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Alaska Gold Mining FAQ

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This page is in response to the questions I receive about mining in Alaska. If you have a question on Alaska mining, and have not been able to find an answer on this website, then just visit me, Steve Herschbach, at the AMDS Prospecting Forum or the AMDS Metal Detecting Forum and I'll do my best to help you out. I will then place a copy of the answer on this page to help others with similar questions. This will help us all over time; you get answers, and I will not have to answer repeat questions in the future. So please, ask away!

Keep in mind that these answers are my own, and therefore often consist of my own opinions. I try to be as factual as possible, but sometimes I am simply asked for an opinion. What you get is just that, and some may differ with my answers.

bullet "But Steve, is there somewhere I can get opinions other than yours"?
bullet "Can I find BIG gold nuggets in Alaska"?
bullet "Is there virgin mining ground left in Alaska"?
bullet "Can I make money mining in Alaska"?
bullet "Where can I get nitric acid or mercury"?
bullet "Where does gold come from"?
bullet "On average, how much rock has to be extracted in order to find an ounce of gold"?
bullet "What about bears"?

"But Steve, is there somewhere I can get opinions other than yours"?

Absolutely! I think one of the best ways you can ask questions about Alaska mining is to visit the AMDS Prospecting Forum. I hang out there a lot, as do many of the locals, so do not be shy to ask a question there. The more the merrier!   ~Steve Herschbach

"Can I find BIG gold nuggets in Alaska"?

As far as big nuggets go, Alaska is not and never has been big nugget country. The largest recorded gold nugget ever found in Alaska was 294.10 ounces. The 21st largest nugget found weighed 38 ounces, however, so it can be seen that nuggets weighing more than a few ounces are extremely rare in Alaska. 99% of the gold produced in Alaska was small stuff, much of it produced by bucketline dredges at Fairbanks and Nome. There are large nuggets found in Alaska, but most of them are by-products of large scale mining operations and represent a very small percentage of their total production. There are a few operations that do produce a large percentage of larger nuggets, such as the Silverado Mine at Wiseman.

"The Alaska Centennial Nugget" Photo Copyright Marshall Ronne, Jr.
"The Alaska Centennial Nugget"
Largest Gold Nugget from Alaska - 294.10 Troy Ounces
Found near Ruby, Alaska in 1998 by miner Barry Clay
Photo Copyright 2001 by Marshall Ronne, Jr.

Click Here To See More Large Alaska Nuggets

I have been chasing a big nugget here for 25 years. Most of my operations are in the local Anchorage area, not a good spot for large gold. But I have made many trips to areas known for large nuggets. I've spent many hundreds of hours detecting ground in areas where larger nuggets were considered "common" and have found countless thousands of smaller nuggets. But big ones, and by that I mean anything over 1/2 oz, are almost impossible to find with the time available to a weekend warrior such as myself.

I find lots of nuggets up to 1/4 oz, and have found a few 1/2 to 3/4 oz nuggets, and I finally found a 1 oz nugget and a 5 oz nugget. I can basically count on finding 1/4 oz nuggets every summer, but anything bigger is a much anticipated event. And I seem to be considered one of the "lucky" guys. Most the recreational miners never see that size gold in Alaska.

That being said, there HAVE been multi-ounce nuggets found by small miners in Alaska. Unfortunately, most Alaskan miners are a closed-mouth bunch, and information on these finds is rare. The largest confirmed detector find in Alaska that I am aware of is a 31 ounce quartz/gold cobble found near Livengood. The cobble is smoothly worn and contains about 14 ounces of gold. It was reportedly found by Patricia Cochran in a road shoulder. Many of the roads in the Livengood area are made of old mining tailings. Quite a few larger nuggets have been found at Paradise Valley near the Brooks Range of Alaska, including a 5 ounce nugget found by Otis Rood of Minnesota while visiting the claims.

The largest gold nugget I know of found by a small suction dredge operator is a 35 ounce monster found with a 4" suction dredge on Bear Creek near Hope. The finder told me he was dredging along next to the bank, and the nugget literally just fell out of the material. It also had quite a bit of quartz in it. The nugget was on display at Oxford Assaying & Refining for a number of years but has since been sold.  ~Steve Herschbach

"Is there virgin mining ground left in Alaska"?

There is gold all over Alaska, and it is far from mined out. But, it is true that most of the deposits that can be located with simple prospecting equipment have been found. The ones that remain are likely to be deeper deposits requiring more than pans and shovels to locate.

Of the known deposits, 99% are claimed. My advice to anyone who knows of a gold-bearing stream in Alaska is to assume it is claimed until it is PROVEN otherwise. However, even if it is unclaimed , it may be that it is closed to mining (parks) or on Native lands.

Looking for true virgin ground is a long shot, but possible. Again, you need money. Aggressive drilling of placer ground in known mining districts will no doubt find deeper creek and bench deposits. But it would be a full-time job, and checking just one potential area could take an entire summer. Finding remnant areas of virgin ground at old mining sites is much easier. The couple yards of rich material left in a corner by a cat miner would be a major score for a weekend miner, and larger remnants of hundreds or even thousands of yards can make a profitable summer operation for a more serious small miner.

There are plenty of mining areas on the road system. The Livengood area, Wiseman, Circle, the Fortymile, Fairbanks, all have serious producing ground with road access. There are many more areas available to the person with air access. The areas are claimed, but much of the ground is idle. The hot target for people such as myself is to identify the claim owner, and then get permission to mine the ground. This is entirely negotiable, and ranges from "I don't care if you want to pan or metal detect" to "I want 15%, 30%, 50%" ... you name it, to leases, and the inevitable "get the hell out of here"!

One should not be put off, persistence will get ground for a miner. I currently have permission and am planning trips this summer to areas throughout Alaska. The claims I have permission to be on are areas I want to nugget hunt with a detector, and the deal ranges from keep it all to a 50-50 split. I really don't care about the percentages, as I really don't care about the gold/money. I simply like finding gold nuggets. I am even considering offering the owners of some choice ground 100% of what I find, if they will just let me look, and as long as I get photos of the finds. As long as I get to say "I found it" who gets the gold is secondary.     ~Steve Herschbach

"Can I make money mining in Alaska"?

There are quite a few "for profit" suction dredging operations in Alaska, mostly on the Fortymile River with 8" or larger dredges. It basically is summer job stuff, however, and most of the people involved need winter jobs to make ends meet. Frankly, I would not personally consider relying on suction dredging for a living in Alaska at the current price of gold. Most of the "miners" I know are in it for fun, but many do turn a profit, if you define "profit" as finding more money in gold then you spent to get it.

I do enough mining, and find enough gold that I run my operations as a small business, and nearly always have a profit to show the IRS. It is only in a year where I make substantial investments in new equipment, or hold the gold for future sale, that I may show a loss. But although I turn a profit, it certainly is not enough to live on. It does allow for enough to buy a claim now and then, however.

To really make it in Alaska mining takes money. If I were to go that way (and believe me, I've seriously considered it) I would purchase some set of proven mining claims, and invest in the heavy equipment required to mine them. There are still many profitable bulldozer/loader operations in Alaska, even at the current price of gold. It is the same old story... it takes money to make money.

If you have not been to Alaska before, put ANY idea of mining for profit away. An initial trip must be made just to get your bearings, period. I make this my rule for each separate location I visit... finding gold the first time on new ground is not the goal so much as exploring the area. If gold is found, great, but I often find the SECOND trip is the one that pays. Or the first trip is such that there never is a second trip!     ~Steve Herschbach

"Where can I get nitric acid or mercury"?

AMDS no longer sells these items. The only source I know of in Anchorage is Alaska Scientific, Inc. at 664 East Dowling Road. A good out-of-state source of chemicals and general assay/refining supplies is Action Mining Services, Inc. If anyone knows of any other local suppliers, please let me know.

An excellent online source of information on assaying, refining, acids, and more is Basement Chemistry for the Prospector. Please use caution when handling these substances!     ~Steve Herschbach

"Where does gold come from"?

What follows is a simplified view of gold deposition. In reality is this is all theory, and entire books are devoted to the many theories of how gold deposits form. So what I am presenting below is a layman's view of a commonly accepted theory... not a "fact". Still, the theory works well enough to be used to predict where gold occurs.

Gold most commonly occurs in quartz veins. The quartz and gold were deposited within crevices and fractures in rock far below the earth by circulating hot water. You will see the term "hydrothermal" a lot. hydro = water + thermal = hot. Most gold was formed by hydrothermal processes. Note that most quartz veins do not contain gold, so quartz alone means little.

So we need two things... rock with crevices and fractures, and a source of hot, mineral laden water. The classic gold deposit is the hardrock mine area at Hatcher Pass north of Anchorage. A large mass of molten rock, in this case granite, rose towards the surface from far below. This kind of activity tends to result in a pattern of fractures or faults in the surrounding rock as this molten mass forces it's way upward.

When this mass of molten rock cools, it shrinks, and more fractures form within this rock as it cools. What finally results is a "granitic intrusive", another term you will see often when reading about gold deposits. The hardrock deposits at Hatcher Pass are a were formed around a granitic intrusive.

As the molten rock cools, water seeping down from the surface reaches the zone of newly introduced minerals and heat. Water that is extremely hot and under pressure can dissolve many minerals that we think of as insoluble, especially when some of the dissolved minerals cause the solution to become even more corrosive.

The water, now mineral-laden and hot, rises back towards the surface. As it circulates through the crevices and faults in the rock it deposits many of these minerals. Much of the mineralization is simply because the solution is cooling, and so can no longer keep the minerals in solution. Often, in the case of rich mineral deposits, the solution comes into contact with another type of mineral that causes a chemical reaction. The classic mineral in this case is limestone. Many of these solutions are acidic, and when they come into contact with limestone, the acidity is neutralized, and the mineral drop out of solution. Many very rich mineral deposits have been found where limestone comes into contact with other rock types.

In the case of Hatcher Pass, the deposit follows the classic example. There was a rounded mass of granite far underground. Fractures formed in the top of the granite, and in the other rocks immediately above and around the granite. Hot water solutions deposited quartz and gold in these fractures. Ages of erosion exposed the top of the granite and the fractures to the surface. Erosion released the gold from the veins and deposited some of it in the streams and rivers in the valley. The rest remained in the hardrock veins, to later be discovered and mined.

Very common in this scenario also, is the concept that the gold veins have a limited depth. The gold veins tend to occur just above and within the upper layer of the granitic mass. As erosion (or mining) extends downwards below a certain level, the gold deposits tend to thin out and disappear. A situation arises where areas that have extensive gold in the streams often have little in the rock (it all eroded out) and areas where the stream deposits are poor will often be associated with very rich hardrock mines (most of the gold is still in the rock). Again, a generality.

Granitic intrusives are common along major fault lines. Maps can readily be had of faults and their related intrusives, and it is no surprise these tend to coincide with many of the major gold regions of the world.

Volcanoes are another process where by molten rock rises to the surface, surrounding rocks are fractured, and circulating waters deposits minerals, including gold, in these fractures. The oldest hardrock mine in Alaska is the Apollo Mine on Shumagin Island in the Aleutians, near Sand Point. This and other gold deposits in the Aleutians and the Alaska Range are volcanic in origin. The Aleutians are a "volcanic chain", a long string of islands that are actually volcanoes.

There are many other types of gold deposits, and many variations on these types. The best reference I have seen on the subject is "The Geochemistry of Gold and its Deposits" by R. W. Boyle, (1979) Geological Survey of Canada, Bulletin 280, 584 pages.    

~ Steve Herschbach

"On average, how much rock has to be extracted in order to find an ounce of gold"?

Well, average is a good question. Currently, the largest gold mining operation in Alaska is the Fort Knox Mine near Fairbanks. In 1999 the ore grade was .95 grams per ton. At 31.1 grams per troy ounce, they must process nearly 33 tons of material to produce an ounce of gold.

A very rough visualization of a ton would be a cube of material about a yard on a side (a cubic yard).

Fort Knox is an example of mining a low grade ore on a very large scale. Small mines must have much better ore to operate at a profit, and so will process less material to produce an ounce of gold. A small operator might be processing material where 10-20 tons would produce an ounce of gold. I have personally worked material with a suction dredge that has had about 1/4 oz. per yard. Some rare material can be measured in ounces per ton (or yard)!

While high value ore is good, most large mines are based more on the total quantity of ore available than the value of the ore, as long as the ore is good enough to turn a profit. This is because today's large mines benefit form economies of scale that derive from processing large quantities of material over a long period of time.

More information on the Fort Knox mine can be found at the Kinross website.

"What about bears"?

Bears are wild animals, and definitely deserve caution and respect. However, the number of inquiries I receive leads me to believe that people overestimate the actual threat bears represent. In 1900 - 1985 (85 years) 20 people were killed in Alaska by bears. In 1975 - 1985 (10 years) 19 people were killed by dogs in Alaska! Your chances of actually being killed by a bear are very small, although maulings are more common. Some more statistics:

1-2  Average number of humans killed by bears each year in North America (U.S. and Canada)

12  Average annual snake bite deaths in United States

20  Average annual dog attack deaths in United States

50  Average annual wasp sting deaths in United States

70  Average annual lightning strike deaths in United States

90  Average annual hunting accident deaths in United States

300  Average annual bathtub drowning deaths in United States

1100  Average annual food inhalation deaths in United States

My main concern is the large number of people who have little experience with firearms going out armed to the teeth because of bears. If you are a visitor to Alaska and feel you must arm yourself for protection, please make sure you get some basic firearms training. Otherwise, you may end up being more of a threat to yourself (and locals like myself) then the bears are!

The smartest precaution you can make regarding bears is to keep an extremely clean campsite. Keep attractive smells to a minimum. Frying up a bunch of bacon in your tent every morning may not be a good idea in bear country! Study the information at the links below and learn how to best avoid conflicts with bears.

Essentials for Traveling in Bear Country - Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game

Bears and You - Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources

Safe Conduct in Bear Country - United States Geological Survey

~ Steve Herschbach

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