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Metal Detecting for Gold at Ganes Creek, Alaska - 6/22/01

Tailing Piles Along Ganes Creek - Photo by Brian Berkhahn
Tailing Piles Along Ganes Creek - Photo by Brian Berkhahn

My father, two friends, and I flew northwest to the Interior Alaska town of McGrath Friday morning. I have permission to hunt several creeks in the area, but have had a hard time getting there the last couple summers. Bad weather or scheduling has kept me away. Everything finally came together this year, so off we went. My father is a classic Alaska bush pilot with a Cessna 206, so I'm luckier than most when it comes to access.

The destination for this trip was Ganes Creek, owned by Doug Clark and Dan Wiltz. Ganes Creek has produced over 250,000 ounces of gold, and some of the largest gold nuggets ever found in Alaska. Some very large nuggets have been found here with metal detectors, and I have wanted to visit the creek for years. After reaching the mine and settling in, Doug pointed us to some old tailing piles. A friend of his, who knew little of detecting, had found a half-ounce nugget in the vicinity, so it seemed a good place to start.

I had brought my Minelab SD2200D along, but found the ground to have low mineralization. Bedrock around McGrath is mainly slate/shale. There are lots of igneous cobbles in the overburden, but nothing real hot. Easy detecting ground. The main problem with the tailings was lots of iron trash. I decided to give my Fisher Gold Bug 2 with 14'' coil a try. Since we were hoping for large nuggets, I put it in Iron ID mode, which I normally have not used before. I did find that the machine chattered a lot until I turned the threshold knob down. It appears the threshold control does affect the machine in the iron id mode, although you cannot actually hear the threshold.

Everyone else was using the Tesoro Lobo SuperTRAQ, all outfitted with the 11'' DD coil. Again, due to iron trash, they all ran the discriminate mode instead of all-metal. The Lobo is one of the rare nugget detectors with a full range discriminator. This proved valuable this trip. The control is adjustable, and it is very important that it be set no higher than needed to tune out nails and other small iron items. We ended up finding all the nuggets on this trip while employing iron discrimination.

Our theory was simple. There were large nuggets in the area, and we wanted them. Tuning up for the little ones was not the idea. In fact, no one wanted to waste time trying to recover small nuggets and digging lots of worthless iron trash would definitely be a waste of time.

I started chasing gold in the early seventies. I've dredged and detected all over Alaska, but spent most of my time in areas where large nuggets are rare. I've always wanted to find a big one, something over an ounce, but it has eluded me. I have made numerous detecting trips to large nugget locales, and detected literally pounds of gold over the years. I have no problem finding 5-7 pennyweight nuggets, but nothing larger has come my way.

I finally dredged a .98 ounce nugget in 1998 at Crow Creek Mine, but even then felt like I had not really done it. .98 ounce is close enough to generally say I found a 1 ounce nugget, and I do. But I still did not feel I had hit the big one. So I went ahead and decided to back off on spending so much time dredging, to spend the time chasing hot areas to detect for large gold.

A trip to the Wrangell Mountains last year netted me an 8 dwt nugget, my largest with a detector. Then off to the Fortymile last fall. That expedition turned up a 3/4 ounce nugget. Things were looking up. So this adventure was a part of my new game plan. Big nuggets the goal... heck with the little ones!

Bud, Steve, Brian, and Jeff at Ganes Creek 2001
Bud, Steve, Brian, and Jeff

My father is always game to go mining, but does not have my passion or patience for it. I bought him a Lobo last year, as the automatic ground balance is right up his alley. The machine is very forgiving. Still, he has sloppy habits, mainly a very poor swing. He is only near the ground directly in front of his feet. I've tried to get him to do better, to no avail. We've searched lots of tailing piles before, with little success. We all start detecting, and in less than 15 minutes Dad gets a beep and kicks the ground. In a very surprised voice, he exclaims, ''I'll be damned... I found a gold nugget!'' There lay a nice 13.1 dwt piece, his largest ever.

That got us fired up!. It was the end of the day, but in short order I found a 7.5 dwt nugget, a 1.1 dwt nugget, and .7 dwt nugget. Jeff hit a 2.6 dwt piece.

We got some sleep, figuring to strike it rich the second day. But it was not as hot as we had thought. About noon I finally found a quartzy 14 dwt nugget. Since these are nuggets lost by the original operations, many of them have lots of quartz. The nuggets with higher gold content were generally caught. I found a 1.8 dwt, and Jeff hit a 1.3 dwt piece, but nobody else had any luck by 2PM.

It was sunny and about 90 degrees. We are not used to such temperatures in Alaska, and everyone of us was suffering. Dad, Brian, and Jeff rolled up and announced it was time to head back to camp for a break. ''Leave me here; I want to keep hunting'' was my reply. Jeff decided to keep hunting. Dad and Brian gave in and decided to stay, but sat down to rest. Jeff and I hit the tailings again, and in maybe 20 minutes Jeff found a nice solid 17 dwt nugget. This rejuvenated the troops and the hunt was back on!

 Jeff With 17 dwt Nugget Found With Tesoro Lobo   
Jeff With 17 dwt Nugget Found With Tesoro Lobo

We wandered down back trails through the tailing piles, and Jeff finds another 5.6 dwt nugget. Some time later we were detecting some tailings next to the creek, and I hit a nice 15 dwt piece. Jeff and I are pretty happy at this point, but Dad and Brian had no gold for the day. Brian had not found any gold at all yet, and this can be very hard on someone relatively new to nugget detecting. It was nothing but bad luck, as he basically was doing everything right. He simply had not put the coil over a nugget yet.

After dinner Brian, Jeff, and I headed for the tailings off the end of the runway. After less than an hour, the mosquitoes were bothering me enough that I headed back out to the runway. Nobody was in sight, so I wandered down the shoulder of the runway swinging my detector. The runway is made out of flattened tailings, so I figured it was worth a shot. Besides, there were fewer mosquitoes in the open! One hundred feet down the runway I get a beep and a 1.7 dwt quartz pebble with a couple chunks of gold in it. I met Brian and Jeff back at camp; they had found no gold. My father returned from exploring up the creek. He also found no gold.

Steve Herschbach With 14 dwt Gold Nugget
Steve With 14 dwt Nugget Found With Gold Bug 2

The third and final full day started with rain. We did some exploring upstream, but with no success. The mosquitoes were out in force, so Jeff and I donned headnets and searched more tailing piles. Dad explored up a side creek, while Brian indicated he wanted to search in the camp vicinity.

The rain let up, but not the mosquitoes. They liked the cooler, damper conditions. Jeff and I searched tailings without luck for some time. We finally wandered back to the runway. Jeff finally picked up a couple nuggets on the runway shoulder near where I found the one the day before. I then hit a nice one also.

Jeff was hot to get with it, but I convinced him we should go find our partners and tell them about the new finds. I was anxious for Brian to find a nugget. As we got to camp, up wanders Brian with a big grin. He had obviously found gold. A beautiful 7.8 dwt nugget that everyone agreed was the best looking nugget found. Solid gold with just a spot of quartz, and a bit of twisted wire appearance. The find really raised Brian's spirits, and he was raring to go now.

Brian's 7.8 dwt Gold Nugget
Brian's 7.8 dwt Gold Nugget

My father was way up a side creek exploring, so we hooked up with the Doug and his crew and did a little instructional detecting. They were getting the idea that maybe these things were good for something after all. My father wandered up as the group headed up the creek. He said he was too tired to go with us, but when I mentioned we had found some nuggets on the end of the runway, he decided to head that way. Jeff could hardly stand it, but we wanted to spend the time with the miners in appreciation of the opportunity they had given us.

We finally explained we wanted to go try the end of the runway, and headed that way. We asked Dad how he had done. He says, ''Well, I found one. It's ugly, but kind of heavy. Maybe it weighs an ounce''. He pulls a palm-sized nugget out of his pocket. Our eyes grew wide and we explained to him that the nugget was at least 2-3 ounces. It had a lot of quartz, so it was hard to tell. It turned out to weigh 3.5 ounce. Unfortunately, it appeared to have been run over by a bulldozer. One edge was a clean break with ragged edges of gold hanging out. It is hard to tell, but I'm guessing it is one half of a 7 ounce nugget.

Bug Herschbach Digging For Gold

Bud's Big Gold Nugget Found With Tesoro Lobo Bud's Gold Found At Ganes Creek, Alaska
Bud Digging for Gold, and Gold Nuggets He Found With Tesoro Lobo ST

We figured the other half was waiting to be found. It was also our last full day, as we were flying back around noon the next day, so we detected late into the evening. All told, we found about 15 nuggets in the runway material, mostly in one area. Brian found a second nugget weighing 2.4 dwt. I ended up with five nice nuggets ranging from 1.3 to 7.5 dwt. Jeff found six from .9 to 4.5 dwt. But we did not find the other half of that big nugget.

It was late, so off to bed. Everyone had gold; Brian’s was the biggest he had ever found, Jeff’s was his largest, and my father had hit the jackpot. I was happy, but my largest nugget was a tie for the one I detected in the Fortymile, and still not larger than that .98 ounce nugget I had dredged. Jeff was also been hoping for something over an ounce, but at this point time was running out.

I slept poorly that night, waking constantly. I woke a 4AM, and after an hour awake decided to get up. It was light (all night this time of year) and time passes slowly staring at the ceiling. I figured I might as well do a little detecting while I waited for everyone else to get up around 7AM.

I wandered off up the creek, mainly wanting to get far enough away so as not to disturb anyone. I went to the first big tailing pile I came to, and covered it pretty well. Nothing at all. So I wandered up the road a bit, and came to a wide set of tailings that appeared to have been pushed up in a pile by a bulldozer. From the looks of it a sluice had been set up, and the bulldozer was pushing tailings to one side.

I started scanning along, and near the top of the pile got a strong signal. I dug it up, and peeking out of the soil lay a little gold potato! I gazed at it in disbelief, and picked it up. It was caked in dark soil, but I knew I had finally found the big one I had been looking for all these years!

 4.95 Ounce Nugget found by Steve at Ganes Creek   4.95 Ounce Nugget found by Steve at Ganes Creek
4.95 Ounce Nugget found by Steve at Ganes Creek

It was still only about 6AM, so I looked an hour longer. I did find another 2.9 dwt nugget a few feet away, but that seemed to be it for this pile of dirt. About 7AM I headed back to camp. Dad and Brian were up, but Jeff was still snoozing away. We got him up, and I did show and tell with the nugget. After washing it up, it came up at 4.95 ounces on the scale. Literally the find of a lifetime, as no other nugget will mean as much to me as this one does.

I showed the guys where I had found the nugget, took some photos, and started packing up to leave. I decided I was perfectly content to kick back and relax. The rest of my crew searched my magic tailing pile for a while, but did not find anything. Maybe my find was luckier than I know. In any case, they headed back to the end of the airstrip to search, but only Jeff found a nugget, 1.5 dwt and the last of the trip.

Time to go home, so we packed up and flew back to Anchorage. I’m back to work now, and it is hard to believe I found that nugget just yesterday morning. In retrospect, what was so wild about the whole thing was that I had essentially given up on finding the big one this trip as we were basically out of time. Talk about the early bird catching the worm!

I found every nugget but one with my Gold Bug 2 set in Iron ID mode. It ignored most trash except for old rusted cans and larger steel items, such as oversized bolts. I dug a pocketful of bullets and shell casings, but they were not so common as to be annoying. I did run my batteries dead at one point, and spares were at camp, so I fired up the SD2200D and found one nugget with it. A nice 1/4 oz nugget at about a foot. But I soon grew frustrated digging trash, sometimes at extreme depth. I have been getting pretty good at reading targets with the SD, but it is nowhere near as good at discrimination as other detectors. I was happy to put new batteries in the Bug and get back to using it.

For the low mineral ground we were in, and the desired goal... pennyweight plus nuggets, any good discriminating detector will do the job. My Gold Bug 2 worked well and the Lobo did a great job for the other guys, and is a hard machine to beat for all-around detecting. But all in all, the name of the game on this trip was ''keep your coil low, and keep it moving''!

18.5 Ounce Gold Detected At Ganes Creek, Alaska 2001
18.5 Ounces of Nuggets Detected Ganes Creek, Alaska

~ Steve Herschbach
Copyright © 2001 Herschbach Enterprises