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Sniping for Gold at Mills Creek, Alaska - 1/24/99
It is winter in Alaska!
Maybe not by the calendar, but certainly by the snow on the ground and the
ice on the water. Jeff Reed and I decided to make one last mining trip
for the season. Snow is falling at low elevations now, but only a few inches
have accumulated on the ground. We decided to take a gamble and see if we
could drive back into our claims at Mills Creek. There was a chance, however,
that we would find too much snow on the road to get back in. The only way
to know was to drive down and find out. We decided to take both our trucks,
just in case one of us got stuck. We headed out early under cloudy skis.
On the way through Portage we passed a cow moose and her calf breaking ice
in a pond next to the highway.
I met Jeff at the
gravel pit next to the highway where our access road starts out. We decided
to take it easy driving in. There was only two or three inches of snow on
the road, but that can be enough to cause problems on steep hills. We did
not think it wise to be too aggressive getting in, as we might not make
it up a couple of the hills coming back out.
The drive in, however, proved
to be no problem. We arrived at my campsite on the claims just above tree
line to find a winter wonderland.
Our plan was to take
advantage of the low water conditions to snipe for gold on shallow bedrock.
Our claims have quite a bit of exposed bedrock, and relatively coarse gold.
Sniping consists of the use of simple hand tools to recover pockets of gold,
usually from bedrock cracks and crevices. This is more commonly done above
water, but can also be done underwater with the aid of a wetsuit (down south)
or drysuits in Alaska. A prospector outfitted with a suit, mask, and snorkel
can examine bedrock underwater in search of concentrations of gold. The
gold is then recovered using simple tools, such as small pry bars and suction
guns. The best (perhaps only) book exclusively on the subject is Underwater
Sniping for Gold by Sam Radding & Jim Garlock.
Gearing up for underwater
sniping in Alaska is kind of like preparing for battle. Jeff got into his
AMDS drysuit while I donned my Harvey's drysuit. We have tried every kind
of kneepad imaginable over the years, but never found anything that really
stays put in fast water. I finally came up with my own solution years ago,
which is to wear an oversized pair of work pants. I sew carpet to the knees
with fishing line. The trick is to get a pair of pants with wide enough
legs that you can easily slide them on over the drysuit. This may mean a
rather large waist size, so I usually use a bungee cord for a belt. I have
been using miners moss for the kneepads lately. It does not last quite as
long as the regular sluice box carpeting I used to use, but is soft and
cushy on my knees. This solution not only protects the knees of the suit,
but the entire lower half of the suit. Jeff has adopted the idea, but is
a bit more stylish in that he uses a weight belt for his pants!
Jeff & Steve Suit Up
Next comes the hoods
with under caps. A good neoprene drysuit hood, like that made by Harvey's,
is all that is needed, but we both use Henderson Ice Caps also. The ice
cap is a thin under (or over) neoprene hood used in addition to the regular
hood that covers your face completely, except for the eyes and a small opening
for the mouth. Once a mask, snorkel, and gloves are put on, the only part
of your body touching the water is your lips. The gloves can be five-fingered
for some people, but three-fingered mitts are warmer in extreme conditions.
I coat the entire working area of my gloves with a thin coat of Aqua Seal
brand sealant. A little of this stuff goes a long way. Too thick an application
will result in a glove that is stiff and tiring to use.
Our sniping kits
are similar. I use a cheap nylon rucksack to carry the gear. I have an 18"
chisel-edged pry bar and a large screwdriver for prying crevices. I also
have a small screwdriver, some very large crevice tweezers, a set of fine
point tweezers, and a snuffer bottle. The main tool is a suction bulb. These
are similar to the snuffer bottle idea, but with a squeeze bulb and a larger
intake tube. I sometimes bring along a larger unit made out of a modified
grease gun, but find the little bulb unit gets the most use. Finally, I
include a 10" gold pan and a large plastic vial in my kit.
Creek Begins to Freeze
The process of sniping
is actually simple, and can be a lot of fun. You can recover quite a bit
of gold by sniping in itself, but it serves an even more important role
as a prospecting method to locate future dredging ground. In areas where
dredging is prohibited, sniping may offer the only way to recover gold from
some streams and rivers.
The picture to the left shows the area we were
in. There is bedrock outcropping on both banks and in the creek. I usually
leave everything in my rucksack on my back, except for the 18" pry
I jump in the water and thoroughly examine all the bedrock I can get at.
If there is a bit of sand and gravel on the bedrock, it can be scraped aside
and "fanned" away by waving a hand at it rapidly underwater. Any
interesting crevices, no matter how small, should be investigated with the
pry bar. Other tools can be pulled out as needed. When any gold is located,
the snuffer bottle or suction bulb is used to recover it.
I spent quite a bit
of time in the area around the falls, finding a bit of gold here and there,
but no major concentrations. Jeff wandered on down the creek, and I followed
a little later. He had his head stuck in a pool behind a rock, and indicated
he was finding some nice gold.
I kept scouting around,
finding an occasional flake, but a good crevice eluded me. It is possible
to find single crevices that will produce a few pennyweights of gold, and
sometimes a hot set of crevices can produce an ounce or more of gold. This
area is at the upper reaches of the coarse gold deposits on Mills Creek,
however, and the gold is a bit sparse.
I looked up the creek, and Jeff
still had his head in the same pool. I knew something was up... he would
not stay put unless the gold was good. I came up, and with a big smile he
dumped what he had so far in his pan. A few pennyweights of chunky gold
looked back up at me from his pan, and I must admit I was a bit jealous.
I had only little flakes to show in return. Jeff indicated the pocket was
working out, though, and pretty soon he headed downstream.
We continued on,
but neither of us got into any other hot pockets. Jeff saw a couple of spots
he wants to come back and check next summer. My main goal is to put my dredge
on the corner where Jeff located the best gold of the day. It is in the
area I am actively working, just upstream of my last dredging location.
There may be more gold under the deeper overburden, or it may simply be
a single pocket of gold, now worked out. I'll have to wait for next summer
to find out.
Gold for the Day!
So ends my gold mining
for 1999. Overall, it was not one of my more productive summers for total
gold found, but for fun it was tops, as I think my entries for the summer
show. A determined dredger can work through the winter, but frankly I am
not so gung-ho as to fight the cold for a few ounces of gold. Better to
wait for summer to return again.
Jeff ended up with about 1/4 ounce of
nice nuggets for the day. I had a fairly pitiful showing of small flakes
and a half pennyweight nugget. I would have liked to finish the year with
a bit more of a bang, but so it goes. This is two trips in a row that Jeff
has kicked my fanny in gold production, so I can't wait for next year and
a chance to show him up in return. The gold will wait under snow and ice
for us until then!
Steve's Gold from Mills Creek & Crow Creek 1999
Largest Nugget 5.4 Pennyweight
P.S. I get a lot of comments on the color of the gold in
my photos. Please keep in mind these are digital photos, and have often
been lightened (as in the photos above) or darkened. Most gold around Anchorage
is about 85% pure, and had a nice yellow color, but a little lighter than
much of the California gold I have seen.
Mine gold is of lower purity,
usually 70-75%, and so has a lighter color. The Crow Creek gold on the right
above has taken on a slight tarnish and so appears darker than the Mills
Creek gold on the left. I have some gold from Crow Creek that has enough
silver in it to qualify as "white gold".
~ Steve Herschbach
Copyright © 2000 Herschbach Enterprises