Winter in Alaska. The days are short and the ground covered in snow. What is a miner to do? It is time to work on the permits.
Since we just acquired the Moore Creek property in 2003, the first order of business for 2004 was permitting. We have quite a few things to do before mining can commence, and so I decided to put in for a five year Annual Placer Miners Application for general exploration and facilities work.
There are several things we need to accomplish. First, the previous owner left one of our D9 bulldozers stuck about four miles out of camp in a mud hole. We need to get the bulldozer started up and get it unstuck. Since it is outside our claim block, we need a Miscellaneous Land Use Permit for Cross Country Travel to move it to the claims. Once we get the bulldozer into camp, we want to use it to lengthen our airstrip. This needs a plan and permitting. We also want to clear existing trails that have grown over with brush.
One thing some people do not understand is that structures on mining claims also need permitting, even if they already exist. We have several cabins on our claims. In these days of lawsuits, abandoned structures represent a liability to the government. Part of the permitting process includes getting a permit to have permanent structures. Things like fuel storage and outhouses must be covered.
Then there are the mining and prospecting activities. Our initial operations will be of a small-scale nature, but still they must be described in detail in the plan. The main thing on state land is that activities that disturb less than 5 acres do not require bonding. Any disturbance over 5 acres requires that bonding via the State Wide Bond Pool be obtained. Yearly reclamation reports must be filed for all work performed, even that under 5 acres. Suction dredges need an EPA permit, Corps of Engineers permitting, and possibly a fish habitat permit. Other agencies, like the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology must be notified to review your plan.
If this all sounds like a lot, you are right. Moreover, because there are so many agencies to notify, it would be easy to miss something and get in trouble. Luckily, in Alaska the state has a master permit in the form of the Annual Placer Miners Applications (APMA). This one master application is filled out and the state farms it out to most of the various state and federal agencies for approval. Various applications can be made for periods of up to ten years.
Aerial view of tailing piles and ponds at Moore Creek, Alaska
I filed for a “Multi-Year” Miscellaneous Land Use Permit and Reclamation Plan Approval for five years. There is a $100 fee for the first year, and $50 for the other four years, so the filing fees came to $300. This is a bargain considering all that is done for you in one application. You can find all the paperwork online at the Alaska State Division of Natural Resources (DNR) website. If you examine the forms you will note that they are designed to cover many different scenarios. Just fill out the applicable sections, and draw lines through areas that do not apply. Overall, it is not terribly difficult, and the process has the virtue of making you think through the entire process by asking some questions you may not have thought of.
Anyone thinking miners can just go out and tear up the earth without a second thought should read these things. You have to have a plan for filling every hole and ditch and a need a permit for just about everything except breathing the air.
Our main permitting covered moving the bulldozer into camp, getting the facilities and fuel storage covered, the use of suction dredges and highbankers for placer sampling, and possible pitting or trenching on the hardrock prospect. We also applied for the ability to upgrade the existing airstrip to make it safer, as it currently is a bit too short for continual safe access. It also is limiting the amount and size of equipment that can be flown in, as it is dangerous to attempt to fly in with anything larger than a Cessna 206. Safety is the main concern over time.
You might expect all these permits to take forever to be approved, and for operations that are more complicated, they can. However, our low level of initial activity made permitting easy, and the state of Alaska is doing a fantastic job of getting these things processed. I got the approved permitting back in less than 30 days. Huge kudos to the people at the Division of Mining, Land, and Water. Do remember, however, that it can take longer if you want to do something more complicated, so file well in advance.Overflight of D9 bulldozer stuck on hill The only real surprise I received was from the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. I had proposed that as part of continuing operations that old pre-existing ditches and other remnants of mining be reclaimed and derelict old structures removed. I thought this would be a benefit in that we would in effect be "cleaning up" after the old miners. You can imagine my surprise when I got a letter notifying me that these old ditches might be historic, and that we should not disturb them. Funny how the ditch I dig today must be filled back in, but if the ditch is old enough, it now must be left alone!
The first order of business to consider was the bulldozer move. The overland permit stipulated that the move had to be made by May to take advantage of frozen ground conditions and snow cover. This meant that we must get to the bulldozer in the winter, which presented difficulties of its own. The bulldozer was stuck up to the top of the track on one side, and so would be frozen in and hard to get out. Combine that with the size of the unit, a D9, its age, mid-sixties, and our general lack of operating knowledge, and I came up with what I thought was a good solution. We offered to trade the dozer itself to a local miner on the condition he got it unstuck and did what runway and trail work we needed done before taking the unit off-site back to his own mine. In this way, I figured we avoided the difficulty of not only getting the unit into camp from its current location but got our work done by a more experienced operator. So we made just such a deal.
Old D9 bulldozer stuck in soft spot over the hill from Moore Creek
Our plan was to acquire a smaller, newer bulldozer that would be more reliable and more fuel efficient for the smaller scale operations we anticipated. But as we researched the situation it became obvious that this was going to get real expensive. Even a used bulldozer was going to run a good chunk of change, not to mention the cost of getting it to McGrath. Then would come the difficult task of getting it from McGrath to the mine, a distance of over 60 miles. That old bulldozer began to look better all the time. But the deal had been made, and so we waited for spring to come.
As has often happened in this Moore Creek story, things worked out for the better. The miner was unable to retrieve the bulldozer for us. On one hand I was unhappy to see the opportunity missed for the season, as we would now have to wait until the next winter to move the bulldozer overland. But that was more than offset by the fact that I now realized what a valuable thing a bulldozer is that is already on-site in remote Alaska. We were far ahead to work with what we had. Now it was left to us to get the bulldozer running and out of the hole it was stuck in, and then move it into camp in the spring of 2005. Our runway improvements would have to wait another year
Memorial Day finally approached and our first trip to the mine for the season. A new 6” suction dredge was purchased to take the mine for some bulk sampling work, as well as a little 2.5” dredge and small highbanker for more portable sampling efforts. I wanted in particular to sample some of the old tailing piles to get an idea how much smaller gold there was in them. We already knew they contained scattered large nuggets, but if it is to pay to re-mine the old tailings it will be the smaller gold that really makes it pay. The inefficient old recovery methods used at Moore Creek, combined with the large amount of heavy magnetite and chromite in the concentrates, and the clay content of the material, all indicated to me that the gold losses would have been substantial.
High of the list was getting the old existing bulldozer trail up to where the dozer was stuck cleared out of brush enough so we could get our Honda 3-wheeler up to it. Four miles over small mountains toting tools, batteries, and whatever else we might need on our backs was not an option we liked. We needed something cheap and small that would fit in the 206, so I shopped around and found a used Honda 3-wheeler. If you ever buy one of these be sure and check the tires because even if the unit is free three new tires is going to set you back a few dollars. Once we got the trail cleared for the 3-wheeler we could then begin the task of getting the bulldozer started and out of the hole.
Honda 3-wheeler stuffed in back of Cessna 206
My father and I planned on heading up with a full load of gear in the Cessna 206, and my brother Tom wanted to make his first trip up to the mine. I was excited to have Tom along as his job as a surveyor usually kept him busy summers so we rarely get out together. This made for a full load so I had the 6” dredge shipped to McGrath prior to our departure. We would fly to the mine, open up the camp and deliver our equipment. Tom had to go back to town the third day, so the idea was to fly him to town and then go into McGrath to bring the dredge in the same day. A 6” dredge is more than a single load for the 206 but by staging half the unit in McGrath we saved an extra trip to Anchorage.
My cousin Bob planned to come up from Missouri a few days after we left for the mine. He would hook up with a friend of ours, Mike Graves, who would fly them up in Mike’s Super Cub. And so, with plans all made and dredge waiting in McGrath, we finally headed out for Moore Creek. The flight was rather uneventful. When we arrived at Moore Creek, it was obvious that spring was early this year. There were more leaves on the trees than there normally would be on Memorial Day weekend. Usually things are still pretty bare this early, and patches of snow and ice would not be unusual. But as you will see in the pictures the trees are were pretty much leafed out when we arrived.
I had been waiting all winter to do some prospecting, and since Tom had a limited amount of time we decided to go prospect the tailing piles. Metal detectors have been effective in determining which tailing piles have larger pieces of gold in them, and presumably smaller gold also. We have been mapping all nuggets found and so a picture of where the hot areas are on the claims has been slowly building up over time. Since I wanted Tom to have the best shot at finding some gold, I loaned him my Minelab GP 3000, while I used the Garrett Infinium. The Minelab has a significant edge in that I have it outfitted with a 24" x 12" Coiltek UFO coil. This larger coil not only gets some extra depth, but probably more importantly allows the operator to cover more ground while detecting. In some ways I think the amount of ground one covers with a detector is more important than an extra inch or two of detection depth. If my detector covers twice as much ground as your detector, I am going to be electronically processing more material than you, even if your detector gets a couple more inches of depth than my detector. Just like when running other mining equipment, it is often about how much yardage you are processing more than recovery efficiency.
By the time we got the camp opened up and equipment put away we did not have too much time left. We headed down to some tailing piles next to the runway where a couple nuggets had been found the summer before. It seemed like a good area, but all we dug was small steel trash and bullets. Tom finally found a little 0.13 oz piece but that seemed about it for the spot this time so we headed back to camp. We decided to do a little more hunting near camp and just at the end of the day Tom found a 1.21 ounce nugget, by far the largest he had ever found in his life. Not bad for the first day on the ground, and a short day at that! I, on the other hand, had no gold to show for the day.
The next day we decided to head way down the creek to check areas we had not hunted before. In theory the chance for larger gold should diminish as we head downstream, but you never know until you try. We hoofed it on down and did quite a bit of work getting through thick brush in low lying areas. But try as we might we had no luck down the creek. After some time with no success you get the feeling maybe you should wander back to areas where gold has been found before. We did just that, and Tom found a 0.15 ounce piece near Nevada Gulch below the airstrip. Then back to the cabins and he goes and finds a 0.25 and 0.10 ounce pieces near to where he had found the 1.21 ounce chunk the day before. And here I am again on the second day without a nugget to show. It appeared I was on one of my rare cold streaks. Not much you can do about them except persevere. Given the choice I'd rather Tom was finding the gold anyway but it is even better to both be finding gold.
My father was not much into detecting this trip and so was doing general camp work and scouting out the trail over to the bulldozer. Tom and I headed off the third day down the the area below the airstrip where Nevada Gulch comes in, and I finally got a couple small pieces, 0.09 and 0.07 ounces respectively. Not very big, but lots better than my time on this trip so far. My father and I got involved in more camp work, but Tom wanted to do some more detecting. I pointed out an area between the cabins and Moore Creek I thought really should have some gold. I had hunted there so far with no results, but the area just felt right. There was some bedrock outcropping there and that seemed like a good sign. And so right at the end of the day Tom goes and finds a 1.64 ounce nugget with my detector exactly where I pointed with my finger when I pointed the spot out!
Tom's time was up, and so he and my father flew off to Anchorage the next morning. This also offered the opportunity to fly in another load of equipment and fuel from Anchorage. I on the other hand finally had my GP 3000 back in my possession, and so I headed down and across Moore Creek to try some areas on the far outer edge of the paystreak. In theory the northern side of the creek is where the gold occurs and so by heading over to the south side I was heading in the wrong direction. But gold is where you find it, and I figure any disturbed material at all in an old mine is worth running a detector over. You just never know. And sure enough, I came up with four nuggets weighing 0.08, 0.14, 0.27, and 0.68 ounces, for a total of just over an ounce. This was more like it and it showed gold at the far extreme edge of the old operations.
My father returned, and we made the flight into McGrath to pick up the 6" dredge. This is the Keene model with twin 5.5HP Honda pumps. I like the twins as they are easier to handle than one big pump, and also have the advantage of allowing a person to use one or the other or both pumps for other things. One of the pumps works great on a 4" dredge or as a highbanker pump. So the twin pumps add some versatility to the operation. A 6" dredge is a pretty bulky unit, but we had flown the floats and hose in on the previous two loads. We were able to get all the remaining parts of the dredge into the plane and then on into Moore Creek in a single load.
The main reason for the 6" is for use as a sampling device on the many large tailing piles left by the old mining operations. There are several factors that combined to put what I guessed was a substantial amount of gold into the tailings. First, the nature of the gold itself. Even a lot of the smaller stuff has quartz attached, making it lighter and harder to catch. Then Moore Creek has an exceptionally high chromite (chrome ore) content in the concentrates, with some concentrate containing over 35% chromite. Chromite is a lot like magnetite (black sand) in appearance, but is not nearly as magnetic. It is likely the old-timers experienced quite a bit of riffle packing from the heavy concentrates. Another factor is that the decomposed material near bedrock has a fairly high clay content, and much of the material would have clumped and run completely through the box without completely breaking up and releasing the gold. However, years of sitting exposed to rainfall percolating though the tailing piles should have broken down a lot of the clay in the tailing piles by now. Most of the loss was due to the nature of the recovery systems employed. The old operations used long straight sluice boxes with angle iron riffles. They fed everything a one yard at a time into the sluice, including all the larger rocks. They did not screen off the rocks but instead just pitched the larger ones that stuck in the box out by hand. These large rocks created turbulence as the water flowed around them which could blow the gold out of the riffles. And the dumping of full bucket loads caused surges in the flow of material instead of the steady even flow that is desired. All these factors combined meant we have good reason to suspect the 1.5 million yards of tailings at Moore Creek contain substantial amounts of smaller gold in addition to the obvious loss of the larger pieces we are finding with the metal detectors. Since nearly all the tailing piles have large ponds of water adjoining them, a 6" dredge makes for a relatively inexpensive and portable device for testing the tailing piles.
We used a Honda 3-wheeler and trailer to haul the dredge up to the tailing pond at the upper end of the mine and got it assembled. While we put the unit together I heard a "woofing" noise on the hill behind us. There sat a nice little black bear, watching us and no doubt wondering what we were doing. We watched him and he watched us, and finally he lost interest and wandered of around the edge of the pond.
We floated the dredge over to the pile where we had first found a number of nuggets with detectors in 2003. We measured the section of the pile we wanted to dredge to calculate out the yardage so we could come up with a per yard figure of the gold content of the material. The dredging itself was the easiest I have ever done. This particular tailing pile was mostly decomposed bedrock with a few larger cobbles scattered through the material. The pile looks almost sandy on the surface and has little vegetation growing on it, indicating that it came from on or in the decomposed bedrock layer and has little of the organic surface material in it. These types of piles have almost always proven to be a good place to metal detect. I placed the suction nozzle for the dredge just below water level on one end of the pile, and fired the dredge up. A hole was created just below the water line, and then we used picks and hoes to rake the material down into the water where the nozzle just sucked it up. The occasional oversize cobble that appeared was grabbed and tossed before it could get to the nozzle. We ate into the pile, creating an underwater shelf a little over a foot underwater as we moved forward. There is an incredible amount of dredging that can be done at Moore Creek with a pair of knee-high boots and little need to bend over. Basically you just stand there and rake material down to the nozzle. All the material being dredged is actually being dumped back into the bottom of the excavation from which it originally came years ago, so we are in a way we are returning the place to it's original condition by mining it a second time. The old timers dug a hole and put it in a pile; we are taking the pile and putting it back in the hole.
About this time Mike Graves and my cousin Bob show up in Mike's Super Cub. The tailing pile we were dredging on is actually an island in the middle of a pond created when the excavation the miners created filled with water. We were using a little inflatable boat to travel back and forth to the island. It was a one person raft, so a person would paddle over while a string was tied to the shore. Once you get to the far shore, someone back where you started pulls the raft back for their use. Well, Bob paddles over with no problem. The trick with these little rafts is to sit or kneel in the middle. But Mike tried sitting on one end, a thing my father had tried previously, and got similar results. Backwards and over into the ice cold water! I really felt sorry for Mike but luckily it was a nice day and the cabins near at hand so he could get out of his wet clothes in short order.
We wrapped up our little test dredging operation. A half day of dredging moved approximately 9 yards of material and produced 0.21 ounce of smaller gold or 0.023 ounce per yard. Not counting the larger nugget that might be found now and then it looks like this pile might deliver 1/4 to 1/2 ounce a day of gold if worked with the 6" dredge. This pile had produced nuggets weighing over an ounce while detecting the surface and so it is likely that the diligent dredger would have the occasional day running over one or even two ounces of gold due to this "nugget factor". Normally I would not consider a 1/4 ounce of gold in a day with a 6" dredge to be something I'd get excited about back in my old dredging haunts on the Kenai Peninsula. But there I dredged along with the knowledge that it would be the rarest of things to ever dredge nuggets weighing more than 1/4 ounce in size. That average daily take of smaller gold is all a person can really count on. Here, I'd be a much more motivated dredger knowing that it is almost inevitable that nuggets weighing one to three ounces will be found from time to time. We will never really know just what this will really average out to until somebody goes ahead and works a tailing pile for a couple weeks in this fashion.
One thing I know for sure is that in my over 30 years of dredging the largest nugget I've ever found with a suction dredge was a one ounce nugget at Crow Creek Mine in 1998. I have no doubt I could easily break that personal dredging size record at Moore Creek, and so I think in some ways the dredging opportunities here are almost better than the metal detecting. Many people, like my father, prefer to see some kind of reliable, steady gold production. Metal detecting is for the select few who can go for days finding nothing and not get anything and still not get demoralized. But from what I've seen more people are happy getting at least some gold every day as long as they know they still have that shot at a really good day now and then. As the surface areas get detected out this type of steady production work will be more and more important. The main goal for me is to prove enough yardage by this type of testing to justify setting up a small excavator and trommel operation to reprocess the tailing piles. I have had a gut feeling it will pay but I do not buy excavators based on gut feelings.
The next morning I got Bob set up with my GP 3000, and Mike had his own Minelab Eureka Gold. I told them about the area below the airstrip where I had found my largest nugget the summer before, a 3.5 ounce section of a rich gold bearing vein. The area had produced a good number of nuggets so far and the area was regarded as the "hot spot" on the creek by the previous owner. I had good reason to believe the area still held good promise, and Mike and Bob headed down to check it out. My father and I moved the dredge over to the next closest tailing pile. This one looked distinctly different from the other pile. It had more cobbles and rocks and more vegetation growing on the surface, indicating that it contained more overburden than the other pile. Yet it had produced some nice nuggets with the detectors also so I was curious how it would prove out with the dredge.
We worked away at this new tailing pile. This one was much taller, and so the face of the excavation got to be over 10 feet tall. It is important not to undercut the material adding to the risk of falling rocks or a complete collapse of the material, and so we found ourselves standing high above the water raking material down to the nozzle below. Careful raking and the tossing out large rocks before they could fall to the nozzle made this work remarkably well. We threw all the rocks into a zone between the island and the edge of the pond with the idea of eventually creating a causeway that would allow us to walk over instead of using the little raft. The pond is deeper than it looks and so it will take some time but I've always found it to be beneficial to direct rocks to a certain area than just tossing them randomly in every direction.
Bob and Mike showed up halfway through the day, and as Bob stood on the bank of the pond he held up something big to show us. We paddled over to check it out, and it turned out Bob had gone right to the area I had sent him with my detector and found the largest specimen we've located at Moore Creek to date. A 5.13 ounce chunk of what appears to be a perfect cross section of a rich gold-bearing vein. Just like the type of vein I'm dreaming of finding on the hill above our claims. It is exciting to find this kind of large gold specimen, but more exciting for me is what they keep telling me could exist elsewhere on our claims. These specimens have not traveled far at all from their source. Bob was of course ecstatic at having set the Moore Creek record for our group, but since nuggets up to 20 ounces have been found in recent years and up to 100 ounces in the early days his glory may be short-lived. I have since performed a specific-gravity test on the specimen, and it consists of 2.94 ounces of quartz and 2.19 ounces of gold. Some exceptionally rich gold ore indeed.
2011 Update: I purchased the specimen from Bob. The gold was only visible around the edges and so I tried an experiment. I ground the specimen down on all sides until gold was visible, and then put a partial polish on it. The quartz is partially translucent so you can actually see below the surface and see gold enclosed in the quartz. The price of gold increased enough that I finally sold the specimen.
We wrapped up the dredging for the day as soon as we moved about the same 9 yards of material as we had from the other tailing pile. This time there was only 0.11 ounce of gold to show for the work, and so it was obvious this pile did contain more of the worthless overburden material than the other tailing pile. This calculates out to about 0.012 ounce per yard. Nothing to get too excited about with a dredge but an excavator with a one yard bucket it would add up. Since this material is already sized and stacked and next to an existing tailing pond/settling system the cost to process it is much lower than it would be to process virgin material. A good trommel system should also get better small gold recovery than a 6" dredge. More sampling is needed but the initial results so far look very promising with at least some small gold to be found, without consideration of larger nuggets.
A couple days of dredging left me feeling like doing some detecting. Even that easiest of dredging operations was a lot more work than swinging a detector. We got in a coupe hours before turning in for the evening, and I found a 0.09 oz nugget and my father found a 0.29 oz nugget. The real chance would come the next day, our last for the mine on this trip.
We loaded up the next morning and headed down to where Bob had found his piece. It was one of those chunks myself and others had walked within feet of. And like most nuggets, this one, although found with a Minelab GP 3000, was shallow enough that any detector at all would have found it. Bob just got his coil over it first. We all started hunting, but results at first were pretty slim, with me finding a few smaller pieces. It got very hot, and everyone started running out of energy as the temperatures climbed. I finally wandered off down the creek on my own and back into an isolated little area back in the brush. And boom, up comes a 1.93 ounce specimen! I got really excited, of course, and in short order I found another piece weighing 0.28 ounce. It was time to call in the troops so I climbed a nearby tall tailing pile and yelled away for the other guys to come over, but could not hear anyone reply. I hiked on over and rounded up Mike and my father, but Bob had already returned to camp. Unfortunately I had broken the spell, and try as we might my new area dried up. I ended up with the gold of the day, with the 1.93 oz and 0.28 oz pieces, plus 0.18, 0.09, 0.07, 0.08, and 0.05 ounce pieces for a total of 2.68 ounces . That put me over 4 ounces for the trip, but Bob beat me for total weight, most gold, and largest specimen so far, all in one find!
The pictures above show my finds for the week, plus the 0.35 ounce of gold dredged from the tailing pile shown below. The pictures are not to scale; my specimens that are shown too small as the dredged gold is closer to life-size as seen in this picture. Those larger pieces found dredging would brighten most people's dredging days. As you can see even the smaller gold is very rough and has quartz attached. This gold has not so much rolled down the creeks as it has just rotted out of the rock and so there are going to be lots of pieces with quite a bit of character to them. The only real downside to this gold is the quartz content does not make it very amenable for jewelry work, as the quartz tends to pop out when heated.
All in all a very good start for the year. We got our propane refrigerator working but were frustrated by the 3 kw diesel generator. The darn thing has a hand crank starter and although it would pop and cough we could not get it running. It appeared to be some sort of fuel supply problem, but take apart what we may it just would not run before we all got so tired of cranking we gave up. The dozer problem remains to be tackled. Getting the dredge on site was a big plus, as getting good volume samples is critical in deciding just where and how to set up larger scale mining operations. I'm a very cautious miner in that regard. I do not believe in proceeding with any kind of serious mining without sufficient yardage blocked out and proven in advance. Too many people think that is time wasted and just jump in and start mining, but that is why the vast majority of mines go broke. We will block out enough pay to make whatever operation we go with have a high probability of turning a good profit. Part of that will be determined by exactly what equipment gets used in the actual mining operation, which also gets determined by the sampling program.
Final lesson for this trip - if I ever loan you my detector and point you in a certain direction, you'd better head there! Both my brother and cousin got their best finds ever on this trip and I was glad to see it. The next best thing to finding a nugget or me is seeing other people find them. The happiness is contagious whenever gold is being found in our camp, no matter who is doing the finding.
~ Steve Herschbach
Copyright © 2004 Herschbach Enterprises