Friday, October 26, 2018

Searching for Gold

“A prospector who visits these mountains should bring a photograph of the sun with him, as well as a diving suit; but the most useful article would be a flying machine.”
--Addison Powell, from sign along Historic Valdez Trail

I took a deep breath and followed Warren over the edge. Damp soil crumbled and slid under the soles of my muck boots, and a network of roots provided a little traction on the steep angle of the stream ravine. The slender, pliable stems of alders made tenuous handholds, and shook raindrops down on my head whenever I used them. “Don’t grab onto that one,” said Warren as he pointed at a tall, lush patch of Devil’s Club stems, all armored with sharp spines.

Devil's Club with spines.

No one ever said that gold mining was easy.

Steep hill. 

And yet, when my Wisconsin neighbor, Frosty Palmer, emailed, “If you do head down the Kenai Peninsula, stop in to see my brother Warren who built a real cute place in Cooper Landing. He would probably even be willing to take you out for a day of gold mining,” I took him up on the offer.

Straightening up and dusting myself off, I splashed a few yards upstream to join Warren and his Australian Shepherd, Quinn, at the base of the narrow waterfall that marks the head of his mining claim. This past Father’s Day, a rip-roaring flood washed away all of the dredging equipment and infrastructure he’d installed in the creek. Despite all the work and expense that had disappeared downstream, Warren was excited at the prospect that new gold might have washed into his claim, too. Luckily, his metal detector had been safely at home with him. Headphones on, he swung it in low arcs over the fractured slate bedrock, listening for the telltale beeps.

Warren Palmer and his trusty companion, Quinn, were kind enough to show me around their gold claim in Alaska. Photo by Emily Stone.

Warren caught gold fever back in1986, in Tok, Alaska. He was working on repairs to the Alcan Highway and went into town for supplies. The gal behind the counter at the grocery store brought out a pan heaped with gold and topped with a nugget the size of his fist. That’s not even the most incredible of Warren’s many stories about surveying Alaska.

Treasure hunting is fun at any age, and we both got excited when the metal detector first started beeping over a section of jagged slate, its sedimentary layers turned vertical during the formation of the Kenai Mountains. Sometime in the buried past, hot fluids carried gold and other minerals into faults and joints in the rocks. If you find gold still in the vein where it was deposited, that’s known as the lode—The Mother Lode.

Warren Palmer’s mining equipment washed downstream in a flood, so he’s just using a metal detector to find placer old in the cracks and shallow sediments of his claim. Photo by Emily Stone.

After homing in on the area with the strongest signal, Warren pulled out a pointed rock hammer and started to break and pull apart the layers. While this looked like solid bedrock, the layers in the slate had delaminated, and thin crevices opened up. Flakes of gold freed from bedrock by the glaciers and transported by the stream can drop into nooks like this, or settle out in the slower current below rapids or boulders. It is known as placer gold.

Warren used his finger to scrape out a pile of sandy sediment from his newly enlarged crack and plop it into a green plastic scoop. A quick pass of the scoop over his metal detector confirmed that the item of interest was still present. Handing the scoop to me now, Warren explained how to narrow down the search. I used my other hand to take about half the sediment out of the scoop. He ran the metal detector again. It was still in the scoop. I removed half again. This time the scoop didn’t beep, so I emptied it out and put my handful back in. Adding water, I swished the remaining sediment. Gold is 19 times heavier than water and also heavier than most sand grains. Its density is key to the mechanism of gold panning. Out of the sand settled an old rusty nail.

Rusty nails.

Over the next couple of hours we pulled handfuls of old nails out of the creek’s sediments and crevices. I couldn’t believe some of the tight spaces they’d weaseled themselves into. I took turns running the metal detector and ripping apart punky slate with the rock hammer. But just as often I poked around in the creek looking at bedrock formations, photographing little waterfalls, and lifting cobbles to see the flat-bodied mayfly nymphs clinging to their undersides.

Mayfly nymphs.

Warren, Quinn, and I hopped from side to side, waded across graveled shallows, descended knee-high waterfalls, and slowly made our way down the lush stream ravine. By lunchtime, we’d found dozens of nails and flakes of rust, but no gold. Warren asked if I was bored. “Are you kidding?” I grinned. “Crick stomping and whacking on rocks are awesome! I only wish my nephews could be here!”


Beautiful creekbed.

As fun as it was, that first glimmer of a gold flake in our green scoop added a special thrill and renewed our enthusiasm for the treasure hunt. 

Nugget in the scoop.

Soon, Warren’s little glass vial held three flakes and five nuggets. Now at the bottom of his claim, we scrambled up a second impossibly steep trail and walked the gravel road back to his truck. He generously let me take some of the gold as a souvenir, and I insisted that he keep the biggest nugget, since it wouldn’t even fit in the vial.

Steep hill out.

Weighing the gold.

I think the caption on my Instagram album for the day summed it up nicely: “A beautiful clear stream in the midst of gorgeous hills, mucking about with rocks and water, a wonderful storyteller with a wealth of knowledge, and—by the end of the day—two new friends. Striking gold, indeed!”

Warren and Quinn

Post Script: Months later, just as I arrived back to work, I received an email from Warren. “Sad news, he wrote. “Those 3 large nuggets that we found at the bonfire site in the creek are not gold.” He suspects that the nuggets originated as brass grommets in some shredded tarps he burned after the flood. It’s no matter to me; the fun was all in the finding!

Warren’s gold claim was along a delightful little creek. Heavy gold that has been broken out of bedrock and moved downstream will often collect at the base of waterfalls where the current slows. Photo by Emily Stone.

Emily was in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

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