Starting Your Own Placer Mine

Lessons learned from a new miner

Research, research, research

By Brian Wells
Claim Post

It takes a lot of research to get to the point you can "stake your own claim."

I am a newbie to mining, and I am still wet behind the ears (insert sound effect of head shaking from side to side). My first mining season was 2015, and being a small scale placer miner isn't easy, but I found out it is possible to learn how to do it. For the benefit of people who are interested in placer mining, but are not sure how to start, I want to share what I have learned. Of course there will be specific details that are unique to your particular situation, and it won't be possible to address them all in a newsletter article, but here are the bones to get you started.

Step 1. Got Gumption?

Out here in the west, we call it "sand". If you don't have it, then you're out of luck I guess. One of the miners in the WMA told me that the activity of mining has a tendency to attract the kind of people who self-starters, hard workers and self-reliant folks. Yep, if those traits sound like they describe you, then you have sand. If not, then you'll need to figure out how to get some before you start mining. By the way, if you watch the film "Pale Rider" (1985, Directed by Clint Eastwood), you'll hear the word "sand" used by a miner to describe gumption. You will need sand before you need anything else. I have read some pretty great history books about the miners of the California Gold Rush and how they had sand.

Step 2. Research and Learning

Read everything you can find on the topic. I started creating a library of reference material almost immediately. I read U.S. Geological Reports and publications, mining organization newsletters, out-of-print books that are available because of character recognition software, web site articles and history books of personal accounts. I buy the books when I can so I can create my own library.

The world wide web is an amazing resource too - it's incredible what a person can learn online, and the information is available in many different formats such as interactive maps and video demonstrations that make learning more fun. It was during my initial research, that I ran across the ICMJ (Mining Journal) web site and saw the video of the Butte Nugget, and that was all it took to get me excited about mining. I mean, those old timers scoured the mountains and valleys in California looking for gold, and finding billions of dollars worth of it (when gold was only $20oz.), but the old timers didn't have electronic machines that can look 12 to 18 inches under the ground!

I conducted my research for almost a full year before I decided to buy any equipment. Research is an important component to the mining process, and in my opinion, research needs to be a continual part of anyone's mining activity. There is so much to learn! Before you can acquire valuable minerals, you need to know how to find them. Finding valuable minerals is a very complex set of problems, and finding solutions can very challenging!

Mineral location however, is not something a person does exclusively with a shovel, a pick, a sluice, a metal detector or a backhoe. Mineral location is something you must first do with your mind. Where are you going to start looking?

I started looking closely at rocks during a landscaping project in my front yard. I found some highly mineralized rocks, and everywhere I dug, there was more and more of it. I showed it to my friend in the Geology Department at University Nevada Reno, and he asked me, "What's taking you so long to get this assayed?" Before long, I started telling my wife that I was going to sink a vertical shaft in the front yard, or a root cellar under the garage. I'll never forget the look she gave me, but that's another story. My subsequent research however, revealed that there are laws and regulations that govern digging a mine in my front yard. Don't laugh...I actually considered it.

Research, as it turns out, also means learning and remaining current on all mining laws, as well as pertinent news and current events. I cannot overstate the critical importance of staying informed. If you make a mistake in your on-site mining processes, you could easily cause problems for yourself and others that may lead to both legal and financial consequences. There are a few mining cases working their way through the judicial system right now that will have significant impacts on the mining community. As you become aware of the current issues that are having an impact on the independent miner, you might find yourself becoming more involved.

Another reason for staying informed, is that it's a really good idea to have copies of pertinent mining laws and documents with you when you are on your claim, just in case officers from any of the managing agencies roll up on your camp, and start asking some rather pointed questions.

Research can also take the form of asking questions of more experienced miners, so it's a good idea to join some mining organizations, and when you get your own claim, to introduce yourself to your claim neighbors. When you do, take care to approach their camp or claim thoughtfully. Don't walk up on them without making sure they see and hear you. It's likely their dogs are going to light up, so be prepared for that. I always tap my truck horn or yell a pleasant greeting when I approach someone's camp. I never let my dogs out of the truck before I ask permission to do so. A dogfight never creates a good first impression, even to the most understanding dog owners.

Experienced miners have a tendency to hold their cards pretty close to their chests, for good reason, and if you ask too many questions, they will probably clam up. I think they figure that if you are serious about mining, then you need to put in the sweat equity.

Listening is also an important part of learning. If a veteran miner tells you something about the area, listen carefully. Near my new claims in the high Sierra, I met an old timer and he told me where there is a fresh water spring nearby where I can refill my water jugs. What a great share that was! I shook his hand and said "THANK YOU SIR!". A little later in the conversation he gave me some even better info about the local area. Be sure to express your gratitude because you can be sure you will see your neighbors again.

Step 3. Prospecting

Based upon your research, you now can determine where you think there is a good place to look for gold. In my case, since I live in Reno, Plumas and Sierra Counties in California were a logical decision. Before you start packing that sack lunch and day pack, it's a good idea to narrow the search a little.Google Earth is the correct tool for this stage of exploration. This technology is a big help, and you can really check out your "prospects" in the comfort of your camo slippers while drinking your cowboy coffee. There's nothing quite like prospecting from space.

Step 4. Learn how to query LR2000

LR2000 is an online application managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that contains mining claim information. There is a steep learning curve, but there are tutorials you can use to learn this application. This is an invaluable tool.

Step 5. Use Land Management Agencies to Help You

Once you find a area that interests you, you should call the regional BLM office (for Northern California it is the Sacramento office) and ask them to make copies of all the current claims in that section. They are generally happy to assist you. You will need to pay them a few dollars to make copies and mail the documents to you, but it's worth the minor cost. The reason for this is because the information you find on LR2000 might not be current, and in some cases it may be up to 3 or 4 months behind because it takes awhile to get the database updated. This is the step where you find out if there are any unclaimed areas or conflicts between the claimed areas. For example, I have discovered documents and maps sent to me by BLM indicating that some people have filed claims over the top of other claims. YIKES! This is something you should take careful take steps to avoid. It's okay to attempt to resolve a claim conflict...but be mindful and careful...some folks are very territorial when it comes to their mining claims. Tact, sensitivity and mediation techniques are useful in these cases because you won't know the history or context of the conflict. If you approach any potential conflicts respectfully, you will find that most mining folks are amiable and reasonable. Let the documents do most of the talking.

Step 6. Sampling

Gold Panner

The gold pan is still the most valuable tool for finding paying amounts of gold

This is the fun part! Once you find some land that is open to mineral location, you need to make a trip up there to take samples. For geologists and professional miners, this is a highly scientific process, but for small-scale miners like me, I think it just boils down to finding out if you can find any "color" in the pan. I generally look in or near a steam. I reconnoiter the area and I usually try to find exposed bedrock and search near there. Because gold is heavy, it wants to sit as near to the center of the Earth as possible, but lucky for us, bedrock stops it. During the course of you day, if you have chosen the area wisely, you will probably find some traces of gold. Take a close look at that gold. What are it's qualities? Is it very fine flour gold, or is it small flakes, or is it coarse (the size of a grain of rice or larger)? Ask yourself, "Why does the gold here possess these particular qualities?"

Step 7. Stake Your Claim

Read the BLM publications on how to file a claim correctly, then do it correctly! Some of the maps and documents that BLM has sent me, which were filed by others, were so poorly written and mapped, that I had difficulty reading or deciphering them. The book I use for California is "Location and Validity of Mining Claims and Sites in California".

Step 8. Record the Claim with the County Office

There are certain documents and fees you will need to send to the local county recorder's office where your claim is located. You can find out what documents are needed, what the filing process is, and what the fees are on your county office's web site. If you have questions, call them and they will help you with what you need to do.

Step 9. File Your Claim with BLM

You can find the filing processes and list of fees on the BLM web site or in their mining claims book mentioned above, for your state. I pay the regular fees the first year, and then I file small miner waiver and annual assessment documents in subsequent years. I personally find that to be easier. Specific fee amounts can change, so be sure to check your regional BLM web site, or call them if you have questions.

It's important to know that for each 20 acres in a claim, one locator is required. If a single claim is 40 acres, then two locators are required; for 60 acres, 3 locators are required...and so on. Each claim can be a total of 160 acres. Putting a spouse's name on claims is discouraged, unless she is also a "real" miner. Ten claims is the total a miner can have his or her name on in order to be considered a "small miner". A small miner is one who is then eligible for a "small miner waiver".

The small miner waiver requires that $100 in "assessment" work be conducted annually for each 20 acres of a claim. If you have more than one claim, and they are contiguous (share a claim boundary), then all assessment work can be done on one of the claims. If the claims are not contiguous, then $100 in annual assessment for each claim must be performed on each claim. A list of acceptable assessment work can be found in many places on the web, or in the BLM mining claims book referenced earlier. Basically, assessment work is work that improves the claim for mining. For a small-scale miner, assessment work such as clearing trails, picking up trash and other similar activities are normal, however assessment work can become much more involved as your operation becomes larger or involves significant surface disturbance.

Step 10. Plan Your Work, Then Work Your Plan

Figure out how you are going to approach your mining. Planning and setting attainable goals are important. You have certainly heard the adage, "Measure twice, cut once". My dad was a millwright, so that saying is drummed into my mind.

Some folks will choose to start slowly, purchasing a shovel, a pan and a sluice, while others may dive in headfirst and buy more significant equipment, like a high banker (I am of the latter group). I probably invested $10,000 in equipment before my first season, which includes additional camping gear for extended stays, a trailer to haul the equipment, the mining claim itself, GPS tracking and satellite phone equipment, game cameras, etc. That may seem like a lot of money, but these costs add up quickly. Then, after I learned a lot about how to find and get gold out of the ground during my first season, I spent another $5000 on additional equipment before my second season. I should remember to not take my credit card with me to gold and treasure shows from now on.

Here is a final note about buying mining equipment. I have learned to make sure I do at least one major home improvement project on the house and yard each year, so my wife doesn't get upset when I suggest that I need to buy another piece of mining equipment. "A word to the wise is sufficient".

Step 11. Review Your Results

You will likely learn so much the first season, you may decide to sell or abandon the first claim and find another claim in another location. In my case, I sold the first claim I bought, and then I filed three more 20 acre claims in a different location. Buying and selling claims is a bit more complicated and involved, fraught with potential pitfalls, so I will save that process for another article.