With the recent court ruling in Oregon stating there are other forms of mining we decided to test out the State's theory. The government has argued there are other ways to mine gold on a river claim other than using a dredge. They point to the proud history of the 49ers who didn't use suction dredges and did just fine picking nuggets up off the bedrock. Why can't we just go pick them up they ask. Although most dredgers are carefully hidden away in the deep canyons trying to avoid unwanted attention, the ones who are complying with the ban are proudly out in the open.
Last weekend, on the way to the claims on Starvation Creek, we saw one of these dredgers out on the North Fork of the Yuba working away and we thought we'd stop and see how he was doing.
We pulled the truck over and watched for a few minutes as he carried buckets of dirt from the bank back up to the bed of his pickup truck and loaded them in. After a few trips we thought we'd check his progress.
The dredger's name was Joe, he didn't feel inclined to give a last name, and we didn't ask, but he goes by the nickname Flat Hand Joe of the Yuba. Apparently, an unfortunate experience with a boulder earned him the nickname.
"Hey there," I shouted down the bank, "How're you doing with mining under the new regulations?"
"A little slow. I used to run a 5", but I've been experimenting with alternate mining methods as the State has proposed." Joe replied.
"Great, and are you getting any gold?" I asked.
"Well, it's a little slow. They won't let you wash the dirt back into the river so I have to haul the dirt up to my truck, then haul it all the way home to wash, the Water Board says I need a permit to run my sluice box or introduce dirt into the river. According to them that would be a point source discharge and its forbidden." Joe said.
"I guess those spring floods don't introduce any dirt to the river these days, not like they used to." I replied.
"I guess not, but who's to argue with the State? They've got all these scientists who know what they're doing." Joe replied.
"Well, hauling 5 gallon buckets back to your house must be a little tedious, but are you getting any gold?" I asked.
"Not yet, but I'm just moving overburden." Joe replied.
"What do you do with the overburden?" I asked him.
"I'm making a rock garden for the wife." He said.
"How many feet of overburden do you have to go?"
"If I recall it's about 8' in this area, I'm down about 2' and if we don't get any more rains by the end of the summer I may have about 6' moved." Joe said.
"The wife's getting a big rock garden, huh? You think it would go quicker with a dredge?" I asked.
"Maybe, but they tell me the sound of an engine would frighten the birds and might cause the frogs to get agitated, not to mention how it has the potential to rearrange the rocks to the point the fish won't know how to feed anymore. At least that's what the study said." Joe said.
"When you were running a dredge did you notice any of these effects?" I asked him.
"Well no, there aren't any frogs on this creek, the Rainbow Trout ate them and the birds seem to sit in the trees more than they do in the water, but I'm no expert at these sort of things." He said.
"Are all those cuts and scratches on your arms from a mountain lion?" I asked.
"This?" He said, pointing at his arms, legs and the rips in his shirt, "Nah, this is just from walking along the bank. They say I can't injure any riparian vegetation so I've learned to live with it."
"Is that what they call this willow and alder? Riparian vegetation?" I asked.
"Yeah, it wasn't so bad a few years ago when the flood ripped it all out, but it grew back during the drought." Joe replied.
"Wouldn't you think the next flood would just rip it out again, and doing a little trimming wouldn't hurt it?" I asked.
"Apparently they did a study which found ripping the entire tree out doesn't bother it so much, but pruning the branches out of the way could cause it distress." Joe said.
"I didn't know willow trees could be distressed." I told him.
"Yeah, that's what the study found." Joe replied.
"So, I've just got to ask - what happened to the hand?"
"This? Oh, it was nothing, I was trying to hand move a boulder out of my way and it rolled back on my hand, crushed it pretty good. In the old days I would have just hooked a winch up to it, but they tell me moving boulders with a winch takes a special permit, and I'm trying to steer clear of needing a permit." He said.
"Maybe you ought to go ahead and apply just for the winching permit." I told him.
"I already tried that. I called them back in March, I'm still waiting for the onsite inspection. They tell me they've assigned it to their boulder relocation branch and the problem is being studied by their environmental effects division. I've actually got two I'd like to move but at the time I submitted the permit request I only knew about one, so I'm going to have to submit another permit request. I might have it by next summer I think." Joe told me.
"What if we get a spring flood that moves the boulder for you or puts more boulders in your hole?" I asked him.
"Well, again, that's nature doing it, and that's OK, but if I get any new boulders dropped on me I'll have to submit another permit request because I only asked about the one boulder and it would be a different boulder, so I'd need a different permit."
"Bummer." I said.
"Yeah, but patience is the key to complying with the new regulations. I'm still mining just fine, gold production has dropped off about 100% but they were right, you don't need a dredge. With enough effort I should be in the gold again within a few years, if the river doesn't rise."
"Sounds slow." I told him.
"Yeah, but if I move too much material at once I run the risk of traumatizing a fish, according to the scientists the fish need rest times every day. I'm not one to second guess the science, if they say it bothers the fish then I shouldn't be muddying up the water." Joe said.
"Fish get traumatized at certain times of the day?" I asked.
"Yeah, they did a study on it, and apparently fish need 16 hours of non-traumatized rest per day."
"I don't suppose hooking them in the mouth traumatizes them in any way?" I replied. "Wait, don't tell me, they did a study on it."
"Yeah, you see you're learning already, we'll make a dredger out of you yet." Joe replied.