A miner with a dearth of gold
Post Independent Editor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Retired heavy equipment salesman Sandy Lowell set out for Alaska this summer to have an adventure in small-scale gold mining.
Six weeks later, he’s back home with a tiny vial holding barely a thimble full of gold nuggets, and a nonstop stream of stories from the modern-day Alaska gold rush.
“Mother Nature doesn’t give up her jewels very easily,” said Lowell, 58, of Glenwood Springs. “I thought we’d build a road and start prospecting, but everything took longer. The problem is, it’s all frozen.”
His prevailing themes are permafrost, muskeg, rain, blueberries, mud and making the most of the “100 days of summer,” as Alaskans call it.
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Lowell tagged along with two other men from western Colorado who had purchased 106 placer gold leases on about 5,000 acres of raw land in Alaska, due east of Fairbanks and very close to the Canadian border.
“I had a friend who’d bought the leases, and I said I’d help him set it up as an adventure,” Lowell said. For a man who spent 30 years selling bulldozers and backhoes, the idea of taking heavy equipment to the Alaskan wilderness to dig for gold was like “play work,” he said.
The men left western Colorado on June 21, each driving a pickup with an outfitted camper shell, hauling trailers with four-wheelers. They drove 3,100 miles in five days on roads that devolved from paved highways to gravel to a pot-holed dirt track. The final leg from the tiny town of Chicken, population 7, to their camp was a 33-mile road that took 90 minutes to drive.
The gritty realities of the undertaking presented themselves immediately upon arrival.
The gold leases are on a ridge that had been covered with forest, but burned in a 10 million acre wildfire in 2004. The burnt snags are still standing, and spindly young trees have begun to grow up. A road went to the ridgeline, where they established a camp.
But it was a 1.5 miles and 1,500 vertical feet down to the river and the gold deposit. It took the men two and a half weeks to build a road down to the lease, dealing with a tricky combination of frozen tundra that would melt into swampy, sucking mud.
“Once the permafrost melts, the whole place is a bog. You just could not go off the road,” Lowell said.
It rained nearly every day, either a steady all-day drizzle or a series of six to eight downpours that would come from any direction on a compass.
Once the road was good enough to skid the wash plant down, they dug a catchment pond and started excavating. The placer gold deposit they were after lay in a four-foot deep formation atop the bedrock, a mere 10 feet underground.
“But there’s a problem. It’s in permafrost,” Lowell said. Insulated by a thick layer of muskeg – a combination of moss, peat, tiny plants and dead vegetation built up over centuries – the underlying dirt was frozen so hard the excavator could hardly chip it. The trick was to scrape away the muskeg and let the soil thaw out.
“We got down to the deposit. There’s gold everywhere, but it’s not very concentrated,” Lowell said. Some pieces would be as big as fingernail parings, but a lot of it was as fine as flour.
In a multi-step process, they ran the gold-bearing gravels through a wash plant. The gold, heavier than rock, would drop out in a sluice and settle in a spongey matt lining at the bottom called miner’s moss.
“We’d roll up the miner’s moss and rinse it in a garbage can full of water. That would shake out the magnetite, sand and gold,” Lowell said.
“In about three weeks, we ran about 8,000 tons through the wash plant and we got about seven ounces of gold,” he said. “Well, we were prospecting. We didn’t know what was going to work, or where the best spots would be.”
“Sluicing is where the art of gold mining comes in. I talked with about 10 different guys with operations around Chicken, and they all had little different ways to do it. And there are volumes written on gold mining,” Lowell said.
Chicken is a hub for small-scale placer gold mining, Lowell said. People come to the area for a few weeks or the whole season. Some mine with heavy equipment like Lowell’s group, while others live in their RVs and try out old-fashioned gold panning.
For Lowell, six weeks of 10-hour workdays, daily rainstorms, chilly temperatures and spotty access to an audio-only Skype service to talk with his wife, Jennifer, was about enough. On Aug. 3, he packed up and headed to Dawson, and then turned south.
Three flat tires convinced him to slow down a bit, and take time to fish along the way, and he made it home to Glenwood Springs on Aug. 9.
Although he’d like to go back and explore Alaska more, he’s probably done with gold mining. He didn’t invest in the project, so he has no obligation to return. His summer “play work” adventure cost about $5,000.
“I didn’t expect to get paid. Just this,” he said, shaking the little glass vial of dark gold nuggets.
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