Gold Panning in Chugach National Forest, Alaska
the following information was derived from GOLD PANNING, A guide to recreational gold panning on the Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Alaska (1997). Information on individual panning sites can be found here.
WelcomeStriking it rich! Finding the mother lode! 'Tis the stuff of miners' dreams. Unlike professional gold seekers, recreational gold panners benefit mostly from the adventure. The entire family can share in the fun of prospecting and gold panning.
In this booklet, we explain basic gold panning techniques, how to find gold, discuss mining rights and guidelines, and identify areas available for recreational panning on the Chugach National Forest portion of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.
Recreational gold panning on lands withdrawn from mineral entry is not a mining activity--it is a privilege. Be aware that panning, sluicing, and suction dredging can adversely affect water quality, thereby impacting vegetation, fish, wildlife, and ultimately people.
During the process of separating soil from minerals, silt may be washed into streams, creating turbid water. Fish, fish eggs, and the aquatic insects have difficulty living in heavily silted water because of its reduced oxygen supply.
Avoid washing soil and vegetation into streams, and do not dig in stream banks. This increases silt in the stream and is also dangerous. Many banks are unstable and can slide without warning.
To reduce silt, dig only in active stream gravels. Return rocks or boulders moved during your efforts to their original positions. Aquatic insects, an important food source for salmon, often make their homes under these rocks. A little care will help ensure a healthy water ecosystem for both miners and anglers.
Gold - significance and usesThe brightness and ornamental beauty of gold have fascinated humans for more than 5,000 years and still does. This most noble metal takes its name from the Germanic "gulth," meaning glowing or shining metal. Gold often establishes the standard by which wealth is measured, The physical properties of gold add to its popularity and value. On a scale of 1 to 10, it has an average hardness of 2.8; diamond is 10. So gold is relatively soft, malleable and tarnish resistant. It makes excellent jewelry.
The modern electronics industry uses gold for its corrosion resistance and conducting properties, accounting for 1/3 Of the industrial demand for gold.
Gold has a specific gravity of 19.3, meaning it is more than 19 times heavier than an equal volume of water.
Gold has a rich yellow color or "kindly" appearance, turning paler as its silver content increases. Gold is relatively easy to identify when you know its properties, but novices can confuse it with minerals such as pyrite and mica. Both can occur with gold. Pyrite, or "fool's gold," is brassy light yellow, and brittle (shatters when crushed). Mica is light yellow to bronzy, light weight, and has a platy appearance.
Kenai Peninsula mining - a historyCrew members from the St. Peter, a Russian vessel commanded by Virus Bering, were the first Europeans to set foot in Russian America (Alaska) in 1741. But it was not until 1848 that the Russians mounted an expedition solely to search for precious metals in Alaska.
In 1848, Peter Doroshin, a Russian mining engineer, was sent by the Russian-America Co. to prospect for precious metals in Alaska. He found only a few ounces of placer gold in the upper Kenai River (Figure 6) and his mining venture was abandoned. Doroshin was convinced, however, that large placer gold deposits were present in the Kenai Mountains. Thirty-eight years later, his hunch was proven correct.
In the late 1880s, after two seasons of prospecting along Turnagain Arm, a miner named King was rewarded with four pokes of gold. Looking for King's discovery, other prospectors found gold on Resurrection Creek, and other nearby streams in 1894.
As word spread of these discoveries, prospectors began to trickle into the region. In 1895, claims were staked on Mills and Sixmile Creeks and gold was discovered near Girdwood.
By 1896, a full-fledged gold rush was on! The first arrivals were seasoned miners from the American west and Canada. Late comers tended to be inexperienced miners with grand dreams of easy riches. Thousands of prospectors arrived in Cook Inlet during this period to seek their fortunes. News of the district's richness became exaggerated over time dooming many stampeders to bitter failure.
A record amount of gold was produced in 1897. A second short-lived rush occurred in 1898--mainly due to an overflow of miners from the Yukon gold rush in Canada. Mining was simple--liberal use of a pick and shovel and a strong back. Miners shoveled gold-bearing stream gravels into sluices (long narrow wooden boxes through which water was run). Slats lying crosswise in the bottom of the boxes caught the gold, and let the gravel waste (tailings) wash through. Rich, shallow deposits were soon gone.
Later, hydraulicking was used. A high pressure waterjet broke up the gravels, which in turn were washed through a sluice box. Large amounts of gravel could be processed in a shorter time, allowing lower grade gravels to be mined at a profit. To get enough water at the pressure needed, miners dug long ditches on hillsides above their operations to collect water and funnel it down to the mining area. One such ditch exists today as a straight strip of alder brush on the hillside east of Canyon Creek, 3.2 miles south of Hope Junction.
In some streams, early miners noticed milky-white quartz boulders with small specks of gold in them. Curious prospectors, looking for the source, discovered gold-rich quartz veins on Palmer, Bear, and Sawmill Creeks in 1898.
Settlements at Hope and Sunrise sprang up along the shores of Turnagain Arm. Both mining communities served as supply and entertainment sources for thousands of people. Sunrise all but disappeared after nearby mining played out and fire destroyed much of the town. Placer mining on nearby Resurrection Creek and lode deposits in Palmer Creek kept Hope going. By 1931, only about 20 men were actively engaged in placer mining on local creeks. Today, scant evidence exists of Sunrise, but Hope survives.
Almost 100 years of mining in the northern Kenai Peninsula has produced about 133,800 oz. of placer gold. Hard rock mines produced an additional 30,000 oz. Suction dredging is currently the dominate mining method.
Mining rights and guidelinesHere are a few simple guidelines that all recreational gold panners should know.
Rights. As a recreational panner, you do not have the right to keep others from panning. You can walk, fish, hunt, and recreate on a federal mining claim, but you must respect the claimant's equipment and operation. The claim owner has an exclusive right to mine his/her claim. You must have permission from the claimant to pan on his/her claim.
Locating existing claims. Finding out the location of existing claims can be complicated and time consuming. You will need to be able to read topographical maps to establish whether mining claims exist in a particular area or not. Topographical maps for the Kenai Peninsula are available from the U.S. Geological Survey (see For more information section).
If you wish to file a claim, or want to know the location, owners, and status of legal claims, do the following:
A placer mining claim is normally 20 acres, generally measuring 660 by 1,320 feet. The long direction of the claim is usually oriented parallel to the stream. Remember, valid claims may exist with no visible markers. If there is an error in the location description, the marker on the ground rules.
Geology of the northern Kenai PeninsulaThe rocks of the craggy peaks in the Kenai Mountains were born from sands and muds--at least a mile thick--deposited in an ancient sea about 65 million years ago. This material made up large alluvial fans at the western edge of North America. Carried offshore by ocean currents, the sand and muck settled to the sea floor.
The tremendous weight of the sediment caused high pressures and temperatures that baked the muck, forming sandstone and siltstone. Hot silica-rich fluids, moving along faults in the stone, crystallized to milk-colored quartz veins after cooling. If nature was smiling, the fluids in the gold and silver became frozen in the veins. Over time, these veins weathered and released the gold into the streams. Quartz veins can be seen in road cuts on the west side of the Seward Highway, 2.7 miles north of Turnagain Pass.
About 2 million years ago, climatic cooling and heavy precipitation caused the glaciers of the Kenai Peninsula to advance down valleys. Acting like bulldozers, the glaciers pushed the gravels and spread out the placer gold. A warmer trend about 12,000 years ago caused the glaciers to retreat.
Glaciers left U-shaped valleys filled with surface gravels. Knells and ridges in the Turnagain Pass area were left by the glaciers that once filled the valley to a depth of at least 2,000 feet. Streams running off the glaciers eroded through the thick deposits of gravel containing placer gold. What remained were bench placers perched above present stream levels. Further erosion concentrated the gold-bearing gravel and redeposited the gold in gravel bars and backwaters of the newly formed stream channels. Most Kenai Peninsula gold has come from placers along Crow, Canyon, Resurrection, Lynx, Bear, Mills, Gulch, and Sixmile Creeks.
Equipment you will needThe basic equipment is quite simple and requires only a minimum investment. A gold pan is most important. Metal pans were used by early prospectors; modem versions are plastic with built-in riffles. In a pinch, frying pans and even hub caps will work. New metal pans generally come with a coating of grease and should be cleaned thoroughly by heating over an open fire. The pan will rust, but some rust is beneficial for collecting fine gold.
For your safetyThe Chugach National Forest is one of the most diverse and beautiful of the nation's 155 national forests. Its spectacular mountains, marine shorelines, wetlands, and wildlife lure visitors from around the world.
A place as wild as the Chugach does have its dangers, however. A little knowledge and good judgment can help ensure a safe outdoor experience. Here are a few tips.
Where to look for goldWater is the primary agent in the formation of most placer deposits. Moving water can transport large amounts of material, from fine silt to large boulders, especially during runoff periods. When freed from the rock by weathering, gold is added to stream waters along with rock debris, and is carried along by the stream. Where streams meander, go over falls, or are deflected around boulders, a drop in water velocity occurs, and the gold drops out. Continued agitation by water causes gold to settle down through the gravel until reaching bedrock or an impermeable clay layer. These concentrations are called pay streaks.
The best places to find gold exist where turbulence changes to slower-moving water flow. Check out slower water below rapids and waterfalls, deep pools, and the downstream side of boulders. Inside bends of meanders, upstream ends of sand or 'point" bars are good places to pan fine gold, which is renewed yearly during runoff. Bedrock crevices or pockets acting as natural riffles can collect gold. Scoop out and pan material from these spots. Spring, early summer, and just before freeze up in the fall are good times of the year for panning. Water is low and gold-bearing gravel is exposed. To minimize resource damage, confine digging to active, unvegetated stream gravels.
How to panThe key to recovering placer gold from gravel is the weight difference which allows gold to move downward (concentrate) when agitated. The simplest placer mining tool for this purpose is the pan.
Shovel gravels into a grizzly positioned over the gold pan (see Figures 3a and 3b). Agitate the material through the grizzly. Check the over-sized material for nuggets, then toss. Totally submerge your 1/2-full pan in water. Panning may be done from a squatting or sitting position at the stream edge, in gently moving water, holding the pan between the knees.
Keep pan riffles pointed away from you to catch any gold that might slip over the lip. Liberal water, agitation, and patience are required to persuade gold to settle to the bottom of the pan. While the pan is submerged, break up any clots of dirt and wash any cobbles that may have clay that can trap placer gold. The clay has been removed when the water in the pan starts to clear. Pick pebbles from the pan to get them out of the way. Look for heavy pieces with unusual color or shape. You might find a gold nugget or a gold-bearing piece of vein quartz.
Hold the pan level under water and shake it with a sideways or circular motion. The gold will settle to the pan bottom. Occasionally tilt the pan, to let the sand-sized material wash out. Dipping the pan in and out of the water with a slightly forward motion while tilted, will wash lighter material away (see Figure 4). Alternate underwater swirling and dipping until only a few spoonfuls of heavy minerals remain. When dark, heavy mineral grains (black sands) are present, the panning is being done right (see Figure 5). Black sands may be a variety of heavy minerals including magnetite, garnet, scheelite, zircon, cassiterite, and platinum. Precious and semi-precious stones are uncommon in Kenai Peninsula placers, but keep an eye out for them. If it's heavy, keep it and seek identification from a geologist or miner.
Beginners are often impatient to find gold quickly. Take your time. During the panning motion, black sand and other fines concentrate in the crease or riffles of the pan. Gold can be separated from black sands by rolling water in the pan with a combination swirling and rocking motion. Lighter material moves to one side, gold stays put. For safety, do the final panning over another container to keep gold from being lost. Dry the fines. Use a magnet to separate magnetic grains and tweezers, a knife blade, or a dry finger to pick up small gold pieces. Save the gold in a water-filled vial.
Examine your gold. Rough, nuggety gold is near its source. Gold that is flat and smooth has traveled some distance from its point of origin. Flour gold has been flattened to a few microns thickness and will float on water.
Panning is a relatively slow method for recovering gold. Experienced panners can process about 10 large pans per hour. A sluice or suction dredge can increase productivity.
Suction dredges. Regulations for suction dredges are imposed on some streams by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). A free ADF&G permit is required to dredge streams that are important for salmon spawning habitat. For information on permits, contact the ADF&G.
The Chugach National Forest considers a suction dredge, 4-inch diameter or less, operated within the active stream channel, a recreational activity.
Even more on how to pan
How much gold have you found?Just how much gold have you found and what is it worth? The following table is an approximate measure (assuming the gold is 100% pure). Placer gold commonly contains small amounts of silver and other metals. It takes a lot of work to accumulate a small amount of gold. Hours of panning may be worth only a few cents. Historically, nuggets weighing up to 12 oz. have been recovered from the Kenai Peninsula but these are very rare.
*This value is based on the average price of gold in 1994.
A glossary of mining termsPart of any endeavor is knowing the language. Here are a few of the more common terms used in mining. Knowing these terms will help you be a better recreational panner and help you have more fun, too.
bedrock--solid rock underlying gold-bearing gravel.
claim--mining ground held under federal or state laws
by virtue of location and record. color--a particle of gold found in the prospector's pan
after the gravel has been washed. concentrate--minerals which have been separated from less
valuable materials. false bedrock--a hard formation, usually a clay layer,
within a placer deposit some distance above bedrock. fines--sand or other fine-sized material associated with
placer deposits. Usually the last material left during the panning
process. flour gold--finest gold dust, much of which will float.
float--rock separated from the parent vein by weathering.
heavies--minerals of high specific gravity in a placer
concentrate, also called black sands. lode deposit--a vein of mineral ore deposited between
nonmetallic rock layers. nugget--a piece of gold that can usually be picked up
with the fingers. patent--a government deed that conveys legal title of
public land to the party to whom the patent is issued. pay streak--a limited horizon within a placer deposit
containing a concentration of gold rich enough to mine. placer deposit--a glacial or alluvial deposit of sand
or gravel containing eroded particles of valuable minerals. point bar--the area on the upstream end of a gravel bar
which can contain superficial concentrations of flour gold in a
thin surface layer. poke--a bag or sack of gold. prospector--a person who searches for valuable minerals.
riffles--small ridges in the bottom of a sluice box that
catch gold in sand and gravel. sluice box--an elongate wooden or metal trough with riffles,
over which alluvial gravel is washed to recover gold. stake--laying out and marking the corners of a mining
claim. Originally wooden stakes were used. suction dredge--uses a water jet and venturi effect to
suck gravel off the stream bed and run it over a set of riffles.
troy ounce--1/12-pound, used in reference to amounts of
bedrock--solid rock underlying gold-bearing gravel.
claim--mining ground held under federal or state laws by virtue of location and record.
color--a particle of gold found in the prospector's pan after the gravel has been washed.
concentrate--minerals which have been separated from less valuable materials.
false bedrock--a hard formation, usually a clay layer, within a placer deposit some distance above bedrock.
fines--sand or other fine-sized material associated with placer deposits. Usually the last material left during the panning process.
flour gold--finest gold dust, much of which will float.
float--rock separated from the parent vein by weathering.
heavies--minerals of high specific gravity in a placer concentrate, also called black sands.
lode deposit--a vein of mineral ore deposited between nonmetallic rock layers.
nugget--a piece of gold that can usually be picked up with the fingers.
patent--a government deed that conveys legal title of public land to the party to whom the patent is issued.
pay streak--a limited horizon within a placer deposit containing a concentration of gold rich enough to mine.
placer deposit--a glacial or alluvial deposit of sand or gravel containing eroded particles of valuable minerals.
point bar--the area on the upstream end of a gravel bar which can contain superficial concentrations of flour gold in a thin surface layer.
poke--a bag or sack of gold.
prospector--a person who searches for valuable minerals.
riffles--small ridges in the bottom of a sluice box that catch gold in sand and gravel.
sluice box--an elongate wooden or metal trough with riffles, over which alluvial gravel is washed to recover gold.
stake--laying out and marking the corners of a mining claim. Originally wooden stakes were used.
suction dredge--uses a water jet and venturi effect to suck gravel off the stream bed and run it over a set of riffles.
troy ounce--1/12-pound, used in reference to amounts of precious metals.
For further readingTo learn more about gold panning, the history of mining on the Kenai Peninsula, and the geology of mineral deposits in Alaska, you may be interested in the following publications.
For more informationIf you would like more specific information about recreational mining on the Kenai Peninsula, we encourage you to contact any of the following: