Gold Panning with Andy Wescott
(Posted August 26, 2000, © Herbert E.
Day 3 (July 16) began with a visit to the University of Alaska Museum.
(About a third of the group had signed up to fly to Barrow instead, but
spent most of the morning sitting in the Fairbanks airport waiting for
the weather to clear in Barrow, which it didn't.) The museum was very
interesting and worthwhile, but not something to be reported in detail.
I did snap one picture of an Eskimo
umiak, because I had just read about how the Eskimos used them to hunt
and kill whales. This umiak was made with mill-sawn boards in addition
to the animal skins and thongs used by Eskimos centuries ago, but you
get the idea.
| Eskimo umiak
In Michner's book Alaska he describes how about six to eight
Eskimos would paddle in such a umiak through the icy waters of the
Bering Straight to kill a whale, before the whale killed them! It's
hard to imagine the courage these men had in paddling directly over a
whale many times the size of this tiny craft to spear it with primitive
(but very sophisticated) harpoons. Then they would paddle after the
whale and spear it again, and again. Now it took real
courage to approach the whale. But they did, and basically wore the
whale down until it was dead. Then they had to drag it to shore before
it disappeared into the vast ocean. All this courage and energy was
inspired by one thought, survival. Without a whale to provide food and
oil, their tribal group would never survive the long Alaskan winter.
From the museum the motor coach took us to the Gold Rush
Gold Camp to pan for gold. Living in the Gold Country of California,
there wasn't much new for Mary and me, but it was good fun because the
owner, Andy Wescott, was a true character as well as entrepreneur. It
was only a few hundred yards from the parking lot to the panning area,
but Andy had laid track and pulled us in some open cars to the
"diggin's." The track was used for more than this, however, because in
addition to the tourist business Andy used the track to transport ore
and equipment to a working mine nearby.
| People train to the "Gold Diggin's"
Though only a couple hundred yards, the train ride was an unintended
adventure. The couplers between cars were made of old steel rod welded
to an angled bar to lift the rod out of a similarly kluged hole in a
plate welded to the next car (kluge: a quick and unsophisticated
solution to a problem at hand). The operator of the diesel engine
pulling this entourage used only two brake positions: off and full on.
When we came to a switch in the track, he stopped the train. Although
the velocity change was only a few miles per hour, the acceleration was
nearly infinite. The car in front of us came to a sudden stop and our
car slammed to a stop via the primitive coupler. Then the engine began
to pull us again followed by another banging stop. Being and engineer,
I was seriously worried about the coupler rod being sheared off by
these massive forces. This would have been no big deal, except that the
track behind us sloped seriously downward. If the rod did shear off,
our car would have accelerated to more than 40 mph before slamming into
who knows what. I mentioned all this jokingly, but softly, to those
around me. I don't know about them, but I was in the front of the car
with my body braced to jump train.
The train arrived at a sluice box with a platform built
around it for guests to observe its operation. After Andy gave us a
short, and very humorous, talk on placer mining, he shouted down to one
of his crew to bring up a load of gold-bearing diggings that had been
taken from his mine. Soon a front loader rumbled up the hill to scoop
diggings from a huge pile and dump the scoopful into a holding box at
the top of the sluice box.
| Andy Wescott tells us about placer mining with a sluice box
Then Andy turned on a generous water supply (gold mining is a
water-intensive industry) and the guy from the front loader began to
push the diggings into the sluice box to mingle with the water (in
picture below). The water washes the fine material from the mixture of
rock, gravel and dirt while the sluice box crew push the diggings down
the box. Tom Klinger (in the maroon shirt above) "volunteered" to be
one of the crew and dragged the diggings past the slats across the
bottom of the box that accumulate fine, heavy material, including gold,
that sinks. Andy told us that most of this gravity-separation process
takes place very quickly near the top of the sluice box where the
diggings are first pushed in. Therefore, the base of the sluice box at
this point is covered with a piece of Astroturf, which catches the
heavy fines that are washed to the bottom.
| Dragging gold diggings into a sluice box
After several cubic feet of diggings were washed, Andy turned off the
water and dug down with his hands to carefully remove the Astroturf
mat. Then he dipped the mat into the wash tub of water and rolled water
back and forth across it to wash the gold-bearing dirt into the water.
In the picture below he shows us the resulting slurry that he scooped
from the bottom of the washtub.
| Andy shows us the gold dirt washed from the Astroturf mat
Then Andy performed his real magic, hand panning the slurry. With a
skill from years of panning, he swirled the pan to encourage the gold
to drop to the bottom while pouring off the unwanted dirt and rocks. In
the final stage, he slowly tipped the pan to allow any remaining dirt,
rocks and water to go to the down side while the gold remained held by
friction to the up side of the pan bottom. We could see the gold dust
but it's too small to see in the picture below unless you know it's
there. Then Andy divided the gold among Tom, the front loader operator,
another volunteer helper, and himself. He did this by pushing his
fingers against the gold dust and then scraping what stuck to his
fingers into 35-mm film canisters for each recipient. He repeated this
process until the pan was empty of gold. Later we found that each
container had about $10 to $20 worth of gold dust.
Then Andy reminded us that there was still a substantial
amount of gold remaining in the washtub and along the slats at the
bottom of the rest of the sluice box, which he and his crew would
| After hand panning, only this remained (gold is in shadow on
the up side of pan bottom)
After this demonstration, Andy led us to another platform that had rows
of water tubs around its perimeter that we all (about 50 of us,
including a few independent tourists) used to try our hand at gold
panning. We were each given a sack of dry gold dirt that we poured into
our pans and then washed. Many were able to separate out measurable
amounts of gold, ranging from $10 of dust to several who found $30 to
$50 nuggets. Again, Andy told us that he and his crew periodically
empty the wash tubs and pan out any remaining gold, which is a lot
because of panners like me!
How did I fare? I got the golden klutz award, because after
carefully swirling my pan and pouring off soil and rocks, I was so far
behind everyone else that I began to swish my pan from side to side to
get out the rocks. I learned that this is a no-no -- I was throwing out
the gold with the wash water. When one of the resident experts helped
me with the final phase of panning, there were only a few very small
bits of gold remaining, too small to bother putting into my 35-mm
canister. Maybe I'll try again at home in the Yuba river!
Things got pretty boring after the panning, as about 40
people lined up to have Andy pour gold out of each 35-mm canister,
weigh it, estimate its worth, and put it back into the canister or into
clear glass neckchain momentos that he sold. Below is Mary and I
killing time among Andy's junk at the side of his store.
| Mary and I killing time amongst Andy's junk
Continue to Goldstream Dredge No. 8
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