Photo: Me, sniping for gold (El Dorado County, CA) back in the ’80s.
We lucky Americans have free and open access to vast areas of gold-bearing lands that are open for mineral exploration and can be claimed—mostly in the Western United States and Alaska. However, it is not necessary to file a claim in order to prospect for locatable minerals—including gold on open land. With that in mind I have put together a virtual field trip designed to explore a proven, easily learned and inexpensive method of prospecting for gold, called sniping.
Our “tour” will visit one of the the hundreds of gold producing creeks open to prospecting in California’s Mother Lode gold districts to “watch” and learn from and expert gold sniper going about his daily work. The reader will gain a fundamental understanding of the geological processes leading to the deposition and accumulation of placer gold in stream beds. He (or she) will also become familiarized with the basic tools and techniques needed to recover placer gold and shall learn a few tips on where to look.
However, before we can proceed (effectively), we must pause briefly for the neophytes among us as we build a foundation on a most important term—Bedrock. It’s crucial to precisely understand what bedrock is to get the most out of our field trip:
Bedrock is the solid rock that underlies our planet’s surface and in many cases is exposed as a surface we can see and walk on. Bare bedrock can often be encountered in mountain ranges. Most bedrock, though, is covered by an unconsolidated layer of broken rock and soil known by prospectors as overburden.
Placer gold nuggets, like the beauties displayed below, are being plucked from thousands of auriferous (gold bearing) stream beds in the United States and throughout the world every day, watercourses that for learning purposes are virtually identical to the one you are about to explore within the parameters of this article.
Now we’re ready to hike into the canyon, study the topography and clamp our eager mitts on some gold!
Follow me down a steep, dusty, trail, deep into a remote canyon to visit a typical placer gold bearing mountain stream in California’s Mother Lode country. The watercourse’s channel drops in elevation, on average, 30 feet per mile, ideal conditions for the deposition of gold along its craggy course. We’ll hike along and view it all through a professional gold sniper’s eye; we’ll even get a chance to watch him hard at work!
Pay close attention; notice that the stream is narrower and steeper in some stretches than others. That’s significant. Notice also, that along the creek’s path there has been sediment (overburden) deposited on its banks and bed (bedrock) in the form of clay, silt, sand and gravel, ranging in size from microscopic particles to, in some cases, boulders that dwarf automobiles.
In many sections the overburden is deep, while in others, usually in the steeper and narrower sections, it’s thin to non-existent, leaving patches of gnarly looking bedrock exposed (both in water and along the banks)—sniper’s delight!
One of the Mother Lode Country’s gold bearing streams that I worked. Lots of bedrock showing in this section!
Most of the overburden is composed of materials eroded from the canyon’s walls (bedrock) and mixed with particles and chunks torn from the stream’s bed (bedrock) during times of flood, as well as sand and gravel introduced upstream by merging channels.
Over eons, as the erosion process deepens the stream’s channel by breaking up and removing countless billions of tons of material—gold, if present, is released from bedrock veins and seeks its natural place to settle in the stream bed. In California’s Mother Lode country, however, the preponderance of the gold in modern streams has been acquired from ancient Tertiary river channels that have been breached and plundered (robbed of their riches) by present day watercourses.
All the sand and gravels lining the stream’s bed and covering its banks, from canyon wall to wall, may seem to be permanent landmarks, however, in reality, it is all on a journey towards the sea—a very slow journey by our standards perhaps, but a journey nevertheless.
What’s going on here, simply put, is a massive canyon cutting operation where over a vast period of time, natural forces have cut the canyon to its present depth and, left unmolested, will continue to do so until the stream bed is excavated down to sea level.
Canyon above The North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River. I spent many happy weeks camping and sniping the river below for gold. The topography is typical of California’s Mother Lode Country canyons.
In the meantime, the stream is performing like a giant conveyor belt in this monumental earth moving operation as it transports its load (overburden) along its channel toward the sea, often in violent spurts linked to periodic flooding.
Gold, discounting Platinum, is the heaviest constituent (of consequence to us) of the gravels that compose the overburden in the stream bed, having a specific gravity of 19.3 (if pure). Simply stated, gold is 19.3 times as heavy as an equal volume of water. As a comparison, the specific gravity of quartz is under three.
It should be easy to understand then why gold, because of its high density or specific gravity, will settle on or near bedrock as it separates and descends from the lighter gravels that are stirred up and transported during episodic flooding. It’s common for the precious metal to lodge in cracks and crevices and beneath and behind boulders and other anomalies and obstructions in the stream bed. There it is safe from eviction, except in the most cataclysmic of events. In addition, it has been well established that, as a general rule, gold will be found in its highest concentrations on or near bedrock.
Another Mother Lode Country gold bearing creek. It gets steep and rugged below this point.
Now that we have visited his place of work, let’s bring in our gold Sniper, Alabama Jack, “A. J.” for short, and watch him at work.
Here he comes now, hustling nimbly up-creek over wet and slippery rocks and boulders as confidently as if out for a Sunday jaunt along a paved boulevard. He’s wearing a tight fitting, heavily patched and tattered wetsuit with homemade, pull-on, knee and elbow pads that have ragged holes worn in them and bare skin poking through in spots. His diving mask has been pushed up above his eyes to rest on his forehead so as not to restrict his vision as he hikes up the creek. In his hands are a few simple tools: a rock hammer, screwdriver, gad bar, crevicing tool, small shovel’s head, and a modified grease gun of the sort used for lubricating automobiles. We’ll learn more about his tools later.
Underneath his wetsuit, pressed against his bare chest, is a sandwich, cigarette tobacco, rolling papers, and a butane lighter packaged in a waterproof, zip-lock bag; higher up, near his neck, is a bulge in his suit from a plastic bottle meant to carry gold nuggets.
He is hot in his black neoprene wetsuit, and he has walked far. He unzips and strips off the suit’s “Farmer John” top, drops it and his tools in a heap on the gravel bar and kneels to gulp a cool swallow of water from the stream.
Higher up on the bar he locates a madrone tree, tosses a few stones out of the way, plops down in its shade and slumps back against its trunk to leisurely huff on a cigarette. From his resting place, he studies the creek for a likely spot to snipe. Upstream, he notes a location that appears to have potential. Drawing deeply on his smoke, he exhales slowly and with closed eyes, visualizes his nugget bottle crammed full of course placer gold. A thin, wide grin parts his lips.
A.J.’s canyon is deep and narrow, its ridge thickly covered with thorny, nearly impenetrable manzanita thickets. His stream’s bed, 2000 feet below, is only 30 or 40 feet wide in places, expanding to as much as a hundred or more in others.
Among the trees sprouting from the streams bank and canyon walls are cedar, cottonwood, madrone, maple, fir, oak, pine, and willow.
In spring, water lily stalks shoot up from gnarly, knotted, underwater root systems in placid ponds and gentle eddies. They grow broad, green leafs, shaped like elephant ears and drape them only inches above the water. Brush becomes thick and poison oak abundant. Ladybugs arrive and cluster and mate in huge, dynamic masses and lay their tiny eggs in aphid colonies. Bloodsucking mosquitoes hatch by the millions.
Deer come every day to drink, tentatively, from the creek; water snakes lurk in pools to ambush trout; Rattlers and other snakes stalk prey on rocky sandbars and canyon walls. Grey Squirrels skitter about in the tree tops, while their cousins, the scruffy, brown squirrels, scramble over rocks on the canyon floor. Blue Jays screech and scold from their treetop perches.
From December to May, California newts, members of the Salamandridae family, migrate from underground hiding in their high canyon homes to gather in abundance in the stream’s cold, clear pools. There they mate and deposit slimy clusters of eggs—incubation chambers for the next generation. Giant, German brown trout patrol cold, deep pools beneath frothy waterfalls; darting about like hungry sharks, they gobble insects, larva, and other tasty morsels flushing through the current from upstream.
Our sniper friend, A. J., first arrived on the creek in early spring, after the heavy winter rains. He located his camp on a sand bar near the confluence of a minor tributary where he pitched a small, nondescript dome tent amongst trees, boulders, and tall, thick blackberry bushes—effectively cloaking his shelter from casual view.
Today, he is working at his practical distance limit, two hours round trip, from camp. If he decides to continue sniping this drainage, tomorrow he’ll move his camp about an hour’s hike above where he quits today. He’ll snipe downstream and then upstream, an hour each way, before moving camp again. If the creek pays well, he may work out of his new camp for a week (or longer ), if not—if it pays poorly, or not at all, he’ll move on, or relocate on a different drainage altogether. Such is the life of a professional gold sniper.
Gold bearing creek (Plumas County, CA). It paid when I worked it back in the mid 70’s.
As we rejoin A. J., he has climbed back into his gear, picked up his tools and arrived at the spot on the creek that had caught his eye. He’s standing at the water’s edge, assessing the site’s potential. Before he proceeds, let’s examine a couple of his tools.
A. J.’s crevice tool (scratcher) is a simple implement about 18 inches long, constructed of hard steel that has been bent and twisted into a handle on one end and formed into a goose neck, sharpened to a point and tempered on the other..the business end. It is designed to scrape, loosen, and dislodge tightly packed gravel from bedrock crevices. The factory made crevice tool shown above is readily available at most mining supply stores, or can be ordered through their online catalogs. I used to make my own; some snipers prefer to employ a screwdriver or to make, modify, or repurpose other tools or objects for the job.
His sniping or suction gun is homemade (as all mine were in the old days). It’s a modified automotive grease gun. The sniping gun shown above is of the general, desired design; however, it is too large and bulky for the every day, in stream sniping of the type described in this post. Made from PVC pipe and fittings, it’s a commercially manufactured, high capacity model designed more for sucking up large quantities of small gravel and black sands from crevices along the stream banks, for processing with a gold pan.
A. J.’s homemade, modified grease gun model, has eighth-inch holes drilled in the rear plunger cap to allow a flow of water or air to enter and exit behind the plunger’s O-rings. The front pump lever and lube assembly have been replaced with a cap with a hole drilled in its center and a ¼ inch metal tube, 10 inches long, shoved into it a half inch and brazed. To function, the plunger arm is pulled back while working underwater to suck material (ideally gold) into the barrel, or pushed to force out and focus a concentrated jet of water on a target, such as tightly-packed material in a crevice. Nowadays, there are a wide variety of commercial options being used as well, including bulb and bottle snuffers. It’s all about personal preference.
Alabama Jack gets into gold!
The spot that has caught A. J.’s attention is in a section where the creek has widened and slowed down, 60 feet downstream from a small waterfall. Piercing sunlight penetrating the misty spray from the falls has spawned a rainbow that arcs from bank to bank mere feet above the stream. The brilliant display of prismatic colors fails to impress or distract Alabama Jack; he has seen dozens just like it
Another gold bearing creek (Plumas County, CA).
His attention is focused on a run of bedrock that has, for the most part, been swept clean of gravels by fast water for 50 or 60 feet below the falls. A crevice snaking through the center of a 2-foot deep, u-shaped depression in the creek’s bedrock seems to offer real possibilities. It’s approximately 3 inches wide and running perpendicular to the stream.
The crevice emerges from above the water line, cropping out from the gravel bar under his feet, and slopes downward toward the creek’s center where it becomes concealed under a foot of mixed Quaternary and Tertiary gravels. The crevice reemerges on the other side of the overburden, rises through the bedrock toward the opposite bank and pinches into a hairline crack, a foot from the water’s edge.
A. J. enters the creek and kneels in the water on the downstream side of the gravel covered crevice, at its deepest point. He’s facing upstream, the water rushing and foaming past at chest level; he drops his tools beside him on the stream bed.
With hands protected by rubber gloves, A. J. pushes and pulls against the largest rock in the overburden, a rounded boulder weighing 80 lbs. It doesn’t budge. Working his gad bar under the stubborn rock, he gets enough leverage to slowly break it loose causing smoky sediment to rise and swirl up around it. Locking his arms around the boulder, he stands and strains to toss it behind him, out of his way, where it smashes like a cannonball against a raised knob of bedrock and bounces back into the stream with a resounding kerplunk, spewing spray in all directions.
After removing half a dozen more heavy rocks, he grabs his shovel head (no handle) and, using both hands, scrapes deep into the remaining gravel, pulling it toward him, away from the crevice. Some of the lighter sands and pebbles are lifted into the current and swept downstream in a swirling cloud; the heavier gravels begin to pile up around his knees and legs. In minutes, he has uncovered two feet of the crevice at its deepest point.
A.J. spits into his diving mask (to prevent fogging), rinses it out in the stream, straps it back on, and snaps it into place over his eyes. With snorkel plugged into his mouth, he ducks underwater to get a closer look.
The crevice is tightly packed with sand and gravel, mixed with square nails and other bits and pieces of iron. Rust from the oxidizing iron is coating the gravel in the crevice with a hard, reddish- brown crust—(a good sign?).
Where heavy objects, such as iron, lead, and coins (often remnants of the Gold Rush days), accumulate in gold bearing streambed crevices, gold is also apt to be present!
For the second time today, A. J. cracks a wide, prophetic grin. He smacks the impacted gravels in the crevice repeatedly with the curved, pointed end of his rock hammer, fracturing the stubborn layer of crust. Next, using his scratcher, he scrapes deep into the crevice, further loosening the cemented sand and gravel. With a cupped hand, he vigorously fans pulses of water into the crevice while watching expectantly. Sand, pebbles, rocks, a couple of square nails and a lead mini-ball pop up in a cloud of bubbles to swirl in the current, settling on the downstream side of the crevice.
Among the ejected contents—clearly visible against the dark slate bedrock—are seven shimmering, yellow flakes and a couple of dozen tiny grains of gold. A. J. quickly sucks them up into the tube of his sniping-gun.
He returns his attention to the crevice. At three inches deep, at what appears to be its bottom, is a scattering of pebbles lying atop a thin layer of heavy, black sand peppered with tiny grains of gold. Gently, this time, he fans the crevice and sucks up the gold that is ejected. He estimates the value of the gold recovered so far at $25. A shot of Adrenalin squirts into his bloodstream, boosting his energy level and elevating his heart rate.
With amplified enthusiasm and as much down pressure as he can muster, A. J. rakes the jagged crevice bottom several more times with his scratcher, stirring up a thick, milky white cloud of silt. After fanning it one last time to expose the true bottom of the gold laced crevice, two nuggets, weighing between 1½ and 2dwt each, and a couple dozen, small, bright yellow flakes are left shimmering on an otherwise clean slate bedrock bottom. (Denarius weight, abbreviated dwt, stands for pennyweight; one pennyweight (one dwt) of gold is equivalent to 1/20th of a troy ounce).
He goes on to clean out the rest of the crevice, following it until it peters out on one side of the creek and to water’s edge on the other. Just as he is finishing up, he uncovers a quartz lined vug hole. A profusion of tiny, sharply pointed quartz crystals, partially coated in orange colored silt, line the shallow cavities narrow walls. A.J. probes into it with his screwdriver but is unable to eject any of its contents. Forcing his sniping gun’s tube deep into the hole, he blasts into it with a jet of water, flushing out a swirling cloud of silt.
After the smoke clears, six melon seed sized nuggets and a one half-ounce slug have settled on bedrock around the edge of the vug hole. A. J. sucks the smaller nuggets into the gun, but the half ouncer is too large to pass through its tube; he takes off his glove to pick it up and pauses only a moment to examine it before dropping it into the bottle he carries tucked away in his suit.
In total, he has spent 25 minutes working the crevice and recovered over ¾ of an ounce of gold—a spectacular start to his day.
Thoughts and observations:
Sniping for gold can be defined in simple terms as: the art of locating plausible gold catches (usually on or near bedrock) that are quick and at least relatively easy to access, removing the overburden, if any, recovering the gold, if any, and quickly moving on to the next juicy looking spot—if any.
It’s a hit and run—skim the cream off the top sort of strategy that has been employed by gold hunters for centuries. In fact, in our country, not all that long ago, hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed Depression-era men, together with a smaller number of women (some with children ) turned to the gold bearing streams of California’s Mother Lode district to snipe for gold in order to survive those harsh, lean years. Most only made from pennies to a dollar or two a day, but it was enough to get them through those tough times. Tough times aside—what I wouldn’t give to go back and join them!
One man and wife team of snipers from those years was Jesse and Dorothy Coffey. Accompanied by their fiery little dog, they made a living sniping for gold and had an unforgettable time doing it. All throughout the Depression they camped and sniped alongside creeks and rivers in California’s Mother Lode district (what a dream life!). And thankfully, they bequeathed to us an exciting account of their four-year long adventure in the form of a biography as told to and written by, George Hoeper. The work is titled, “Bacon & Beans from a Gold Pan”; it’s a true, heartwarming and inspirational account of their day to day lives. I re-read it every few years—usually on a cold winter’s night, snuggled up close to a warm, cracklin’ fire. The book is out of print and hard to find, but well worth the effort.
Sniping for gold is a poor man’s craft, as opposed to serious, large-scale mining, which often involves huge capital investments and long-term risks that are far in excess of those associated with sniping. But it is not restricted to cleaning crevices in creeks and rivers. It’s an art and strategy employed just about anywhere gold is found, including the deserts. Techniques have evolved using (among others) gold pans, sluice boxes, highbankers, dredges, drywashers, metal detectors, and heavy equipment too.
I hope our field trip has helped you gain a basic understanding of what sniping is all about and inspired some of you to give it a go.
Your comments will be read and appreciated.