Every episode of Bering Sea Gold ends with a team weighing gold that they mined. But viewers know, especially those who have dredged for placer gold before, that getting gold from the sluice box can be a long process. We get a lot of questions from curious fans about the process like:
- Do you clean the box everyday?
- How long does it take?
- How do you ensure people don’t steal from your box?
So we’ll take each of these one-by-one and tell you everything you ever wanted to know about cleaning the sluice box.
Do you clean the sluice box everyday?
Short answer, no.
As you will see doing a cleanup is a pain in the a** so we try to do it only when necessary. There are a few factors we consider pulling the box apart.
First – how much gold is in the box?
This is a qualitative assessment. If there’s gold visibly in the carpets running 1/2 or 2/3 of the way down the box we’re going to start to look for the next opportunity to clean up. The gold starts showing up at the top of the box where the water exits the flare and slowly seeps down as you move more and more material. The carpets AKA “miners moss” are kind of like a sponge absorbing water – at some point it’s not going to absorb water as easily and eventually it will be full and can’t hold anymore. We don’t want to let our precious take spill out of the back of the box just because we let it get too full.
How long does this take? On rich ground we would start looking to do a cleanup after 40-60 dive hours. We can go 80-100 hours if necessary, but the Eroica sluicebox is actually kind of short for the size of the dredge and we’re fairly conservative with it. Plus we don’t want to let a box full of gold sit around unattended for too long…
If the weather is perfect and we have to keep mining we can do what’s called a “top box cleanup” to buy ourselves some more time. The carpet closest to the flare where the material enters the box has the most layers of moss and catches, by far, the most gold. It’s where you’re going to see the most color and where you’re going to see it the soonest.
To do a top box cleanup we’ll just pull and wash the top carpets and put that material away for when we do a proper cleanup. That process only takes an hour or so. When the mining is best early in the season we’ll often do one or two of these.
Often, though, when the “bad weather” months roll around (basically every month except June) we have plenty of opportunities to clean the box because storms roll in and we have several dredge-free days to do the work. These weather windows are what drive cleanups most of the time.
Here’s a common scenario. We have a good weather period in which we put 30 hours on bottom of the Bering Sea over the course of a few days. A southern wind blows up which forces everyone in the harbor. The forecast says we’ll have two days of wind and a week of clear weather after that.
What do we do?
Well, in 5 clear days we can put 60+ hours on the box. If we don’t clean up and the weather is good we could easily be pushing 100 hours and forcing ourselves to interrupt good dredging time to clean the carpets.
The other consideration is everyone wants to get PAID. No one can take that gold and spend it until it gets cleaned, dried, weighed, and divided up.
So the best thing to do, even we’re a few hours short of a full box, is to do a cleanup when the weather is crappy and get ready for the next dredging window with a clean slate.
How long does it take to do a cleanup?
Short answer, about a day-and-a-half moving at a comfortable pace.
Here’s the thing about bad weather windows – it’s not just a time to clean the box and get paid – it’s also a time for everyone to rest.
The divers put a lot of strain on their bodies and everyone puts a lot of long hours in during a dredging period.
Usually we’ll come in during bad weather, and if it’s later in the day and we have bad weather in the forecast we’ll all go home (or to the Gold Dust Saloon) after we bring the Eroica into the harbor.
We’ll mosey in late the next morning and pull the box apart. We need to remove a lot of hardware and metal wire, remove and wash the expanded metal, and then wash all the carpets. This requires a number of tools, a wash tub, a bunch of buckets, at least two people, and takes a couple of hours.
The first half of this video on Youtube with Diver Rick has some good footage of this stage of the cleanup:
After that we move the buckets of “cons” to our cleanup location to get to work separating the gold from the other heavy minerals caught in the carpets.
The first step is to classify. I wish I could get real technical with you and tell you about mesh size and such, but honestly we just have a “big rock” classifier, a “small rock” classifier, and an “even smaller” classifier. Everything goes through the “big rock” classifier first, which pretty much sorts out every pebble or rock you could shoot at someone with a slingshot. The big stuff gets panned immediately and larger pickers or nuggets get pulled out. That part is easy.
The next layer of stuff gets run through either a concentrator with a rubber miracle mat or a gold cube with a carpet-like layer, depending on equipment availability. This part is one of the easiest and most fun as you get to see a lot of the other minerals wash away from the gold very quickly and easily.
Here’s a look at the results of the gold cube:
If we have the equipment available we’ll do a shaker table after the cube. The table usually requires a little more skill to run, but if you can get it down it will save you HOURS of panning. The shaker table will take your post-cube material and separate it into what we like to call “the good stuff” and “mids.” The good stuff is almost clean enough to sell – so it only needs to be panned minimally or sometimes not at all. The mids are a heavy-mineral nightmare that need to be painstakingly panned for hours to separate the remaining gold – which is I would say only 10-20% of the overall take.
Post-shaker table is usually when we’ll call it a day. We’ve usually spent the morning pulling the box apart and the afternoon classifying and running our cleaning machines. By dinnertime everyone is a few beers (or pulls of whiskey) deep and ready to hit the Gold Dust for some food.
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We know where it’s from, because we sucked it up the nozzle ourselves.
This is time for another weather assessment. If the weather forecast is pretty bad or a good storm has been churning up murk in the Bering Sea odds of diving the next day are low, so we can prepare to reassemble and finish panning, drying, and weighing the next day.
If the wind has been borderline and the forecast looks absolutely peachy we might fuel the boat and get ready to dive the next day. In that case we’ll just dry and weigh what we have fairly clean (which is most of it) and set the rest aside to pan another day.
Gold mining is a business that hasn’t changed in some ways since the Three Lucky Swedes found gold at Anvil Creek at the turn of the 20th century. At the end of the day, no matter how many fancy machines you use, you still have to break out the pans to clean the toughest gold.
This process always seems to take at least a couple hours longer than you expect. If we did a good job with the shaker table, have all hands on deck, and aren’t too picky about the cleanliness of the gold we can usually get it done in just a few hours and some coffee or beers depending on the time of day. If we don’t have the shaker table available we could be in for a full day of panning, or potentially even longer.
Dry and Weigh
Finally, we put all our gold in a dirty stainless steel frying pan and cook it over an outdoor burner. There’s a lot of mercury in the gold so you don’t want to cook it inside. Then we’ll weigh it and divvy it up in three shares – lease owner royalty, divers, boat.
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How do you ensure people don’t steal from your box?
There are two types of folks to worry about here – insiders and outsiders.
Insiders are divers and tenders who work on the dredge. Short answer for these folks is we only work with people we trust. That’s not to say it’s never happened, and we don’t know what we don’t know, but we’re comfortable trusting our people to handle gold without looking over their shoulders. These guys are professionals who don’t want to destroy their reputations over a few extra ounces.
Outsiders are anyone else who decides they want to acquire gold from your box. There are a few layers of security to protect against thieves.
The first is to keep your mouths shut when gold is in the box. You don’t want to be the guy or gal blabbing at the bar about how hot the gold is, your great spot, or how shiny the box is and attracting unwanted attention.
The second is the harbor is a public, fairly highly-trafficked place with cameras and lighting. If you want to steal someone’s carpets off a dredge you and your vehicle are going to be on camera, guaranteed.
Third is the box is a process to pull apart. You’re going to need the right tools and knowledge to quickly get under the metal to anyone’s box – not just the Eroica’s.
The fourth – and most important deterrent – is Nome is a VERY small town. Theft in the form of stealing gold from a dredge is surprisingly rare. It’s usually done by someone who is desperate (drugs/alcohol issues) and that person is caught quickly almost 100% of the time. It’s kind of like robbing a bank – it’s a crime that almost no one has been able to pull off recently.
If you made it this far – I hope you have learned a few things about cleaning the box. If you have any other pressing questions let us know in the comments below!
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