Modern Prospecting: Small Mines, Alaska-Sized Impact
A sourdough hunkered along a stream, scrutinizing his pan for pay dirt. A line of cheechakos ascending the Chilkoot Trail, each one hoping to strike it rich with a Klondike claim. The Three Lucky Swedes pulling nuggets out of Nome’s golden sands, triggering the rush of 1899. Rugged individuals are the foundation of mining in Alaska, now often overshadowed by “elephants” like Red Dog and Fort Knox. Yet small companies and prospectors are still out there, exploring the landscape for the next big lode.
The physical properties of gold make the metal particularly suitable for small-scale mining. Being denser than the surrounding rock (known as gangue), gold tends to settle while the worthless grit is washed away with water, a method in use since ancient times. Gold’s luster also makes it easy to spot visually, with no modern chemical analysis necessary. Of course, that glitter is also what makes gold a sought-after rock, imbuing it with monetary value that rewards miners’ efforts, even when the find is merely dust or flakes.
Or, for the solo prospector, sometimes the find is its own reward. “Recreational types are mainly in it for the adventure and fun,” says Steve Herschbach, co-founder of Alaska Mining & Diving Supply in Anchorage. “Very often they may, in theory, be finding enough to pay for their efforts, but many never sell what they find. In that regard it is more of a hobby.”
Herschbach turned his hobby into a business, thanks to his school buddy, Dudley Benesch, sharing an interest in gold prospecting. In 1976, they started selling gold dredges and the diving gear needed to operate them underwater, only later expanding into boats and snowmachines. Herschbach now lives in Nevada and operates the Detector Prospector website while rockhounding in the high desert.
Despite his efforts to continue the tradition of grizzled gold panners, Herschbach concedes that serious prospecting these days is dominated by multinational corporations. “They have large budgets and can employ methods beyond the reach of most individuals. To this day, however, they do rely on individual prospectors to do basic work that often results in finds.”
Small Companies, Big Results
Small mining operations still find some success. In Alaska, just fewer than 200 placer mines produced 60,691 ounces of gold worth almost $77 million in 2018, according to the state Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys. Placer refers to sedimentary deposits broken up by water, an easier target for mining when a prospector lacks the means to extract the resource from hard rock, underground. Which is not to say that placer mining is easy; as all but a small fraction of feverish stampeders learned, gold is an elusive treasure.
From small stakes, huge payoffs may follow—though it takes time. The Livengood prospect, 70 miles north of Fairbanks, had been picked over by placer miners since 1914. More intensive exploration began in 2003, and not until 2007 was a new lode discovered, which would outstrip every small placer miner combined: potentially 11.4 million ounces of gold. Tower Hill Mines has invested more than $200 million already, completing a pre-feasibility study in 2017. The Livengood project is now in the advanced exploration stage. Before production begins with potentially more than 300 jobs, Tower Hill Mines gets by with just four workers on its payroll.
Some small mining exploration can be done in Alaska without any workers at all. Or rather, Outside companies hire contractors to do the legwork, proving up prospective sites before investing millions—if not billions—of dollars on production. Vancouver, British Columbia, is the home base for several Alaska projects, beyond the Pebble Project owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals. Fellow Canadian firms HighGold Mining, Tectonic Metals, Blackwolf Copper and Gold, and Millrock Resources have all sent scouts to various corners of Alaska.
Located in the same building as the Vancouver Bullion & Currency Exchange, HighGold owns multiple small gold claims in central Ontario, but the company considers its flagship project to be the Johnson Tract in Southcentral Alaska. The tract within Lake Clark National Park, across Cook Inlet from Ninilchik, was explored from 1982 to 1995 but then sat idle for a quarter century. In 2019, HighGold entered into a lease agreement with Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) to explore the Native corporation’s ancestral Dena’ina land for gold, copper, silver, zinc, and lead.
According to Naomi Nemeth, Vice President Investor Relations at HighGold Mining, the drill program for this year is aimed at expanding the known deposit, as well as testing other nearby prospects. Early results point to the potential of a “high-grade deposit that allows selective underground mining with a small surface footprint and the ability to place a majority of the waste material (spent ore) back underground concurrent with mining,” Nemeth says.
Chief Geologist Chris Puchner looks over a Livengood drill core.
Less than two blocks away from HighGold headquarters, up Howe Street in downtown Vancouver, is the office of Tectonic Metals. Exploration earned the company a profit with just the possibility of producible gold: an investment of CA$165 million at the Coffee Gold Project in the Yukon Territory became a CA$520 million sale in 2016, after Tectonic Metals finished a feasibility study.
Now the company is flipping that profit toward four projects in Alaska. The Tibbs and Maple Leaf projects are both on state land in the Goodpaster Mining District, in the mountains east of Pogo Mine. The third current project is Seventymile, in the Eagle Mining District near the Canadian border, where a 25-mile-long greenstone gold belt has been unexplored for twenty years. Their final project, Flat, in the Kuskokwim Mountains, presents a rare opportunity: “a large scale, underexplored, intrusion-hosted gold system with mineralization beginning at surface,” according to the company’s website.
A few blocks east of Tectonic Metals (use an alley as a shortcut) is the downtown Vancouver base of Blackwolf Copper and Gold, across the street from Red Dog Mine operator Teck Resources. Like HighGold, Blackwolf considers an Alaska property to be its flagship. The Niblack project on Prince of Wales Island is now in the advanced exploration phase for a possible underground mine. Niblack has seen considerable investments in infrastructure, including more than 120,000 meters in drilling and an 850-meter-long exploration tunnel with 150 meters of cross cuts that should help with drilling and potential production (they’re also in the process of building a new camp facility). According to Blackwolf’s website, the project is “located at tide water where ore could conceivably be barged to a central processing facility at low cost.” Ultimately the company hopes to identify copper, zinc, gold, and silver.
In Alaska, just fewer than 200 placer mines produced 60,691 ounces of gold worth almost $77 million in 2018, according to the state Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys.
Head toward Vancouver Harbor along Burrard Street, past the headquarters of NovaGold Resources (now in the permitting stage for the Donlin Gold mine along the Kuskokwim River), and there is Millrock Resources. The company bills itself on its website as a “project generator,” discovering and developing gold and copper in Mexico and Alaska. Its Anchorage branch hosts more than a dozen employees.
Like Tectonic Metals, Millrock is active in the Goodpaster Mining District, as well as another gold prospect near the village of Pelican, west of Juneau, and a nickel and platinum prospect in the Interior, west of Paxton. For three projects north of Fairbanks, earlier this year Millrock partnered with a newly formed venture called Felix Gold, named for the pioneer who first discovered gold in the area, Felix Pedro.
Felix Gold calls Australia home. Incorporated in Brisbane, its Alaska subsidiary is responsible for developing the Ester Dome, Liberty Bell, and Treasure Creek projects west of Fairbanks, and technical teams are working with Millrock to generate further projects in the area. Felix Gold draws from the mining and financing expertise in Australia, as does another firm exploring Alaska, White Rock Minerals. Unlike their Canadian counterparts, though, Felix Gold and White Rock are hardly within walking distance of each other.
Headquartered in Ballarat, inland from Melbourne, White Rock Minerals has just eight employees in its office. The small firm is mainly interested in a domestic gold and silver deposit called Mt. Carrington, but it also explores in Alaska, with contractors hired out of a branch in Juneau. Exploration in the Bonnifield Mining District, about 60 miles south of Fairbanks, includes 1,298 mining claims that are rich in zinc, silver, gold, copper, and lead. It’s not the first time deposits have been discovered: previous exploration had found minerals in Dry Creek and West Tundra Flats, but there hasn’t been much modern exploration of the area, a point that the company believes means there’s potential.
Drill core test from the Livengood prospect.
The international reach of mining corporations in the 21st century has replaced the quaint tales of immigrants like Felix Pedro or the Three Lucky Swedes making their fortunes in the Last Frontier. And lone prospectors like Herschbach see no end in sight. “The biggest problem is rules that are written for billion-dollar companies but which do not differentiate between that huge company and much smaller operators,” he says. “I wish more was done to separate regulations applying to the largest from the smallest.”
Big or small, mining exploration at a range of sizes has a place in Alaska. For every Pebble or Donlin Creek, there are a hundred smaller prospects that never make headlines. In an industry that measures output in ounces, every little bit adds up.
“The biggest problem is rules that are written for billion-dollar companies but which do not differentiate between that huge company and much smaller operators… I wish more was done to separate regulations applying to the largest from the smallest.”