Dredging Murphy's Bar

Dredging within the rules

Just another day on the river during the ban

No one really knows which was named first, Murphy's Bar, a large flat on Starvation Creek, or Murphy's Bar the saloon in the town of Hardrock, a town made famous by it's placer deposits.

I have several claims on Starvation Creek, I've written about them before here. Starvation Creek is a medium sized creek in a deep canyon in the Mother Lode, about ten miles by bad road outside of Hardrock. Starvation Creek cut the old tertiary gravels so it was pretty rich in gold at one time. The 49'ers did pretty well at it, then the Chinese did pretty well, then the people fleeing the depression and the occasional sniper.

My three claims on Starvation Creek run about a mile of river. I've had them for a long time and I've been running my dredge on them a long time. I once heard there was a dredging ban in California, but my claims are on federal land so I've not paid much attention to what people do on California land. I have a nice claim sign up which says "Federal Mining Claim." It doesn't say a word about California.

Down below me is Bob Flanagan's claim. Bob and I have been dredging for years along the same creek. Sometimes I refer to Bob as my partner, but I don't mean that in the gay sense and now that I think about it I'd probably better stop calling him my partner or the government may rush in to give us some unwanted handouts or privileges.

We're more dredging acquaintances. He owns the downstream claim and I own the upstream claim which gives me rights to smoke him out which I try to do anytime I'm near the lower end of the claim. He's tried to smoke me out before but it only ended up in him not being able to see underwater for a few days while the water cleared.

There's no salmon in this creek, not unless they can fly, but I wouldn't put it past them to some how end up on this creek and then have a rush of environmentalists toting signs about saving the flying salmon. I'm pretty sure any fish that ended up in Starvation Creek would be some distinct subspecies of something because you'd have to be a pretty tough fish to live in a creek which was buried under 40' of hydraulic tailings for about 100 years.

Most evenings, when the dredges are shut down we'll meet back up at Murphy's Bar where we pitch our tents and keep our gear and pan out the concentrates and go for bragging rights for the day.

Bob tends to be kind of a nervous guy. Always looking over his shoulder for the dredge police. Me? I'm too damned old to care.

There's a lot of regulations which tell you what you can and can't do when you're dredging. Like telling me I can't run a dredge without a permit, or I can't step on grass or hurt trees with my winch, which is also illegal, or how big my hose can be. There's just lots of them out there which were written by some guy behind a desk who's got some pictures the environmentalists are holding.

My dredge engine was still hot last weekend when Bob comes ambling up the creek. I was still peeling out of my wetsuit, which at my age is not that easy, but I don't plan on asking a guy for help with it.

So there I was hopping on one leg with an arm behind my back in a Houdini escape position as he walked up with a Home Depot bucket full of black sand.

"How'd you do?" I asked falling backwards with one leg in the suit and my arm hopelessly stuck behind my back. "About a half ounce of coarse stuff and probably another quarter ounce of fines in the bucket."

"That's good. How was the water clarity?"

"A little murky, but dredgeable. It always seems real clear up here." He said.

"Yeah, I think there's a spring under here somewhere. You know I really try not to kick up any smoke in consideration of you."

"Yeah, I know. I appreciate that."

"How'd you do." Bob asked.

"I'm not sure yet, I'm trying to get out of this wetsuit, then I need to clean out the box. Really good I think." I replied.

"How long you been trying to get out of that wetsuit?"

"About 45 minutes, and do''t offer to help, I've got to do this on my own." I snapped.

In reality I probably had a couple of pennyweight in the box, but I wasn't going to tell him he got more gold than I did again. He works harder, dredges longer hours and has the patience of Job.

Me, I'm more the type if I don't see nuggets on the bottom I'm up and out of there. He's more the just keep moving dirt type. When I think of Bob dredging I think of Dorrie, the fish in Finding Nemo, "Just keep dredging, just keep dredging."

What I like about Bob is he's consistent. You can always count on him and he always tries to do the right thing. But he's young and he'll get over that one of these years.

The annoying thing about him is he always tries to do the right thing. He must have spent three hours explaining to me the environmental effects of suction dredging last weekend sitting around the fire - which I think you're supposed to have a permit for, you'd have to ask Bob.

You see every year Bob applies for a permit even though he knows they won't give it to him. He writes out a nice letter offering to buy a permit and says he knows one is required and he wants to follow the rules.

Every year they write back and tell him he must have a permit to dredge, but they can't issue any permits because its illegal to issue a permit. So it goes round and round like that until it's time to pack up the truck and head out.

I think he really regrets not having a permit sometimes. For some reason this bothers him.

I won't say it was getting late in the day by the time I got the wetsuit off, but I can tell you the day was waning. I've resolved to sign up for one of those yoga classes in the off-season. Not that I want to take yoga, or do yoga, or whatever they call it, no, I just want to see them get out of a wetsuit.

So we're panning out on the shore and I look over and see Bob is using three pans today. Normally he'll use two like I do, one he puts the gold in, the other he's using to get the gold, but this third pan has a bunch of mercury, square nails and bits of lead in it.

None of us like to get mercury mixed up with our gold. If you're a newbie it's because the mercury sticks to gold something awful, or something good, depending on which side you're standing, but it does stick. A little bit of mercury will go a long way at coating your gold and turning all those pretty flakes a dull lead color. So we tend to keep it separate.

Over the years I've collected a fair amount of this mercury, but it's always stuck to gold. It's little clumps of amalgam and it is, as they say, worth its weight in gold. On a normal day I collect more than all the environmental groups put together do in a year, which means not a whole lot, but enough to put it in a separate bottle.

Down where Bob dredges there was a ravine where they dumped the tailings from the hydraulic mines and with it a fair amount of mercury came along. He's actually kind of lucky because that mercury just grabs the fine gold and holds on. He'll find clumps of it stuck together, in a season he's usually got quite a few ounces.

Now, don't go and tell the environmentalists we're removing mercury from the rivers, they want that to be the sole domain of grant funded research projects so they can study the effects of mercury, collect a lot of money but not really do anything with the mercury.

I've been able to convince Bob he's actually doing a good thing removing the mercury, and after doing some thinking on it he came to the same conclusion. That made him feel a little better about not having a permit. For a while.

So I was more than a little surprised when I look over and he's dumping the whole pan of mercury right back into the river.

"What the hell are you doing?" I asked. "That's mercury your dumping in the river, the environmentalists are going to have a field day with it."

"Well, it's the right thing to do." He replied.

"What do you mean the right thing to do is dump a pan of mercury, and gold by the way, right back into the river? Haven't you heard that's bad stuff for the environment.?"

"It's a historic and cultural artifact." He said.

"What?" I replied.

"Cultural and historical artifact. You see this mercury was used by the original Gold Rush miners in their sluice boxes, it's over 150 years old." Bob said.

"Who cares, it's mercury."

"It's not mercury. If you'd have read the environmental impact report you'd know it's a cultural resource. These remnants of the Gold Rush days are for all Californians to enjoy, not just me. Some day I can see a family standing on this very same bar as a father shows his kid a pool of mercury and says 'Son, that mercury came from the Gold Rush' and little Johnny will be able to pick it up in his hand and hold a piece of genuine Gold Rush history."

"You've gone over the edge." I said carefully. Bob carries a pistol, but it doesn't have bullets in it, not since they banned lead bullets.

"I'm not sure that's what they meant." I said.

"Did you read it?" He asked.

"No." I replied, "But it was something like 1,300 pages long who could possibly have read it."

"I did, and I thought the part on historic and cultural resources was especially moving. Very well done in fact. That's when I realized I was just robbing future generations of Gold Rush history by taking the mercury out of the river."

"Look," Bob said, "Even though we can't get permits to dredge we should still follow the dredging rules. Like staying 3' away from the bank, not stepping on grass, not killing any poison oak, and using only our knuckles to move boulders, not anything with a motor."

"So what's the difference between moving a boulder with a winch, and moving it with your hands?" I asked him.

"I asked Fish and Game about that and they said if you move it by hand it's legal, if you use a motor it's illegal."

"Why is it illegal in the 21st century to move a boulder with an engine, but not with your hands."

"From what I could gather the boulders are cultural resources. The Indians would actually name some of them and sit on the bank and come up with stories for how they got where they are. If you used a winch and chain you could scratch the boulder and cause harm to a cultural resource." Bob said seriously.

"Do these idiots know these boulders will be about three miles down river after the next big flood, replaced by a whole new set of boulders?" I asked.

"Wait, don't answer, they're just a different set of cultural resources."

"Exactly," Bob replied as he began flipping about a pound of lead back into the creek.

"Don't tell me, the lead is also a cultural resource, right?"

"Who's to say this lead wasn't from a bullet used in the Revolutionary War, we have to preserve it in place for the archaeologists to examine some day."

"The Revolutionary War wasn't fought in California." I said.

"Let's let the experts decide that." Bob replied.