Adventurous travelers are always looking for something new, and to meet this need, in recent years there has been a something of a new form of tourism growing in the state of Alaska. Several historically productive gold mines have created facilities to bring in prospectors and tourists to see and experience the remote gold country of the Alaskan wilderness and find their own nuggets. Comfortable facilities and some luxuries allow the traveler to experience the wild backwoods of Alaska without the hardships of the pioneers. The mine owners provide the necessary equipment and help so that everyone finds some gold. Both experienced hands as well as new prospectors are given an opportunity to experience a new environment and potentially make some spectacular finds.
There are a number of operators beginning to offer this type of unique recreation, including the Moore Creek Mine in the Iditarod area, the Gaines Creek Mine and several others. This new tourism offers significant benefits to both the mine owners and the visitors. Visitors have the opportunity to potentially find some very significant gold while experiencing the breathtaking beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. Visitors at both Moore and Gaines have produced some very large nuggets and even for those who do not set records, many visitors find the largest nuggets they have ever found. On the other hand, mine owners gain a new and unique source of financing for exploration of their property and other operations. Initial funding to get a project off the ground can be difficult to acquire and tourism offers a very unique and creative way to gain those first seed monies for a mining property.
In June of 2006, I had to opportunity to visit and sample the primitive Alaskan mining experience for myself – I went to visit the Moore Creek gold mine. I’ve been prospecting as a hobby for 30 years, but it was an experience like nothing I have ever done before. There is no practical access to the mine, except by air. I went in with 9 other guys – we met in Anchorage, and flew together to the little Alaskan community of McGrath. From there, our bush pilot, Mike Stewart, was able to transport us and our gear from McGrath out to the mine in three trips. The flight into the mine with the Mike was really exciting with spectacular views of the surrounding country. I have never flown in a little single engine plane before, so this was a real first for me. The runway in McGrath was paved, but out at the mine it was just dirt and grass. In such a little plane you really get the feel for how fragile the plane is and how the dangerous outcome can be if you have any problems. Mike is a very safe pilot and there were no problems at all.
It was so strange to me that it was never dark the entire time I was there. I think the sun set around 12:30 at night, and rose again around 4:15 am, but it was like dusk the entire time in between, so it was never really dark enough to see any stars. Evening campfires were held in what seemed to be essentially full daylight. This gave those participants who desired to do so hours of extra time in the evening to prospect. One night I went to bed at 11 pm and the sun was shining through a window in my tent right into my eyes – that’s something I’d never experience at home.
There was lots of wildlife, and beavers, rabbit, birds, wolves, etc. were in or around our camp. We saw moose droppings, but no moose. The only bears we saw were viewed from the air in a plane. However, we did find fresh bear prints in the mud about 150 feet from our tents one morning after it had rained.
The facilities at the Moore Creek Mine are very comfortable with large cots and two men assigned to each roomy tent. The tents are pitched on a flat along side a stream at the site of and old camp marked by original log cabins that are still in use. Tasty and hearty meals were provided each day by camp cook Bob Herschbach, Steve’s cousin.
Moore Creek Mine Owner Steve Herschbach and his partners have recently leased out the property to a Vancouver mining company, Full Metals Minerals (FMM-TSX:V) to explore for hard rock deposits on the property. Arrangements are such that this does not impede the ongoing tourist operation. Moore Creek mine is not too many miles from the recent big gold strike at Donlin where Barrick and Novagold have discovered a 28 million ounce gold resource. The Moore Creek property has been only lightly explored for in place lode-gold deposits and may hold significant potential.
While I was up at the mine, a team of geologists from Full Metals was exploring the property, taking samples and mapping the area geology. While it is generally believed that the most likely locations for any gold bearing resources still in place lie within the Monzonite pluton on the hill above the mine and the volcanic rocks adjacent to it, other possibilities were being considered. Future plans for drilling and other efforts will be determined based on the results of the current exploration efforts.
The group I went in with was a really great bunch of guys, but as for me, my luck was as bad as its ever been. I never got my detector over a single piece of gold – I was completely skunked for the entire week. I dug at least 50 targets – all trash. As an example of my luck, one of the last days I went out and crossed a small stream and turned right and hunted some tailing piles, I found only junk targets with my detector. The next day, another guy from the group crossed at the same point, turned left went about 10 feet and found a 2 ounce nugget – that’s just the way the ball bounces. The nuggets are just kind of spread all over in the old mine tailing piles and there is no way to know in advance where they are – so a bit of luck does play a part. On the other hand, Glen, one of the other guys in our group, really had the lucky hand – he got more than a pound of gold during the week, including 5 pieces over an ounce. He worked very hard and his largest nugget was over three ounces in weight. He told me he was digging around 4 trash targets to every one gold target and that was far better results than I achieved. By the end of the week, folks were calling him “Mr. Lucky” – His luck for the week was pretty much the exact opposite of mine.
To try may hand at some other gold mining operations, I started spending part of my time shoveling gravel into a high banker sluice box. I did a bit better there and I recovered one third of an ounce of gold with the high banker – so I at least had some nice Alaskan gold to bring home. The detecting is a hit or miss type of thing, but the high banking and dredging operations offer a surer chance to get some gold. The odds for a spectacular big nugget find may be less, but the gold more sure.
All of that considered, the bottom line is that you don’t have to find a ton of gold to really enjoy and appreciate the remote gold country of Alaska. It was the trip of a lifetime for me – a beautiful and very isolated, unspoiled country different from any I’d ever experienced. Great guys to prospect with, good folks in charge of the operation, good food and a comfortable camp all added up to a trip I’ll never forget.