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By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Alaskan dreams of finding the mother lode

After more than 30 years of prospecting, Herschbach fears gold-seeking opportunities will peter out in face of anti-mining initiatives


Last updated 3/30/2008 at Noon

When Steve Herschbach began his personal quest to find the mother lode with a metal detector on Moore Creek in Alaska's Iditarod Gold District in 1973, gold prices averaged about $70 an ounce. Nearly 35 years later, the 49-year-old miner may be nearing his goal at the very place he started looking.

Herschbach was 14 years old when he talked his dad into giving him a front row seat on a gold hunting expedition by airplane to Flat in southwest Alaska. Young Herschbach had research the property and was ready to do some prospecting. To his dismay, the area he chose was already crawling with miners and prospectors, and there was no place left for the young prospector to look.

Disappointed, the father and son team turned the plane back toward their home in Anchorage. On the return trip, the pair spotted some old abandoned mine workings on Moore Creek, and landed the plane and did some prospecting.

When the younger Herschbach did not have much luck finding gold with his metal detector, a change in techniques panned out for the duo. Finding a good source, the pair was able to return home with a significant amount of gold. Ever since that first prospecting trip to the region, Moore Creek has held Herschbach's attention and inspired in him a dream to discover the lode source for the area.

Herschbach acquires Moore Creek claims

The father-son duo soon discovered that they were inadvertently "claim jumping" the mining claims of an old-timer in the area. Over the years, the Herschbachs frequented the area and got to know Don Harris, the old-timer who owned the claims.

Though he tried, Steve Herschbach was never able to convince Harris to sell the claims to him. But the subsequent owner, who knew of Herschbach's interest in the property, offered to sell him the claims in 2003.

Herschbach, his dad and two other partners joined forces to form Moore Creek Mining LLC and purchased 480 acres of mining claims.

Three decades after their first fateful trip to Moore Creek, the father and son team flew out to their newly purchased claims. This trip was not to prospect, even if they did make a little time for it, but to stake up an additional four claims, giving them a total of 1,000 acres on Moore Creek.

New owners discover coarse placer

Anxious to explore the mine as soon as weather permitted the following spring, Herschbach, along with three family members, loaded up his father's plane with gear and headed out to prospect for gold.

Dredging turned out to be mediocre due to their dredges' limited ability to suck up coarse gold common at Moore Creek, the trip overall was a success. While Herschbach was recovering smaller (rarely larger than a quarter ounce) gold with his six-inch dredge, his cousin Bob discovered a 5.13 ounce rock with a huge gold vein running through it. Later testing revealed that the rock's 2.94 ounces of quartz hosted an impressive 2.19 ounce gold vein.

Finding two ounces of gold is a good day for any prospector, but the rock itself excited Herschbach. The coarse gold vein still lodged in the native rock confirmed his belief that the mother lode was close by and might just be in the hills above his claims.

Tenacious prospector searches for eager explorer

Moore Creek Mining staked about 200 additional lode claims at Moore Creek, adding 33,000 claims to the 1,000 acres of placer claims they had purchased.

In 2004, Herschbach loaded a briefcase with samples of the gold he discovered on the Moore Creek property and took it to the annual Alaska Miners Association convention in Anchorage. There he hoped to catch the interest of a larger mining company with resources to explore Moore Creek for its hard rock potential.

Herschbach determined that the Vancouver-based Full Metal Minerals would be the type of company that would take a chance on a prospect like Moore Creek and approached company representatives with his gold-bearing rocks and a presentation designed to convince them that Moore Creek was the place for them to explore.

The folks from Full Metal politely listened, examined the rocks, and told Herschbach that they would look into it.

Time passed and Herschbach heard nothing from Full Metal. Instead, he worked on a plan to generate cash-flow with the property, using a pay-to-mine operation on the claims. The plan offers prospectors a place to hunt for gold in exchange for paying a flat fee.

The pay-to-mine business turned out to be a good one in 2005, with eager prospectors frequently unearthing gold nuggets ranging from one to six ounces in size. The most spectacular find that summer was a 24.79 ounce chunk of gold-rich quartz discovered by a visitor from Pennsylvania.

That fall, a tenacious Herschbach returned to the miners' convention and again approached Full Metal. This time he succeeded in getting their attention. It wasn't long before Rob McLeod, the company's vice president of exploration, called and expressed interest in taking a closer look at Moore Creek.

Full Metal options Moore Creek

In May 2006, Full Metal agreed to purchase the lode claims held by the Moore Creek Mining Co.

That summer, Moore Creek experienced a population explosion. While Full Metal's geologists were exploring the 200-plus surrounding claims looking for the lode-source, nearly 65 pay-to-mine prospectors were searching for placer gold that had eroded from that source.

Full Metal's team turned up some good results from samples taken in 2006, and the company decided to trench some targets discovered by their geologist.

Getting even the smallest of excavators into Moore Creek to do trenching was a logistics challenge. The airstrip is only large enough to land planes with a 4,000-pound payload and a small excavator weighs 16,000 pounds. So the trenching machine had to be disassembled and flown in piece by piece and reassembled on site.

In July, when the ground thawed enough to start trenching, Full Metal crews returned to Moore Creek and started trenching for gold. After about 10 days, the geologists had not turned up anything exciting, so the company pulled out.

Herschbach began to think his dream of discovering the Moore Creek mother lode would remain just a dream. But McLeod called again, saying Full Metal wanted to take another look.

The decision to return to Moore Creek turned out to be a good one for all parties involved. Three zones of mineralization - Spring, Troy, and Broken Shovel zones - were discovered during the phase-2 trenching program.

It wasn't long before Herschbach got a call from McLeod telling him that early assay results were showing good mineralization over large areas.

Spring, Troy and Broken Shovel

At the Spring zone, Full Metal completed seven trenches spanning 300 meters of the strike length. The best intersect was 8.86 grams per metric ton of gold over a span of 11 meters in Trench 20. All the trenches in the Spring zone encountered gold mineralization along their entire length, leaving the prospect open in all directions.

The Troy zone is just to the north of the Spring zone. Trenching in Troy intersected quartz veins hosting strong, coarse gold mineralization running in a large zone of lower grade mineralization. One quartz vein was sampled in three locations over a 50 meter span of the strike length. One 0.2 meter intersect of this vein had an assay return of 88.53 g/t gold.

Three trenches were completed at the Broken Shovel prospect about 200 meters north of Troy. All three trenches encountered gold mineralization. The best of the three averaged 0.7 g/t gold along its length.

Full Metal brings partner to Moore Creek

Last August Full Metal inked a joint venture agreement with the Vancouver-based Highbury Projects Inc. The pact allows Highbury to earn 60 percent interest in the Moore Creek property by spending $2.1 million on exploration. Full Metal will be the operator for the first two years.

Herschbach told Mining News that the first loads of supplies and personnel were sent to Moore Creek Mar. 19. Crews will get the camp set up and clear the airstrip to bring in the drill and additional supplies needed for the 2008 exploration season.

Jodie Gibson, exploration geologist for Full Metal, told attendees at the Alaska Miners Association Fairbanks Biennial Mining Conference Mar. 20 that the first crew sent in to set up camp at Moore Creek encountered nearly six feet of snow and it could take a little longer than expected to prepare drilling.

Gibson told Mining News that the airstrip is cleared and equipment is being delivered. Drilling is planned to begin in April.

3,000 plus meter program scheduled

The new JV is planning a 3,000 meter phase-1 drill program. Gibson said Full Metal will drill the Spring and Troy zones on 100 meter centers along strike length. The exploration geologist said gold grades seem to be increasing to the southeast, and step-out drilling is planned in that direction to test for mineralization. The company also hopes to locate the Iditarod-Nixon Fault with the step-out drilling. The huge Donlin Creek gold deposit is located 55 miles from Moore Creek on the other side of the Iditarod-Nixon Fault.

Full Metal also designated a drill rig to be flown to the project site and remain there for the entire season. If the phase-1 assay results are encouraging, a phase-2 program is anticipated for the remainder of the 2008 season.

Gibson said the company is intrigued by the mineralization of the area and will have a 100 percent analysis performed on the samples from the phase-1 drill program.

He said the company also will conduct an extensive mapping and ground geophysical program of several monzonite targets on the Moore Creek property. Maybe Creek, Camel Back, Deadwood Creek and Willow will be the targets scrutinized. Depending on the results of early sampling, a trenching program may be conducted to further explore the targets.

Gibson said he will compare the mineralization of the Willow prospect with mineralization discovered at the Troy and Spring zones to the south across Willow Creek.

32 years of selling recreational mining equipment

Herschbach, meanwhile, continues to operate Alaska Mining and Diving Supply, a business he started in 1976 with high school buddy Dudley Benesch, who shared his passion for gold prospecting. The young entrepreneurs started out selling metal detectors, gold dredges, and related diving equipment.

The timing for a gold-hunting business could not have been more opportune. Gold prices averaged about $130 per ounce in 1976, nearly double what they were when Herschbach first visited Moore Creek three years earlier. By 1980 the price of gold had reached the staggering price of $850 per ounce.

Over the years, the Alaskan entrepreneurs have seen gold prices dip as low as $100 per ounce, and most recently, soar past $1,000 per ounce. Meanwhile, they expanded their store to included wood stoves, chainsaws, boats, outboards, and snow machines. Diversity allowed the business to prosper through the long Alaska winters and the ups and downs in gold prices.

Anti-mining initiatives worry Herschbach

These days a big worry for Herschbach is the anti-mining initiatives headed to the ballot in August. He said he is not only concerned that the initiatives might dash his hopes for making the big discovery, but also about the effect they will have on his anticipated small-scale placer operation.

As part of his agreement with Full Metal, Herschbach has retained the right to mine the placer gold on Moore Creek. With gold prices flirting with $1,000 per ounce, he hopes to start mining soon.

Though his placer operation would be small in scale, Herschbach is concerned because it would include 1,000 acres of mining claims and the ambiguous wording of the initiatives targets "metallic mines in excess of 640 acres," and could be interpreted to include his operation.

"Explain to me how I am to placer mine my more than 640 acres for Metallic Minerals without storing tailings within 1,000 feet of the water," he wrote in a recent letter to an Alaska newspaper. "There are no salmon in my creek, but we are a tributary to one that has salmon. If you count just streams that are tributaries to the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Copper rivers, you are talking a lot of streams.

"This mom-and-pop miner would be out of business. It would, in fact, crush the childhood dreams of a lifelong Alaskan. I dreamt of making that big strike, and am on the verge of making it happen. And now these people want to wipe me out. All in their vendetta to kill Pebble," he wrote.

Herschbach, meanwhile, is gearing up for a busy summer. High gold prices mean Alaska Mining & Diving is set for its busiest summer in two decades. More than 50 people with dreams of Alaska gold have signed up for Herschbach's pay-to-mine operation.

Moore Creek Mining will be working toward establishing a placer mine on Moore Creek, and the company also will support Full Metal in its exploration efforts.

Herschbach may see his dream come true, after all.


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