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Fall Mining with Subsurface Dredges at Mills Creek - 9/16/00

Steve Herschbach

My dredging equipment has changed a lot over the last two years. I have been using a Keene 6" dredge with dual 5.5HP Honda pumps for many years. This was great while I concentrated on working a few choice locations, primarily Crow Creek Mine. A 6" dredge is great for production work, but it is too heavy for one guy to be packing around much. It usually took me 14 round trips to pack the entire dredge into any one location.

The problem is that I have been spending years going to the same locations over and over. This is because I've been successful at finding gold at these locations, so why go elsewhere? Most of the vacation time I've been using each year has gone into working these same locations. But much as I hate to say it, I've been getting bored.

I'm sure many people would like to have this particular kind of problem. I've been using 5" and 6" dredges for so long now that the fun and adventure has been fading. It has been turning into a job of sorts, in that I go and and do some heavy labor and get some gold. A certain number of hours dredging produces a certain amount of gold. The deposits I have been working are fairly predictable and I've found lots of nice medium-sized gold, with a few nice nuggets to spice things up.

Unfortunately, this relatively predictable situation has taken a lot of the adventure out of of my mining trips. They are still fun, but just getting gold is not as exciting to me as it used to be. The day was when an ounce of gold in my pan at the end of the day was unimaginable to me. Now I look at it and just figure it was a decent days work.

I've decided to switch directions in my mining efforts. The biggest change is to stop going to the same old places over and over. I've gotten in a rut, and need to break out of it. There are lots of new and exciting spots waiting for me all over Alaska, and I've realized I'm not getting any younger. It's time for me to start visiting new locations around the state.

With that in mind, I need a new goal. Instead of quantity of gold, I'm going to focus on the quality of the gold. More to the point, the size of the gold. I like big nuggets, and I'm going to put more effort into finding them. The Kenai Peninsula areas I have concentrated on for the past 25 years are not the best areas for large nuggets in Alaska. It's time for me to go north. I'll be spending a lot more time metal detecting, and less time dredging.

Steve's old 6" Keene gold dredge and 5" subsurface assembled from Keene parts
Steve's old 6" Keene gold dredge and 5" subsurface assembled from Keene parts

This all means my old 6" was too big for my future plans. No more taking two weeks off just to go run the 6". So I sold it last year, and down-sized considerably to a 5" subsurface dredge. After using it a short while, I decided it was still to big for what I wanted. I need a dredge small and light enough to use for one or two day trips. I need to be able to pack it to a location, dredge for a day, and pack it out. The 5" was still a little on the large size, particularly in the amount of room it was taking up in my truck.

So I sold the 5" and proceeded to build a 4" subsurface. The first version was built on a set of floats that proved to be a bit on the small side. The dredge worked well, but tended to nose-dive in fast current. Keene has also come out with a new 4" subsurface dredge tube with a redesigned riffle tray. I went ahead and rebuilt the dredge around the same marlex floats that Keene uses on their 2.5" dredge. The normal Keene frame is needlessly complicated for this application, some I made my own from simple aluminum stock. A primary design goal was that the frame, float, and recovery tube assembly had to fit in the back of my truck fully assembled. I wanted to get away from assembling and disassembling the dredge unless absolutely necessary.

Steve's new 4" subsurface dredge under construction & in back of truck
Steve's new 4" subsurface dredge under construction & in back of truck

The new version looks great! Compact, lightweight, simple. The 4HP Honda provides plenty of power while being very fuel efficient. I can mount an air compressor if I need one, but for most of the shallow water dredging I do I can use a mask and snorkel, and forgo the extra hookah gear. Best of all, the unit slides into the back of my truck fully assembled. All I have to do is hook up the hoses. I think I've found my main unit for the next few years. A dredge that will be fun to use for short trips.

My cousin Robert has recently moved to Anchorage, and my cousin Bob was in town visiting my father. We decided to get together for a trip to my claims on Mills Creek. Robert is new to mining, while Bob has been involved in numerous mining adventures in the past. I've been thinking of selling my share of the Mills Creeks claims, but wanted to try one spot out in particular to see how it paid. Jeff had sniped a nice pocket of nuggets on a corner of the creek on one of our past trips, and I've been curious if more gold was waiting to be found there. We also figured to metal detect for gold along the banks on bedrock exposures.

We got my tent set up under a gloomy sky. Winter is on the way, and fresh snow is falling on the mountain tops. After settling in, I spent some time with Bob and Robert detecting for gold along the edges of Mills Creek where bedrock is exposed. We've detected lots of gold here before, but the location is getting picked over, so we had to work extra hard to find those nuggets. We shared my detector and started dropping nuggets in our vials.

Once Bobby and Robert were under way metal detecting, I hauled my dredge down to the creek and got setup. The little 4" is so small compared to what I am used to that it seemed to be no effort at all to carry it around. I was setup in no time at all, and proceeded to work the bedrock area where Jeff had found his gold.

4" subsurface gold dredge at Mills Creek
4" subsurface gold dredge at Mills Creek

The bedrock was shallow, but I did not get into any major pockets of gold. There were flakes and a few nuggets scattered along the bedrock, but nothing to get excited about. By the end of the day, I had about a 1/4 ounce of gold to show. I had been hoping for something a little more dramatic, and so was a bit disappointed. The dredge was working great, however, and I was very pleased with it's performance.

If I had found a great paystreak, I probably would have kept going, but the mediocre results made my mind up. I decided to sell my share of the claims and more on to greener pastures. I pulled my dredge out of the creek and packed it back to camp.

I spent the rest of the weekend detecting with Bob and Robert. Bob seemed to be finding chunkier gold, but I was getting more nuggets. I finally ended up with 62 nuggets metal detecting, in addition to the gold I found dredging. Bob found 50 nuggets, while Robert only found seven. Since this was his first mining experience he was quite pleased, however.

121 Gold Nuggets Found Metal Detecting
121 Gold Nuggets Found Metal Detecting

My nuggets are the ones in the bottom of the picture; Bob's are in the upper right hand corner. Robert found the seven to the left. A very successful weekend, with fun had by all. We tore down camp and stuffed everything possible into my truck and headed back to town.

~ Steve Herschbach
Copyright © 2000 Herschbach Enterprises

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