Interpreting Visual Prospecting Clues: a Dying Art? (Part 5)

 (This Aussie old timer's face tells it all.)

The old timers who once roamed gold-bearing areas throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Australia, and other parts of the world knew their stuff. Those that didn't eventually went scurrying back to civilization's confines where life was easier and a daily wage seemed just dandy.


The hard cores, on the other hand, kept plugging away at the dream. They only returned to the boom towns and dusty little corners of civilization when they needed supplies or to blow off stream...or both. It was a tough existence that weeded out the faint of heart and those without the will to carry their dreams forward. As I've said before in this series, we can view their efforts under a romanticized light but I doubt there was anything romantic about the hardships they endured, gold or no gold.

Gold Prospecting 
Gold Pans

For better or worse, I think the old timers were a meld of dreamer, gambler, and pragmatist. Their pragmatic side is the primary subject matter of this series of posts and has to do with their ability to read Mother Nature's visual signs for evidence of the yellow metal. How they came to that knowledge is open to debate. What's not open to debate, however, was their ability to find precious metal in the field...sometimes in the harshest conditions imaginable.

Here's another visual clue the old timers looked for:

6. Gold in low-laying areas

I can hear all of you out there saying to yourselves, "It's about damn time he got around to placer gold prospecting and mining!" Or alternately asking, "That's supposed to be rocket science?!!" Well ladies and gents, the old timers did their fair share of placer mining and were never averse to going after placer gold if it existed in quantity and could be recovered efficiently. In fact, some old timers remained placer gold miners their entire lives because that's how they were wired. Others, perhaps a bit more astute or reluctant to be slaves to a pick and shovel in a fixed location shoulder-to-shoulder with other dreamers, wanted to find out where all that placer gold was coming from. That's how hard rock mining got its start.

Now I've always been a placer gold miner first and foremost as are most of you. But I'm going to commit an act of gold mining heresy right here and now and say that the art of gold prospecting in placers is nowhere near as challenging as prospecting for lode gold. In fact, things are fairly straightforward in streams and washes once you've got a decent drift on deposition physics, stream hydraulics, and the erratic nature of paystreaks. I'm not trying to put myself (or you) down by saying this because the comparison between the two endeavors is like comparing a tangerine to an orange. They're similar, but not the same.

 (Placer or lode, it's all about the dream.)

When other visual clues (like some of those addressed in previous posts) led an old timer to a specific area it was time to break out the gold pan and start sampling. The old way of doing things was to pan (wet or dry) upstream until the show of color stopped dead cold. When that happened, the old timers knew the gold was coming down from the left or right of that streambed or wash and it was time to start searching terraces and hillsides, sampling and eyeballing all the while. We're assuming here that the source of this placer gold is hard-rock in nature. Although most placers are formed this way, there are those that were not...ancient rivers (like a Tertiary) being the first that comes to mind.

But we'll continue on assuming a lode source. Now the origin of that placer gold might be close by or it might be a good distance away so the old timers tuned into other visual clues to find its source. One visual clue was the amount or size of the gold or its coarseness, particularly if that detrital gold still had matrix material attached to it. Like Hansel and Gretel following bread crumbs, the old timers would follow the gold until it could actually be seen exposed as float, or better yet as a blow out, reef, or ledge.

What are those last three? They're the fodder for another post or two, so stick around...

(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.)  2013

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  1. JR,
    The first real experience I had with "prospecting" came in the San Gabriel mountains NE of L.A.. I was drawn there by comments of the owner of a local miners store. I was curious...bought some gear...and off we went. Spent 3 weekends going to the canyon and panning here and there along the creek....all "willey nilley" if you know what I mean.

    During the week I would read the history of hydraulic mining in that canyon...but also noticed the entrances of numerous mine shafts...which we would later explore carefully. This was my first exposure to "lode" mining. I wondered....with so much gold brought down by the hydraulic mining.....why would anyone want to work in the dark and dank confines of the lode mine. Now I still enjoy "blowing things up"... but not in a cave...right?

    Anyway...we went back to talk with the mining store owner who told us the whole history of that area....and why the lode mines. He recommended a few books to read...hence the beginning of my mining library. Then it all made sense. Although I haven't been back there for more that 20 was there I learned to look for the the streams...above the streams...along the ledges... and at the mountains themselves. Kind of like a geological dectective.

    I admire all those who "lode" mine as a whole different breed of miner. It also gave me a great deal of respect for my father who was a coal miner in the "old country" before coming here to America! Thanks Jim...can't wait for the ledge, blow out and float gold info. Keep up the good work...great series about the "signs"!! Stay safe out there.

  2. I'm a bit off track here and I guess it's all nitty gritty semantics, but I always wondered why prospecting call themselves "prospecting" or prospector" clubs truth, they're essentially small-scale mining clubs. There's nothing wrong with that, but always wondered...Anyhoo, thanks for the astute comments and good words. J.R.


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