The first dusting of snow came last week. Some people mark the end of the mining season by the first snow. I mark it by how much time the downstream claim owner, Bob Flanagan spends at Murphy's Bar versus his claim, the Biscuit.
Bob will work like crazy for four months straight, every day in the water chewing through regulators by the bucketload, pausing only when I tell him we should go into town for gas and some beer. Inevitably we end up at Murphy's Bar to help support the only bar within an hour's drive.
Me? I pace myself. Poke a hole here and there; fix some equipment; clean up camp; brew some coffee and I only go through one regulator a year. I've tried to tell Bob the joke about the old bull and the young bull before, but he just doesn't get it.
Starvation Creek is a high elevation creek, above 5,000' and winter comes early and stays late. Bob and I are the tortoise and the hare. Bob jumps into the creek every day at first light and doesn't dry off until dark. I like to sit on the bank, drink my coffee and wait for the sun to peek over the ridge so I have some sunshine on my back when I start dredging.
Those of you who know Starvation Creek, know it's in a rugged, deep canyon filled with poison oak. With the new dredging regulations stating we can't damage riparian vegetation Bob and I have had some spirited discussions about whether poison oak is considered riparian vegetation when its growing alongside the creek.
This discussion always ends with a bottle of Roundup.
If you've ever struggled to pull the parts of a dredge up a 60 degree incline, covered in poison oak, and then try to keep the pontoons from slippin right back down the hill, you know you're inevitably going to have a couple of miserable weeks scratching, but it's an annual ritual we dredgers go through to put up our equipment for the winter.
We don't worry much about thieves on Starvation Creek, only an idiot would pack a dredge in; and only a fool would pack a dredge out. Which, as Bob reminds me, is us.
I had just finished tying everything up and still had a couple of hours of sunlight left on the creek so I sat down in my folding chair and waited for Bob.
I'd like to say I went downstream and helped Bob put his equipment up, but he's a few years younger and needs the experience without some guy meddling in his affairs. Neither of us has adopted this whole "It takes a village" thing. We tend to adhere to a code which says "It's your problem, not mine."
About an hour later, or three beers later in beer time, Bob comes up the bar and sits in the folding chair I keep reserved form him, even though he claims he bought it.
"Damn." He says.
"Yeah." I say.
"You ever think we should get easier claims to work than Starvation Creek?" He asks.
"What about the North Fork of the Yuba. We could pull the truck up, be dredging a few minutes later and be in Downieville for pizza and beer everynight."
"We'd be busted by the dredge police within an hour of the dredge hitting the water." I say.
"What about sneaking behind Sierra City where they can't see you from the road?"
"The Pacific Crest Trail hikers would dime you out in a minute for a free granola bar." I respond.
"Ever thought about just getting a permit and dredging legal." He says.
"I applied for a permit for a 2.5" dredge with the Army Corps of Engineers to work on my claim in Hardluck Gulch. They wrote me back and said a 2.5" dredge was so small they didn't need to permit it."
"What are you doing in Hardluck Gulch? There's no gold there."
"Doesn't have to be, it's a throwaway claim."
"It's just a throwaway claim. You never give them your actual location or you'll have 50 Sierra Club members on your ass before you can pull the starter cord on a dredge. I figure right now there's a bunch of them camped out holding a global warming meeting waiting for me to show up."
"So you staked a claim you never intend to work?"
"Yup. Do it every year, but with a different claim each year. I find some nasty ravine where getting into it means death or ICU type injury and then submit for a permit to mine it."
"It's like a chess match between me and the government agencies. I know they're not going to give me a permit, and they know I'm not really going to work the claim. I do have the satisfaction of sending a bunch of enviros into some pretty ugly canyons."
"If the Army Corps of Engineers said you didn't need a permit for a 2.5" dredge, then why don't you actually go dredge legal?" Bob asks.
At this point I should point out Bob hasn't developed the finely tuned sense of hopelessness when dealing with government agencies and permitting. He is pretty naive and believes just because they offer a permit, that a person could actually get it. Trying to get a permit is like a donkey and a carrot on a stick, the donkey's never going to close the distance to that carrot so he just keeps going. If one of us ever managed to actually get the permit, they'd have to change the game to ensure no one else could figure out the system. So I prefer it just the way it is. I pretend to want a permit, and the government agencies pretend they might actually give me on. In the end we're both satisfied we've done our jobs.
"Well, the Corps said the dredge was too small for them to waste their time, but even if they weren't going to permit it, they knew of a whole bunch of other agencies who would like to have a shot at me in this permitting scheme."
"If the Corps has the jurisdiction over dredge and fill of rivers, who else would need a permit once they say you're OK?"
"They told me to check with the US EPA, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Department of Cultural Resources and I needed to consult with a few Indian tribes and see what they thought."
"Any tribe living in Hardluck Gulch would have been pretty short-lived." Bob says.
"Right. All the same I've got a letter from Feather River Dave."
"He's an Indian?" Bob asks.
"Navajo. He wrote me a letter saying the Navajo tribe is OK with me dredging Hardluck Gulch."
"Huh, with a last name of Ramirez I would have guessed Mexican."
"He says there's a little Navajo mixed in there somewhere, and besides he's got an in with the tribe."
"So you applied to the EPA?"
"Nah, applying to the EPA would be like applying to open a Jewish delicatessen in Nazi Germany. So I just changed the permit request to the Corps to be an 8" dredge powered by two Volkswagen engines and told them I was going to move more dirt in one year than a bucket line dredge could in five years."
"What'd they say about that?"
"They gave me a permit and sent me a nice note wishing me luck on mining."
"Yeah, it is the Army Corps of Engineers, they like to do big things like controlling the Mississippi River and building big dams."
"Sure, and clearing minefields is on their to-do list as well. So I took the Corps permit and submitted it to the Water Board for approval."
"And the Water Board said...?"
"They pretended like they really cared, and I pretended like I really wanted a permit. This went along for a week or two until they said they wanted $1200 for me to just submit it, then once I paid they'd deny it. So why bother when I can get denied for free by not submitting it?"
"Makes sense. So that's the end of your attempts to get legal on Hardluck Gulch?" Bob asks.
"Yeah. Once you submit for a permit it's a public record, even if its denied, so I accomplished what I wanted to."
"You mean having the Forest Service rescue those two guys out of Hardluck Gulch two weeks ago?" Bob says.
"They shouldn't have been in there, that's an active mining claim, it could be dangerous."
"So now what?" Bob asks.
"Well I say we just keep laying low up here on Starvation Creek. As a backup I filed a claim on Deadman Ravine last week, I'll be submitting permits for it this winter."
"Isn't that the same place the hiker got mauled by a mountain lion?"
"Yeah, I read that in the paper. But, he wouldn't have been mauled had he not fell off that 20' cliff into a den of rattlesnakes. It's a real unfortunate canyon to try to get into. I figure I can probably get permitted for a 10" in there."
"No gold in there, but I guess you already knew that."
"Might be, who knows. Let's get out of here and go get a beer."