’s been said that the best way to solve a problem is to get outside of the problem and view it from the outside. Sometimes it’s not enough to take a walk or go for a drive. Sometimes, the best way to get out of a problem, or to be able to view a whole existence from the outside, is to launch yourself into a new adventure or a new existence. After a few days on a quest, or in a complete new environment, or after a few days in a brand new dramatic activity, you can often look back at earlier problems, or your normal life, and see them far more clearly. Everyone can gain from an exciting vacation or experience.

Different people gain different things from being involved with our activity. While one person might get back in touch with the basics of nature, another might connect with the historical values of those who were there many years ago. Others enjoy the search and the excitement of the potential find. Some are emotionally disappointed in not finding what they are looking for. But everyone is touched in some way. These activities are never dull.

Even the guy that wasn’t able to find any gold this time, while perhaps disappointed at this moment, at the same time he is not all caught up in the problems at the office. He stopped thinking about the office last week. Right now, he is planning his next adventure in such a way as to improve the amount of gold he will find.

There can be more to life than normal survival routines, raising the family, earning the pension and paying off the house. This is where dreams come in. Take a person’s dreams away and you have destroyed that person. It is not only about how much gold the person finds. It is the fact that the person desires and is interested in going out looking. This is therapy; a person pursuing his or her dreams, no matter how silly or inconsequential those dreams may be to others with dissimilar interests.

Being involved with the administration of the industry is not dull, either! People associated with this business are either friendly and supportive, or they are out to do us in. The controversy over the 1872 Mining Law is just one example; those people who are against us will invent just about any lie or excuse why all mining should be stopped. There is no middle ground. There is no reason. But there is drama; plenty of it!

And this is the way our whole industry is. Some people are excited. Some people are disappointed. Some people like us. Some people hate us. Some people want to tell you the whole story about the rich gold deposit they are looking for. Some people are incredibly secretive. Some people want to share the gold deposit they located with all the other miners and friends in the area. Others want to keep all the gold for themselves. Some people want to argue and complain about what the problems are that face our industry. Others are willing to pitch in and give a hand to help resolve problems. But there is always action and controversy of some kind going on. Gold mining is never boring. I guess that’s why most of us like it so much!

 

By Dave McCracken

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

Dave Mack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consistent success depends on applying the right basic approach.

 

 

 
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By Dave McCracken

“Planning to Get it Right the First Time”

Dave Mack

Planning for a mining program largely involves the following elements:

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

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


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

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

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 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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