As featured in the 2018 Nov/Dec Gold Prospectors Magazine
by Dominic Ricci
(Photos by Dominic Ricci, Richard Robinson, and Nina Beck)
Just like Michael Phelps in his multiple Olympic journeys, participants in Digger’s Expedition in Coker Creek, Tenn., set out on a quest to . . . Bring Home The Gold!
The Tennessee gold rush occurred in 1827 in Monroe County, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains along Coker Creek. The gold rush experienced a delay, though, because the precious mineral was located on Cherokee Indian land. It wasn't until 1836 that gold mining really got going.
Most of the gold in Tennessee is found in a small area in the southeastern part of the state in the Coker Creek gold belt, which lies in the Cherokee National Forest. Coker Creek and the Tellico River are the best-known areas for gold prospecting as there are numerous placer deposits and mines.
The present stream gravels, along with bench and "high terrace" deposits, contain abundant placer gold. There are some alluvial cones that were heavily mined in the area as well, and there were numerous small mines that produced low grade deposits in fissure veins.
Gold in the creeks and rivers of Tennessee is a bit different than what some prospectors may be accustomed to out west. Rather than settling on bedrock, gold deposits are often found on what could be considered false bedrock of hardpan clay. The clay can prevent small gold particles from settling deeper and will be found lying on top of it.
It has been seven long years since the Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA) and the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association (LDMA) have operated the “Motherlode” Expedition. With determination and passion to bring back that true miners experience, the search was on to locate a property that could host the 2018 Digger’s Expedition.
We set out and found private land that we could lease to host the expedition. This property was covered with old tailing piles from an abandoned bucket dredge and had stunning reserves for only the few lucky GPAA-LDMA members who stepped forward to participate.
Right in the heart of the gold deposits of Coker Creek District in southeast Tennessee, the property that back in the 1800s was home to the Annette Placer Workings mine, which had a huge operation, is where the GPAA-LDMA gained access to private lands that have not been touched for decades and were primed for dredging and highbanking for gold.
The 2018 GPAA Digger's Expeditions were divided into two one-week adventures, Sept. 2-8 and Sept. 9-15.
What was the preferred method for capturing the gold? I will admit to watching WWE wrestling back in the . . . it doesn’t matter how long ago, and what comes to mind is what Triple H was often heard saying, “I got two words for ya — SUCK IT!”
That's what we did. For serious placer mining operations, the suction dredge is the best tool to process large amounts of material from the riverbed (or creek bed) as quickly as possible. Dredges have a learning curve to operate efficiently, but once you figure out how to use them properly you will find that they are by far the best way to get the most gold in the least amount of time.
A dredge basically vacuums up the gravel from the bottom of a creek or river. The operator uses a hose to suck up material directly off the bottom of the river, pulling up up to a floating sluice box. There are different styles of suction dredges. Much like a standard sluice, the operator can experiment with different setups to achieve optimal gold recovery.
The material is pulled off the river bottom, up through the hose, over the sluice, and then out the back to fall back into the river. This means that nothing is actually removed from the river except the gold that is captured in the box.
Although suction dredges have minimal impact on the river system, misinformation is causing dredging to be severely restricted and even banned completely in many states. This is unfortunate because the modern suction dredge has minimal effect on the river ecosystem and is simply the best way to mine gravels from a riverbed.
Many people sit on the couch on Friday nights watching shows like “Gold Rush” or “Bearing Sea Gold,” wishing it was them out there getting the gold. The Digger’s Expedition is your ticket to real prospecting and the search for gold!
Digger’s Expedition became much more than just recovering gold. It was teamwork and dedication. It was family and friendship! It was a week-long gold mining adventure. It was sitting down and sharing meals and life. It was the purest of gold, it was camaraderie!
The basic operation of the week-long adventure was to arrive midday Saturday and set up your primitive camping area. A welcome dinner was served where participants could mingle and get to know each other, as well as meet Mitch and Denise Miller, the property owners; Bryan Barner, the Expedition lead who knows the lay of the land; and of course myself.
Adrenaline and anticipation for what was in the week ahead was on everyone’s mind. “Will we strike it rich? How much gold will we find? Who will recover the first nugget? Where and when do I get to set up my dredge?”
Bryan always starts Sunday morning with his “Arts and Crafts” project — his fun way for participants to take a piece of wood, paint our Tennessee Dredging permit number on it, drill a hole so you can thread a rope through and attach to your dredge or highbanker. Some do get creative!
Next it was time to get the “Suck It!” equipment in the creek and start getting the sweet yellow stuff that brought us all together.
For the next six days, participants would be at breakfast by 7 a.m. and “in the water” by 7:30 a.m. Shut down and do a cleanup at 11:45 a.m. Lunch at noon, then back in the water by 12:30. Run strong till it was time to shut down and do the day’s final cleanup at 5 p.m. Dinner at 5:45 p.m. and socialize till around 7:30 p.m. There were no night owls that would stay up as people needed their rest so they could do it all over again the next day.
In The Dirt Water, there were all types of “Gold Catch’N Equipment” — Keene highbanker/dredge combos, Keene dredges, Proline dredges, homemade dredges, and more — all working hard to get more gold.
Throughout the two weeks, there were a lot of “artifacts” recovered from Coker Creek. Just to name a few: two tires, numerous old railroad spikes, old bucket dredge parts, wires, bottles — the list goes on. Mitch and Denise will proudly display all the “artifacts” in their future pavilion.
There’s nothing like relaxing in the creek, comfortable in the water, staying cool and avoiding the outside 90 percent humidity. LDMA caretakers from Michigan’s Athens Camp and Expedition participants Tom and Suzzie Moray enjoyed playing in the water and sucking up gold. We tag-teamed the Keene dredge, taking turns at the nozzle, chatting away about camp business and family business. Oh, and a few jokes here and there. It was great quality time under the trees and in the creek!
Water snakes were spotted from time to time watching any of us. If you ever wanted to know where one was, you just had to look for Nina Beck to push her husband Freddie and start running the other way.
Deadly caterpillars you ask about? Those cute little bundles of future butterflies can be a real pain. Just ask GPAA State Director Bradley Dover when one floats on by and stings your shoulder causing a rash that $&(!#%g hurts like no other.
The Martins, Stephen and Susan, worked just below a blown out (from a recent storm) beaver dam. A few comments and laughs later, Susan was telling everyone below the dam that they got contaminated “beaver water” on them. Poor Bradley was at the end of the line and took on all the beaver water.
Even sitting around the supper table, looking across at another participant, suddenly they start to move left or right as the chair legs start to sink in the soft dirt. You couldn’t not laugh at all these innocent happenings.
What does any of this have to do with gold? There was camaraderie made out of pure gold. We shared Froot Loop doughnuts (yes you read that right — Hardee’s fast food had a special supply for Week #2 participants) at breakfast time. OMG! They were delicious too!
Back to the elusive mineral, gold! We did not recover very many pickers or a small nugget. The gold was predominantly fines, or what some call “fly poop” and others call “skeeter nuts” (Have you ever seen a skeeter’s nuts? No! That’s because they are that small! Thank you, Bradley Dover).
We stayed on top of the cleanups daily, so participants could see the rewards of each day’s “fun.” Participants joined in the fun with running the concentrates on a combination of cleanup equipment consisting of Gold Hog Multi Sluice, Spike Strike Tubby Concentrator and Gold Cube.
Each day we had a “final pan” labeled so all could see. At the end of the week, I would combine all the gold to get the total weight for the week and divide it up equally for all the participants. No black sands dirt bag like we do at the Dirt Party outings, just clean gold. Thank you, Todd Martin, for the Martin Water Table for the final cleanups.
All participants shared in the delightful Tennessee gold equally. They each also received an additional vial with a couple of grams of gold as a special “thank you” from Digger for participating in the Expedition.
Did we “Strike it Rich?” I would have to say “YES!” The memories, laughs, jokes and friendships will be remembered for years to come. To top it off, all participants left with under an ounce of gold.
Hope to see you In The Dirt Water, and around a campfire real soon!
Dominic Ricci is the Executive Director of Operations for GPAA/LDMA and can be reached at 800-551-9707, ext. 163, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.