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, represented by Oregon, California and the Obama Administration have all 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 have suction dredges as well as the myriad of mining tools available to the dredger such as a gold pan, shovel and sluice box. 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 our claims near Hardrock, 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. An unfortunate experience with a boulder earned him the nickname.
We asked him how he was doing.
"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 tedious. They won't let you wash the dirt back into the river so I have to haul the dirt up to my truck, 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." he 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 how to mine while still protecting the environment." 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 said.
"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.
"Do you think it would go quicker with a dredge?" I asked.
"Maybe, but they tell me it frighten the birds and causes 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." 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.
"Apparently not." I replied.
"You look a little tore up, did you run into a mountain lion?" I asked.
"This?" He said, pointing at his scratched 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."
"You mean all this willow and alder?" 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.
"Do you figure the next flood will rip it out again?" I asked.
"I imagine it will be the same as last time, it will just go through and rip it all out, tear out the bars, lay down new gravel and open up some new areas, this river can really get up during a spring flood." Joe said.
"I don't suppose that would be damaging riparian vegetation." I told him.
"Not if nature does it. The enviros are cool with a river ripping it all out, but I can't prune any branches out the way because it's not natural." Joe told me.
"How'd you get the nickname?" I had to ask.
"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.
"I guess the spring floods don't bother them so much. Wait, don't tell me, it's natural, but a gold pan isn't." I said.
"Yeah, you see you're learning already, we'll make a dredger out of you yet." Joe replied.