Can You Still Find Gold in Alaska?

As appearing in The Gold Nugget, September 2007
by James Long

I have been a member of the Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA) since about 1992 ever since seeing George 'Buzzard' Massie on TV showing how to pan for gold. But my career in law enforcement required my full attention until I retired in February 2007. That is when I decided to change things. And I decided to join the Colorado Prospectors of the Rockies as well as become an active member of a local GPAA Chapter as well.

I have always wanted to hunt and fish Alaska but didn't think I would ever get there. As the years slid by, I decided to add prospecting to the hunting and fishing part. Somewhere in there, golf got added and I actually became pretty good at that (my handicap is 10). And retirement gave me the time to do all the things I always wanted to do. One of those things was to go to Alaska to prospect and fish.

The GPAA offers an annual trip in the summer each year for its members. They have a camp on the Cripple River about 14 miles west of Nome and they operate it for 6 weeks of each summer. Nome is on the Bering Sea and for those of you who are familiar with North Alaska and the Bering Sea, you know that the weather for North America starts where the Arctic Sea and the Bering sea meet, about 150 miles northwest of Nome.

Nome is famous for the great Alaskan Gold Rush in the late 1800's. But did the old timers get it all? Nope, they sure didn't. But they did clean off the bulk of the surface gold but that only accounted for roughly ten percent of the known available gold. There is still a lot of gold to be found but it isn't easy. I selected the second week of July to try my luck in the far north. The GPAA Cripple River Camp is rustic to say the least. Although it is a lot better today than it was just ten years ago. The camp is located within 100 yards of the Bering Sea and about 200 yards from the Cripple River on a small bluff overlooking both. They have wooden 'hootchs' (shacks) that will sleep six on wooden bunks that are no more than plywood shelves big enough to put your sleeping bag on. There are no lights, electricity, or other comfort features other than a single door, one window, and a small wood burning stove, if needed. The Grizzly Bear Chow Hall is the main gathering spot and it does have electricity and power provided by a large generator that also serves six showers and two washers and dryers nearby. The generator goes on at 6:00 a.m. and goes off at 10:00 p.m. From 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. is considered 'quiet time' because most participants use that time for sleeping. Sleeping can be difficult since there is daylight literally for 24 hours a day up there at that time of year. The sun only drops just below the horizon for two hours about 2:00 a.m. and is back up and visible at 3:45 a.m. That is hard for some to get used to.

The average temperatures ranged from 60 at the low to 75 at the high.

Participants are assigned a 'beach claim' that runs from the Bering Sea about 200 feet back to the tundra and is about 50 feet wide. You and only you and your assigned prospecting buddies (no more than four to a claim) are the only people permitted to work your 'claim' during your stay. On your claim, you run beach boxes which are no more than crude high bankers. Believe it or not, there is a lot of extremely fine gold right on the beach itself which is composed of gravels and a lot of plainly visible black and red sand which is universally known for its association with gold. It is indeed a thrill to see your first evidence of yellow gold in the sluice box and know that you are getting gold in the same place the old timers did a 115 years ago.

There are rules. The GPAA strictly enforces those rules. They are many and are intended to keep 'Chechakos' (tenderfeet or rookies) from getting hurt or in trouble. I had no problem abiding by them as they are clearly posted and explained. Each participant is encouraged to prospect 'on your own' if so desired. The GPAA has several thousand acres and many miles of right of way along both the Cripple River and Arctic Creek that are open for general prospecting. Travel in the north country is difficult and nearly impossible when you are 3,000 miles from home and afoot. The GPAA rents 4-wheel ATV's for those who want to get away from the beaches and strike out for the boondocks. But beware! There are grizzly bears in the area and they need to be treated with extreme caution lest you become a meal for one. I personally found fresh grizzly tracks 200 yards from my 'hootch' near the Cripple River. And that was close enough for me. There are numerous Musk Ox in the region as well and they are extremely protective of their young at this time of year. I saw no bear during my travels but did encounter musk ox on four of the five days I was there.

The gold I found on the beach was extremely fine and for those of you have encountered this type of gold, you know that the recovery process is not very easy. I found that it was a lot easier to reduce it to the most basic form of concentrates that you could get and bring them home to extract the gold later. My buddy and I also prospected Arctic Creek for one day using a high banker while we were there and the gold we got from that creek was much more course and a lot easier to extract. We actually recovered a total of four small nuggets, and numerous pickers, as well as a quantity of course gold and some fines, too. The gold from the beach actually comes from the Bering Sea and is pushed up onto the beaches each winter as the ice forms and later recedes, depositing the gold into the black and red sands. The better gold is in the places you encounter red sand with the black. Commercial miners who dredge the Bering Sea do very well. During a six-week run, they can average over 250 ounces every two weeks. You do the math. Six to eight weeks is all the time the weather permits them to operate. Unfortunately, the weather in that region dictates the course for all living things, including man. Mother Nature in that region is absolutely ruthless and unforgiving.

I found that a small mini-sluice, such as the one demonstrated at the July meeting by our own member Allen Mershon, or a Blue Bowl type apparatus, are truly the best way to recover fine gold and give you about a 98% to 99% recovery. My own mini-sluice is very similar to Allen's but is about a foot shorter and is a four-inch (I believe his was about a 6-inch). The principle is the same and works very well.

Now for the questions everybody wants to know. Did I get rich? Did I get enough gold to pay for my trip? Is there still good gold there? Would you go back? To those questions, I respond in order: no, no, yes, and yes, in a heart beat. My total take was less than 1/4 ounce of gold.

Is there still good gold there? Yes, and let me explain. I encountered a gentleman named Phillip from California. A young man in his early 30's who was on his fourth trip to Cripple River. He was spending five weeks at the camp this year. He left camp each day at 4:30 a.m. and did not return to camp until he had three ounces of gold. I personally observed him leaving each day over the three days I watched him and he was back one day at 4:00 p.m. and the latest I saw him return was at 11:30 p.m. His 'hootchmates' whom I spoke to admitted that he was getting 'tremendous' amounts and would not refute the three ounce a day figure. You can do the math for yourselves and see if you think there is good gold still there.

A friend of mine, Paul from Oregon, e-mailed me last week to report that another man he had met three days after I left was getting one ounce a day from the beach some four to five miles west of the Cripple River Camp. Paul did admit that he and his partner traveled to that area and sampled the beach but could not produce any more there than they were getting on their assigned 'claim' back at the Camp.

Finding good gold isn't easy and it is not for the half-hearted. Getting gold and dreaming of being rich are two different things for the majority of us small time prospectors. Most of us can find small amounts of gold at any given time. I personally have panned and recovered gold from Colorado, South Carolina, Arizona, California, Oregon, and now Alaska. Combined, I have yet to break an ounce. If I was prospecting for a living, I would have starved to death a long time ago. Maybe some of the old timers were right. It is not the having that drives us. It is merely the dream of finding. Nearly all of those guys died poor. Phillip from California is the exception. He is working his butt off and putting in long hours, but he has found a good location that is producing well for him and he is making a goodly amount of money at it. But alas, I fear he is in the minority. By the way, I know exactly where he found his 'strike'. I wasn't in law enforcement for 39 years for nothing without learning a trick or two. Hah!

My trip to Alaska was not necessarily cheap by any standards. If you want to do it, you can plan on spending a minimum of $2,500.00 and have to be a GPAA member to do one of their trips. I can tell you I found the trip exhilarating and extremely informative and well worth it. I learned a bunch and met some real old timers and a lot of just plain old small-time miner guys and gals just like me. And yes, there were quite a few ladies in the camp, far more than you would have thought and a couple of those ladies that I met flat outworked a lot of the guys there.

Oh yeah, the fishing was pretty dang good too. Pink salmon, chum salmon, king salmon, and halibut aplenty. Wildlife were everywhere, such as red foxes, musk oxen, caribou, bald eagles, puffins, mountain goats, moose, and others, including mosquitoes the size of tanks with big attitudes.

I even visited Kotzebue, Alaska, located about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Between Kotzebue and Nome, by air, you can look west and actually make out the land mass that is Russia. I saw Mt. Denali and Glacier Bay from the air. We flew over the Alaskan Mountains, the Chugach Mountains, and the Brooks Range. I saw the Yukon River and the Kenai Peninsula and fished the Kenai River and the Cook Inlet.

Alaska is truly the last great frontier . . . and you bet I am going to go again . . . and soon!

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