Types of Placer Wash Plants

Types of Placer Wash Plants

There are many different types of washplants on the market today. The one thing that they all have in common is that everyone says theirs is the best! We’re not setting out to prove which plant is the best, this article will explore different types of plants and their strengths and weaknesses. Different plants are suitable for different conditions. There is no one size fits all solution.

There are 4 main components to a wash plant: Scrubber, Concentrator, Feed System, and Carrier. While no two wash plants are identical they all involve a combination of these 4 components.

Take a typical trommel plant that you would find in BC or the Yukon for example. You’ll have a hopper that is fed by an excavator, a trommel that feeds a sluice box and it’s mounted on skids.

Wash Plant Components Placer

Scrubbers

The scrubber is the component of a wash plant that separates raw material and prepares it for concentration. The scrubber will remove large rocks and break down chunks of clay and packed sand. Most scrubber systems use water jets to wash the gravel to remove the fine gold that is attached to the cobbles.

The sand and clay that adheres to pebbles and rocks has been shown to have much higher gold content than the gravel as a whole. For that reason, it is important to wash your material well so that gold can be captured in the concentrator.

The scrubber has three main functions:

  • Separate large cobbles and boulders from the feed gravel
  • Wash the cobbles and gravel
  • Break up clods of agglomerated material

The five categories of scrubbers in use today are the Screen Deck, Trommel, Reverse Trommel, Derocker, and Grizzly.

Trommels

Trommels use a rotating drum to agitate the material. Raw gravel is fed at one end and passes over openings in the drum. Rocks that are larger than the openings are disposed of as tailings. The drum is set at a slight angle to allow the tailing rocks to work their way off the end. Trommels do an excellent job of breaking up clay, mud, and compacted gravels.

A trommel is driven by an electric or gasoline-powered motor. The motor spins the drum by either using a long chain with cogs welded around the drum or by wheels that the drum sits on. Most trommels will have a spray bar running inside the drum that sprays high-pressure water on the gravel to aid in removing gold particles from the rocks. The trommel has a lot of moving parts which is one drawback. The more complex a system is, there more potential for failure.

gold trommel yukon

In North America trommels are most often paired with a sluice box that is positioned at a right angle to the drum. A section of openings are positioned above the sluice box with metal screens to allow specific sizes of particles through. Each mine has different requirements for particle sizes depending on the size of gold that exists there. Miner’s typically have openings of 1/2″ or 3/4″, the size of the opening depends on the distribution of gold sizes in the pay gravels.

Trommels can be paired with any type of concentrator, it doesn’t have to be a sluice. Trommels can be any size. They vary from the Gold Cube trommel which is 5” in diameter and 16” long to plants that can run hundreds of yards per hour with diameters of 8 feet or more. Trommels are relatively easy to set up and can handle a wide range of materials. The big advantage that they have over other scrubbers is the ability to break up cemented or compacted material.

Pros Cons
Can handle different kinds of material Mechanically complex, requires maintenance
Can handle high volume Large footprint
Relatively easy setup Burn a lot of fuel
Breaks up clay and compacted gravel Large trommels are difficult to move

Screen Decks

Screen decks use a series of vibrating screens and water jets to wash gravel and separate large rocks. Each deck is mounted on an angle and suspended by springs and caused to vibrate by mechanical means. There can be multiple decks used or just one.

Like a trommel, screen decks are fed at one end and allow oversize material to fall off the other end. There are perforations in between which allow material to fall through to the lower section. The vibration is caused by the rotation of an unbalanced weight called an “exciter”. That is actually the same thing that causes your cell phone or an Xbox controller to vibrate just on a much larger scale. The exciter is driven by a gas or electric motor. Some smaller models such as the Goldfield Prospector drive the exciter by a pelton wheel using water power alone and no motor.

Klondike Wash Plant

A series of high-pressure water jets are used to wash material as it vibrates. Screen decks allow for well-positioned water jets to be put in place for thorough washing of gravels and rocks. There are a variety of screen options varying from woven wire, to punch plates and rubber or plastic perforated material. Screen sizes vary depending on the gold distribution and material being processed, customization of screen sizes is easy to achieve.

Screen decks can accomplish very high production in the right materials. Some of the largest wash plants in the world are using screen decks for that reason. Unlike a trommel, screen decks do not handle clay or compacted material very well. It tends to bounce off the screens and roll off the end. Despite the violent nature of vibrating beds the screen deck is a relatively simple machine and does not require a lot of maintenance. The only part that is mechanically driven is the exciter and there aren’t a lot of moving parts compared to a trommel or a derocker.

Screen decks tend to be quite high off the ground (at least large scale wash plants). They generally require enough of an elevation difference at the site to be able to feed the hopper and allow room for a concentrator below. Some miners use a conveyor system to get around this problem but mobility is not the screen deck’s strong suit. They work best in a stationary position where they will be used for a long period of time.

Goldfield screen deck cariboo

Pros Cons
High volume Struggles with clay and compacted material
Mechanically simple Large footprint
Fuel-efficient Difficult to move
Separation of multiple sizes Slow to set up

Reverse Trommels

There are a few variations of reverse trommels that work a little differently than a basic trommel. A reverse trommel allows heavy material (ie. gold) to exit one end while the large rocks and waste material exit the other. Reverse trommels often have a double tube design with an inner trommel that screens the material while the outer trommel has a screw-like helix that separates the gold.

Reverse Trommel

The trommel is set at the appropriate angle to allow gold to exit one end while water flows over the outer tube. The helix acts in a similar way to a gold wheel, the material of higher density is allowed to work it’s way up the spiral and exit on one end, the less dense material falls out the other.

There are some models with only one opening that kind of resembles a cement mixer. The APT RG-30 for example. They work in a similar way with a helix and a carefully positioned angle and rate of water flow.

Reverse trommels are popular in the mid-sized range from 1 to 10 yard per hour units. There are quite a few on the market. One popular unit is the Mountain Goat Trommel which is a hobby-level clean-up machine. There are large-scale commercial versions and everything in between.

Reverse trommels are interesting machines and work well once they’re set up but they are much more complicated machines than a basic trommel and are finicky to set up. They also require a lot of maintenance. That’s one reason they are mostly on the small-scale side of the industry.

Pros Cons
Can produce very clean concentrate Require a lot of maintenance
Break up clay very well Slow setup
Separation of multiple sizes Complicated machinery, lots of moving parts
Some designs are very compact Not very fuel-efficient

Derockers

Derockers are a neat machine. They use a flexible deck made of long flat slabs with spaces between them. Under the deck is a carriage frame with truck tires that moves back and forth. There is a high-pressure spray system overhead that washes all the material. As the undercarriage moves back and forth it rolls the rocks around on the deck. The water and rolling action work together to wash off the rocks and allow smaller-sized pebbles and material to fall through the openings in the deck slats (usually 2” minus).

yukon derocker plant

Derockers work really well in areas where there are a lot of large rocks and slabs. They are called “de-rockers” after all. They can handle some clay, due to the rolling action they can break it up somewhat. The derocker was invented in the Yukon to deal with gravel deposits that are full of boulders. These machines can easily handle boulders or slabs up to 4 feet in diameter, which would break other types of separation equipment.

Compared to some of the other scrubbers such as screen decks and trommels, the derocker is a complex machine with a lot of moving parts. You have a carriage that takes a beating, the deck has a lot of links to maintain but the derocker frame itself is stationary.

super sluice finger derocker
Super Sluice Derocker in Cariboo, BC

There was a variation of the derocker in the 1980s called the Super Sluice, made by a company called Gold Machines Inc, that used metal fingers instead of the flexible deck. The Super Sluice was very popular for about 10 years in the Cariboo, Klondike and Atlin but over time the complexity of the machine led to frequent breakdowns and they are very few still in use today.

Pros Cons
Handles large boulders and slabs Require a lot of maintenance
Can break up clay and compacted material Complicated machinery, lots of moving parts
Very high production with the right material Require a lot of water and power to run
Quick setup, easy to feed No adjustment for screening options

Grizzly

Some wash plants don’t have a mechanical separation system at all, some use a simple grizzly. A grizzly consists of vertical bars with spacing to allow the size of material you want to pass through. The grizzly is set on an angle such that the larger rocks will roll off and the stuff that fits through the bars will pass through.

Highbankers and small test plants use a grizzly. Production is slow and they often require manual intervention to clear the large material that collects below. Grizzlys are often incorporated into other separation equipment such as screen decks and trommels.

Pros Cons
No moving parts, no breakdowns Slow production
No motors needed No ability to clear tailings
Easy to move, no setup required Screened material is still coarse
Easy to change for different size of gravel

Concentrators

The concentrator is the heart of a washplant. It’s the part of the wash plant that catches the gold and other dense material.

Placer concentrators all use gravity and inertia to separate material based on density. Gold is very dense, it has a density of 19,300 kg/m³. That means that one cubic meter of gold would weigh 19,300 kilograms (19.3 metric tons). In contrast, the typical gangue minerals such as quartz sand have a density of 2,700 kg/m³ and the black sands have a density of about 5,200 kg/m³.

All concentrating methods depend on this principle, except for the use of mercury but that’s not used in large-scale placer mining.

The Sluice Box

In North America, the sluice is the most common concentrator on commercial placer gold wash plants. The sluice box was developed during the California gold rush around in 1849. The first sluices were called Long Toms. Early sluice boxes consisted of long wooden boxes with wooden riffles and moss or burlap to line the bottom. The primitive long toms saved a ton of labour but miners at that time did not have a pre-scrubber and had to pick all the rocks out by hand and pan all the concentrates.

Modern sluices haven’t changed that much from the original design. We use metal now and have scientific studies to analyze the optimal riffle designs and matting but the concept is exactly the same.

Sluices work by creating a vortex behind the riffles. As the gravel/water slurry flows over the riffle it creates an eddy current as it rolls back on the riffle. The eddy causes the water to momentarily lose inertia and it can no longer carry the dense sediment. Dense material is held in the riffle as long as the water is flowing. Once the water stops, the suspended material is released from the riffles, that’s why it’s not good to stop and start a sluice box.

Sluice Riffles gold

There are a variety of riffles in use today but they all work the same way. There have been some excellent studies on different riffle designs and matting.

  • A study of the fine gold recovery of selected sluice box configurations, Jamie Hamilton at UBC: download PDF
  • Placer Gold Recovery Research by Rany Clarkson of New Era Engineering: download PDF

Studies show which riffle designs work the best, what spacing between riffles is optimal and what angle to run at, typically 1.5 to 2.5 inches/foot of sluice run.

There are several different types of riffles in use today. The Hungarian riffle and expanded metal are most common in commercial sluicing operations. Miners in New Zealand developed the hydraulic riffle in the 90’s that allows water to inject under the riffle which keeps them from packing. It’s similar to the way that the Knelson concentrator uses a fluidized bed, more on that later in this article.

Some modern designs have abandoned riffles altogether and use a drop riffle or vortex such as the Devin Sluice or Dream Mat. These vortex systems catch gold in spirals carved into the matting or machined into aluminum sheets. Vortex riffles and matting have the advantage of quick clean-ups but they tend to work better on small-scale operations and clean-up sluices.

Devin Riffle
Devin Vortex Riffles

Different types of matting are used to catch fine gold. Miner’s moss is a typical matting that is made of a synthetic material with lots of loops to catch gold. Miner’s moss is kind of like a thick version of the soft side of velcro or thick carpet. Actual carpet is used in some cases as well. There are lots of high tech rubber designs on the market such as Gold Cube matting, Gold Hog, Dream Mat and many other designs. Some matting is easier to clean up than others but they all catch gold.

Other variations on the sluice include the live bottom and oscillating sluices. The live bottom box works really well. The live bottom box uses a thick rubber sheet on the bottom of the sluice box and has mechanized rollers that sort of massage the rubber moving it up and down. Similar to the rollers in a massage chair. That keeps the material from packing up and keeps the gold at the bottom.

Sluice boxes can handle huge scale production, they can be made very large and multiple sluices can be run together to handle even higher production. The largest wash plants in the world run multiple sluices. All sluices require careful setup and lots of tweaking to make sure they’re catching all the gold. Sluice riffles will eventually become packed with black sand and can no longer catch gold, for this reason, a sluice must be cleaned out regularly.

Large Scale Sluice Plant

Despite the ubiquity of sluices and their simplicity an alarming number of commercial miners are losing fine gold off the end of their sluice. Quality control and testing is essential to make sure that your sluice is operating as it should be. A full-scale sluice can reliably capture gold down to 150 mesh with proper setup.

Sluices have the major disadvantage of slow cleanup times that require a full shutdown. They also lose gold when you start and stop the slurry feed. They are simple and easy to repair in the field though.

Pros Cons
Can handle large volume Proper setup is critical
Simple design, easy to fix in the field Require shut down for cleanup
Modifications and adjustments are easy Large footprint on commercial operations
Require frequent cleanups

Hydrostatic Jigs

Hydrostatic Jigs, often just called “jigs” are very different than a sluice. They use a pulsating water action to separate gold from the lighter gangue materials. Jigs have serval components that work together to separate gold. Typically they have a screen in the upper section which holds a layer of steel balls called “ragging”, usually about 3” thick. Below the screen and ragging is a rubber diaphragm that is moved up and down rapidly by mechanical means producing a vertical pulsing action. The feed material flows over the screen is allowed to settle into the ragging.

Hydrostatic jig diagram gold

The pulsing action in combination with the steel shot allows dense materials to settle to the bottom while lighter material is forced up and carried away by the flow. The action of the jig is based on Stokes Law which determines the rate at which particles fall while suspended in a fluid based on their density. Jigs are usually arranged in a series of cells, each with its own screen and diaphragm. Any number of cells can be used in combination to increase capacity.

The gold is stored in a container in the bottom called a “hutch”. One advantage to this system in commercial operations is that gold nuggets and pickers are not sitting in the open as they would be in a sluice box so it would be difficult for an employee to steal the gold.

Jigs first came into use in placer mining in 1914 in California. They were soon adopted to the large floating dredges that were in use at the time. Jigs had several advantages over sluice boxes. First, they take up much less space, which was important on a floating dredge. Secondly, they can be cleaned out without having to shut down the operation. You simply need to drain out the hutch and you’re back in business.

One of the first jigs used in placer mining was the Pan American Jig wich consisted of two cells. The Pan American model had two 42-inch square cells and could process 20 yards per hour. Multiple units were used in tandem to increase capacity.

Many modern jigs follow the exact same design as the Pan American. Many manufacturers around the world still produce an almost identical machine. There are many variations of jigs today but they allow work on the same principle. Smaller jigs are often used for cleaning concentrates but larger units are also used in full-scale commercial operations.

Pan American Jig
Pan American Jig

Jig Screens

Pros Cons
Clean up without shutting down Initial setup requires lots of tweaking
Small Footprint Rubber diaphragm wears out
Gold stored in safe container Low capacity per cell
Dummy proof once set up Specialised parts required

Centrifugal Concentrator

Centrifugal concentrators are the most efficient method for concentrating placer gold in terms of capturing fine gold and overall revocery. They rely on a rotating drum that resembles a washing machine. The drum spins at high RPM, usually at least 100 RPM, creating a centrifugal force that pushes heavy elements to the outer edge. If you’ve ever ridden the gravitron ride at an amusement park you’ll know firsthand how this works.

In a centrifugal concentrator, the lighter material is allowed to flow over the top of the bowl and is discharged as tailings, the dense material is held in riffles and retrieved during cleanup. The principle is similar to a hydrostatic jig except more G forces are applied. At high G forces centrifuges are less sensitive to particle size than other gravity methods (sluice, jig, etc) and as such can retrieve extremely small gold grains down to 400 mesh.

There are four types of centrifugal processors on the market today: the Knudsen Concentrator, Falcon Concentrator, Knelson Concentrator, and the Gold Kacha.

The Knudsen was the first centrifugal concentrator used in placer mining. It was invented by George Knudsen of California and patented in 1942. The Ainlay bowl was patented in 1928 and saw some experiments in placer mining but didn’t take off. The Knudsen bowl is a 12” to 36” diameter bowl mounted on a vertical drive shaft. The bowl is tapered to allow the slurry to rise up the side while the riffles catch the gold. The Knudsen bowl was used all over the world most notably in California, New Zealand and in Africa. The Neffco Bowl is a modern version and is still used today.

The Knelson Concentrator was developed in Burnaby, BC in 1980. The Knelson is a bit more complex than the Knudsen Bowl and runs at a higher RPM. The Knelson concentrator uses a perforated cone and uses pressurized water that forces in from the outside of the bowl. The cone experiences a force of 60G’s while the water pushes against it, the counteracting force acts to keep the heavy particles fluidized allowing a continual replacement of light grains by heavy ones and avoiding the compaction of riffles like you see in a sluice. The Knelson concentrator is very efficient but like all centrifugal concentrators it requires frequent cleanups.

Falcon concentrators are similar to the Knelson. The main difference is the angle of the walls. Both use the same water pressure system that pushes against the centrifugal force creating a fluidized bed. Falcon (now called Sepro Mineral Processing) is based in Langley, BC, and was founded in 1987. It’s interesting that both Knelson and Falcon were developed in Greater Vancouver. Both companies are world leaders in mineral processing technology.

The Gold Kacha (GK) is a really cool system. I was introduced to this device on a recent placer exploration trip to Sierra Leone, Africa. The Gold Kacha was developed in 2005 in South Africa by Appropriate Process Technologies (APT). It’s similar to the Knudson/Neffco bowl but has several advantages. The Gold Kacha can easily process gold down to 450 mesh (30 microns) and the riffles are designed to prevent gold compaction. The GK can run 3-4 cubic yards per hour.

It’s set up in a turnkey package that’s easy to use. The biggest advantage is that the Gold Kacha retails for $1,500 USD. All the other concentrators on this list are at least 4 times that cost but the GK was designed for use in third world Africa to help artisanal miners avoid using mercury.

Gold Kacha PlacerGold Kacha Wash Plant

All centrifugal gold processing machines work well for catching very fine gold, they catch coarse gold too but the fine gold is the challenging part. Centrifugal processors can catch extremely fine gold very well but they require frequent cleanups, usually every hour or so. Some wash plants use multiple centrifuges and are able to isolate them using valves so that while one centrifuge is being cleaned the others are still operational, I think we’ll see more of these systems in years to come.

Pros Cons
Able to retrieve gold < 400 mesh Frequent cleanups are required
Easy to use, no special knowledge required Very expensive (except Gold Kacha)
Low water consumption Low capacity per unit (compared to sluice)
Low power/fuel consumption Requires thorough pre-screening and clean water

Spiral Concentrators

Spiral concentrators are not commonly seen at placer mines these days. They were popular in the 70s and 80s but have fallen out of fashion. They are very commonly used in the beneficiation of heavy mineral sands, chromite, tantalite, iron ores and fine coal.
spiral concentrator gold
Basically, spiral concentration involves a stack of spirals that are fed from the top using a low-pressure slurry pump. The slurry flows down the spirals like a water slide and separates based on density. At the bottom there are splitters that divert the slurry at different points along the radius of the spiral. The outside of the spiral will have the tailings, since they are less dense the spiral action forces them to the outside, the concentrated gold is on the inner radius and the “middlings” are in the middle. The principle is similar to the way that a shaker or wave table separates gold.

Spirals are often run several times so that the middlings can be run again to increase their level of concentration. There are several variations such as the pinched sluice and the Reichert Cone which uses a series of stacked cones instead of spirals. The spirals are usually made of fiberglass and are lightweight and fairly inexpensive. They are able to reliable capture gold from 6 to 200 mesh, some models can catch down to 300 mesh. Placer spiral systems can handle 4-10 yards per hour but can be scaled up with more units.

gold spiral africa

Pros Cons
Able to retrieve gold < 300 mesh Require consistent, laminar flow
Easy to use, no special knowledge required Low capacity per unit (compared to sluice)
Low cost and cheap to operate Requires thorough pre-screening
Low power/fuel consumption

Dry Washers

Gold is found in areas that don’t have water available, such as the desert regions of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Australia. Placer miners came up with a solution for dry washing.

The process works on the principle of winnowing, which uses wind or air to separate dense material from less dense material. The technique has been used for millennia to separate grains from their husks. Dry washers use a short, waterless sluice and pressurized air in combination with vibration. The sluice portion of a dryswasher has a porous bottom, either canvas or a very fine screen, that allows air to pass through. The whole thing is set on a steep angle so that the material can work its way over the riffles. Air blows up from the bottom and provides some buoyancy for lighter material.

drywasher

Small scale dry washers resemble a highbanker with a screen/grizzly on the upper section and a sluice-like screen setup on the bottom. There are hand-operated units using bellows, and gas-powered blowers. Commercial-scale drywasers are somewhat rare but they are used in gold-rich areas of Australia and parts of the United States.

There are no manufacturers that make commercial-scale dry washers. All large scale units are custom made. Most of them are fed by a loader and distribute the material through a screen system into multiple cells of smaller dry washer sluices. Keene is developing a commercial drywasher but it’s not available at this time.

Material to be run in a drywasher must be completely dry, it must contain less than 3% water otherwise it won’t work. The material must also be disintegrated and not clumped together by clay or caliche. Studies show that under ideal conditions a dry washer will have about 15% less recovery than a wet system (ie. sluice).

Pros Cons
Doesn’t require water Lower recovery than wet systems
Can be moved rapidly Makes a lot of dust
Fast cleanup (compared to wet sluice) Frequent cleanups are required

Feed Systems

We’ve covered screening systems and concentrators. The next component of a wash plant is the feed system. Wash plants can be fed in different ways. Some have a hopper that is fed by an excavator or loader, others are fed by a slurry pump or dredge.

Hoppers

The most common feed system on a wash plant is the hopper. The hopper is a large container that is filled with raw gravel and allows it to be dispersed at an even rate. Many hoppers are gravity-fed, they operate in a similar way to an hourglass. They have an inverted pyramid shape and act as a funnel.

Other hoppers have a belt or track in the bottom that manages the feed rate. I’ve seen some cool designs in the Yukon that use a recycled excavator track in the bottom of the hopper to slowly feed a trommel.

The hopper won’t feed itself and must be refilled regularly by an operator. Most operations either use an excavator or a front end loader to keep the hopper full. Some miners use a conveyor belt system in combination with a hopper to maintain an even flow of material.

Pros Cons
Maintain even flow (when not clogged) Large rocks can get stuck
Simple design, not much to break down Requires operator to refill regularly

Bucket Ladder

The bucket ladder is the most efficient system for feeding wash plant. This was the norm on the monster floating dredges that scoured the gold-bearing placers of western North America from the late 1800s till the 1950s. These monster dredges moved ridiculous amounts of gravel, each dredge could efficiently process up to nine tons of gravel per minute, with an average of 20,000 cubic yards per day!

The bucket ladder consists of a boom and a series of metal digging buckets. It’s sort of like a giant chainsaw. The buckets are specially designed with a digging edge and held together with a giant chain. The boom is raised up and down with a gantry winch system. The buckets continually dump material into the scrubber system (trommel, screen deck or any other system that we discussed above).

The depth of the bucket line is limited to the length of the boom. Typical industrial dredges could dig up to 60 feet deep. The buckets are able to dig up soft bedrock but if hard rock is encountered they cannot. The buckets can’t handle large boulders either. The dredge in the video below isn’t at a placer mine but it shows what a modern bucket ladder dredge can do.

Environmental restrictions have made it a lot more difficult to operate a floating plant with a bucket line but some are still in operation today in Europe, Africa, Russia, China, Asia, South America, Mexico and the Yukon. Modern bucket ladder dredges are common in non-placer applications

Pros Cons
Constant supply of material Can’t dig too deep
Huge capacity Massive overhead cost
Excavation and delivery in one step Not very mobile
Few breakdowns Regulatory hurdles

Gravel Pump

One of the most efficient ways to feed a wash plant is with a gavel or slurry pump. There are several large-scale placer mines in Alaska and other parts of the world that mine by hydraulic means using large water monitors. The material is washed into a pit and pumped up to the wash plant using large industrial slurry pumps.

Gravel pumps don’t work in every scenario but if your location is favorable this is a very efficient way to mine. The slurry pump can be unmanned, saving labour costs and allowing workers to focus on other areas of the mine. These pumps are very expensive initially but the savings in operating costs will pay off over time.

There are a lot of mines operating in wet ground in BC and the Yukon and a slurry pump would be an excellent solution. Instead of fighting the groundwater you can use it to your advantage.

Gravel Pumphydraulic Mine Sierra Leone

Pros Cons
Consistent feed of material High initial cost
High capacity Requires careful mine planning
Savings on labour Doesn’t work in every location
Good solution for wet ground Possible regulatory hurdles

Suction Dredge

Suction dredges are similar to a slurry pump set up. A suction dredge uses a venturi to create a vacuum that sucks up gravel and water at the same time. Floating dredges are commonly used in small to mid-scale mining. Floating dredges are classified by the diameter of the suction hose which varies from 3 to 8 inches.

Modern suction dredges first became popular in the 1950s due to the availability of good, portable, centrifugal water pumps and modern diving equipment. Some jurisdictions such as British Columbia and parts of California have banned suction dredging but it is a very efficient method that is used around the world.

There are some very advanced dredge machines on the market today. Large scale operations are using 8-inch and larger suction lines. Some of the most interesting dredge innovations are being developed for use on the Bearing Sea in Alaska. The robot dredge in the picture below is a really cool new technology that uses a remotely operated robot with a cutting head attached to an 8-inch dredge.

Robot Dredge Gold

Not all dredge systems use a floating platform and can be fitted to just about any wash plant. You can get excavator-mounted units up to 12” in diameter that can be used in a regular mining pit. These systems advertise up to 600 cubic yards per hour of production.

Some systems use slurry pumps instead of a venturi in combination with a cutting head. The advent of undersea mining has pushed the envelope on this technology and we’re going to see a lot of advancements in the coming years.

Pros Cons
Consistent feed of material Doesn’t work in every location
Excavation and feed at the same time Possible regulatory hurdles
Can be unmanned

Wash Plant Carriers

This is the part of the washplant that supports the scrubber, concentrator, and feed system.

Stationary Skids

Many large wash plants are mounted on a steel frame welded to metal skids. This system isn’t very mobile. Skid-mounted plants are meant to stay in one place for a long time. When it’s time to move they are pulled by heavy equipment such as bulldozers or large excavators and dragged into position.

Skids are simple and stable but don’t provide a lot of mobility.

Trailer or Frame with Wheels

Small to mid-sized wash plants can be mounted on a trailer or frame with wheels. This provides an easy way to move it around. The trailer will often have a leveling apparatus to stabilize the plant while in use. Not much else to say, it’s a trailer we all know what that is.

Floater Plant

The floater plant, also known as a “Doodlebug” is a very efficient way to mine. The plant can be mounted on pontoons or a barge. Floater plants have the ability to move very rapidly in a pond of their own making. It takes planning to operate efficiently without boxing yourself in but when properly executed a floater setup can move a lot of material quickly.

Any type of scrubber, concentrator, and feed system can be fitted onto a floater.

The large bucket line dredges technically fall into this category but most floaters today use an excavator to dig and pull the barge. For a floater operation to work effectively the ground can’t be too deep. Floaters mine in one continuous direction mining in front of the plant while the tailings are deposited behind. It’s almost like an assembly line approach to placer mining.

Pros Cons
Rapid movement Don’t work in deep ground
Efficient mining and tailings management Require a pond for the plant to float on
Floater Wash Plant Atlin Yukon
Floater Plant in Atlin, BC

A placer wash plant is the sum of its parts. It’s not a trommel, it’s not a sluice, it’s the whole package. There are just about as many combinations as there are miners. Placer miners are always coming up with new innovations to solve problems and mine more efficiently.

There is no one plant that is the best in every situation. They all have their strengths and their weaknesses. The type and size of your gold, the type of gravels you’re dealing with, ground conditions, regulatory environment, available capital, and other factors all work together to determine what type of wash plant is best for your mining operation.

Searching for Ancient Rivers in West Africa

Searching for Ancient Rivers in West Africa

In April 2021 West Coast Placer was hired to assist in exploration for a large-scale alluvial gold project in Sierra Leone, West Africa. This program took place in the Kono region of Sierra Leone which hosts diamonds as well as gold in their placer deposits. It was a great experience and it was really cool to see how they do things in West Africa compared to the West Coast of North America.

seismic bedrock placer sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is famous for its alluvial diamonds. We were working in the Kono district which is where the plot of the movie Blood Diamond took place. The region where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character died at the end (spoiler alert) is not far from the survey area that we were exploring.

Despite extensive diamond mining taking place in the region since the 1930s very little attention had been paid to the alluvial gold deposits. There are a lot of artisanal miners active in the area but their sole focus is diamonds and they often discard the gold that they dig up. That fact surprised me because even in Canada where the average income and standard of living is much, much higher nobody would ever throw gold back into a river. That’s one of many things that’s different in Africa.

alluvial diamonds gold Africa artisanal

The placer deposits in the Kono region are much older than anything in BC or the Yukon. Much of the bedrock is Precambrian (500 million to 4 billion years old) and hasn’t ever been glaciated. By contrast, the rock in BC is less than 200 million years old and has been bulldozed by large glaciers on at least 4 occasions. Despite the differences, some things are the same in pretty much every placer environment. Over time rivers and streams move and leave their gold deposits behind in ancient paleochannels. That’s what we were looking for. Our system is designed to map bedrock depth and show the location of paleochannels.

Ancient Channel Gold Map Africa
Actual Map from a survey in Africa in 2021

Travelling internationally during the covid-19 pandemic is quite an adventure. In April 2021 the vaccines weren’t available yet and travel restrictions were very tough. We had to do lots of covid tests at each leg of the journey and there were a few hiccups. One of our team members wasn’t allowed to board the flight to Belgium from Montreal because his test was taken too far in advance. He had to get another PCR test and catch a flight the next day. On the way back I almost had to stay in a covid hotel, fortunately, the Canadian government honored my essential service exemption.

artisanal mining village sierra leone

It was interesting that Sierra Leone didn’t have a lot of covid restrictions. That’s because three years prior to the breakout of Covid -19 around the world West Africa was center stage to the worst ebola outbreak in history. When covid broke out in 2020 they knew what to do and locked the whole country down with no exceptions. By the time we arrived in 2021 the whole country had a total case count of 80 and zero deaths. With the intense screening protocols for international travellers they were able to keep infection rates to a minimum, something that wealthy western countries weren’t able to do, even with the advent of vaccines.

We spent a few nights in the capital city of Freetown and headed off to Koidu Town to begin our exploration. The bedrock mapping survey covered a large area that was chosen due to the prevalence of artisinal mining and topographic features that favoured the development of paleochannels. We had some knowledge of hard rock gold production in the area and anecdotal evidence from local artisanal placer miners.

excavator placer alluvial west africa
There’s no 6 month wait for permits in Sierra Leone

We had a crew of local laborers which included the son of the Paramount Chief. That was important for public relations since we didn’t speak the local language and it was important to explain to the villagers what we were doing. Having the chief on our side let everyone know that we were working along with local government and not just rolling in to take all the resources for ourselves.

Sierra Leone is ruled by a combination of federal government and chiefdoms. The mining claims are managed by both levels of government in a complex way. Without the support of the chief it would be hard to get the necessary permitting and support of the local community. Luckily for us, the local chief is a miner himself and we got along really well.

The artisanal miners do a lot of the work by hand. They often use gas-powered water pumps similar to what small-scale miners use in Canada. Mostly for dewatering though, they don’t have highbankers like we do back home. In Africa people carry everything on their heads, even the water pumps.

artisanal miner carrying water pump on head

Most of the washing is done by hand using gem screens or large gold pans. The larger operations use a rudimentary hydrostatic jig. There are very few operations using heavy equipment but manpower is readily available in this area.

The local miners have a method of digging shafts that works really well in the clay-rich gravels in that area. They dig a shaft about 1 meter wide and dig out foot holds on the way down. In this way they can reach bedrock in a day or two and get really good samples from the bedrock interface. The company that we were working with hired a large crew of local miners to dig shafts instead of using a drill. The samples were better and expert shaft diggers were more than willing to work for $10 US per day.

shaft made by artisanal miners sierra leone
Shaft made by artisanal miners in Kono region

Getting supplies in a third world country can be an adventure in itself. We tried to bring everything that we needed with us but we counted on procuring some supplies locally. One thing that we need lots of was flagging tape. Since this is a mining area we thought it wouldn’t be too hard to find. It turns out that there is no flagging tape available for sale in the entire city of Koidu. Despite two full-scale kimberlite mines right next to the city. We had to buy fabric ribbon in bright colours and use scissors to cut it in order to mark our lines.

It turned out that the local kids like the fabric just as much as we did since they would come right behind us and pull all the ribbon off the lines as soon as we were done. Sometimes they wouldn’t even wait till we had completed the line which made a few sections really challenging.

Some of the more high tech mining devices in Africa are really cool. The company had some really efficient gold centrifuges for testing the gravels. They’re like a gravity concentrator that you see in North America but made to be economical and easy to deploy. One machine is called the Gold Kacha and works really well.

Gold Kacha Centrifuge Africadiy sluice sierra leone

Centrifuges aren’t commonly used in placer mining in BC and the Yukon but that’s something that we should really consider. The gravity concentrators on the market are expensive in Canada but you can get a Gold Kacha out of South Africa for about the same price ad an average highbanker setup here in BC.

The local gold panning technique is quite different from what I’m used to. They use a large rounded bowl with handles on the sides. There are no riffles and the sides have a very gentle slope. My technique didn’t work to well with their pans. The local technique is to swirl the material in the pan while letting the lighter stuff wash over the sides. One of my crew members demonstrated the technique in the video below.

The bedrock mapping survey was a huge success. We identified a clear paleo-valley and an ancient river channel that spanned several kilometers. Much of the area that we identified with the seismic survey as an ancient channel had never been exploited by artisanal miners.

One great thing about working in Sierra Leone is you don’t need permits as you do in BC. We were able to start digging with an excavator right away. With a combination of bulk sampling with the excavator and teams of local shaft diggers sampling was completed in less than a month. The gold grades within the channel were excellent and alluvial diamonds were also present.

Kono Bedrock Cross Section

Exploring a new area is always a welcome experience. As explorers, we are constantly striving to search different areas and locate mineable gold deposits. This exploration program in West Africa did not disappoint. It was quite a contrast to use the latest technologies in an area where people are still living in mud huts and cooking with charcoal. Some of the ancient techniques used in Sierra Leone are very efficient, such as the shaft digging technique. If we could get hundreds of workers to dig shafts in Canada for $10 per day imagine the ground that could be explored.

We managed to locate a very rich placer deposit containing minable quantities of gold and alluvial diamonds. This project was developed with the support and mutual benefit of the local chiefdom and communities. It was a great experience to share knowledge of different mining and exploration techniques and learn a few new ones as well.

How to Lose Your Shirt in Placer Mining

How to Lose Your Shirt in Placer Mining

What makes placer mining unique is that you have control over your own destiny. The barriers to entry are low and a small group of people can have the opportunity to develop a mine and produce gold on their own terms. You don’t need a corporation and millions of dollars to succeed in placer mining. That freedom is a double-edged sword though. The majority of placer miners bite off more than they can chew and fail miserably.

This article lists some sure-fire methods to lose your shirt in placer mining that apply to large-scale mines and small hand operations alike. By knowing the mistakes that others have made you can avoid making the same mistakes yourself.

Three Placer Wash Plants

Too much equipment, Too soon

There is a lot of equipment available to placer miners these days. A lot of rookie miners will buy way too much equipment before they even get started. That’s a great way to blow your budget without even finding any gold.

The fitness industry relies on this same principle. It doesn’t take much effort to go out and buy a brand new stationary bike but just owning that machine isn’t going to give you abs of steel. Getting in shape takes hard work and dedication. Placer gold exploration works the same way. Some miners seem to think that buying a bigger wash plant, a bigger excavator, or even the latest and greatest highbanker will somehow make gold appear. It’s easy to buy equipment, finding gold is hard.

If you want to blow your whole mining venture in the first season then buy too big of equipment before you’ve even explored your claim. You’ll be part of the illustrious club of would-be miners who failed before they even got started.

We were contacted recently by a miner who wanted to hire West Coast Placer to do some bedrock mapping. The miner had recently purchased a $250,000 wash plant. We asked them where they were mining and they responded, “We’re hoping that you can help us figure that out.” They didn’t even have a claim yet. That is not a recipe for success.

Other miners have spent their money on excavators, loaders, and high-end camp setups but then had nothing left to buy a drill. At different stages of placer exploration you’ll need different equipment. Having a solid plan will help you figure out what is required at each stage.

If you want to be successful explore the claim first and get the gear that you need to work in that specific situation. You don’t need a washplant until you’ve actually mapped out a mineable gold deposit and have a mining plan figured out. Start out with basic tools and expand as needed. During exploration the trick is to gather as much information as possible while spending the least amount of money.

Get hooked on a glory hole

We can all look at other miners who spent three years digging in the same spot totally convinced that it’s going to make them rich. We shake our heads and think of how stupid they are. However, a lot of miners fall into this trap.

What is it about glory holes that suck in the imagination of placer miners? It’s sort of like gold fever. Miner’s get hooked on the belief that one specific spot holds all the gold and that if they can just dig it up they’ll be rich.

This sickness can affect rookies and even some experienced miners. Sometimes it’s driven by a story from the past, or a misinterpretation of a geological feature. Getting hooked on a glory hole is similar to being in a romantic relationship that is totally toxic. All your friends know but you don’t realize it yourself until after the breakup.

This situation can be easily avoided by proper sampling and testing. A whole season’s worth of excavating in the wrong spot ( or multiple seasons for some people) can be avoided with one drill hole. If you are convinced that there is a whole bunch of gold in one spot, and you haven’t tested to confirm, then you have fallen victim to the glory hole trap.

Drink your own Kool-aid

Every placer miner has their reasons for digging and exploring in the spots that they do. Sometimes that’s based on good test results but often it’s based on nothing more than imagination.

Many miners have developed a form of fairy tale in explaining the gold deposits on their claim. The geological, fluvial, and glacial environments that create placer pay streaks are extremely complex. There are entire fields of science that dedicate themselves to understanding these processes. Even an expert geomorphologist can’t walk up to a placer claim and tell you what material has been deposited over the last 4 glacial periods, where the ancient channels are located and what ancient streams used to flow over the mountain range. If you think you know those answers then you are heading down a dangerous path.

I’ve heard a lot of stories from placer miners who seem to know the exact play-by-play movements of glaciers during the last ice age and therefore know exactly where their gold has been accumulated. Obviously, they don’t have reliable knowledge of the geological history of their claim but they have convinced themselves that they do.

Others are convinced that there is a gold source up the mountain and it has puked out placer gold in a specific location that they’re about to mine. All without sampling and mapping out deposits.

It takes massive amounts of time and money to reliably recreate glacial movements. They are extremely complex and hard to trace. There are well-funded research projects that study these kinds of things with teams of experts and even they are not 100% certain.

If you think that you have those answers and haven’t hired expert geomorphologists, drilling companies, and performed large-scale studies to find out, then you’re just fooling yourself.

Truthfully in placer mining, you don’t need to know how the gold got there. All you have to do is test and sample the ground to find out where the gold is right now. Finding mineable placer deposits is hard and there are no shortcuts. There are techniques that work really well but believing in your own fairy tales isn’t going to make the gold appear. It’s much better to assume that you know nothing and explore in a systematic way.

Gold Legend Map BC

Put too much emphasis on stories from the past

Every creek has a success story from the past about an old-timer who pulled out some rich gold from an ambiguous location nearby. They usually go something like this:

“In the 1920’s Johnny Miner pulled out a 30-ounce nugget from somewhere up on that hill over there.”

Other stories involve drifts built by Chinese miners in the 1890s or a rich mine that was wiped out by a wildfire never to be found again. They have a lot in common with urban legends with the right mix of potential gain and just enough details to keep you interested.

There are lots of stories like this and a lot of them are true. Being a placer miner in the 21st century involves being a little bit of a historian as well as an explorer. After all, there are pretty much zero creeks in the world that haven’t had a pan dipped in them at least once before.

There are several issues with historical information that sometimes slip through our radar. We all know that clickbait stories on the internet are probably exaggerated to capture our attention. That phenomenon is not a new invention. Speculation and hype have always been part of mining. It was probably even worse during the gold rush periods of the late 1800s. Testing techniques are not standardized either. Even if a story is meant to be factual the miner might not have had a reliable technique to test his grades. You could fall victim to second-hand confirmation bias from 100 years ago and not even know it.

Whether these stories are true or not you still need to do your own testing. Reliable historical information can be an excellent starting point but it must be taken with a grain of salt. If you have truly uncovered some historical information that provides evidence for a forgotten placer deposit then start testing that area. Remain objective and if the test results don’t show what you’re expecting then move on.

Far too many miners have spent their time and budget blindly searching for a rich paystreak that was mentioned decades ago. I personally know miners who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars searching based on three sentences of historical information.

Keep an open mind and let the evidence guide you. It’s important to know when enough is enough.

Insufficient sampling

We’ve all heard the old adage that in real estate that the three most important things are location, location, location. In the world of placer mining, the three most important words are sampling, sampling, sampling.

Our Auger Drill

This is the single most important aspect of placer mining and exploration. Miners of all sizes have lost money and often their entire budget due to poor sampling. There are lots of reasons why miners forgo proper sampling. It costs money, it takes time away from mining, maybe they don’t know how to sample properly in the first place.

Sampling will make or break your placer operation. It must be done over a broad area and in a way that won’t fool the person doing it. The quality of sampling is just as important as the quantity.

For example, it is critically important to measure the volume of each sample accurately otherwise the grade calculations will be totally wrong. Say you sampled half an excavator bucket and found 3 grams of gold. Is that 3 grams per yard? Or half of that? It makes a big difference. Let’s say you’re using 5-gallon pails. Were they all full when you ran the sample? Half-full? Three quarters? Your grade calculations will change dramatically based on the volume.

Bigger samples are always better but there is a trade-off between lots of small samples and only a handful of big ones. Each situation and budget will call for variations in the sampling plan. You want to have enough locations tested to be confident that you understand the size and distribution of your pay streak while getting reliable results in each sample.

It’s important to test areas outside of the location where you think the best gold is. That means testing every depth interval from surface to bedrock as well as testing ground whether you think it’s a location that you can mine or not. Many miners have missed out on unbelievable pay because they only tested areas that they thought were favorable for mining. Here’s a tip, every spot is favorable for mining if the gold grades are high enough.

Placer exploration is a little bit like the board game Battleship, where you have to shoot missiles on a blind grid to sink your opponent’s ships. You start out knowing nothing but over time you gain evidence of where things are located, in this case gold instead of toy battleships. The same systematic approach will lead you to win Battleship as it will to mine a profitable placer deposit.

If you think you’ve done enough sampling, you haven’t. If you start washing gravels before you have sampled a broad area with verifiable tests you are guaranteed to lose your shirt.

Before you start mining make sure that you know the depth, location, and the grades of your pay gravels. There are a lot of opinions on what the proper way to sample is. The important thing is to be thorough and be consistent.

Get a Partner

Many great placer mining operations have met their demise due to disagreements between partners. It always sounds like a good idea at the time but partnerships fail for a variety of reasons. Most often financial disagreements.

Howard from the great mining classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre said it best,

“Ah, as long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last but when the piles of gold begin to grow… that’s when the trouble starts.”

Gold does funny things to some people. Even people that you wouldn’t expect. There’s something about the yellow metal that affects us deep inside. It’s not just the financial value either. Silver, copper, uranium, platinum, and numerous other metals are mined in similar ways but people don’t get as emotionally attached to any of those things. The only other mineral that affects people in a similar way is diamonds.

Gold fever has existed as long as people have been mining. The primary reason that the Spanish explorers stumbled upon North America was the search for gold. Christopher Columbus wasn’t looking for America, his sole purpose was to find Cipangu, the island of “endless gold.” The Spanish explorers famously ravished and betrayed civilizations in the Americas to steal their gold. The betrayal met its climax in 1532 when Francisco Pizarro famously betrayed the Inca ruler Atahualpa.

Partnerships fail for many reasons but greed is often the primary factor. Sometimes personal finances fall apart, a partner gets divorced, falls behind on truck payments, anything can happen. A lot of placer mines that have done everything right and developed great gold deposits have fallen apart due to disagreements between partners.

Gold mining partnerships always start out with the best intentions but humans are complex and things can change. If you’re considering a partnership make sure the person or people that you’re going to join forces with are going to stick it out for the long haul. Make sure you have a solid contract in place that has been verified by a lawyer or notary.

They say a business partnership is like a marriage. You want to be careful who you’re going to bed with.

Mining Partner BC Gold Placer

At West Coast Placer we provide exploration services to placer miners of all sizes. We’ve seen a lot of successful operations and have helped miners develop their properties into profitable mines. We’ve also seen a lot of ventures fail miserably. There are some practices that are guaranteed to lead to failure and yet rookie and experienced miners alike make these mistakes over and over again. Hopefully these tips will help you stay successful in placer mining and keep you from losing your shirt.

Paleochannel Hunting Guide

Paleochannel Hunting Guide

Finding an ancient river channel is the holy grail of placer gold exploration. If you’re in a gold-bearing area, old river channels can hold the kind of unlocked treasures that dreams are made of. Prior to the gold rushes of the mid-1800s, you could have walked up to a virgin stream with untouched gold nuggets sitting in the bottom. That is an extremely rare discovery today. Ancient river channels are hard to find but that’s why many channels are still undisturbed waiting for a smart prospector to discover them.

Klondike Wash Plant

There are undiscovered paleochannels hidden to the naked eye all over the goldfields of North America, and other gold placer districts all over the globe. Advances in technology have aided in the discovery of these ancient channels, some of the tried and true methods still hold true today. How can you find something that you can’t see? This article will explain what paleochannels are and how we find them.

Paleochannels have many names. Such as:

  • Tertiary Channels
  • Periglacier Channels
  • Quaternary Channels
  • Ancient Channels
  • Paleo-gulches
  • Ancestral Rivers
  • Paleo-valleys
  • Buried channels
  • Stranded Channels
  • Inverted Paleochannels
  • Abandoned Channels
  • Ancient Rivers of Gold

Some of those terms refer to specific ages or other characteristics of the channels but they all basically refer to the same thing, river beds that have run dry and have been buried by sediment. There are lots of reasons why a river might change its course but the end result is more or less the same.

The definition of a paleochannel is:

a remnant of an inactive river or stream channel that has been filled or buried by younger sediment

Paleochannels can form in many ways. Either slowly over time or abruptly from things like tectonic activity, glacial dams, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, or by human intervention.

When reading about ancient channels there are terms that often come up such as preglacial, periglacial, tertiary, quaternary, and many others. Those are just adding a time period to the formation of these channels, they’re really all the same thing. “Tertiary channels” are often written about in western North America, but that just means they are ancient channels that were formed during the tertiary period. The tertiary period ranged from the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs (the K-T extinction) about 66 million years ago to the beginning of the ice age period about 2.6 million years ago.

The quaternary period is more recent ranging from 2.6 million years ago to today and has experienced several periods of glaciation. The Pleistocene and Holocene are also part of the Quaternary Period.

Preglacial and Periglacial refer to the timing of a channel in relation to a glacial period. Approximately a dozen major glaciations have occurred over the past 1 million years, the largest of which peaked 650,000 years ago and lasted for 50,000 years. The most recent glaciation period, often known simply as the “Ice Age,” reached peak conditions some 18,000 years ago before giving way to the interglacial Holocene epoch 11,700 years ago.

People sometimes get hung up on some of the terminology but whether a channel formed in a specific time period doesn’t make a huge difference to a placer miner. To be honest, when it comes to placer exploration, every ancient channel in a gold-bearing area is worth exploring, regardless of the age. A channel that only formed 100 years ago has the same likelihood of containing placer gold as one that formed 3 million years ago during the tertiary period. What really matters is whether the creek that formed the channel carried gold or not.

Oxbow Lake

A familiar feature that resembles a paleochannel is an oxbow lake. These formations occur when a meander in a river gets cut off. You can observe oxbow lakes in many places, eventually, the lake will run dry and you’ll end up with a buried paleochannel. Oxbows can be gold-bearing even though they are not considered a “paleochannel”. Streams meander and change course frequently, in some places you can watch oxbows forming in near real-time.

Rivers and streams form all kinds of channels, for different reasons but they all have some things in common. A paleochannel is really the same thing as the rivers and streams that you see today, it was just rerouted and buried by sediment. When prospecting a paleochannel the same rules apply, the old river had inside bends, exposed bedrock, boulders, etc.

The character of a Paleochannel

There are several characteristics that make up a paleochannel. They can tell you a lot about its setting and the depositional environment, which in turn can give you a good idea if placer gold will be present or not.

Those characteristics are width, sinuosity, thalweg, slope, and age.

paleochannel thalweg

Channel width is an important metric for characterizing streamflow and depositional environment. The width is measured perpendicular to the centerline from bank to bank. The width can tell you a lot about a channel, especially when combined with other factors.

Sinuosity is the measure of how much a channel meanders. The sinuosity is measured by dividing the channel length by the straight line distance down the valley axis. You can infer the slope, transport capacity, and other factors from the sinuosity alone. More sinuous channels, those that meander a lot, occur on gentle slopes, the straighter the channel, the steeper the slope.

channel sinuosity

Thalweg is a funny word that comes from German meaning “valley way”. Don’t ask me why we use a German word but we do. The thalweg is simply the deepest part of the channel which is colloquially referred to as the “gutter”.

The slope, along with the width and sinuosity is used to calculate the ability of a channel to transport sediment. The slope is the average angle of the valley in which a stream lies. From a placer standpoint, we know that if our sluice box is too steep the gold won’t catch in the matting, if it’s too shallow the sediment won’t clear. A creek is no different.

The famous California goldfield geologist, Waldemar Lindgren studied channel slopes in relation to placer deposits in BC, California, and the Yukon in 1933. Lindgren determined that the optimal slope for placer formation is a 30-foot drop to the mile or 6 meters per kilometer which calculates out to a ratio of 0.06 or 0.34°. The Klondike’s Bonanza Creek averages 50 feet to the mile (0.01). Dominion Creek, in the Klondike, averages .02; there are slope breaks to 0.01 and that is where most of the gold was trapped. Almost all placer-bearing channels in BC range from a slope of 0.02 to 0.10.

Types of Paleochannels

Bench Channels occur on high benches or terraces above a current river. The flat benches represent the ancient valley floor. As river valley systems evolve the river cuts deeper and deeper into the bedrock leaving old channels high and dry. If you retrace the history the old river would have sat at a higher elevation than it does today.

Bench channels typically have a single channel and aren’t braided. The slope, sinuosity, and width tend to be similar to the current stream. These paleochannels typically run parallel to the existing steam but not always.

High benches can be observed in many river systems in western North America and many rich paleochannels have been discovered and mined within them.

Evolution river valley paleochannel

Buried Paleochannels within modern valleys can be adjacent to or underneath an existing alluvial stream within the same valley. The extent of these channels is difficult to determine due to the complexity of their setting. These channels can be very deep and sometimes buried under several different glacial or fluvial events. The sinuosity, width, slope and direction often mirrors that of the existing stream but not always.

These channels are difficult to mine due to the continual flow of water from the existing stream. A bedrock drain or lots of pumping is often required.

A great example of this type of paleochannel is the Wingdam Mine on Lightning Creek in the Cariboo. Omineca Mining and Metals has found a unique solution to mining their deposit, check out the video below.

Paleogulches are another type of ancient channel. They are gulches that dried up and were buried by sediment. Paleogulches have steep sides and a relatively steep gradient. They have low sinuosity and a relatively straight path. The channel often runs on or near bedrock due to the steep slope of the thalweg and high flow rate.

Gold in these deposits is usually coarse and hasn’t traveled far from the source. Paleogulch placers, like other buried-channel deposits, are typically covered by thick deposits of till, glaciofluvial deposits, and glaciolacustrine sediments.

Paleotrunk-valleys are similar to the paleogulches above. They are trunk valleys that were abandoned and filled with sediment. These deposits are often hundreds of meters wide and quite deep. Paleotrunk-valleys typically no longer have a stream running in them and tend to be totally filled with sediment leaving little to no surface expression.

The Bullion hydraulic mine near Likely, BC is an example of this type of paleochannel. The Bullion Pit produced over 120,000 ounces of gold over the lifespan of the mine. The famous Mary Creek deposit is another example of this type.

inverted paleovalley

Inverted Paleochannels form in a totally different way. They sit high above the surroundings but not on a bench, and not in an existing valley, at least not usually. This type of paleochannel forms when a river valley is filled with lava from a volcanic eruption. The resulting lava cools into basalt and forms a protective cap that is much stronger than the surrounding rock. The result is that over time the surrounding rock is eroded but the basalt is much more resistant and protects the sedimentary rock below it, leaving a high ridge where the river used to be.

Inverted channels are more common in the southwestern United States in places like Utah, Idaho, and eastern Washington. I’m not aware of any gold deposits from inverted channels but it is possible.

An important note about paleochannels: not every channel contains gold. There are paleochannels all over the earth, only ones in gold-bearing areas are significant for gold prospecting. After all, the ancient channel won’t contain gold unless the creek that created it carried gold in its sediment load.

Most parts of North America have been exposed to glaciation at some time or another. The more northern parts have seen extreme transformations of the landscape due to glaciers scouring the surface of the earth. This makes finding ancient channels a lot harder.

It’s rare to find an entire river system entombed in sediment in BC, for example. What you usually find are fragments of ancient rivers. Some can be only a few hundred meters long while others can stretch for 10s of kilometers. There are often pieces missing due to glacial or other types of erosion.

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The job of the prospector when exploring an ancient channel isn’t too different from a crime scene investigator on CSI. You’re dealing with fragments of channels and what you want to do is add up the clues to reconstruct the crime scene. Modern prospectors use a variety of tools to put those clues together.

How to find a paleochannel

Now we know the types of channels and a little bit about them. How do we find a paleochannel that we can mine?

One of the tell-tale signs of a paleochannel is finding compacted river gravels in an exposed bank. If you’re in the right place and you’re lucky enough to come across river gravels in an exposed bank you could have discovered an ancient channel. Old river beds have certain characteristics that differ from other materials that you’d often see in an exposed bank.

An old river bed will have the following features:

  • Rounded river rocks
  • Densely packed
  • Sorted by size

River beds look different than glacial till, for example. Till will generally have different sized rocks randomly jumbled together, not sorted. Till can have rounded rocks but they are usually accompanied by angular rock of different sizes. A river bed should have bigger rocks at the bottom and finer, rounded gravels on top. River beds are packed together similar to the way that a brick wall is put together, everything fits together tightly with sand and gravel filling in the gaps. It’s not always totally obvious but if you see these signs it’s worth exploring further.

Spotty pay is another potential sign of a paleochannel. If there are sections of a creek that pay well and contain really good gold while other sections are barren that can be due to a rich paleochannel. Sometimes rivers don’t carry any gold of their own but redeposit gold from an ancient channel. It’s also possible that gold is washing down from a hardrock deposit, either way it can pay off big time to investigate spotty pay areas. The same is true when there are several creeks close together and they only have placer gold in a certain region on each creek. If the hot spots on several creeks line up there is probably a reason and it could be that the creeks all cut through a hidden paleochannel.

Spotty Gold Paleochannel
The old-time miners often discovered ancient channels by digging shafts by hand. Many channels have been discovered in this way. It’s not very effective by today’s standards but some people still use this technique. The presence of compacted river gravels underneath layers of sediment are a good sign that a paleochannel is present.

The old-timers would often dig numerous shafts looking for a channel and would dig a horizontal shaft known as a drift once a channel is located. That involves a lot of backbreaking physical work with a low chance of success but during the 1800s and early 1900s, there weren’t as many options available as there are today.

Here’s a great 5-minute YouTube video that describes what compacted river gravels look like, as well as some of the geology at play:

The modern prospector can benefit from advances in technology, especially computer mapping and GIS. Modern mapping tools such as Google Terrain maps can help to find the habitat where paleochannels are likely to be present. LiDAR and drone-based high-resolution terrain mapping can give highly detailed terrain maps which aid in locating favorable conditions for paleochannel exploration.

For example, river benches as described above can often be seen on topo maps. It’s unlikely to see a channel outright since they rarely have a clear surface expression, if at all, but you can narrow down the search area by looking at terrain that is favorable for channels to occur.

Once the search area has been narrowed down to a specific area more advanced techniques can be used to map the exact location and depth of a paleochannel.

There are several geophysical techniques that can map underground structures without having to excavate down to the channel level. Geophysics uses a variety of techniques to map the subsurface of the earth. Some work better than others for mapping paleochannels.

Magnetometer surveys have been used on many occasions to attempt to map ancient channels. A magnetometer is an instrument that measures changes in earth’s magnetic field. They are commonly used in hard rock exploration due to their rapid speed and relatively low cost. Magnetic survey results are usually presented in a map that looks like a thermal image except that instead of temperature you’re looking at variation in the magnetic field, measured in nano-tesla (nT). When exploring for a paleochannel the concept relies on trying to pick up the magnetic signature of concentrations of black sand. The survey usually involves recording measurements along lines perpendicular to the channel and looking in the processed data for anomalous magnetic highs where black sand concentrations are present.

Magnetic surveys have been used a lot in the past but have a very low success rate for mapping paleochannels. This is largely due to false positives from surrounding rock and weak concentrations of mineral sands. I haven’t seen any of these surveys that have actually been successful in locating a paleochannel on their own.

Ground penetrating radar (GPR) is another popular technique. GPR uses a system with two components, a radar source and a receiver. The GPR source emits radio energy of a specific frequency and the receiver records reflections of subsurface rock and soil layers. The survey is laid out in a similar way, with lines perpendicular to the channel.

GPR has also been used in many exploration programs with limited success. Some channels have been discovered in this way but GPR has a few drawbacks. The signal is attenuated by groundwater, clay layers, and permafrost. Under perfect conditions, GPR can map a channel but the data is often ambiguous and of poor quality.

Electromagnetic techniques such as resistivity have a much higher success rate but they have similar issues to GPR when it comes to groundwater. Geoelectrical resistivity tomography (GRT) surveys have a much higher success rate than GPR or magnetometer surveys. The way they image the channels is a bit vague but many channels have been found with this technique. GRT has a few drawbacks as well, conductive bedrock, groundwater, and other factors can lead to unpredictable results.

Sample Cross Section
Sample Cross Section

Seismic surveys have the highest success rate for mapping paleochannels. Seismic works in a similar way to GPR but instead of radio waves it uses vibrational energy. There are two types of seismic used today. Refraction and passive seismic. Refraction surveys have been around for a long time and have been used to find many paleochannels with a very high rate of success. A refraction survey uses an energy source such as dynamite or a specialized shotgun to introduce energy into the ground. An array of sensors called geophones are laid out in a survey line to record the reflected waves that bounce back off the subsurface layers. The timing and velocity of seismic returns give information about the density of layers and their depth from the surface.

Seismic energy passes through groundwater, clay, permafrost with ease and if done correctly will accurately map the subsurface layers. The drawback to refraction seismic is the cost. It takes an experienced crew and expensive equipment to perform this survey correctly.

Passive seismic surveys are a new technique that has only started to be used in the last decade. The passive technique does not require an energy source and can be done with a much smaller crew at a fraction of the cost. Passive seismic is the new kid on the block but it has proven to be very effective at mapping hidden paleochannels. Passive surveys also remove the need to cut lines which lowers costs even more. More info on this technique here, bedrock mapping.

Once a channel is identified and the location is known, further testing is required. The above techniques are able to show the location, shape and character of a paleochannel but won’t give you any information about the gold content. For that you need to take actual samples.

Depending on the depth of the channel there are several options. If it’s shallow enough you can test with an excavator but that is rarely the most economical option. In most cases you need to drill.

There are several drilling techniques used in placer exploration and there are pros and cons to each.

Auger drills are popular among placer miners due to the relatively low cost and perceived sample size but they have serious drawbacks. Augers struggle with large rocks and boulders, and can’t usually penetrate bedrock. They also tend to ovalize the hole leading to sample contamination and material loss down the hole.

Sonic drills are the most effective option. A sonic drill uses a high frequency vibration to bore through soil and rock. These drills take undisturbed samples and can drill through gravel, boulders, and bedrock. You can’t beat the sample quality and efficiency of a sonic drill but the costs of this type of drilling can be quite high.

RC Drill in Action
RC Drill in Action

Reverse circulation (RC) drills also work really well. These drills use a downhole hammer that pulverizes the rock and gravel into chips which are pushed to a collection cyclone at the surface using pressurized air. RC drills also work really well for placer exploration. RC drilling has been used to successfully map many hidden paleochannels in BC and the Yukon.

Rotary diamond drills can also be used with specialized drill mud. These are less common than RC or sonic but have been successful in some situations.

Once you have identified the places where paleochannels are likely to occur from topographic maps, conducted geophysical surveys to map the channel and taken drill samples to confirm the channel depth and gold grades you’ll have the information necessary to develop a mining plan. If the gold grades are high enough to profitably mine then you’re ready to start production.

Many of the richest placer mines in the world exist on paleochannel deposits. They are notoriously difficult to locate and prospect but the results can be extraordinary. Advances in modern technology give today’s prospector an advantage that wasn’t available to miners in the past. There are hidden paleochannels in every mining district and even in places that have been mined for over a century. Discoveries are being made in places that nobody thought to look at in years past. Keep your eyes open for indications of an ancient river channel, there just might be a bonanza sitting right under your feet.

Deep Dive into Dowsing

Deep Dive into Dowsing

As prospectors, we have a deep connection to the past. We live in a world where technology has advanced to an amazing level. High tech devices that could only be imagined by science fiction authors a few decades ago are part of our everyday lives. Despite the current state of technological advancement, there is still no surefire way to detect unexplored gold deposits. Our pursuit of the yellow metal leaves no stone unturned. A good prospector will employ every tool at their disposal to get even the slightest edge in locating a gold deposit.

We look to the prospectors of the past and admire their ability to locate gold deposits with nothing more than their own ingenuity and a sense of adventure. Some techniques are no longer used and some haven’t changed for centuries. Dowsing fits somewhere in between. It’s always been a mystery. Nobody can explain how it works but many swear on their mother’s grave that it does.

Dowsing refers to the practice of using a forked stick, metal rod, pendulum, or similar device to locate underground water, minerals, or other hidden or lost substances, and has been a subject of discussion and controversy for
hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The practice is also called divining or witching. There is a history of mysticism, magic, and supernatural beliefs associated with the divining rod that dates back over 8,000 years.

In the Tassili Caves of northern Africa, an 8,000-year-old cave painting depicts a man holding a forked stick, apparently using it to search for water.
Divining rods were used by the Scythians, Persians, and Medes. The practice was used by Bavarian miners in the early 1500s and spread throughout Europe as their deep mining skills were highly sought after. Check out our article on Free Miners for a bit more info on that.

dowsing branch

Controversy on the subject goes back to before medieval times. In 1518 Martin Luther listed the use of the divining rod as an act that broke the first commandment under the assumption that dowsing is in league with witchcraft. One of the most important books on mining during that period called “De Re Metallica”, published in 1556, describes the practice in this excerpt:

There are many great contentions between miners concerning the forked twig, for some say that it is of the greatest use in discovering veins, and others deny it. Some of those who manipulate and use the twig, first cut a fork from a hazel bush with a knife, for this bush they consider more efficacious than any other for revealing the veins, especially if the hazel bush grows above a vein.

Others use a different kind of twig for each metal when they are seeking to discover the veins, for they employ hazel twigs for veins of silver; ash twigs for copper; pitch pine for lead and especially tin, and rods made of iron and steel for gold. All alike grasp the forks of the twig with their hands, clenching their fists, it being necessary that the clenched fingers should be held toward the sky in order that the twig should be raised at that end where the two branches meet. Then they wander hither and thither at random through mountainous regions.

It is said that the moment they place their feet on a vein the twig immediately turns and twists, and so by its action discloses the vein; when they move their feet again and go away from that spot the twig becomes once more immobile.

Nevertheless, these things give rise to the faith among common miners that veins are discovered by the use of twigs, because whilst using these they do accidentally discover some; but it more often happens that they lose their labour, and although they might discover a vein, they become none the less exhausted in digging useless trenches than do the miners who prospect in an unfortunate locality.

Therefore a miner, since we think he ought to be a good and serious man, should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for as I have said before, there are the natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs.

There are variations on the construction of dowsing rods. The original technique consists of using a forked branch cut from a live tree, any tree will work but sticks from willows, witch hazel, and various fruit and nut trees seem to be the most popular. You grasp the ends of the “Y “in your hands with your palms facing upwards. The technique is to walk around and as you approach the target (ground water, gold deplost, etc) the rod will bend towards the ground.

Modern dowsers prefer to use metal rods. A modern dowsing rod consists of two metal rods created from sixteen inch long steel acetylene welding rods with a 90 degree bend forming a handle on each (also known as L-rods). The latest innovation uses ball bearings in the handle to allow the rod to move freely. The modern divining rods don’t bend towards the ground, the technique is to allow the rods to either cross or reach the operator’s chest or point in certain directions.

There are people claiming to be able to conduct long-range dowsing from distances of 100s of meters up to thousands of kilometers away. Some even claim to be able to dowse using a map from the other side of the world.

Dowsers claim to be able to find all sorts of things ranging from water to gold and even your lost car keys. Dowsing for water is the most common. There are quite a few practitioners of water dowsing that do so as a career. The American Society of Dowsers currently has over 2000 members.

Personal Accounts

In the summer of 2020 I had the opportunity to try dowsing myself. A friend of mine had some dowsing rods and we gave it a try while exploring his claim. He told me that you need to visualize the thing that you’re looking for. In this case we were exploring for a hidden paleochannel.

I held the rods horizontally so that they were able to move freely and walked in a straight line while keeping the idea of a channel in my head. At one spot I was surprised to feel the rods moving without my control and they did cross in front of me. It was a cool feeling and did seem supernatural. We marked the spot using a pin flag. My friend continued over a larger area and we mapped several spots where he felt the rods cross. The results didn’t match up to our seismic survey but he will be testing the area with his excavator next summer.

My personal account was by no means a conclusive test. It certainly piqued my curiosity though.

I know several professionals that occasionally use the technique to locate underground utilities such as water lines and electrical lines. They swear that it works, they don’t know how or why but swear that it does. Several utility companies in Canada do use divining rods occasionally.

Ball Bearing Dowsing Rods
Modern Ball Bearing Dowsing Rods

Long Range Locators

There are even electronic devices that claim to extend the dowsing signal for great distances. These devices are called Long Range Locators (LRLs).

There is quite a range of LRLs on the market, they range from devices that look like a ray gun to “signal generators”, “oscillators”, “harmonic molecular resonators”, or other scientific-sounding names. The world of LRLs is very murky. The majority of LRLs are fake and many manufacturers have been charged with fraud.

One such device called the Omni-Range Master retails for $2,885 USD and makes the following claim:

The signal line from the Omni-Range Master can scan an area of at least 64 square miles and determine if any of the sought-after mineral is present within 15 minutes of the start of operation

It also claims to have “Accuracy of 1/32 of an inch from 50 feet to over 8 miles”. Wow, it would be pretty cool if that actually worked!

Omni Range Master Dowsing
Omni Range Master

Credit for the above photo goes to Carl at geotech1.com. He’s done a lot of research and testing on LRLs. Check out his site for some surprises on some of the most popular long-range locator products on the market.

The Omni-Range Master is a favorite among dowsing and LRL enthusiasts even though it doesn’t actually do anything.

The manufacturer supplies a list of frequencies to locate various substances and items such as:

  • Diamonds – 12.835 Khz
  • Gold – 3.025 Khz
  • Titanium – 13.385 Khz
  • “Prehistoric Rex” bones – 15.367 Khz
  • Paper money ($100) – 9.41 Khz
  • Paper money ($20) – 12.77 Khz

It’s interesting that it mentions bones of a non-existent dinosaur which would be made up of a complex mix of molecules. It’s also strange that it has two different frequencies for paper money and that it lists paper money at all.

This device uses a standard waveform generator (chip that produces an electrical current in a variety of voltages and frequencies). You then plug electrodes into the ground and the idea is that the device will induce “molecular resonance” in the surrounding area and create “signal lines” that you can follow with dowsing rods.

The device uses a 12V power supply and does not transmit enough power to do anything productive. I suspect that believers in “signal lines” and LRLs believe that a very low voltage can be amplified by a form of harmonic resonance but there is absolutely zero evidence for that.

At face value, the concept of “frequencies” and electrodes in the ground is similar to some geophysical techniques such as Induced Polarization (IP) and Resistivity that are commonly used. IP uses 25,000 volts and very specialized recording equipment. It also involves a comprehensive data processing technique. IP can detect conductive ore bodies if they are big enough but even that advanced geophysical technique won’t show you exactly where gold is (or dinosaur bones).

Explanations of the Phenomenon

Proponents of the dowsing technique have a variety of explanations of the mechanics behind the phenomena. One person on a prospecting forum recently claimed “The rods simply extend your personal magnetic field..which, in turn responds to, and interacts with vibrational frequencies of the Earth.”

Some claim that there is psychic energy involved while others say it has something to do with the solar cycle and charged particles from the sun. There are just about as many explanations as there are practitioners.

Molecular Resonance Gold Dowsing

A recently published book, “The Art of Dowsing: Separating Science from Superstition” by Michael Fercik, tried to explain dowsing in scientific terms. Here’s a quote from the book:

The hands-on dowsing practices are absolutely 100 percent correct, but the dowsing theory could be slightly off here or there. I expressed in wording to the best of my abilities on how I can dowse to find sought objects, with the physics that came from electrical classes, a college physics class, educational books, and educational TV programming. If a group of open-minded physicists say one of the theories is not this way but is that way, then I stand corrected, and we go by the group of open-minded physicists’ theory.

The author seems to have a very faint understanding of science despite the fact that his book is titled “Separating Science from Superstition”.

Fercik explains his own theory of the concept of “elemental magnetism”. It’s important to clarify what the word “theory” means in the realm of science. People often claim something is “just a theory” or “I have a theory”. That word has a specific meaning in science. A scientific theory is an explanation of the natural world that makes testable and verifiable predictions. Those predictions must be confirmed by experiments using the scientific method. You can’t have a theory without it being able to make predictions that can be verified by other people, otherwise it’s just a guess and doesn’t have anything to do with science.

Fercik goes on to explain that each element in the periodic table has its own unique “elemental magnetism” and that a dowsing rod can “tune in” to that unique characteristic similar to a radio tuning to a radio station. He claims that you can tune in your rod by attaching a “one-tenth troy ounce” piece of silver, for example. Then your rod is tuned for silver. He emphasizes that it must be 99.999 percent pure silver or gold or else it won’t work.

The author claims that a dowsing rod and metal detector work in similar ways and that the dowsing rod is powered by “human neuron electrical signals”. Apparently walking while dowsing builds up a static charge strong enough to move the rods when your target is close.

Fercik claims that metal detectors and dowsing rods both work by “picking up the unique emitted elemental magnetic flux lines of the targeted element or targeted elemental mass.” In reality neither device works that way.

Metal detectors transmit an electromagnetic field from the search coil and any magnetically susceptible metal objects that are close enough and large enough become energized and retransmit their own field. A second coil receives the field transmitted by the metal objects. It’s a similar concept to electromagnetic geophysics such as HLEM or aerial TEM. Modern metal detectors are able to differentiate certain phase responses and that allows them to discriminate between different metals such as gold and iron. When metals have a similar phase response such as tin foil and gold it’s hard to tell the difference.

The author describes the movement of the dowsing rod as the result of closing a circuit and allowing static electricity to flow. According to the book, when in contact with the sought element’s “elemental magnetic flux lines” a circuit is created and the dowsing rod connects the static electricity of the human body’s nervous system with the “elemental flux density” of the sought element.

The author goes on to introduce numerous other terms related to magnetism that he created from his own imagination. His ideas don’t meet the criteria for a scientific theory, they could be easily tested but there is no evidence of that in the book. He also fails to recognize that water is not made of a single element, it’s composed of hydrogen and oxygen.

The author should have consulted someone with a background in physics or chemistry instead of his emphasis on “educational TV programming”. Scientists aren’t hard to find, however, had he done that there wouldn’t be a book to write since it would have been debunked before it even reached the publisher.

Ideomotor Effect

Dowsing rods have been shown to work on the same principle as a Ouiju board. The rods, or the planchette in the case of the Ouija board, are moved by human muscles not ghosts, magic or “elemental magnetic flux lines.” The reason the operator isn’t aware that they are actually moving the object is what’s referred to as the ideomotor effect.

The ideomotor effect was discovered by William Benjamin Carpenter in 1852 and describes the movement of the human body that is not initiated by the conscious mind. Your body moves without requiring conscious decisions all the time. In sports it’s referred to as muscle memory. Driving a car is another example, or playing a musical instrument.

When you are startled or accidentally touch something hot your body is able to move in a way to protect you without conscious input from your brain. Many experiments have shown that under a variety of circumstances, our muscles will behave unconsciously in accordance with an implanted expectation. As this is happening we are not aware that we ourselves are the source of the resulting action.

One of the first people to study this effect was the famous scientist Michael Faraday who also established the basis for the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics among many of his important contributions to the world of science. During the time of Faraday’s ideomotor experiment, in 1853, mysticism was at an all time high and Ouija boards were very popular. He set out to determine what the real force behind the Ouija board was.

Faraday’s experiment was simple. He placed a small stack of cards on top of the Ouija planchette (the piece that you put your hands on). In this experiment, if the force was coming from the participant’s hands the top of the deck of cards would move first. If there was another force the bottom cards would move first. What Faraday and others have shown in every case is that the force was coming from the participant’s hands and not some external entity.

Ouija board dowsing gold

Modern experiments have been done to test dowsing using high-speed cameras. It has been shown that the force on the dowsing rods comes from the person and not from an external force.

It’s interesting that today’s purveyors of the technique insist that testing needs to be done by “open-minded” scientists as if there is some kind of conspiracy against dowsing. There is no conspiracy, in fact there have been a lot of scientific experiments conducted to test the dowsing.

Take a look at some of the studies mentioned below. This is by no means a comprehensive list, there are hundreds of studies on this subject.

Chris French 2007

Psychologist Chris French conducted a double-blind study on dowsing in 2007. The study was filmed as part of a TV show hosted by Richard Dawkins.

Professor French had this to say about the dowsing experts that took part in the study:

I think that they are completely sincere, and that they’re typically very surprised when we run them through a series of trials and actually say, at the end of the day, “Well your performance is no better than we would expect just on the basis of guess work.” And then what typically happens, they’ll make up all kinds of reasons, some might say excuses, as to why they didn’t pass that particular test.

Ongley, P., 1948

New Zealand Diviners

Ongley tested 75 professional water diviners in New Zealand in 1948. The report, linked above, is quite interesting, it discusses some of the history and methods available at the time.

Ongley concluded, “If the seventy-five diviners tested representative of all occupations and from all parts of New Zealand, not one showed the slightest accuracy in any branch of divination. That 90 percent of the diviners are sincere does not lessen the harm that they do.

Vogt, E & Hyman, R, 1959

Water Witching, U. S. A.

Vogt and Hyman argue at some length that anecdotal evidence does not constitute rigorous scientific proof of the effectiveness of dowsing. The authors examined many controlled studies of dowsing for water, and found that none of them showed better than chance results.

Taylor, J. G. & Balanovski, E., 1978

Can electromagnetism account for extra-sensory phenomena?

In this study John Taylor and colleagues conducted a series of experiments designed to detect unusual electromagnetic fields detected by dowsing practitioners. They did not detect any.

Foulkes, R. A, 1971

Dowsing Experiments

Experiments organized by the British Army and Ministry of Defence suggest that results obtained by dowsing are no more reliable than a series of guesses.

McCarney, R et al, 2012

Can homeopaths detect homeopathic medicines by dowsing? A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial

This study took place in 2012 and studied a different part of the dowsing technique. The study states: “According to the theory of psionic medicine, every living thing and inanimate object is continuously vibrating at a molecular level. This vibration is sensed subconsciously by the dowser, and it is then amplified through the pendulum or other dowsing device.”

Participants were tested on their ability to detect naturopathic medicine vs a placebo in double blind trials. The study showed that the experienced dowsers were not able to identify the correct substance with results better than chance alone.

Whittaker, W, 2013
Grave Dowsing Reconsidered

This study is a review of previous experiments which was put together by the office of the state archaeologist at the University of Iowa. The study concluded:

Simple experiments demonstrate that dowsing wires will cross when the dowser observes something of interest; this is an example of the subconscious ideomotor effect, first described by Carpenter (1852). This does not disprove dowsing, but demonstrates that simpler explanations can account for the phenomena observed by dowsers The premise that dowsing rods cross when exposed to a large magnetic field created by a subsurface anomaly runs contrary to basic scientific understanding of magnetic fields, and does not hold up under simple experiment.

One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge

The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is an offer by James Randi, a famous magician, to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria.

In his book, “Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions”, Randi describes one of the tests that he conducted in 1979 where four dowsers took an attempt at the prize.

Amazing Randi

The prize in 1979 was $10,000 and he accepted four people to be tested for their dowsing ability in Italy. The conditions were that a 10 meter by 10 meter test area would be used. There would be a water supply and a reservoir just outside the test area. There would be three plastic pipes running underground from the source to the reservoir along different concealed paths. Each pipe would pass through the test area by entering at some point on an edge and exiting at some point on an edge. A pipe would not cross itself but it might cross others. The pipes were 3 centimeters in diameter and were buried 50 centimeters below ground.

Valves would select which of the pipes water was running through, and only one would be selected at a time. At least 5 liters per second of water would flow through the selected pipe. The dowser must first check the area to see if there is any natural water or anything else that would interfere with the test, and that would be marked. Additionally, the dowser must demonstrate that the dowsing reaction works on an exposed pipe with the water running. Then one of the three pipes would be selected randomly for each trial. The dowser would place ten to one hundred pegs in the ground along the path he or she traces as the path of the active pipe. Two-thirds of the pegs placed by the dowser must be within 10 centimeters of the center of the pipe being traced for the trial to be a success. Three trials would be done for the test of each dowser and the dowser must pass two of the three trials to pass the test.

A lawyer was present, in possession of Randi’s $10,000 check. If a claimant were successful, the lawyer would give him the check. If none were successful, the check would be returned to Randi.

All of the dowsers agreed with the conditions of the test and stated that they felt able to perform the test that day and that the water flow was sufficient. Before the test they were asked how sure they were that they would succeed. All said either “99 percent” or “100 percent” certain”. They were asked what they would conclude if the water flow was 90 degrees from what they thought it was and all said that it was impossible. After the test they were asked how confident they were that they had passed the test. Three answered “100 percent” and one answered that he had not completed the test.

When all of the tests were over and the location of the pipes was revealed, none of the dowsers had passed the test. Dr. Borga had placed his markers carefully, but the nearest was a full 8 feet from the water pipe. Borga said, “We are lost”, but within two minutes he started blaming his failure on many things such as sunspots and geomagnetic variables. Two of the dowsers thought they had found natural water before the test started, but disagreed with each other about where it was, as well as with the ones who found no natural water.

Cargo Cult Science

Dowsing has never actually passed any real scientific test. That has nothing to do with how “open minded” the scientists doing the study are. Science does not rely on opinion, it’s simply an unbiased way of testing and explaining the natural world. True science does not try to prove a hypothesis, a real scientist should try their best to disprove the hypothesis and only when all attempts to disprove it have failed can we draw the conclusion that the phenomenon is true.

The famous physicist , Richard Feynman, described this perfectly in his 1974 commencement address to the graduating class of Caltech. It’s a great speech that touches on pseudoscience and cargo cults. Check out the video below.

Dowsing is a pseudoscience, at best, and attempts to explain dowsing would definitely fit into Feynman’s description of Cargo Cult Science.

It would be amazing if a prospector could actually pick up two metal rods and walk around until they find a high-grade gold deposit. The idea is very appealing, and that desire is what has kept it around for so many years. If that actually did work, everyone would be able to find gold in large quantities and the practitioners of dowsing would all be multi-billionaires.

Even if you ignore the scientific studies and everything else mentioned in this article it’s pretty obvious that the practitioners of dowsing have failed the fundamental logic test. If they have the magical ability to find gold by holding two rods, shouldn’t they have tons of gold in their possession?

I have had long conversations with numerous expert dowsers. Except for a few that get paid to dowse for water, they all have a day job and dowse as a hobby. Dowsers all swear that the technique works and is effective but they don’t have any gold to show for it. I have yet to meet a dowser that has discovered billions of dollars worth of gold and lives in a mansion.

It is possible that there is some hidden force that we don’t yet understand that can be tapped into using the human body and two metal rods. That’s the idea promoted by dowsing practitioners. They claim there are unexplained “frequencies”, “harmonic molecular resonance”, “elemental magnetism” or other clever-sounding phrases that science hasn’t yet been able to explain.

Carl Sagan famously stated, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The claims made by dowsers are certainly extraordinary. The extraordinary evidence has yet to present itself.

If you’re waiting for the discovery of a magical force that presents signal lines to buried gold that only a specialized few are able to pick up on with their innate abilities, I wouldn’t hold your breath. It’s far more likely that the phenomenon of dowsing is little more than a self-delusion brought on by unconscious movements in response to implanted expectations, also known as the ideomotor response.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and personal dowsing stories. Feel free to post them in the comments below.

Modern Laws for Claimjumping

Modern Laws for Claimjumping

Throughout mining history, there are stories of scoundrels, cheats, bandits, and liars. The gold rush towns had their share of bad actors but above everything else, there is one title that nobody wanted to have, “the claimjumper”.

claimjumper bc

In the world of mining, claimjumpers are the lowest of the low. During the gold rushes of North America miners traveled into areas where laws didn’t exist yet. In the California Gold Rush of 1849, the territory had no government, police or administration of any kind. Despite the lawlessness and disorder of the early gold rushes one thing was held sacred above everything else, the right of the miner to locate a mining claim and to hold it against all comers.

What does claimjumping mean? There are two forms of claimjumping but they both amount to the same thing:

  • Producing minerals from a claim that belongs to someone else
  • Attempting to seize the land on which another party has already made claim

Historically, stealing or mining ore from someone else’s mine was referred to as highgrading. While claim jumping referred to the actual seizure or taking over of someone else’s claim. Today the two terms are intertwined.

Claimjumping is illegal today just as it was in the mid-1800s and even before that. You can’t shoot a claimjumper anymore but the modern laws are quite powerful nonetheless. In British Columbia and throughout Canada you can face huge fines, jail time and being banned from the right to hold claims. As well as having to forfeit any ill-gotten minerals or profit. If, in the process of claimjumping, you break any environmental regulations or mining laws you will be on the hook for those penalties too. On top of that your equipment and even your vehicle can be forfeited if proven to be involved in the crime.

There are honest and dishonest forms of claimjumping in which the law does make a slight distinction. Honest being that you were unaware that you were engaging in claimjumping. The difference only applies in terms of repayment for the ore that was extracted, the fines and other penalties still apply whether you are knowingly claimjumping or not.

It’s difficult to find the information on Canadian claimjumping laws. Part of that comes from the fact that there isn’t an accepted term for the crime. In legal terminology claimjumping has been referred to by many titles including:

  • Mineral Trespass
  • Wrongful Abstraction of Ore by Trespass Workings
  • Wrongful Working of Minerals
  • Highgrading
  • Wrongful Interference with Personal Property
  • Wrongful Conversion
  • Trespass and Conversion
  • Willful Trespass

My favorite is “Wrongful Abstraction of Ore by Trespass Workings”, it has a certain ring to it. There are slight differences to some of those terms but they all point towards the same thing. Trespass and benefiting from something that doesn’t belong to you. Trespass is actually a complicated part of the legal system. There are different kinds of trespass. We are all familiar with what it means to trespass on private property but a mining claim isn’t necessarily private property. Perhaps we should clarify what a mining claim really is.

mining claim dispute

Trespass and Conversion

In Canada, and specifically in BC, mineral rights are held by the crown. The actual “Crown” in Canada is a story in itself but basically means that the mineral rights are owned by the people of British Columbia. When you are the holder of a mineral or placer claim, you lease the rights to those minerals for the duration of your tenure. From the issue date to the “good to date” of your claim the minerals in that plot of land belong to you and nobody else. Surface rights are a totally different story. Check out our post on Free Miners for more info on that.

Trespassing is defined as “the wrongful interference with one’s possessory rights in real property.” When it comes to claimjumping you are definitely interfering with the claimholder’s rights when you are extracting ore that belongs to them. The trespass itself is not listed as a crime under the Canadian criminal code, but it does allow the claimholder to sue the claimjumper for damages.

In Canadian law there are two ways to deal with the proceeds of trespass and conversion. The mild rule, and severe rule.

Under the mild rule, the guilty party has to pay the claim owner for the value of ore that was extracted. The costs of mining the ore, bringing it to market, etc are not included. This rule applies when the trespass (claimjumping) was not intentional.

The severe rule forces the guilty party to pay the realized value of stolen ore including the cost of mining.

Either way you have to pay back the claim owner for whatever gold you mined on his claim, the severe rule means that you have to pay the full value not accounting for the costs that you incurred in the process. The mild rule is quite lenient that way but you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you commited the crime unintentionally.

There are plenty of examples of supreme court rulings where the trespasser had to pay back the claim owner for their ill-gotten gains. Here is an example from 1907 in the Yukon in which one miner produced ore an another miner’s claim and mixed the ore with his own.

Here’s some info on a more recent case in the Yukon. I actually worked with one of the miners in this story in Klondike back in 2010, I won’t say which one though.

Claimjumping supreme court cases are common in Alberta although the claimjumping takes a slightly different form. These cases are regarding mineral rights for oil instead of precious metals but the concepts are the same. In Alberta, mineral rights are divided by different sedimentary layers that contain petroleum. So different companies can own the mineral rights in the same location but at different depths. Due to the complexities of this system, companies drill into other company’s leases all the time.

AlbertaLeases

The consequences of mineral trespass vary, but the Alberta Energy Regulator introduced a penalty of $50,000 per occurrence. In addition to the penalty, compensation is owed for the value of any minerals obtained during trespass. Alberta mineral trespass is treated the same in a legal sense as gold claims in BC just with a much higher frequency of settlements.

Miner’s Meetings

During the gold rushes you couldn’t file a complaint to any governing body. Miners took justice into their own hands and had a form of democracy called Miner’s Meetings. The meetings were notorious for their swift justice but they were considered fair. In order to participate in a miner’s meeting you had to be the holder of an active claim.

A journalist named Baryard Taylor gave this account of the situation in the California Gold Fields in 1849:

In the absence of all law or available protection, the people met and adopted rules for their mutual security rules adapted to their situation, where they neither had guards nor prisons, and where the slightest license given to crime or trespass of any kind must inevitably have led to terrible disorders. Small thefts were punished by banishment from the placers, while for those of large amount or for more serious crimes, there was the single alternative of hanging.

As gold rushes progressed further North the miners took their knowledge and customs with them. During the Fraser River gold rush, the miners brought with them knowledge of mining placer gold with long toms, rocker boxes and hydraulic mining as well as their own customary law that had spontaneously developed in the California Goldfields.
During the Fraser River gold rush each bar had it’s own set of rules which were democratically chosen by the miners.

The Daily Alta California published the laws passed by a miners’ meeting held on May 12th, 1858 on Hill’s Bar, Fraser River, which included:

  • Claim sizes were defined as twenty-five feet along the river bank’s high water line for each person.
  • Miners were restricted to to one claim by preemption and one by purchase.
  • Claims were “not considered workable” between May 20th and August 20th.
  • During the non-workable period the work requirement was removed.
  • During the workable times claims must be “represented”, or worked, within three days or they were otherwise free to be jumped.
  • There was a regulation declaring that any thieves or claimjumpers would be expelled from Hills Bar and lose their claims.
  • And anybody “interfering with or molesting any Indian” would be punished as “the community shall see fit.”

miners meeting gold rush

Just up the river at Yale, the rules were slightly different:

  • There was a rule concerned with equality, limiting miners from holding more than one claim.
  • A one-day work requirement every five-days was established.
  • The office of recorder was created to keep track of claim registration.
  • Proven claimjumpers were to be banished from the placers and have their claims and gold forfeited.

All along the Fraser, mining communities drew on norms established in California to regulate society on the lower Fraser. This community didn’t legitimate itself based on an external authority. Instead, the miners assumed their own legitimacy and authority.

Miner’s meetings progressed into miner’s boards which were legislated under the Goldfields Act in 1859. The miner’s boards stayed in place until 1888.

More remote areas still used the principles of the miner’s meeting since police presence and regulations were often slow to follow the prospectors. Here’s an account of the legal landscape in the notorious Circle City which is situated just over the Alaska border from the Klondike by Arthur Walden in 1896, two years before the brunt of the Klondike Gold Rush:

Here was a town . . . which had no taxes, courthouse, or jail; no post-office, church, schools, hotels or dog pound; no rules, regulations, or written law; no sheriff, dentist, doctor, lawyer, or priest. Here there was no murder, stealing, or dishonesty, and right was right and wrong was wrong as each individual understood it. Here life, property, and honor were safe, justice was swift and sure, and punishments were made to fit the case.

Eventually communities grew, the North West Mounted Police set up outposts and federal and provincial laws began to take over. The days of frontier justice faded into the background but many of the principles that the miner’s meetings established made their way into legislation.

Current Laws

In the United States many individual states have clear laws regarding claimjumping, or as it is now referred to “mineral trespass”. They vary from state to state but almost all have similar rules on the proceeds of mineral trespass.

For example when a willful trespass occurs in Colorado, the trespasser is not entitled to set off the mining costs. In addition Colorado allows punitive damages for “Willful and Wanton” trespass claims. Punitive damages are a fancy word for additional fines to punish the defendant for outrageous conduct. That is uncommon in Canada.

US penal codes clearly list claimjumping as a crime which isn’t quite as easy to find in Canada. For example in Washington state Mineral Trespass (RCW 78.44.330) is considered a class C felony which carries a punishment of up to 5 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines

In British Columbia, claimjumping falls under our Mineral Tenure Act. There are two sections of the law that deal with claimjuping:

9(2)A person must not hand pan on a valid mineral title unless the person receives permission from the recorded holder of the mineral title.

As well as

28(1)Subject to this Act, the recorded holder of a claim is entitled to those minerals or placer minerals, as the case may be, that are held by the government and that are situated vertically downward from and inside the boundaries of the claim.
(2)The interest of a recorded holder of a claim is a chattel interest.

Punishments are listed under section 63 of the Act, which states:

63 (1) A person commits an offence who does any of the following:

(a)wilfully and without lawful excuse pulls down, defaces, alters or removes a staking or legal post, a legal corner post or other survey monument;
(b)explores for, develops or produces minerals contrary to this Act or the regulations;
(c)knowingly makes a false statement or provides false information under this Act, or in a registration;
(d)offers for sale, or sells, a mineral title for a non-mining usage.

(3) A person who is convicted of an offence is liable to a fine of not more than $25,000 or to imprisonment for not more than 6 months, or to both.

The following activities are in violation of the Mineral Tenure Act and will result in criminal charges:

  • Panning on a mineral claim or placer claim without permission
  • Producing minerals or placer minerals from an active claim by any means, pan, sluice, shovel, dredge, or even your bare hands.
  • Removing rocks or minerals from a claim, either rockhounding or for any other purpose.

In addition to a potential fine of $25,000 or 6 months in prison, anyone who is proven to be claimjumping will lose their FMC and any claims for a period determined by the Gold Commissioner. That means that you can lose your free miner rights for life and no longer be able to own claims.

A person guilty of removing minerals from a claim is guilty of theft under the Criminal Code of Canada. Section 334 of the criminal code states that theft under $5000 carries a prison term not exceeding two years. For theft over $10,000, a prison term not exceeding ten years.

The Criminal Code of Canada has provisions for selling unrefined ore and specific laws regarding fraud of unrefined ore. If you are engaged in claimjumping it will be difficult and illegal to sell your ill-gotten gold. Precious metal assayers and buyers know these laws and will not accept placer gold unless you can prove the source.

394(1) (b) of the Criminal Code, makes it an offence for anyone to sell or purchase any rock, mineral or other substance that contains precious metals “unless he establishes that he is the owner or agent of the owner or is acting under lawful authority”.

The punishment for violation of that part of the Criminal Code states:

A person who contravenes subsection (1), (2) or (3) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years

In addition to the fines and penalties for those caught in the act of claim jumping you can also be on the hook for any illegal mining or environmental practices that you conduct. The mining and environmental laws are extensive but I’ll list a couple common ones here.

There are a lot more environmental inspectors than there are mining inspectors. They are likely the ones to catch you.
The most common fine is under Environmental Management Act Section 6(3) which states:

a person must not introduce or cause or allow to be introduced into the environment, waste produced by a prescribed activity or operation.

The standard fine for a small highbanker or river sluice is $575. You can see a list of some of the most recent fines here.

In his book Poachers, Polluters and Politics: A Fishery Officer’s Career, former fisheries officer Randy Nelson recounts on an incident where he caught some claimjumpers operating an illegal dredge in the Cariboo:

It was two days before Christmas, I had just caught up with a pile of paperwork and I decided to go for an afternoon patrol North of Quesnel. I crossed the Cottonwood River on Highway 97 North and climbed the big hill from the river valley. I glanced down a side road and saw a parked pickup truck with fresh footprints leading away from it down the snow-covered road.

It could have been any number of activities but I decided to check it out. I walked through the deep snow for over a mile, climbing along the upper banks of the Cottonwood River. The tracks finally turned off and headed downhill toward the river where I could hear a small motor running. Surely no one would be dredging for gold in this salmon stream in the winter?

They were so surprised I’m not sure their wet suits remained dry. They said, “Don’t you ever take time off? We never dreamt you’d be working this time of year or walk into this spot” I took it as a compliment and made sure to to pass that information on to the judge.

There wasn’t much the two of them could say. They were caught and one had a previous conviction. I seized everything at the site, including their dredge, gold dry suits, diving gear and tools. I loaded whatever I could carry and walked out with them out to their vehicle. I told them I would give them a ride home because I was seizing their truck too. Merry Christmas!

It would have taken several days to dismantle and pack the dredge out from the river and it was two days before Christmas so I hired a helicopter to sling the gear out from the river. The two miners were convicted in court and received fines of $3,000 each plus forfeiture of $4,000 worth of gear.

That was a bad day for those two claimjumpers. In situations where you are running bigger equipment that requires a Notice of Work permit (NOW) you can get into a whole bunch of fines and penalties. In a recent Mines Act decision a mine in the Cariboo was fined $28,000 for operating without a proper permit.

How can you avoid claimjumping?

Just like any other law in Canada your ignorance of the law does not exempt you from it. That means that if you are gold panning, mining, rockhounding, or producing mineral of any kind it’s up to you to understand the laws and claims in that area.

Before you go out gold panning make sure that you’re not on someone else’s claim. The best place to check is the BC MTO website (mtonline.gov.bc.ca). That is the website run but the Mineral Titles Branch of BC’s Ministry of Energy, Mines & Petroleum Resources. The MTO maps are a bit daunting to a newcomer but all the information is there.

Local mining laws can take a bit to understand at first but you can always email or phone the MTO with any questions.

Mineral Titles Oline

Claims are rarely marked in the field since BC now has an online staking system. If you are out gold prospecting a GPS is just as important as your gold pan these days. Make sure your maps are up to date and you know how to use your GPS.

The best place to prospect is a panning reserve, your own claim, or a claim where you have permission from the owner. If you aren’t certain that you’re operating legally then don’t start digging.

In summary, these are the penalties for claimjumping in BC:

  • Repayment for full value of the ore that was stolen
  • $25,000 fine or 6 months in prison; Mineral Tenure Act
  • 2 to 10 years in prison for theft, plus summary conviction; Criminal Code of Canada
  • Loss of FMC, potentially for life; Mineral Tenure Act
  • Up to 5 years in prison for selling ore without proving the source; Criminal Code of Canada
  • Fines for violation of mining and environmental laws
  • Possible confiscation of mining gear and your vehicle

Modern-day prospectors and miners work hard to explore their claims. It takes time and money to locate a claim, stake it and begin exploration work. There are hurdles to operate a mine legally. Most miners put a lot of effort into setting everything up properly so that they can mine and reap the benefits of their hard work. Claimjumpers try to cut corners and steal resources from the people that have done the hard work. There’s a reason that nobody wants the earn the title of “claimjumper”.

You can’t be banished from the land or hung you like they did during the gold rushes but you will have to repay all the gold you steal and face penalties for your crimes.

What does it mean to be a Free Miner?

What does it mean to be a Free Miner?

In British Columbia it is necessary to hold a Free Miner’s Certificate (or FMC for short) to buy and sell mining claims. Most miners, prospectors and industry professionals hold an FMC but do they know what it stands for? The concept of the Free Miner holds historical roots dating back to medieval Europe where being a free miner meant a certain status and freedom during a time when freedom was reserved for a select few.

Free Miners Certificate

Mining law in BC dates back to before British Columbia even existed. Few British Columbians actually know the history and genesis of this beautiful province. We talk about the fur traders and explorers like Simon Fraser, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and David Thompson. To this day they are credited with “discovering” BC. Their names are on our streets, our rivers, and countless monuments around the province.

The early explorers definitely laid the groundwork for things to come but it wasn’t until word got out about a peculiar yellow metal that things really got rolling. Once word reached California about gold in the Fraser Canyon the rush was on. Modern-day BC consisted of a disputed territory called New Caledonia during the time of the gold rush.

The mining law in BC was modeled after regulations in other British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand. The underlying principles of our mining laws date back to medieval Europe with a history dating all the way to the Roman Empire.

Beginnings of the Free Miner

medieval miner

Work in mines during the time of the Greek and Roman empires was primarily conducted by slaves and prisoners. The Romans were producing gold and silver coins used as currency and required more precious metals than were being produced by traditional mines. During the reign of Emperor Charlemagne (768-814) the demand for gold and silver increased. The easily exploitable deposits were beginning to run out and there was a need for specialized mining skills and knowledge.

The Romans recognized the prospecting skills that miners possessed and began to allow slaves and peasants the freedom to explore. The Romans created the right to ownership based on discovery where if a man discovered a mineral deposit he could claim ownership. It was required that he pay a royalty or tribute to the emperor. Through this process, the miner ceased to be a serf and became a free man.

The incentive of freedom drove men to the farthest reaches of the Roman empire in search of metals and subsequently their own freedom. The adventurers taking part in the gold rushes of the 1800s in North America were driven by the same force, to find freedom and wealth on their own terms. The right to discovery has always been one of the core tenents of the free miner system.

Medieval Europe

mining in medieval europe

During the middle ages land was owned outright by lords. Lords were subject to the king but they decided what would and wouldn’t happen on their land. The land was worked by peasants who owed a certain amount of workdays to the lord. In exchange, peasants could use small portions of land to produce their own food. Peasants were subject to the rules and taxes of the lord whose land they occupied.

A peasant couldn’t just take off and go looking around the mountains for gold. He would have to cross into different lands that are owned by different lords. Not to mention he was obligated to work for his lord and nobody else. It would be hard to prospect for minerals if you are tied to a very small plot of land.

Across much of central Europe, free miners were allowed to roam freely across land boundaries of land-holding lords and claim and work the deposits that they found. Since miners possessed the necessary skills and knowledge to exploit subsurface mineral deposits they were always welcomed by local authorities.

The free miner who made a discovery would be awarded a double-sized discovery claim along the vein. Later miners would only be allotted a single claim. In medieval Europe, a claim was called a “meer”. The head meer belonged to the miner who discovered the vein and all other meers were measured off of the head one. This practice continued well into the gold rushes of North America. A medieval free miner would typically not be required to pay for the registration of a claim, the royalty was enough.

Free miners in Germany and Austria developed a system of democracy that was independent of the king, government or lords of their time. In each mining district, the miners got together and elected a “Bergmeister”. The Bergmeister acted much like the gold commissioner in more modern times. He would determine the size of a claim that is to be awarded upon discovery, settle disputes about claims and so on. If the miners weren’t happy with the Bergmeister they would replace him with a more competent one. There is a ton of information of the systems and techniques of mining in the middle ages in an old book called “De Re Metallica”, published in 1556. The title is Latin for “On the Nature of Metals”.

The rules, laws, and practices of free mining communities were brought to England before the invasion by the Normans in 1066. There were several distinct free mining districts in medieval England. Districts were built around a specific commodity such as tin, coal, lead, zinc, and gold. A miner could explore anywhere in his claim regardless of land ownership. A claim was permanent, transferable and heritable as long as he kept up the required work obligations and paid the required royalty.

One of the first written laws regarding free miner’s rights was passed by the Bishop of Trent (modern-day Italy) in 1185. Under that law, the state held all mineral rights. Miners were permitted to freely enter the land to explore and mine provided that they shared the wealth with the state.

Miner’s Law

miners meeting

Free miners typically had immunity from the jurisdiction of the surface owner’s courts and had immunity to common-law. Different lords had different laws, different taxes and so on. Since free miners could roam freely, crossing different land boundaries they needed their own set of laws to provide some sense of continuity. Free mining districts had free miners’ courts which were controlled by the mining community. The concept of miner’s law lasted for centuries and even played a role in the gold rushes of Western North America from California to the Yukon.

Across medieval Europe, there were two main types of free miners. In more populated areas such as Southern England, the free miner system was community-based. Free mining communities existed where miners belonged to a self-governing community outside of the feudal hierarchy. In these areas, miners would work a claim in close proximity to other miners for decades and sometimes even passing on their claim to their descendants.

In the mountainous areas such as Northern England, Scotland, Germany, and Austria claims were spread out and miners would act more individually. In these areas, it was important for a free miner to be able to explore vast areas without being bound by individual landowners.

Both systems influenced the development of mining rights during the gold rush periods and many of the concepts still exist today. A free miner today in BC still has the right to roam freely in search of untapped mineral deposits, although there are a few limitations.

A free miner’s claim was not a standard amount of surface areas such as an acre, hectare or anything like that. The area that a miner was given depended on the strike and dip of their vein. A standard claim was 100 feet along the vein and a width of half the length. The strike of the claim was measured from the apex (outcrop) and could slope downward or lie flat with the land.

A steeper dipping vein would provide a smaller surface area for the claim. Free miners measured claims this way since a steeper dipping vein provided more ore per the same amount of area.

Since the amount of ore was the whole point, this system was considered fairer among free mining communities. This concept followed European settlers into the New World. During the homestead period of Western Canada and the United States settlers were given a predetermined amount of land while miners were given more freedom depending on the geology.

Property during medieval Europe was controlled by feudal lords. Many landowners had large swaths of land under their control and needed information about the geology and mineral deposits on their lands. Free miners were able to develop knowledge of geology due to their right to wander without concern for legal boundaries with large districts.

Medieval Lords commonly permitted free miners to operate on their lands in exchange for mining and geological information. Much as we do today with work and assessment reports as part of the upkeep of modern claims.

The California Gold Rush

california gold rush

At the onset of the California Gold Rush in 1848, the territory of California was only recently transferred to the United States from Mexico. Congress had not yet set up any kind of local government and there were no laws in place to govern the practice of mining. The 49ers were literally left to their own devices.

Each camp developed its own set of rules. Across all districts, miners asserted a universal right to free prospecting and mining on previously unclaimed lands. They developed systems for dealing with staking, noticing, acquiring and abandonment of claims. They dealt swiftly with proven claim jumpers. There were no royalties paid to any government but fees were collected to fund the local miner’s collective. They imposed a rule of one claim per man and work requirements. They also had a rule that allowed no more than one-week absence or your claim would be forfeited.

As discoveries slowed down in the California gold fields prospectors moved to other areas such as Australia, Colorado, Oregon, the Fraser River, Cariboo, and the Yukon. The principles developed in the California camp laws carried with them but had to be adjusted since the new districts actually had governments and laws while California didn’t enact actual public laws until two years after the first gold miners arrived.

The Australian Gold Rush

When the gold rush broke out in Australia in 1851 miners were shocked to find that New South Wales already had a government, property law, courts, military and police. That was a big difference from the wild west of the lawless California gold fields. There were some major conflicts as Australia tried to impose land restrictions, fees and various other rules on the miners.

In the end, a compromise was made and Australia’s Gold Fields Act was passed in 1854. That piece of legislation was based on the European principles of free mining and the lessons learned in the California gold fields. The act protected the miner’s right to free entry, the right to discovery, a personal right to the minerals in place, the right to occupy the claim and a right to participate in the making of local mining rules.

The Fraser River Gold Rush

Fraser river gold rush

With the influx of 30,000 prospectors, mostly American, the British population of 100-200 people was completely overwhelmed. Britain’s claim to present-day BC was under threat.

With the madness of the California gold rush fresh in people’s minds, the young government had to act quickly. HBC Governor James Douglas stationed a gunboat on the Fraser River to intercept gold rush miners to collect mining licenses and lay down the law. Great Britain acted quickly to make BC a crown colony on August 2, 1858.

It was the gold rush, not fur trading that really made BC part of the British Empire and subsequently part of Canada. Our mining laws were imported from Great Britain. Much of our current mining law in BC came from the passage of the Gold Fields Act in 1859.

The Gold Fields Act was strongly based on the legislation passed in Australia three years prior with the same name. The three principles of the free miner were paramount: the right to discovery, the right of entry to explore and the right to miner’s law. Under the new act, any person 16 years of age or over could obtain a Free Miner Certificate for the cost of one pound. An FMC gave its holder (the “free miner”) the right to freely enter onto, and stake a claim, on any un-staked area of Crown land – including private property and First Nations’ territories.

Governor Douglas’ law differed from the Australian law in that it allowed more freedom for miner’s boards. The rules for claim size and the ins and outs of staking a claim varied between mining districts. The government was small and the territory was vast.

The BC government didn’t have the means or the manpower to police all details of mining. They set the ground rules, issued a free miner’s license and let the miners boards police themselves. The large geographical areas and differences among deposits necessitated that claim size, rules and laws be different across the province. The local miner’s boards were able to rule by consensus.

Vigilante justice and decisions by majority vote prevailed in the camps. In time the North West Mounted Police (the predecessor to the RCMP) took on a larger role and established itself in most of the gold rush towns. By the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, there was a substantial NWMP presence in the gold mining areas.

Changes in Legislation

In 1891, provincial legislation formally recognized locations in which free miners could not enter onto and prospect for mineral claims. This included towns, private homes and Indian reserve lands. Today, areas that do not carry the automatic right of entry include land occupied by a building, the 75m of land directly surrounding a private residence (if that area is lawns, gardens etc.) and crop lands.

During the gold rush era (1850s to 1910s) most of the areas being prospected and mined took place on unoccupied frontier land. There were very few people around. On top of that, the techniques of placer mining consisted of pans and rocker boxes. In later years when miners employed more capital-intensive techniques like damming and hydraulicking, water licenses and land use started to become an issue.

In 1911 the Mineral Easements Act was passed. This new act established rules for right of way access to mineral and placer claims over private land. These rights of way included the right to construct the infrastructure required for mining and the right to use existing roads in aid of their mining activities

Under this act, only thirty days’ notice (including an advertisement published in the British Columbia Gazette and in a local newspaper for one month) was required for the establishment of a right of way that could last over an area of land for generations and permit the construction of a pipeline, tramway, and movement of heavy machinery.

Today, the ability for free miners to secure a right of way over private land, without the consent of the landowner, is preserved under section 2 of the Mining Right of Way Act – a legislative successor of the Mineral Easements Act of 1911.

Modern Laws on Free Miners in BC

Claim Post Cariboo

Much of the free miner system remained the same until the 1990s. In 1995 the Mineral Tenure Amendment Act was passed, which added some limitations to mineral rights and activities on private lands. The act prohibited free miners from “interfering with any operation, activity or work on private land”. That was the first major restriction on the free entry system since 1891.

In 2002 amendments to the Mineral Tenure Act, removed the prohibition against free miners and recorded holders from interfering with any operation, activity or work on private land. The amendment provided that interfering with privately held land was permissible, so long as it was minimal and the private owner was compensated.

On January 12, 2005, the whole game changed. BC initiated the online staking system that we know today. Prospectors were no longer required to physically drive claim stakes into the ground, staking could now be done with the click of a mouse. This opened the door to a whole new level of speculation. The number of staked claims grew exponentially. Free miner rights remained intact.

In 2008 the Mineral Tenure Act and Mineral Tenure Act Regulation were amended once again to require that any person beginning mining activities on private land had to give notice at least eight days prior to beginning any mining activity. That law stands to this day. A free miner still has the right to occupy private property but must give a minimum of 8 days’ notice prior to occupation. It is important to note that notice does not require consent. A free miner must notify private landowners but does not need their permission to occupy private land for the purposes of mining.

The current law is specified in the Mineral Tenure Act of British Columbia.

The restrictions on land are broken into two categories. Free miners who hold a title and those who don’t.

As specified in section 11 of the act, the current restrictions on private land where a free miner doesn’t hold a claim include:

  • land occupied by a building
  • the curtilage of a dwelling house,
  • orchard land
  • land under cultivation
  • land lawfully occupied for mining purposes
  • protected heritage property, except as authorized by the local government
    land in a park

Free miners without mineral tenure have rights to explore and search for minerals on most land. In BC a free miner can access any private property as long as proper notice is served and none of the above restrictions apply. That means that as long as you serve notice, you can explore freely on pretty much any private property in BC. The main exceptions are farms and land with a house on it.

If a free miner holds a claim overlapping private property there are less restrictions on access:

  • There is a mining prohibition in that area under the Environment and Land Use Act
  • The area is a designated park under the Local Government Act
  • The area is a designated park or ecological reserve under the Protected Areas of British Columbia Act
  • The area is an ecological reserve under the Ecological Reserve Act
  • The area is a protected heritage property.

When a free miner holds an active tenure the rules change slightly. Access to private land is much less restrictive. Not only does a free miner have access to the land, an active tenure give the right to use the land for all operations related to the exploration and development or production of minerals or placer minerals.

Section 14 of the Mineral Tenure Act which states:

Subject to this Act, a recorded holder may use, enter and occupy the surface of a claim or lease for the exploration and development or production of minerals or placer minerals, including the treatment of ore and concentrates, and all operations related to the exploration and development or production of minerals or placer minerals and the business of mining.

The concept of the “Free Miner” has deep historical roots and much of the free entry system and principles of the free miner are still present in BC laws and practices. The three core tenents of the free miner The right to discovery, Freedom to roam and self-government are built into our current laws. The miner’s meetings and self-government are no longer necessary as we now have strong governments with actual mining laws in place.

The free entry system is often misunderstood by people who aren’t familiar with the intent and history of the system. Private landowners are often surprised to learn that they have to allow miners onto their property. As a result, the free entry system is under threat by people outside of the mining community. Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories have abandoned free miner’s rights due to public pressure.

The same principles that created free entry in Roman and medieval Europe are true today. In order to explore for minerals, it is necessary to have access to the land. If we lose the free entry rights then it will become harder and harder to discover and produce the minerals that our society needs.

When you hold a Free Miner’s Certificate you belong to a long history of free miners. It’s not just a piece of paper. The FMC represents freedom in the true sense of the word. A free miner means belonging to a community that built its own rules and paved the way for modern society. We might have modern tools, advanced technology, and modern government but a discovery today is no different than a discovery in medieval Bavaria. All miners strive for independence and to feed their sense of adventure.

What is the true value of gold?

What is the true value of gold?

There’s something about gold. It possesses us, sometimes entire nations to accumulate more and more of it. Humans have had a strong affinity for gold since the times of the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs. Gold has been used as currency for thousands of years. Wars have been fought for it, entire civilizations slaughtered for their gold.  Pindar, the ancient Greek poet, described gold as “a child of Zeus, neither moth or rust devoureth it, but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession.”

goldCoins

It’s hard to describe the feeling of finding your first gold nugget in an old stream bed.  It sits there in your pan shimmering, the way that only gold can.  You immediately recognize it’s power, it is intoxicating.  This is what drives prospectors past and present to take great risks in the search for gold.  There’s more than just the value of gold that attracts us to it.  The word “placer” itself comes from the Spanish word meaning “pleasure”. For some it is an addiction, for others it symbolizes wealth. You’ll be hard pressed to find a member of the human species who wouldn’t be interested in some gold.

Gold has several properties that make it desirable.  Most importantly it does not rust or tarnish.  Gold artwork discovered in the tombs of Egypt looks just as lustrous today as it did 5000 years ago.  Why is that?  Gold belongs to a group of metals called the “Noble Metals”.  They’re called noble because like nobility in old time monarchies they don’t associate with others.  It’s fancy way of saying that the metals don’t readily react.  Conversely iron will readily react with oxygen to form iron oxide (aka rust).  Gold and other noble metals, such as platinum, possess a very strong atomic structure that requires a lot of energy to disrupt.

KingTut

The ability to maintain over time is common of all valuable substances.  A diamond for example produces a characteristic glow when cut and faceted properly but what good would it be if it disintegrated a month later?  Diamonds are extremely hard and have a rock solid crystal structure.  Other valuable gemstones all share similar properties, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and garnets all sit at the high end of the hardness scale.  While gold isn’t hard in a geological sense it maintains it’s shape and luster indefinitely.

Gold is also very malleable.  Meaning that it can be hammered or pressed into various shapes without cracking or losing its consistency.  You could stretch an ounce of gold into a wire 80km long or produce a sheet of gold leaf 80 meters by 80 meters wide.  Gold is also an excellent conductor.  Not quite as good as copper but a better conductor than nickel, brass, iron, tin, and aluminium.  Gold conductive wire is used in many critical electronics applications such as computer motherboards, smart phones and satellites.

CarajasMine
Carajás iron mine, Brazil

What really makes gold valuable though is it’s scarcity at the earth’s surface.  Approximately 165,000 metric tons of gold have been produced in the entirety of human history.  While that may sound like a lot the amount of gold produced by mining is extremely small in comparison to other metals.  For example the Carajás Mine in Brazil produces an average of 300 million metric tons of iron per year and has a deposit estimated at 7.2 billion metric tons.  And that’s just one mine.  All the gold ever produced would fit inside one Olympic sized swimming pool.

It is often stated that you can’t eat gold.  While that’s not entirely true, (see gold covered pizza) an all gold diet wouldn’t provide much nutrition, and you’d probably have some digestive issues.  The yellow metal doesn’t appeal to our basic needs for survival but neither does money or a smartphone.  That doesn’t make any of these things less valuable.

gold-400oz-bar

 

We typically think of value in dollar terms.  When evaluating an investment such as stocks or real estate it’s hard to think of anything else.  Dollars are not constant though, they are subject to manipulation and inflation.  For at least 6000 years gold has been used as currency and unlike modern currency is not subject to inflation.  Modern currencies are what is called “Fiat Currency”.  There is no standard on what a modern currency note can be exchanged for.  Their value relies solely on people’s faith in it.  Or more correctly their faith in the government.  Inflation rates can severely affect the spending power of a dollar.  There are countless examples, the most striking is the inflation of the German Reichsmark which rose from 4.2 marks to USD in 1914 to a peak of around 4.2 trillion marks to the US dollar by November 1923.  At that time a wheelbarrow full of German marks wouldn’t even buy a newspaper.

Historically world currencies were backed by the gold standard which meant that by law any amount of paper money could be exchanged for a specified amount of gold.  In the 1920s each US dollar was backed by 1.5 grams of gold.  The dropping of the gold standard in Germany during WWI allowed for the hyperinflation that followed.  The United States dropped the standard during the great depression to avoid the federal gold supply from being completely depleted.  Canada followed suit in 1933.  There’s much debate on the merits of dropping the gold standard.  What resulted though is the ability for the government to completely control the currency without requiring tangible assets (ie. gold) to back it up.

Gold bars
Gold bars

So if the dollar is backed by nothing and can be manipulated at will how do you gauge the value of gold.  Or anything for that matter.  True value depends on what people are willing to trade for your goods.  Money makes it easy to barter and trade goods since it’s ubiquitous and there is an agreed upon value at any given time.  For example if you want to sell your car on craigslist you’ll have an idea of how many dollars you want for it.  Lets say you have a used Honda Civic.  You could sell that easily for $4000 CAD.  That same Honda Civic could be traded for a 1 carat diamond engagement ring.  50 years from now a used car might sell for $25,000 dollars due to inflation but the exchange rate of car to diamond ring would remain the same.

The old adage that an ounce of gold will buy you a nice suit still rings true today.  In the gold rush era (1848-1900) an ounce of gold would trade for about $20 USD, and would also buy a nice suit.  A typical suit today would cost you about $450 USD.  So it would seem that today’s gold would buy you 3.5 nice suits.  You have to consider that in the 1800s nice clothing was not mass produced.  To compare accurately you’d have to look at a tailored suit.  A mid range tailored suit made in the United States costs between $1650 and $1800 today.   At present gold is trading at about $1250 USD so the suit adage falls just above the quoted dollar value of gold.

Indian River Yukon

What really gives gold it’s value is the cost of exploration and production.  Being very rare it takes a lot of effort to find gold.  Once it’s found it is expensive to produce as well.   For example Barrick’s Cortez mine in Nevada has an average grade of 2.11 grams per ton.  That means that for every ton of ore processed they average 2.11 grams of gold.  Barrick’s published production cost at the Cortez mine is about $900/oz.  It really is remarkable that they can move and process the 15 tons of rock required to obtain an ounce of gold for $900.

The cost of producing an ounce of gold varies for each mine.  In a placer operation it is a constant cat and mouse game to keep costs low enough to make production economical.  When gold commodity prices fall below production costs mines shut down and less and less gold is produced.  The production cost, driven by scarcity is the single most important factor that drives the price of gold.

RC Drill in Action

Gold exploration is also very expensive.  In the times of the North American gold rush placer and hard rock gold was discovered all over the Western part of the continent.  From the 1840s to 1900 new gold districts were popping up every year as discoveries were made.  Trending almost in sequence Northward from California to the Yukon as explorers made their way through the wilderness.  In more modern times most of the easily reachable areas have have been at least partially explored.  Exploration today mostly takes place in more and more remote areas, such as the Canadian Arctic or other places with a small human footprint.

To properly explore a claim in these areas requires a camp. helicopters and all kinds of equipment.  A typical small exploration program in the Northwest Territories can cost well over $1,000,000 per season with slim chances of success.  While advancements in exploration technology such as geophysics and aerial imagery can provide information that wasn’t available to previous explorers there is no silver bullet.

The costs of thousands of exploration ventures that didn’t amount to a mine are factored into the price of gold as well.  For the estimated 100,000 explorers that took part in the Yukon gold rush only a select few managed to recoup their costs.  Some made made great discoveries but many more spent their life savings on an adventure but returned with no gold.

Big Al Jig

Gold’s value is based on it’s unique properties, people’s desire for the very special metal and the work required to find and produce it.  The value has nothing to do with the the dollar value attached to it.  For every ounce of gold produced tons of rock had to be excavated, the deposit had to be discovered and mapped, and the ore milled and smelted to extract the gold.  As you gaze upon your gold ring and admire it’s beauty think about the story that it could tell you.