Alaska Gold Forum


There's Gold in those Tailings
By Ron Wendt

The dog was stretched out under the back of the truck. I was feeling light headed as I glanced over his way, tongue hanging out, barely moving. I felt sorry for him with his heavy fur coat on while I was in my t-shirt and still boiling. It was 92 degrees in interior Alaska. Most people would laugh if I told them the temperatures had gotten this hot in the Land of the Midnight Sun. I had actually seen it hotter when I was a boy on my father's mining claims in the Circle goldfields. I've had people from Arizona, Nevada, Arkansas, tell me it seemed hotter in Alaska on hot days than in their neck of the woods.

Though the humidity is practically zero here, the heat is very dry and the sun is scientifically closer in the summer than other parts of the world. Fortunately I had a large insulated cooler of ice water in the truck but I lacked shade and enough common sense to find any.

I looked out over the tailings, imagining this was some sort of desert and in essence it was on this day. Fortunately I knew that not far away the permafrost bluffs were melting and clear, cold streams could be found to roll around in for both the dog and me.

I had shoveled in the last bucket load of dirt and loaded it into the truck. The dog slowly made his way to the tail gate where I hoisted him into the back, nearly burning my arms and hands on his dark fur.

At home in the cool back yard, I rigged up the garden hose a set up a panning area and proceeded on panning old tailings from a bygone operation. For the next week, mostly in afternoons and evenings I averaged about an ounce of gold per 5 gallon bucket.

One might gasp at this quantity in such a small amount of dirt, but its amazing how many spots like this can be found out there. I imagine they are even down in places like Arizona, or maybe California. I had a friend go through old dry wash tailings while on vacation one winter in Arizona and recovered a couple ounces with a metal detector in one small area, including a 7 pennyweight nugget. Sometimes these areas come by luck, but not always. They also come by observation and research. 

In this particular hot spot, I had known about an old mining operation that had used a poor recovery system that pretty much sent about half the gold out the other end of the box into tailings.I had a hunch that if I could find where the old timers had set up this device I might have a chance at some fair amounts of gold. My hunch was right, and it proved to be a good spot, one I would continue to go back to whenever I could get to the area. Its sort of like a lost gold mine; In this world there's only a couple of us, not including the dog, that know about this place and we'll probably take this secret to our graves.

I know of more tailings up near Nome and Alaska's Seward Peninsula where a prospector found a 3 ounce nugget with quartz in it in the tailings. Upon further observation he found a number of other nuggets.


There are a number of nice things about living in Alaska and looking for gold. The first one is you can get lost anytime you want here, and not allow anyone to find you if you wish. The second is the winters are long enough it gives one time enough to research out old records and documents in the libraries, and spend time talking with a few of the old cronies from the past, listening for tips and secrets. The third one is the long summer days in the north. So long that they play baseball games all night. My grandpa used to work in his garden so long he'd be out singing and pulling weeds at three in the morning and my father would have to tell him what time it was and he was keeping everyone awake.

In research while looking for good, potential tailing spots, look for areas that were once hydraulicked. Though this method moved a lot of dirt, it also had a poor gold recovery rate and anytime the opportunity arises to get into some good hydraulicked areas, jump on it. The odds are good something will be found. I have gone through old tailings from hydraulicked areas in the Brooks Range, Alaska's northern most mountain range and have had considerable luck in finding gold here.

Dredges tailings are another big one. Though gold can be more elusive at time, the big Yuba-type dredges let most of the big ones go. I have heard more dredge tailing nugget stories than any other. The classic is the visitor from Florida wandering around old dredge tailings near Fairbanks and finds a 7 ounce nugget lying on top of the tailings in plain sight. It had probably been there for 60 years, or had been walked on a few times. I might have walked on it a few times too, who knows. Never mind that dredge tailings have larger rocks in them than some piles. Its the big nuggets that are mingled in with those rocks that you're looking for.

Finding out where the large dredges quit working is another good clue for successful sniping in tailings. Some of the reasons dredges stopped working on creeks varied from, lack of gold to not enough room to move around. When an area like this occurs where the dredge had worked it's way up a gulch and had to turn around, they sometimes left behind and exposed prime pay layers and good tailings to examine.

I first detected for nuggets with the Garrett Deepseeker in the late 70s. My first target was in tailings near Fairbanks and I found a quarter ounce nugget. I learned a lot from going through those tailings. I learned there was a lot of old iron, and that I had to search a lot, but the bigger nuggets were my reward.
                                         Photo: Ron Wendt: Prospectors Panning Old Tailings

Tailings from drift mining are a great place to check. In the summer of 1997, a 54 ounce nugget was found in old hand mined tailings that dated back to 1910. I had metal detected in these tailings about 10 years before and found a quarter ounce nugget and a few small ones. Two prospectors in interior Alaska found 52 ounces in nuggets and fine gold in old sunken tailings which had sunk into the tundra and melted permafrost. They started panning and the colors were good. They setup a pump in a nearby pond and started sluicing. Low and behold in a week they had 52 ounces of gold for their hunches.

Look for exposed pay-streaks where bedrock might have been worked and tailings might have been moved around on bedrock, or where portions of pay were piled up and forgotten. Such was the case in the summer of 1997 when I was sluicing north of Fairbanks. I was on an ancient creek worked around 1900, but recently worked by a modern day operation. With permission from the mining operator, I was allowed to snipe some bedrock and old tailings from a bench above the old creek channel.
Photo: Ron Wendt:  Nuggets From Tailings
The modern day operation had diverted the creek onto this bench which created an ideal situation for me. I discovered next to the creek, which was big enough for potential suction dredging, high bankers, or whatever method could be used, old tailings mixed with fresh paystreak. The method was simple; I had a sluice with me. I set the sluice in the creek and shoveled to my hearts content without having to inconveniently haul dirt from any distance. I recovered a nice pennyweight nugget with lots of small nuggets and flakes, accumulating about a quarter ounce in 2 hours.

While looking for old tailings stacked out along the creek, a lot of times those tailings are stacked on top of the original paystreak. Always check under old tailings if you suspect there might be gold from original pay layer. If you don't this will haunt you until you do. You'll spend the winter thinking about it. If you're truly seeking gold, but you don't commit yourself to the search, the odds are against any success. Sure there's the thing about luck but it takes a little hard work and commitment.

Why do some coin and relic hunters find more than others, because of commitment. Of course it helps to search in an area where lots of activity created the relics and coins. But its no different in looking for gold. Obviously there's a tad more gold in Alaska than New York, not counting $20 gold pieces. And there are more Revolutionary War artifacts in New York than Alaska.

Picking a spot out to prospect is the key to success. That's the first commitment. Then finding out a little of the gold history is the other. Distinguishing methods used and looking for little hints of oversight, recklessness where someone might have not thoroughly cleaned up, or used bad methods, can be your gain. I have had several instances where I had poor recoveries in my mining setups. I have allowed more gold to pass out the end of sluices and others have gone behind me and reaped the rewards. You win some you lose some, so the saying goes. God allows it to rain on the good and bad.

My grandpa used to work old tailings at a place called Olnes, Alaska. It was drift mined back around 1908. Some of the shafts went as deep as 200 feet to bedrock. Grandpa made friends with some of the old timers like himself and he'd work the tailings from the drift mines with a rocker box. He took out two ounces one day by this method.

On the beaches of Nome in 1899, prospector William Fee recovered 129 ounces in one day with a rocker box. It was the largest recovery of beach gold ever recorded in a day of mining with a rocker box.

A dragline operator in the Circle goldfields had such lousy recoveries in the 1950s that miners were able to come in and get more gold from his tailings than the original paystreak. There are all kinds of stories like this. Throughout the north lie miles and miles of old tailings with gold still in them, waiting for the observant eye to catch a glimmer of gold missed and left behind for others to glean.

The dog lie snoozing under the back of the truck. I didn't feel sorry for him today as I dug more old tailings and loaded them into buckets. I wasn't gulping ice water down today either. The dogs fur wasn't hot when I helped him jump into the back of the truck on this day. It was raining.

Copyright 2002 Ron Wendt 
all rights reserved.



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