Tracking (Tracing) Float (Part 1)

Although I've touched briefly on the basics of tracking or, as it is often called, tracing float (gold ore) in the past in Bedrock Dreams, I think it's a good idea to address this prospecting technique in more depth. Coincidentally, I'll be discussing the importance of low-lying ground in tracking float as well.

Learn From the Old Timers

The educational levels or literacy factors of most of the old timers were nowhere near what we take for granted in today's world (despite the fact I think overall literacy in the United States is on the decline these days). This isn't a put down of those old salts, just a statement of fact. Granted, there were exceptions and these can be found by reading the personal narratives or diaries of certain individuals involved in the rushes of the 1800s and early 1900s. But by and large, most of the old timers knew little about gold geology or the academic principles governing it. What they knew (which was significant, by the way) they learned the hard trial and error, and by practice and experience. So it was with all the old timers who earned their gold stripes in the deserts, mountains, and foothills of the American West and Southwest, Alaska, and yes...the Yukon Territory as well.

As I've said many times here, I was mentored in my greenhorn days by three of these old timers, real-life "down-and-outers" who came up during the great economic Depression of the 1930s and who eked out a living as small-scale gold miners during the general deprivation of that period. There was only one high school diploma shared among these three fine gents, but when it came to gold prospecting and gold mining they were Harvard PhDs. All three are beyond the Great Divide now, but I try to honor their memory each and every time I have the opportunity to do so. To varying degrees, they were tough old birds who didn't take shit from anyone. I know, because they ran my ass ragged at times with little sympathy for my complaints. It's sad to think that an era died with their passing, but now I'm an old timer too. So I will do my best to pass on what I learned from them. And I truly hope they are smiling down on me as I write this, their heads nodding in approval. But more than likely they are standing up there shaking their heads and wishing they could put a boot in my rear end again. Quien sabe?

It Takes a Keen Eye

Tracking float is best done in areas where vegetation is sparse. That's one reason that old desert rats like Shorty Harris were so successful in finding lode after lode, some of them astoundingly rich. Sure, plenty of lode strikes were tracked in forested areas or those locations with dense growth but the task of finding the source of that gold becomes much harder for obvious reasons. I spent a lot of time prospecting and mining in the deserts or dry placers of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and even Baja and Old Mexico itself and I have to say tracking float is much easier in barren or semi-barren locations. Or should I say that float is a hell of a lot easier to spot in those locations. You see, most of the areas I prospected and mined had already been prospected and mined by others more capable than I, and the big lodes tracked down long before my arrival on scene. But I have a keen eye for float and I still keep my eyes wide open when it comes to gold of all sorts. I've worked desert gold areas where float (mostly sulfided quartz) was spread out over great distances and I've been at spots where only small showings of float were visible. The upshot? It takes knowledge, experience, and a keen eye to track float.

A Grain of Salt

I need to shift gears here a bit and bring this point to the forefront. If you're one of those folks who has little or no knowledge of gold ores and their visual appearance or constituents, then you're barking up the wrong tree if you're interested in tracking float to its source. Now I'm not just talking about the proverbial newbies or greenhorns out there, I'm also including those of you with placer mining experience who have never taken the time to learn more about gold geology and gold ores. And I have to say that the idea of white quartz being the "catch all" when it comes to gold ore float is an illusion you can't afford to hold onto. Sure, some very nice lodes have been found by tracking "sugar" quartz but that sort of float is only one of a multitude of gold ores, some of which would not even seem visually significant to the uneducated and inexperienced eye. And no, I'm not going to provide you here with an upper division course on gold ores and how to spot them. I've written much about gold ores in Bedrock Dreams so it may be good to search those posts out or you can take the higher road and research things on your own. There's a ton of information out there both online and in books, so go for it. We're gonna end up talking about tracking float in this post series and if you can't identify good float to begin with, well's going to be an exercise in futility for you. Sure, I too have heard those stories and tall tales about some bird watcher or hiker or newbie stubbing his or her toe on a rich ledge but I take that sort of crap with a big grain of salt.

 (This ain't the sum total of all float.)

Tunnel Vision

Another important aspect of tracking float that the old timers were very aware of the significance of low-lying areas in concentrating that ore or enabling it to respond to gravity. I'm not only talking here about washes, gullies, and streambeds, but even small depressions or saddles along a rise or hillside. Many a rich elluvial gold deposit has been found this way, in transition from the source to the lowest lying area in the vicinity. Those of us who are primarily placer gold miners tend to get tunnel vision in this regard...the gold is in only in that wash or stream. The question you must ask yourself in this regard is "Where did this gold come from?" Even if the bigger sources were found long ago and exploited, many smaller lodes, blow outs, lode outcroppings, or veinlets still exist in a pristine state for those willing to search for them. Why is this so? Simply because of the economic factors of the past when gold sold for sixteen, eighteen, twenty-two, or thirty-five dollars a troy ounce. Some lodes were considered economically viable and some were not. Getting the drift? I myself found a small placer and lode like this when I was still green behind the gills. And I'm still crying the blues over the fact I was too green and stupid to prospect and mine it the way I should have or could have. So don't end up like yours truly eating your own liver over a discovery like this. Learn what you need to know and hit your own mini-strike.

A Piece of a Smaller Pie

Even in arid areas where float of all sorts is spread out over miles and visible to the naked eye, there is some sort of source out there. I know that Australia has some gold areas where veins or "reefs" are not necessarily the source of gold nuggets spread out over large tracts of land, but that is a geologic anomaly I'm not very familiar with. Nor should it concern you either unless you're bound for "Down Under." So we get right back to base one again. If you don't know what you're looking at how can you track it? You might notice that the gold you've been finding in that wash has stopped showing and a light bulb clicks on in your brain telling you that the source is either to the right or left of you. And you deserve a pat on the back for making that conclusion. But tracking the float that's bringing that gold into that wash is going to be problematic for you unless it's that illusionary white quartz packed full of visible gold. You see, gold often presents itself in float in ways that are very deceiving to the uninitiated. And no, we're not looking for the big lodes that have already been mined into oblivion. We're looking for our own thing, our own little piece of that gold pie that was bypassed as "economically unfeasible." And to find that slice of pie you need to know your float brothers and sisters.

That's it for now. Be good to yourself.

(Tip of the hat to Doug B. for the "grist!")

(c) Jim Rocha 2019

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