By Neal and Sam Bolton
There are thousands of miles of dirt roads in California’s gold country, and quartz outcroppings are a common sight. This can be exciting for the prospector who recognizes that quartz and gold sometimes hang out together. And, it is possible – if you spend enough time and are willing to sort through several thousand empty .22 casings — to find gold right there in that road cut. But, the tiny portion of the vein you see on the road is just that — a tiny portion.
Often it’s difficult to see how far the quartz vein extends, and whether or not it grows or just peters out, because much of the Mother Lode is covered with vegetation heavy enough to stall a tank.
Sure, if you are a dedicated prospector, love a challenge and don’t mind leaving a trail of blood that would attract the Red Cross, you can push your way through. But, once you get off the road, you won’t be able to see much, except more brush.
Now you may be wondering: How did the ’49ers find those outcroppings of quartz? Likely, they burned the hills to clear the brush — allowing them to see the ground. In that scenario, the quartz would be clearly visible. And remember, there were thousands of men dedicating their full-time effort to searching the hills. Unlike most of us, prospecting was their only livelihood.
Prospecting every day and burning the hills is not an option for today’s prospector, although when a wildfire does occur, it creates a good opportunity for searching, because the ground may be visible for the few years it takes for the brush to grow back.
Unfortunately, that’s a very hit-and-miss proposition, and good gold-bearing areas where you want to prospect may not burn for decades. Most of us don’t want to wait that long, and by putting some new technology to work, we don’t have to.
New technology — drones
Over the past couple of years, the drone industry has exploded with better, smarter, more dependable drones. One a recent weekend, we brought a drone on a prospecting trip. This was an area where we’d detected previously, but the areas easily seen from the road have been picked pretty clean over the years. This is a common issue – the same one most weekend prospectors face: To find new, fresh areas to prospect, without spending weeks hiking the hills. We just don’t have that kind of time.
But this time we had a plan — a new plan. We drove the back roads, in areas where we knew the old miners had found pocket gold. And when we found a band of quartz crossing the road, we’d stop, send up the drone, and check out both sides of the road. We were looking over the edge in areas we just couldn’t see from the road.
Keep in mind that we were traveling mostly along ridgetops where roads generally followed old firebreaks, but the same technique would work along any road. The key was that we could quickly fly out over the edge in the direction the quartz vein seemed to be running, and look for float, or outcroppings of quartz — or, better yet, indications of old diggings.
Once we located an area, we could hike to it and search. To take this one step further, by working as a team, one person could walk to the search area while the other controlled the drone. Using a walkie-talkie, the pilot could direct the searcher to the most promising area. Again, the problem in these areas is that from ground level, you just can’t see the big picture of the terrain.
We have a pair of Garmin 650T GPS radios. These allow us to communicate by talking or texting. We can also take photos and log waypoints, which is a very important tool if you find an island of paydirt in a sea of impenetrable brush, because one thing’s for sure: If you find gold in an area, you will want to return.
This kind of GPS technology is made to order for prospecting. And, combined with a smart drone, it can really multiply your effectiveness. It’s amazing how much better your perspective is from a height of just a hundred feet or so.
Few people — even the most hardcore prospectors — will hike through a jungle of brush on the outside chance of finding an old prospect hole because when you’re out in it, your visibility is reduced to six to 10 feet. You could pass within spitting distance of an old digging site and never know it. But, with a drone in your miner’s tool bag, now that’s another story.
Finding old diggings
The exciting thing about using a drone, is that it can help you find old diggings that have never been metal detected because nobody could find them!
Think about it. Until the late 1970s, with the release of Fisher Research Lab’s Gold Bug, nobody was seriously using a metal detector for gold. I know, because in 1973, I had a state-of the-art detector — a White’s Coinmaster IV. It was one of the best detectors in its class at the time, but because of its inability to ground balance, certainly not the best at finding gold.
However, since that time, most areas that could be seen from a road have been searched and researched. As a result, the odds of finding a good, new area for detecting gold have been decreasing. Drone technology has just opened the door to finding new, previously unsearched areas.
OK, so what kind of drone does it take to do this? One that is smart — really smart.
We were flying a SOLO, manufactured by 3DR. This particular drone is easy to control. If something happens, you can just let off the controls and it will simply hover in-place, or you can press the “Home” button (my favorite) and it will return to the take-off spot automatically.
Drones like the SOLO are not in the same class as the ones your kids got at Radio Shack. Those were fun toys. These are not toys; they are tools. Nonetheless, you will want to practice, preferably in a flat area that’s free of obstructions. Drones of this caliber are smart, but they are not idiot-proof. That’s exactly why I chose to practice first and search later.
To get the right package, you’ll obviously need to get the right drone, but you’ll also need a camera. We used a GoPro Hero 4 Silver, with a micro SD card. Here’s a tip. Be sure to buy a micro SD card that is listed — by GoPro — as being “compatible.” We initially tried using one that wasn’t on the recommended list, and it would not properly record video. You’ll also need a smart phone or tablet. Most Android or Apple phones work fine. But, if you’re buying a phone or tablet specifically for the drone, stick to the ones listed on the compatible list.
Another consideration is visibility. My son is 21 and can effectively use his smart phone’s small screen. For me, the larger tablet screen is much easier to see.
‘Great!’ you say. ‘So, what’s the score? What did you find?’
In terms of gold, this demonstration trip was a dry run. But, when it comes to proving out a new and exciting technology for prospecting, it was a great success.
Neal and Sam Bolton are gold prospectors based in Mariposa County in the heart of California’s gold country. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article as featured in the January-February edition of Gold Prospectors magazine