Growing Up Alaska: Witching

When I was young, I thought my dad couldn’t read. I rarely saw him pick up a book and the ones he did were heavily illustrated. It turns out he had dyslexia, but he was absolutely brilliant. This made it difficult at times to know if he was pranking you or being completely serious. The following story is an example of this.

When I was a teenager, both of my older brothers were gone and this left me with a majority of the chores and responsibilities that they once had. This meant assisting dad whenever he went to work on one of his projects. On this particular occasion, it was drill testing some mining claims for a friend and a client.

I had spent many days of my youth assisting my dad out in the field and seeing some of the strange things that he did and rarely explained. So it was no surprise to me when dad set off through the brush before we started. He looked over the creek and checked the trees before returning to the trailer and unloading the drill rig.

It had been a hard year financially with a lot of setbacks and this drilling operation would help lessen the blow on the winter ahead. I saw dad’s expression as the owner of the claim drove up; he wasn’t expecting good news.

As he’d expected, the claim owner hadn’t been able to come up with the money for my dad to put down the 30+ holes to assay the claim. Like us, this miner had had a pretty rough year and was even thinking of closing his operation early since he didn’t have any good thawed ground to mine.

They talked back and forth and I watched my dad’s eyes narrow. He didn’t blame the man, but he was concocting a plan. The man offered to pay for my dad’s fuel and apologized profusely.

“Can you pay for six holes? I can find you good thawed pay within six holes. If I don’t, it will just cost you the fuel.”

The miner scratched at his head as he leaned on the front of our truck and I could see him thinking about it. After a few minutes he shook his head and said, “You can find thawed pay in six holes?”

“It’ll only cost you fuel if I don’t,” dad replied.

They shook on it and dad told me to prep the drill rig. He went around to the toolbox and pulled out a two inch steel washer and some string that he cut into a three foot length.

He tied the washer to the string as he walked off and the miner just stared after him. Many people had heard about what dad could do, but even after all he’d done, many thought it was luck.

“Is he serious?” the miner asked before turning back to his truck to get his jacket.

I just grinned and loaded the drill rig before taking off after dad. By the time I reached him, he’d cut a section from a young willow and was dousing, or witching for water.

I watched as he walked through the brush along the edge of a copse of spruce. I wouldn’t have believed that you could really find water this way unless I had done it myself. And sure enough, after a few paces, the twisted rod dipped towards the ground.

Dad tied a piece of survey ribbon to the nearest branch and moved off to another area. By this time the miner had shown up and we watched as dad worked for nearly 45 minutes until he found the edges of the main flow of water indicating where thawed ground could be.

With the area marked off, dad strode out to the middle of the claim, took out the washer and string and squatted down. He danged the washer about a half a foot off the ground and watched it.

The washer spun at first, one way, then the other, until the energy stored in the string was released. Each time it slowed down, dad stopped it by placing it on the ground.

Once it had stopped spinning, dad got really still and let the washer hang. We stared and the washer slowly started arching in a very shallow oblong circle. I couldn’t tell if it was dad swaying or something else affecting the washer, and the miner thought so too.

After a few minutes of us all staring in silence, dad stood up and said, “Not here.” He then marched off in the direction the washer had been swinging before repeating the process.

It didn’t take as long for the string to unwind, so dad grew quiet and this time the swing was obvious. It swung nearly half an inch in a very oblong circle. Despite the cool fall air, I could see dad was sweating from concentration.

His eyes followed the direction of the swinging washer and he stood up and walked that way. He hesitated after about sixty feet, then walked a little farther before squatting down.

Amazingly, this time, the washer swung the other way. It wasn’t as strong as the last one, but you could definitely see it. This time, dad moved into a different orientation and tried again. The washer slowly swung and it appeared to be shaking too.

Dad looked up and grinned and the miner remarked with skepticism, “You’re full of shit!”

Dad just grinned and stood up. “Matt, this is hole number three. Run and get a stake.”

I sprang up and ran to the drill rig and pulled one of the survey stakes out along with a hammer. When I returned, the miner and dad were discussing the drill plan. Dad was holding the willow stick again and was saying, “This should be the edge of the old creek bed with water at about 10-12 feet. The pay should stretch that way.”

I drove the stake in and ran to catch up. Dad stopped close to where he’d hesitated early and swatted down. This time the washer swung in a wider arch and off center from the other two readings.

He dug his heal into the ground and then paced off a few steps before squatting down again. He observed the washer, then made another whole with his heel before walking off in a different direction.

Again he squatted down, only this time, the washer didn’t swing as wildly. Instead it spun in a lazy circle and when it reached a certain spot, I could see the washer hop and wiggle before continuing on its arc.

Dad dropped the washer and pulled out the willow branch and tightened it. It bobbed and after a few seconds, he said to the miner who stood there with his mouth open, “This is the middle of the old channel. The pay starts at about 10 feet and the water starts at 12-15 feet.”

“This is whole number one,” he told me as he made an x on the ground with the heel of his boot.

“Are you sure?” the miner asked in disbelief.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” dad said as he and the miner walked back to the drill rig.

I staked the spot and guided dad in to punch the first hole. The ground was thawed and it only took us about fifteen minutes to sink it. I sorted samples as they came up and just as dad had said, at about 9 1/2 feet we ran into old channel gravel and a couple of feet later we his water.

I classified the material with a screen and dad panned out the samples while I reset the rig. The top of the gravels held very little gold, but the layer just above the water had nearly 20 colors. Wet gravel doesn’t show as well as the gold tries to travel down, but we still got some color out of that pan and the gold was larger.

We drilled halfway between the first hole and the planned third hole. Each hole showed promise, though the third hole was a thin layer of pay gravel that only gave us 7 colors per pan.

The miner showed up as dad was figuring out the other three holes and dad showed him each pan, first starting with hole 3. The miner nodded grimly until dad showed him the second pan which had 13 colors and the miner explained that was what they had mined for most of the year.

Dad just grinned as he pulled the sample for the first hole. The miners eyes went wide and he asked, “Is that from the whole hole?”

Dad shook his head and showed him his notebook where he’d drawn the strata. “That comes from a foot above the water. Bedrock is at 19 feet and 8 inches. The rocks are bigger and so is the gold.”

The miner stared at the pans and talked excitedly to dad as they walked away. I loaded the drill rig and drove it back to hole one. The miner had run off and dad was witching the ground again.

We ended up drilling 4 more holes by the end of the day and the miner had returned with a back hoe to dig a test pit.

Dad laid out the maps for him showing the general direction of the old channel and the thawed areas. There would be more than enough good pay for the end of the season and to start the next year while the rest of the ground thawed.

Before we left, dad secured three more holes to dig the next day with the promise to get paid out of the next cleanup.

On the long drive home, I worked up the courage to ask dad if he’d been pulling the guy’s leg with the washer thing. He grinned and winked and said, “It worked.”

I felt disappointed until dad continued, “Witching isn’t a science. I don’t totally understand how it works, why it works and why sometimes it doesn’t work.”

It took him nearly the whole trip home for him to explain his theory behind it, but to sum it up, he believed that people find gold precious and are literally drawn to it. Gold actually repels magnetic fields and dad theorized the body is drawn to this lower magnetism in the earth causing you to sway.

We tested this many times and proved that it wasn’t the body swaying that caused the motion, because it only worked with a steel or iron washer. A plastic or aluminum or other metal washer didn’t work.

He assumed that gold does give off some sort of field that can change the magnetic field which we tried with compasses. Over known areas of gold in the ground, the needle would slightly wobble or be pushed up or down, but not normally to the side. The affect only happened when someone was holding the compass.

The same testing showed that the washer also had to be held on a string by a person and not just hung from a tripod or something.

To this day I can not explain what causes the washer to react the way it does, but my dad had read about it from a miners hundreds of years ago. It was laughed at as not possible, but on that day, and many other days afterwards, it worked.

Whatever the answer might be, I am still skeptical, not because I don’t think it works, I’ve seen and done it, but I am skeptical because I can not explain it.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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