Prospecting For Iron In Alaska
Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
The solo prospector in his canvas field clothes and skin thick skiff is still king of the rain forest in Southeastern Alaska. Even with all the highly trained field people and their helicopters, it is he who ventures forth across ocean water and in the bush to search for new wealth hidden beneath the green carpet of the vast Tongass National Forest.
The Far North presents the prospector with challenges of extreme remoteness and a lack of roads or trails to get there. This search for mineral deposits in roadless Southeastern Alaska means boats, float planes, rain gear and a tide book in the shirt pocket. The ocean on some days rises and falls twenty feet at the shoreline and one must know about that before getting there.
It's a relatively warm country, because of the Japanese Current. There are January days when an exposed tee-shirt can be worn without discomfort. Years may be spent in the bush near the ocean without seeing more than a skin of ice on the outside water bucket. Lots of rain though, over 100 inches annually .
In Southeastern Alaska prospecting goes on year-round at the lower elevations without great difficulty. There was once a government subsidy promoting this. Under the Prospector's Assistance Program (P.A.P) the Alaska government paid for charter air fare, supplies and assays for bush prospectors. The prospector kept 100% of the claims he staked. Government hands off. As the Alaska Engineer-in-Charge for the region, I made the arrangements, saw the men off and assayed their samples when they got back. With a deal like that no serious prospector waited for the weather to clear.
Nowadays in the American West, with the stigma placed on natural resource production by environmental extremists, such assistance programs no longer exist. Under new statehood status we in Alaska were still anxious to open up its vast mineral potential, including iron. Still today, iron deposits lying near deep salt water may be of interest to steel-producing companies lacking primary ore sources. In Alaska this interest had its first large expansion shortly after World War II. Converting from the manufacture of military equipment to consumer goods had a major impact on the industrial world, including Japan. The Japanese steel industry expanded by leaps and bounds.
In the mid-50's calls from Tokyo to Southeastern Alaska government offices prompted invitations from my office and Commissioner of Mines Phil Holdsworth in Juneau for geologists from Japan to visit. They began arriving in Alaska soon after to look over the iron ore potential along the coastline.
Meanwhile, Southeastern Alaska prospectors used a hat-full of tricks to guide them in their search for both iron and uranium. The Alaska Coastal Pilot was one of these prospecting tools. This marine bible for ship captains described all the water routes from Seattle, through the Inland Passage of the Panhandle, north to Alaska's coastal cities. The book is a detailed log of distances, compass bearings, and marine data put together by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Erratic compass readings, caused by nearby magnetic iron deposits, were noted at many sites. These deviations were known by ship captains from the early voyages and are still considered during fogbound passages today.
The only prospector I ever saw use a copy of the Alaska Coastal Pilot was Bob Kase, of Haines, Alaska. Kase got a 14-foot skiff and put a giant outboard motor on the transom to go look at the land near these historical deviations. He was looking for shore-based magnetite, an iron oxide that makes passing ships' compasses go wacky. Kase had a dip needle, actually a weighted needle compass held vertically, to test the country he walked over. He did well enough to get on U.S. Steel's exploration department payroll, and was credited with several iron-deposit discoveries. During his work Kase sent his little skiff flying across the sometimes unruly Pacific waters, often at 40 mph, and wouldn't risk taking a helper. He was once tree'd for several hours by a persistent grizzly on a trip in the rainforest and had to wait for an angle shot through one eye into the hungry bear's brain with a K-22 pistol.
After the 1940's, when small float planes became the choice method to go from town to the far-away prospecting field, the idea of searching from the air took hold. The obvious advantage was in looking for colorfully altered outcrops indicating metal oxides. These searches proved successful in both Southeastern Alaska and nearby British Columbia. The use of instruments in the air to detect anomalies on the ground soon followed.
Advances in magnetometer sensitivity by the U.S. Navy paved the way. The Navy used magnetometers to detect submerged Nazi wolf pack submarines from low-flying aircraft. The arrival in Alaska of the relatively inexpensive Sharp A-3 "fishbowl" magnetometer in 1958, also expanded the iron prospector's horizon. This unit, introduced by the Alaska Scientific Prospecting Company, was light weight and hand-held. For the first time, a prospector could fly while reading an instrument sensitive to magnetic rock a few hundred feet below. The A-3, from Toronto, was a glorified jewel-bearing dip needle swimming in silicone oil. The airplane had to be all-aluminum, so prospectors were limited to the use of helicopters and the Luscomb fixed wing. Don Ross of Ketchikan, who earlier had discovered the rich Bokan Mountain uranium deposit flying a scintillometer, flew the A-3 in his souped-up, all-aluminum Luscomb. In return for his teaching me to fly his little float plane, I showed Don how to use the magnetometer.
When the A-3 indicated an anomaly while flying fifty feet above treetops, Don would scout for the nearest water to land on, usually the ocean. He stayed with the ship at the beach while I, the ever-helpful state engineer, rushed to the site with the A-3 to perform the initial survey. He would later field a small crew to detail the job.
One anomaly, inland far from salt water, called for a float landing on a pond at the foot of a glacier. When it came time to take off, the plane couldn't do it, not with both of us on board, even with this famed bush pilot at the controls. I had to walk down an ice-cold river to the ocean. Other assistance for the mine-finders included prospecting courses sponsored by the University of Alaska in villages and cities. These were taught by the well-traveled distinguished Professor Leo Mark Anthony, whose specialty was geochemical prospecting.
In the 1950's Canadian companies began arriving in Southeastern Alaska to test the size and iron content of various deposits. Their contract exploration drilling crews and world-class field geologists established reserve estimates on the larger deposits. The U.S. Geological Survey played a major role in examining many iron deposits in Southeastern Alaska during the summer seasons. The USGS navigated a nifty, live-aboard barge outfitted with a heliport up from Seattle.
On one of these five-star trips, up the Bradfield Canal, they hosted a fly-in group of Japanese geologists who took so many iron samples the heavy stuff had to go south on the barge. On that trip I learned many of these visitors from Japan go into shock when the talk turns to bears.
During later telephone calls from Tokyo to me at the Alaska Division of Mines in Ketchikan, a four-day field trip was set up. The objective was to sample iron deposits on Prince of Wales Island, a very large island with logging, a few Indian villages and plenty of bears. The overseas spokesman showed no concern by phone regarding camping or weather. He insisted, however, on having an armed "hunter" along to scare away bears. There were black bears all over the island, but no one got in their berry bushes with them or around their cubs. When I asked prospector Wes Queen if he would hire on to carry his Krag carbine on the trip he readily agreed.
Wes was a tough Alaskan, could go for weeks, a month, in the bush while the sky was falling and come home with a hundred pound pack of samples on one shoulder. I hired a ship to use as a floating hotel. The dilapidated Coast with its crew left a day ahead of my group and dropped anchor off the island. When the visitors arrived from Japan, we all flew across the Inland Passage in an Ellis Airlines Grumman Goose passenger plane.
This was a fairly well-equipped bunch of geologists from Japan's biggest metal companies, friendly fellows in khaki and canvas, lots of cameras. One of the visitors asked Wes if his rifle was big enough to "finish a bear?" Wes assured him his 6.5 Krag could do the job. But the geologist, like his colleagues, was bug-eyed every time the word "bear" came up. He stared at the little hole in the end of Wes's rifle barrel and said, "not possible." With all this deep concern I wondered if they knew something about our little black bears I'd missed.
After everyone got cleaned up there was talk, in two languages, of supper. Wes, still a little agitated by "not possible," let our guests know that steak was on the grill in the galley. There was a gush of excitement, lunch having been missed between the airliner from Tokyo and the eight passenger amphibian now on its way back to Ketchikan.
Seated at the long galley table we were all happily chomping away when the Japanese geologist who had questioned Wes about his Krag carbine said, "This good deer meat." I always considered Wes Queen among the most friendly prospectors in Alaska, but right now he was a little frazzled by "not possible." "No deer," Wes said with a straight face. "Bear meat!" That ended supper. Of course it was venison. However, the visitors quickly unpacked their tinned food from home and sat on deck eating with their chopsticks.
Mt. Jumbo, on Hetta Inlet, was among the deposits we examined over the next few days. We climbed Mt. Jumbo to sample the Magnetite Cliff outcrops. Copper was first mined in 1907 from these contact-metamorphic deposits, with a monetary yield over a few ensuing years of almost $2 million. The high iron content of the Cliff magnetite, 45 percent, would be sufficient to make a mine, but there are only an estimated 400,000 tons present, not enough.
Such is the case throughout Southeastern, except for a large, low-grade titanium-contaminated iron deposit at Union Bay. There are a lot of iron deposits in the Panhandle, but every one containing magnetite is either too small or too lean to make a mine.
Maybe the story will be different prospecting for hematite, the chief nonmagnetic mineral of iron. It's more difficult to find, particularly beneath the vast expanse of thick muskeg covering the Tongass National Forest. Alaska's iron prospectors have their job cut out for them.