In Alberta, gold is almost always found as tiny particles mixed with streambed sand and gravel, referred to as placer deposits. The gold dust itself is commonly called flour gold and is often associated with black sand, which consists of other heavy minerals. Prospectors should check the inside curve of watercourse bends, the upstream end of sand and gravel bars, the downstream sides of boulders and other obstructions, and areas where streams have overflowed for black sand, which settles out in these spots as stream currents slow down. Flour gold is normally found near the surface of placer deposits and may even be trapped in the roots of vegetation. It ranges in color from light yellow to coppery or rusty yellow; pyrite or fools gold can be distinguished from real gold by its brittleness and brassy color.
Although the easiest and cheapest method of locating placer deposits and recovering the gold is by panning, it can also be concentrated through placer mining, the process of washing sediments through a mechanical extracting device such as a sluice box or rocker. Placer mining does not require filing a claim, however, a license must be obtained from the Coal and Mineral Development Unit of Alberta Department of Energy before setting up any equipment. Valid for five years and costing $50.00 + GST, the license allows a prospector to occupy any one location for a maximum of 14 days. After two weeks, the operation must move elsewhere, generally at least 100 metres downstream. Permission must be obtained from the leaseholder or landowner if access to the watercourse passes through private or occupied Crown land. Before placer mining can be carried out within a town, park, recreation area or historic site, permission must be obtained from the appropriate administering agency. Restrictions exist on some rivers.
Prospectors must also follow guidelines outlined in the Metallic and Industrial Minerals Tenure Regulation, which is available from the Alberta Department of Energy. Since placer mining can damage stream banks, disrupt stream ecology and fish habitat, and interfere with existing land and water uses in the area, it is important to follow the regulations. Designated officials and the police can check prospectors and their operations to make sure they have a valid license and are complying with the regulations.
Among other concerns, the regulations prohibit placer mining on Crown land that is under lease to someone else, using any mechanical method (e.g. backhoe, dredge, front-end loader) to move material into the sluice-box, and discharging silt-laden wastewater from a sluice box directly into a watercourse. (This water should be drained into a settling pond to allow fine sediments to settle out before it is released into the stream.)
Water channels need to be at least 20 metres wide at the desired location, mercury may not be used within 100 metres of any body of water, and operations may not be set up within 15 metres of another licensee's equipment. The size of pumps and water intake screen mesh is also controlled.
Gold has been found in parts of the Red Deer, North Saskatchewan, McLeod, Athabasca and Peace River Systems. However, the Alberta Government does not produce a map showing the gold-bearing areas.
The following is a summary of the program conducted by Dr. L.B. Halferdahl on the occurrence of gold in Alberta rivers. The survey was conducted by sieving and panning several cubic feet of gravel from the top foot or so of bars and similar places in the beds of most of the major rivers in Alberta. The places sampled were systematically, but fairly widely distributed (20 miles or more) along the rivers. The results showed that all the gold passed a 35 mesh screen and may be described as 'flour gold'. The highest concentrations were found along the North Saskatchewan River in the stretch from Devon (about 25 miles upstream from Edmonton) to near a point due North of Myrnam (about 150 miles downstream from Edmonton). Few, if any, concentrations found during the survey would be considered high enough for economic recovery. The survey was designed to locate areas worthy of detailed sampling. However, the fine nature of the gold and the fact that such gold does not concentrate in pay streaks on bedrock, as shown by drilling conducted here and there by various people during the past half or three-quarters of a century, indicated that more detailed sampling was not worthwhile at present. Prospecting and testing in the stretch of river mentioned above are required to learn whether high enough concentrations of sufficient yardage are present for economic recovery. The chances are not particularly promising, because the gold is so fine grained that the concentrations are not expected to be high enough to make a small operation worthwhile, and the yardage is not expected to be great enough for a large operation.