Working the creek with a 5"
A few years back I had bought a claim near Downieville for $6,000. It was in a nice area with decent access but I'd purchased it late in the year and the leaves on the trees were already turning yellow by the time I could get in to sample it. The weather near Downieville can be unpredictable in the fall with some pretty cold nights and frequent fronts passing through which can drop some rain.
I wanted to sample this claim before the weather locked us out of the high country so a couple friends and I packed two 5" dredges into the canyon and planned out two weeks worth of systematic sampling. One dredge would start at the top of the claim and work down and the other would start at the bottom and work up. We thought we would do a series of sample holes to determine where the gold was running and then come back next summer to do some real mining.
The claim was pretty remote, no road access, and we spent a couple days just packing the equipment in. A 5" dredge may not sound like much, until you have it on your back that is, and two 5" dredges with all the accompanying equipment becomes a lot of stuff pretty quick.
There was an old mining trail which led to the creek and terminated right at the bottom of the claim on a nice bar which was a good place to lay out the equipment and set up camp.
The rivers showed a lot of nice shallow bedrock, shallow water and some pretty nice sized boulders and areas where it looked like the gold would hang up. The next day we packed the equipment to the spots where we would begin sampling and put the dredges together. We got a few hours of dredging in that day, but not much to show for our efforts.
The next day we got a full day of dredging in, with the dredges being some distance from each other we both thought the other dredger was doing well, or at least getting some gold, but by the end of the day neither of us had enough to fill the bottom of a bottle. The next seven days continued about the same. I don't think between us we got a pennyweight of gold during that week.
The weather took a turn for the worse and an icy cold rain came in and just lingered for the next couple of days. We kept sampling and we kept coming up with not enough gold to pay for the gas.
By the end of the 9th day it's safe to say we were pretty discouraged. As we sat around the camp fire that night we discussed just pulling out. My $6,000 investment didn't work out, but sometimes it doesn't. The talk around the camp fire was the old timers just cleaned out the creek, and what was left the snipers picked up. We decided to give it two more days, but those were two cold, wet miserable days where the rain is just on the edge of snow, but not quite. Those days where your hands just turn numb in the water and when you climb on the bank to warm up, you don't.
By the end of the two weeks we didn't have much to show. We'd worked the creek pretty good, but the gold just wasn't there. If you've been dredging for a while you know it happens and you just pack up and move on. That's what we decided to do.
The next day we disassembled the dredges, laid all the parts on the bar and began packing back up the trail. Two guys had already moved most of the first dredge and it was just me and my partner left on the bar. He grabbed the engine for the remaining 5" and started up the trail while I was tying up the hoses.
I'm not sure if it was the thought of losing $6,000 on a claim, or just not wanting to start packing out but I wasn't in a real hurry to head up the trail. As I stood on the bar where the trail started up hill I took a last look at the creek. There was just the faint outline of a small crevice running from the bar and disappearing underwater, but it looked like it extended to the other side of the creek. Curious, I waded into the creek and began fanning the gravel away from the crevice.
I was convinced I was just killing time. A thousand other miners had used this same trail including the 49'ers. There might be some flood gold in the crevice, maybe an overlooked little nugget or two, but it was easier to check the crevice than pack equipment up the hill.
My partner was already heading up the trail and I was in calf deep in the river fanning the gravel. I fanned some gravel off the top and sure enough it was a small crevice, and sure enough there was no gold.
I walked to the bank, picked up the hoses and dropped them again. I waded back out to the crevice and fanned it down a little further when the glint of gold caught my eye. I reached down and pulled out a BB sized nugget. I fanned a little more and there was its twin. Now my interest was up, I got my mask from the bank and kneeled down in the water to look a little closer, there were more nuggets a little bigger than what I had just picked up.
I lifted my head and shouted to my partner on the trail, "I found it!" I put my head in the water again and began looking carefully at the crevice, it was bigger than what I initially thought and I began pulling rocks out of the crack when suddenly my head gets jerked back and out of the water. My partner had heard me yell and he'd run back to the bar while my head was still under water, he thought I'd passed out in the water. He asked, "Are you all right? I heard you yell 'I'm drowning!'"
"I said I found it!" I yelled back at him and I held out my hand which was full of nuggets. He quickly dropped everything and began fanning the crevice and we kept pulling out nuggets, and more nuggets. The deeper we went the bigger they got.
I told him to keep going and I ran up the trail to tell the other two and we all returned to what was almost enough nuggets to fill your hand.
Right there, in the most obvious spot on the whole river was the richest crevice I've ever seen and likely will ever see. Every 49'er must have sat on the same bar, looked at the same river, the same crevice and every one of them must have thought it was too obvious and it had been cleaned out. It was as if somebody had put up a road sign and said big crevice here, but don't bother looking. No one had ever checked it and it was just full of gold.
We stayed and worked the crevice for the next ten days. It was the crevice you've always heard about, but never thought you'd find. When the crevice got deep enough we would dive head first into it while someone held out legs to push us down, we'd come up just long enough to breath and hand off the nuggets. We tried using the dredge hose when the crevice got too deep but the hose wouldn't even lift the nuggets, we had to just squeeze our way in and reach as far as our arms would go, and the crevice just kept going.
We were already late in the season and the snow was dusting the mountains 500' above us, it was just a matter of days until we'd be snowed in. We knew we were going to have to pull out, and soon. We were getting so much gold I dropped a three pennyweight nugget in two foot of water and not one of us would bend over to pick it up, it's probably still there.
By the time we pulled out we had 18 pounds of gold. There are plenty of witnesses to this story who saw the gold the day we drove back to Downieville with baby food jars just filled with gold. There was no fine gold in that crack, just nuggets.
Packing out we left two 5 gallon buckets on the bar full of material we'd pulled from the crevice but we were all too cold and tired to pan it out. We thought we'd come back later to get it, but we had so much gold none of us wanted to walk back and get them. I talked to a friend the next year who had found those buckets and panned them out, we'd left ten ounces in those buckets, what a find that must have been for him.
We never did reach the bottom of that crevice, we tried everything we could think of, but it just kept dropping and nuggets just kept dropping. As far as I know the bottom of that crack is solid gold, but we'll never find out. That crevice made me think a little differently about placer mining. You can read all the books about gold, but gold isn't always where it's supposed to be. We worked that river for two weeks and didn't get so much as a pennyweight, and then 18 pounds. It made me realize it's a game of persistence. You can go a whole season and do lousy, but with gold it only takes a single crevice to make your season.
I'm still dredging that same creek today and I'm still pulling some awesome amounts of gold from it. The creek taught me each area has its own story and you have to read that story, this creek just produces big nuggets. You can go days burning gas and get virtually no fine gold, but then you hit one and it's worth a whole lot of fine gold. It's not luck, its reading a river, and persistence.