Gold Panning in the Madoc Area of Eastern Ontario
by Bob Bredberg
Looking for Gold
Quite a number of people have asked me about gold in the Madoc area, and while I have been working on a book & CD-ROM on the subject, rather than waiting for the completion of the book, I decided to post an introduction to the material coming at a later date.
Eastern Ontario Gold Belt
In this part of Ontario, the path of Highway #7 from Madoc east to Kaladar roughly coincides with the emergence of the Canadian Shield from beneath a covering of sedimentary rock overlain by glacial debris.
Highway #7 from the Moira River (south of Deloro) through Madoc and east to Kaladar spans the southern end of volcanic, metavolcanic and metamorphic structures that have played host to a sufficient number of small gold mines, prospects and occurrences that the area has come to be known as the Eastern Ontario Gold Belt.
Origin of Placer Gold
Weathering, erosion and the effects of glacial activity worked the rock for millions of years, and evidence suggests this mechanical activity likely removed more than a few tons of gold from the rock and washed it into the rivers, streams, creeks and lakes where it became trapped in the gravels and sediment. I find this easy to believe because most of gold mines in this area were discovered as small veins or grains of visible metallic gold at the surface of the rock.
The formation of gold nuggets appears to involve the action of sea water and a very particular set of geological circumstances and chemistry (more about gold & carbon). A number of these components seem to have been absent from the geologic history of the Madoc area, and this likely accounts for the absence of "classical" placer gold nuggets such as found in California and the Yukon. Indeed, I have never heard a single report of anyone finding a "classic" placer gold nugget in this part of Ontario.
There are a few stories of "nuggets" having been found in this area, but my research suggests these were rock fragments containing visible gold. In the case of Ontario's first gold mine at Eldorado, the "nuggets" were small fragments of gold that had been dissolved out of the rock by the action of acidic water.
Again, there are stories, but the only gold I should expect in the streams and rivers in this part of Ontario would be very fine flour gold removed from the rock by the decomposition of pyrite, natural erosion and grinding action of glaciers.
The Gold "Carat"
The "carat" is an old measure of purity based on 24 parts (~4.04%) or divisions of the "whole". Pure gold is 24 carats. Adding one (1) carat of silver (4.04%) produces 23 carat (~96%) gold. The gold "carat" is different from the gem "carat" which is one seventh of a gram. Most placer gold is around 21-22 carats (86- 92% purity). Pure gold, and even placer gold, has a "glow" about it that most yellow-tarnished pyrite could never match. When you see the two side by side, the difference is unmistakable.
Years ago, I met with a jeweller, and in the space of an hour was able to develop a better eye for the color differences between 12 and 24 carat gold. Next time you are in a jewellery store, I strongly recommend you take time to familiarize yourself with the deep rich color of 22-24 carat gold. If you are wearing a gold wedding band, most likely it is 12 or 14 carat (pure gold is too soft to be durable), and once you learn to recognize the color difference between 22-24 carat gold and the wedding band, you can use this as means of comparison. The other way is to carry a gold nugget with you, and use this for color comparisons. In time, the distinction will become more and more obvious.
The Trickery of Mica
Probably the first time you pan at any of the creeks and small streams in this area, your first glance into the pan will give you quite a rush. Even before you start working the pan, you will be inclined to fall silent, not wanting to let on that you lucked into the motherlode of placer gold because you will probably see lots of bright shiny yellow flakes in the pan. In spite of their beguiling appearance and perhaps your strong inclination to believe the wondrous yellow flakes are gold, odds are you are in the process of learning just how tricky mica can be.
Because there is a lot of granite around here and granite contains mica, you can expect to find the tricky stuff in every creek, stream and river you come across.
Mica comes in a variety of colors including black, white, brown, yellow, green and red. The only one I have not seen around here is red. The color of mica is, in part, a result of its iron content. The iron-rich magma and volcanic rock in this area has influenced the formation of dark colored micas ranging from yellow-brown to a deep brown-black variety known as Muscovite mica. While larger pieces of mica will show a distinctive color, when it gets ground down into tiny pieces, most of the color is lost and it all tends to adopt a yellow-brown color.
Mica is formed in layers much thinner than a sheet of paper, and these grow one on top the other, building a "book" of thin sheets. A hundred years ago, large books of mica were carefully peeled apart in thin layers about 1/16 inch thick and used as fire-proof windows in wood stoves, and as electrical insulators. Even today, it is still commonly used to support the heater wires in electric bread toasters.
Although you can bend thin sheets of mica, when subjected to the grinding effects of glaciers and gravel, the "books" are worn away at the edges producing very thin little flakes. Capillary action will draw water into the microscopic spaces between the sheets, and this enhances the reflectivity of the mica and often creates a pearly iridescent yellow hue - this is the really tricky stuff that will raise your pulse rate when you look in the pan. Even after 40 years, it often still manages to fool me at first glance.
Things to Remember About Mica
1) Mica is thousands of times more abundant than gold. If you suspect most of the yellow stuff in your pan is mica, you will probably be right. People have gone swimming in some of the lakes around here and come out with their skin and hair peppered with thousands of tiny glistening golden flakes of mica. 2) Mica is 5 times lighter than gold and is very easily stirred up from the sand and gravel. It will be among the first and easiest materials to cast out of the pan. Beware, however, because some mischievous little flakes will stay behind to tease you. 3) Mica is flexible to some degree and will spring back if not bent too far, but it also has somewhat of a brittle nature. If you poke it with a pin, most times it will break apart into even smaller flakes whereas gold will dent and spread like soft lead. 4) Mica will change color as you tilt the pan. Hold the pan one way, the mica might be a wonderful gold color, but as you tilt the pan, most of the color will disappear. Mica gathers its color from reflected light much more dramatically than gold, and will lose its color when the flakes are tilted in another direction. Gold flakes appear to "glow", and will maintain this glow no matter how the pan is tilted. If the gold color disappears when you tilt the pan, its probably not gold. 5) If you look close along the shoreline shallows you can get an early clue as to the how much trouble you will have with mica. Mica tends to form a thin yellow line in the sand right inside the edge of the water line. If you look close, you will probably notice that some of the mica flakes will drift back and forth ever so slightly coincident with the ripples coming into shore. 6) Make sure you bring a 10x pocket magnifier and a pin or needle to help you distinguish between gold and some of the trickier more beguiling mica.
Another Tricky Contender: Fools Gold
Fools gold is a interesting mixture of iron and sulphur known as iron pyrite or, simply, pyrite. If you add a bit of arsenic, the result is arsenopyrite. Add copper instead of arsenic, and it becomes copper pyrite known as chalcopyrite. It is thought that pyrite is produced by the action of sulphur-rich volcanic water in contact with iron rich volcanic rocks. Under ideal conditions, iron pyrite will form cubes, sometimes with flattened corners and lightly ridged mirror-bright faces.
Pyrite is very common around here, usually in the "massive" non-crystalline form as veins and stringers laced through the rock. Cubes are more rare, and the largest I have found are generally less than 1/4" across. The arsenic-added variety, arsenopyrite, forms into stubby lightly ridged flattened blades that have a chrome-plated appearance.
Exposed to the environment, the pyrite will begin to oxidize, forming a tarnish that begins as a vary pale yellow , progresses to a deep yellow and finally matures into a deep brown color. Large veins of "massive" (non-crystalline) iron pyrite is equally susceptible to developing an oxide tarnish that mimics gold.
Arsenopyrite seems much more resistant to tarnishing, and even when ground up into little bits in the gravel tends to maintain its bright silver-chrome color.
Chalcopyrite, which is much more rare around here, tends to tarnish with a greenish tint, sometimes a dull red-brown. However, I have found plum-sized clusters of bladed Chalcopyrite crystals that felt unusually heavy for their size and were tarnished to such a beautiful deep rich gold color that I had to scratch one of them to be sure it was not an unusual crystalline alloy of gold.How to Tell the Difference Between Pyrite and Gold
1) Iron pyrite oxidized to a rich yellow color has been mistaken for gold for thousands of years, hence the nickname "fools gold". While I have seen some pyrites that were a good match for 22 carat placer gold, most yellow-tarnished pyrite is actually closer to 10-12 carat gold which is noticeably more pale (more silver-white) than pure gold. 2) Even though pyrite has a high iron content and feels surprisingly heavy for its size, it is less than 1/4 the weight of gold. 3) Pyrite is brittle, and if tapped with a pointed tool, will shatter into various sizes of sharp-edged silver colored fragments. Because of its soft malleable lead-like nature, gold will not shatter, and this is one of the best ways to distinguish between these 2 materials in the field. 4) The golden tarnish of pyrite is only a surface effect. If you scratch tarnished pyrite or rub it with a stone, the abrasion will reveal fresh silver-colored pyrite that will tell you it's not gold. 5) If you rub gold against a rock, the gold will leave yellow streaks on the rock whereas pyrite will leave dull silver grey-black streak.
Stories About Panning in the Madoc Area
There are a number of stories about people who have panned and sluiced gold in this part of Ontario with some success, including one about a university professor who is said to have supported himself for several years during the Great Depression (1930's) by panning gold from the creeks north and north-east of Madoc. I had heard this story a number of times before running into an older gentleman who as a young boy, had worked with the professor for several weeks and distinctly remembers helping him gather yellow gold dust into a small bottle. He also said the professor used a sluice box of his own design.
A footnote to this story would be that in order to "survive" in the early 30's, the professor would need to collect several ounces per month which would equate to $2/day (raw gold at ~$30/oz). He apparently told several people that he earned more panning gold than he did working at the university.
There is another story about high school teacher from Toronto used to come each summer and pan gold from the Black River south of Queensborough (7 km NE of Madoc) and north of Hwy #7. Other than a few people who remember seeing the teacher at different locations for days at time, there is no confirmation of his success. Logic would suggest, however, that someone would not likely come back to the same area year after year if nothing was ever found.
I personally know someone who has small success panning in the area east of Madoc and around Kaladar, but it has taken a lot of work, e.g. the amount recovered was small compared to the hours involved.The Real Challenge with Flour Gold
In summary, although I have occasionally found small flakes and tiny grains, I have never found any coarse flakes or nuggets similar to Sutters Mill or the Klondike. What gold is here is so very fine it tends to be most nearly invisible. So if you come here to practise and try your luck for color in the pan, be prepared to cope with the challenge of capturing very fine flour gold. It is very elusive and will run out of your pan as easily as the water. Sluice Boxes & the Golden Fleece
Sluice boxes are better at capturing fine flour gold than the gold pan alone. The purpose of the sluice box is to simulate the turbulence and flow variations of the natural environment that cause gold to be deposited on the downstream side of rocks and boulders in a creek or river. The only difference is that with a sluice, the gold is deposited at the uphill side of the ribs because there is not (or should not be) enough water flow to lift the gold up and over the ribs. Water flow is perhaps the most important adjustment necessary for best success.
A sluice box is simply a wooden trough about 12 inches on a side and perhaps 4 feet (or more) long. The trough has 2 sides and a bottom with one end closed. A piece of wood about 4 inches high is fitted side to side and fastened to the bottom of the box about 18 inches away from the closed end. This creates a 4 inch deep reservoir to hold the fine gravel and sand.
A series of small wooden ribs (3/8 to 1/2 inch square) are fitted tight between the sides of the trough, aligned perpendicular to the length and fastened to the bottom of the sluice. It is fairly easy to find the plans needed to construct a good sluice.
The sluice is set at a downhill angle so that water poured into the upper end end will overflow the reservoir and run downhill over the ribs and out the lower end. As the water runs over the ribs, the flow is interrupted and this causes the heavier materials being carried by the water to be deposited on the upside base of the rib. The heavier material would, of course, ideally be gold. The tilt of the sluice and water flow have to be adjusted to produce the best effect.
A quantity of sand and fine gravel is dumped in the reservoir at the top end of the sluice. When a sufficient flow of water is poured onto the sand/gravel, it will carry some of the sand with it as it overflows the reservoir, and will wash the sand over the ribs and out the bottom of sluice. Any coarse particles of gold hidden in the sand should be deposited at the base of the ribs when everything is working well. A small squeeze-bulb meat baster or the oversize syringe used by panners is handy way to "suck up" the gold and place it into a jar.
Many years ago, miners working with sluice boxes figured out they could capture some of the fine gold by running the water at the lower end of the sluice over a piece of sheep's wool. The fine gold got trapped in the fibers, and when the fleece became suitably filled with gold, it was burned in a metal pan and the gold recovered from the ashes. This was the likely origin of the legendary "Golden Fleece".
More contemporary materials such as carpet are reported to work reasonably well. More recently, "blankets" made of specially woven materials have been designed specifically for this purpose and are reported to produce the best results yet. These are available from panning and prospecting equipment suppliers. These materials are not generally burned, but rather rolled up and allowed to dry before the gold is removed by holding them above a sheet of paper or plastic and tapping them to release the gold.
In the 1800's, mercury was used to collect the gold from pans and sluices. The gold "refineries" in the Madoc area crushed the gold ore to the consistency of fine sand and this was mixed with water and washed over copper plates coated with mercury. Gold will "dissolve" (amalgamate) in mercury, forming "amalgam of gold". As the mercury accumulated the gold, it turned yellow and eventually acquired the granular texture commonly associated with amalgam of gold.
Periodically, the copper sheets were removed from the system, and the yellow amalgam scraped from the copper using a spatula. The amalgam was then placed into iron kettles and heated to drive off the mercury. The highly poisonous mercury vapors could be collected, cooled and distilled back into liquid mercury. It was a hazardous process.
In the mid to late 1800's, miners would cut a pocket in a raw potato, put the gold amalgam into the hole and set the potato in a fire to burn off the mercury. When the charred potato was taken from the fire and crushed, a pale yellow "button" of gold would emerge from the ashes.
There are stories about miners who had naive partners that could be tricked into sitting downwind from the burning potato. Many died of mercury poisoning or went crazy like the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland who was in the later stages of mercury poisoning from the mercury used in the "felting" process to make top hats. It was a common affliction among miners and hatters alike.
The Nemesis of Panning Fine Gold: Oil
Fine gold does an interesting thing: It likes to get trapped in oil. Even a thin film of oil is enough to float the fine gold on the surface of the water and carry it out of the pan. Oil from your hands and minute traces in the water from the decay of forest litter can go a long way toward carrying the tiny particles of gold out of the pan.
This is why the old panners used to put their metal pans in the campfire - it burned off the oil film that was deposited along with perspiration from their hands. Another trick is to rub the pans out with dry sand to remove traces of oil. Liquid dish detergent also works well, and is much more convenient. Use a few drops to wash your hands and scrub the pan several times a day to retard the accumulation of oils, and this will help keep more of the fine gold in the pan.
Finding the Best Place to Pan
Many of the smaller creeks north of the highway are generally good places to try. Just stop by the side of the road, get out your pan and see what you can find. I recommend you do not venture out into the rivers in this area as they tend to have uneven footing and sudden drops, and can be deceptively fast and deep most of the year. The smaller creeks and streams are your best bet, particularly in August and September when the water is lower and moving more slowly. There is gold here, but its challenging to find and keep in the pan.
Be advised the Government of Ontario has a Policy for Mineral Collecting which also specifically includes panning for gold. Results of Sampling
I have taken sand, silt and fine gravel samples from more than 150 locations north, west and east of Madoc (south of Madoc is clay and gravel over limestone), and have yet to see any more than an occasional flake even at 25X. These samples, however, really only indicate the absence of nuggets and grains, and that was the purpose of the exercise, e.g. I was checking to see if any particular area produced small grains and coarse to medium-fine free gold. Ten of these samples were chemically tested and all 10 were positive for the presence of gold. My conclusion was consistent with the most reliable stories, this being that the free gold in the Madoc area consists of a very fine flour which is quite difficult to capture.
Now that I have said this, someone will probably turn over a rock next month and find a nest of flakes. Gold is like that - it often turns up where you least expect it to be. Remember the old adage: Gold is where you find it.FOOTNOTE: Mosquitos & West Nile Virus
Be prepared to contend with the mosquitos. Be sure you bring a good repellant because mosquitos and no-see-ums (tiny biting flies) in the weeds and underbrush, especially around water, can be quite a distraction depending on wind and temperature conditions. The use of bug repellant has lately become a particularly wise precaution due to the potential risk of being bitten by a mosquito carrying West Nile Virus. Most of the time, mosquitos feed on nectar and plant secretions. Male mosquitos don't bite - its only the female, and then not until she's getting ready to produce eggs. She needs the blood protein to manufacture the eggs, and in the course of the egg development, she will bite twice about 6-10 days apart. If the first host she bites is carrying an infection, she will pass the infection on to her second host about a week later.
More About Gold & Madoc Area Mines
Larry Bass Prospecting & Gold Panning Site
Great site with lots of info and gold prospecting links.
Desert Gold Diggers Site
Excellent site for gold prospectoring. Includes techniques to help you
avoid being tricked by yellow stuff that looks like gold.
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