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Metal Detecting for Gold at Chisana, Alaska - 7/21/00

Steve Herschbach

One of my favorite places in Alaska is Bonanza Creek near Chisana in the Wrangell - St. Elias mountains. This location is accessible only by air and is about 250 air miles east of Anchorage. The elevation of around 5000 feet makes for a very short season. Snow persists into June and starts falling again in September. One reason I talked my father into visiting this site in the early 1970's was that it is very remote, and mining in the area concentrated on finding the richest deposits. Material that is very good by today's standards was left as too poor at the time. The gold was reported to be large, and it seemed reasonable that some good gold had been overlooked.

I've known the claim owners for a long time, and have done very well metal detecting on this creek over the years. My original supposition was correct, and much rich ground remains. The ground is heavily mineralized, but even so I have done well with a variety of VLF detectors here, including the Compass Gold Scanner, Fisher Gold Bugs, White's Goldmasters, and Minelab XT17000, XT18000, and Goldstriker. My family and I have found thousands of nuggets here over the years.

Old mine workings above Bonanza Creek

I purchased a Minelab SD2200D specifically to try this locale again. The last trip to Bonanza Creek gave me the impression the area was getting hunted out, but I suspected more nuggets could be found with the SD. When I say hunted out, I mean of larger nuggets. The area is still full of smaller nuggets. But it was getting hard to find any nuggets over a pennyweight.

The largest nugget I had found here so far weighed 6.8 dwt, found with my old Compass Gold Scanner. My sister actually beat me out, having found a 7 dwt nugget with the original Fisher Gold Bug model. The history of the area indicated larger nuggets could be found, but they have eluded us so far. As we went back over the years with more sensitive detectors, larger quantities of smaller nuggets were found, but the big nuggets were found early on.

My father, Bud Herschbach, is an Alaskan Bush pilot, having flown here since the 1960's. He currently owns a Cessna 206, a very capable plane with a large load capacity, yet the ability to land on small unimproved runways. My father, Jeff Reed, and I departed Anchorage in fair weather and headed for Northway to meet the claim owner to get the keys to his cabin.

After leaving Northway we made our way through the mountains to Chisana. The mountain strip we land on is something that would amaze most people. The approach is made flying up a small valley. A turn is made up a side creek and a landing is made uphill directly into the side of a mountain. It is something that must be done correctly the first time, as a missed approach means a nearly impossible climb out against the face of the mountain. The landing strip is just some bare dirt in the tundra, and very short at that. It is the kind of landing that has a person clutching their seat and hoping nothing goes wrong.

As usual Dad aced the landing, however, and we parked the plane. We loaded our gear up and walked over the hill towards Little Eldorado Creek and camp. Upon arrival we found all in good order, although a bear had forced entry into one of the cabins. We straightened things up and settled in.

Since we had hunted the area with detectors carefully over the years, Jeff and I wanted to try something new. The current owner has done well dredging the claims, and we figured we might do well to snipe the many exposed bedrock areas in the creeks with drysuits, masks, and snorkels. So our first morning Jeff and I suited up and headed down Bonanza Creek to snipe for gold. Jeff had a cold and was feeling a bit under the weather, but we had visions of underwater crevices full of large gold nuggets to push us on. My father took his Tesoro Lobo and headed out on his own to look for gold.

Jeff sniping for gold in drysuit

Well, Jeff and I ended up disappointed. We spent a long day poking and prodding into crevices with our hand tools. We found quite a bit of gold, but none of the rich pockets we were anticipating. The old timers, and more recent dredgers had done their jobs well, and shallow exposed bedrock areas did not give us as much gold as we had been hoping. I got kind of discouraged and started skipping along over areas. Jeff, for all that he was not feeling well, was more persistent, but no hot crevices were revealed.

Jeff and I finally gave up and headed back to the cabins. Dad was waiting there for us, and we told him about our lack of results. We then asked how he had done, and he tells us he had ranged over quite a bit of ground, and had finally got a good signal with his detector. He then pulled out a very nice 3.1 pennyweight nugget laced with quartz to show us!

Needless to say, Jeff and I were very excited about his find. It was the largest nugget my father had ever found, making it even better yet. We decided that the area he had found it in was well worth our attention (naturally!) and excitedly made plans for the next days nugget hunt.

The weather was pretty poor the next morning, so we headed out under cloudy skies to search for gold. Jeff and I diligently searched bedrock along Bonanza Creek while Dad wandered on up ahead of us. There were lots of great looking bedrock exposures along the creek, but try as we might Jeff and I found little but nails. Jeff was using a Fisher Gold Bug 2 while I was using my new Minelab SD2200D. We finally caught up to my father in the area where he had found the nugget the day before.

Bedrock was exposed in the middle of the floodplain along one stretch, and this is where the 3.1 dwt. nugget had been found. We started detecting in the area and finding some small nuggets. Finally I looked across the creek and saw some bedrock exposed along the bank. I decided to cross over and give it a try.

I did a little scanning, and after a short while I got a strong signal. It sounded big enough to be a nail, so I had no big expectations. Imagine my surprise when an 8 pennyweight nugget popped out of the ground! It was the largest nugget I had ever found in this area, and I just stared at it a bit before I picked it up. There are few things in life as fun as finding a nice nugget with a metal detector, as far as I am concerned!!

Steve points to where 8 dwt nugget was found with Minelab SD2200D
Steve points to where 8 dwt nugget was found with Minelab SD2200D

Well, a lot of activity ensued along that bank, and a few more nuggets were found, but I had found the big one. We finally wandered back towards camp, and got caught got in a torrential downpour at the mouth of Little Eldorado Creek. We hid out under a rock ledge for awhile, and the rain let up. We then proceeded up to our old detecting grounds on some high bench deposits above Bonanza Creek.

The old miners found that there was a lot of gold in old stream deposits well above the current stream level of Bonanza Creek. These type of gold deposits well above the current creek level are referred to as "bench deposits". They built a ditch and flume system several thousand feet long to bring water from the upper creek to deposits on the valley wall farther downstream. Lumber had to be made from trees miles away, then transported into this high mountain location and assembled into a water transportation system crossing valleys and cliffs. The remnants of this old water transport system are truly awe-inspiring, and are something I dwell upon every time I visit this locale.

Once the water reached the high gold deposits, it was directed through large nozzles (giants) to wash the gravels into sluice boxes. Large areas of the hillside were stripped completely to bedrock, and much coarse gold was recovered. Today acres of bare bedrock exposed by these old mining operations exist well above the creek, and represent a perfect opportunity for the new age metal detector user.

Gold was lost in these old washing operations. As material was washed with the nozzles down the hill to sluice box recovery systems, an occasional nugget would get stuck in a crevice in the bedrock. These nuggets were few and far between, and without the aid of modern electronic detectors it would have been very hard to find these few lost nuggets. The old miner would literally had to have split open and scraped out every crevice to find the lost gold.

Metal detectors allow the modern day prospector to easily scan the old workings to find the scattered lost nuggets with ease. Jeff, my father, and I spread out and started looking for these lost nuggets. The main problem was that my family and I had already scanned the area and found the easy pickings in previous years. Still, with diligence one can always find more gold. My particular hope was that my new Minelab would find gold I had previously missed.

Well, we didn't miss much! I found a few nice pieces in nooks and crannies, but nothing outrageous. Jeff was finding some smaller nuggets with his Fisher Gold Bug 2, but no larger nuggets. He was able to hit lots of smaller nuggets that my SD2200D missed, but my larger nuggets were more what he was looking for.

We did locate an area literally in the ATV trail that was producing lots of little nuggets. So many, in fact, that my father and I decided to set up a sluice box and process the gravel rather than metal detect.

Bud Herschbach shoveling gold bearing dirt along edge of trail
Bud Herschbach shoveling gold bearing dirt along edge of trail

The morning of the last day was nice and sunny. Dad and I went ahead and set up our sluicing operation. Jeff decided to keep metal detecting. We filled buckets with gravel and ran them through the sluice box. The material was incredibly rich, with more gold appearing in the sluice box after every bucket of material was run.

We grew tired of shoveling, and decided to clean up the sluice. Processing less than a yard of gravel produced nearly two ounces of gold! It just goes to show how rich some of the material was that the old miners were after. There is still gold where we were digging. Someday we will have to go back and get some more.

In summary, I was very happy with the Minelab SD2200D. It operated on this difficult ground very smoothly, ignoring the hot rocks and ground entirely. I ended up with some nice nuggets, including an 8 dwt piece. It's the largest one in the picture below. I only wish I had had more time, as we were cramming a lot of activity into three days. There is a lot of deeper ground here I need to search.

The second largest nugget, weighing 3.5 dwt, was found by my father with his Tesoro Lobo SuperTRAQ. It is the quartzy piece in the picture. All the other 1/2 dwt to 1 dwt pieces were found with my SD.

Jeff was using his Fisher Gold Bug 2. He found a lot of smaller nuggets, but was frustrated in not even finding a 1 dwt nugget. He is usually very hot with a detector, so I attribute this to simple bad luck more than anything.

Steve with gold found running sluice box, and some detected nuggets (largest 8 dwt)
Steve with gold found running sluice box, and some detected nuggets (largest 8 dwt)

My main feeling about the SD was not that it got overwhelmingly exceptional depth as compared to the VLF units, but that it was so much easier to operate in hot ground that more time could be spent simply covering ground. The VLF's require slow, careful work due to the background noise, which simply slows you down. Actually, I ended up impressed by what a good job we had done on previous trips with the VLF machines, as large swaths of ground that once produced many nuggets now seem completely cleaned out.

All in all a very nice trip, with about three ounces of gold found. Hopefully we will return someday soon!

~ Steve Herschbach
Copyright © 2000 Herschbach Enterprises


Edited by Steve Herschbach

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