For a miner there's really no point to winter. In the Gold Rush the miners just packed up, headed to the valley, lost all their money, and had to return to the mines in the spring.
Too much snow right now to get to the claim, and the water's too cold anyways. I've run in some pretty cold water before, but you've got to be on some pretty good gold to do that, and at season's end it just wasn't there.
John Muir once wrote California goes through three cycles: Too much snow and water; just enough; and drought. These cycles each last 8 years. Californians forget about this every 9 years and wring their hands about too little water, or too much.
California has always been about water. Too much or too little. It was too much water which resulted in the Sawyer Decision, and too little water which resulted in the dredging ban. In the 1880's a couple very big storms moved an awful lot of gravel from the hydraulic operations down to the valley at once. It seems the farmers didn't appreciate having a foot of clay layer on top of their crops. Go figure.
Environmentalists didn't exist back then. The wolves would have ate them. Now only the farmers are allowed to move dirt, while the miners sit on their hands and the environmentalists sit in Starbucks checking their Facebook page for updates on endangered species.
Did you know the mold beetle is endangered? Yeah, no kidding.
In the winter you have a lot of time to think about these things.
Bob Flanagan called me last week and wanted to go look at an old lode mine. I usually don't answer the phone and prefer people just update their Facebook page or Twitter accounts because I don't own a computer. Of course it may be a few months until I get back to you. But, Bob is persistent and knows eventually I'll have to answer the phone just to keep it from ringing. Bob owns the downstream claim from mine. During mining season we spend a lot of time on the river and have been known to drink a beer or two. In the winter he goes his way, I go mine, but I still can't seem to shed Bob for very long. Bob's convinced there are better claims out there and in the winter that sounds better than reading about mold beetles.
Starvation Creek, where our claims are, isn't the best, or the worst, for gold. It is well hidden and we've been able to run the past six years without any trouble from Fish and Game, the Water Board, the Bureau of Cultural Affairs or the Sierra Club.
You can run a 5" on Starvation Creek, not much bigger. I've painted my dredge a nice camouflage color, it looks pretty cool. Bob says he's got a camouflage screen over the top of his dredge when he's running, but I've never been far enough down on his claim to verify that. I have little interest in touring other people's mining claims, although I admit there's a nice looking stretch at the top of his claim I've been thinking about drifting down on.
If I did it would be hard to explain how I missed the boundary, he's got it pretty well marked with multiple signs, a couple of fence posts and some stacked rock in the middle of the creek. You'd think he was worried about someone high grading him. Just saying.
With the heavy snows we couldn't get within miles of the lode mine we were searching for, but we did manage to find Murphy's Bar again, same place we left it. Rocky, the bartender, was in his usual spot behind the bar looking a little glum. I suppose owning a bar in a town with a population of 20, and being under 10' of snow can do that to you.
Rocky has always been a little short on informaton on how he ended up owning a bar in Hardrock. It's about as far from New York City as you can get. He says he's from Alabama, but it's pretty hard to hide a New York accent. There's been some speculation Rocky's not his real name, and others have said he may have left New York in a hurry, but he's a decent enough bartender, if not the most discrete person in the world.
"Do any good dredging this year?" Rocky asked as Bob and I walked through the door shaking off the snow.
Bob and I did a quick scan of the bar to see if any eco-types were within ear shot, but the bar was empty.
Bob grabbed a stool and slid up the bar. "Dredging is illegal."
"Sorry, what I meant to ask was whether you two illegal dredgers had done any good last summer." Rocky responded as he filled two glasses with the local beer, Old Tailings.
"We prefer the term 'undocumented miners'." Bob replied. "It's offensive to us to call us illegal."
"Tell that to the Fish and Game cops." Rocky responded.
"We're not worried about them anymore." Bob stated. "We've declared Starvation Creek a sanctuary claim. Fish and Game can't ask us for papers anymore."
"Sanctuary claim, huh?"
"Yeah, if we get pulled over the Fish and Game cops can't ask us about our legal status."
"We talked about declaring it critical habitat for dredgers, since we thought we were the last two. As it turns out there's another surviving population of dredgers down in Nevada County." I added. "We think we could prove we're genetically distinct from the Nevada County group though. We dredgers in Sierra County tend to run Keene dredges, and further south they tend to favor Proline, so in the eyes of the government that would constitute a distinct population group."
"We've also withdrawn Starvation Creek from the state of Caifornia." Bob added.
"Nice, you guys have been busy the past couple of weeks."
"Not much else to do in the winter but tie up loose ends." I responded.
"Starvation Creek is now part of Nevada which tends to be more supportive of miner diversity than California." Bob added.
"We were thinking about becoming part of West Virginia, but that makes for an awkward map, so we just carved ourselves out and became Nevada. It's all federal land anyways so who would notice?" I said.
"And you guys think this will somehow protect you from the anti-dredging laws?"
"Those laws are designed to incite hate against miners." I said.
"Well, the environmentalists certainly hate you."
"You see my point."
"Seems to me there's a bunch of holes in the ground out there caused by miners."
"You're profiling. You think just because a few miners have gone a little over the top moving dirt, then all miners are extremists." I responded.
"Maybe not all extremists, but when you're in the river, head down with a giant floating vacuum cleaner behind you, you're actually doing what?" Rocky asked.
"Counting frogs." Bob replied. "The government pays big money for people to count frogs. They tend to go by a little fast, but you can estimate pretty well."
"So if anyone comes by looking for you I should just say you're in Nevada counting frogs?" Rocky asked.
"You know some days I think you guys just want people to think you're crazy."
"It does serve to keep people away doesn't it?" Bob replied.
"It looks like you guys have got it all figured out for next summer." Rocky said wiping down the bar, even though it didn't need it. A habit he'd gotten into when he wanted to drift away from a conversation.
"Not quite. We've got a few more changes to make, then we'll be ready." Bob responded to Rocky's back.
"Yeah, we've got to get our signs up declaring Starvation Creek a gun-free zone an a safe space." I said to Bob.
Rocky turned back aroun. "So you guys are going to have a gun-free zone?"
"No, not us. That's not the way it works. Everyone else has to leave their guns in the truck, including Fish and Game." I said.
"Good luck with that." Rocky said.
Bob took a long gulp of Old Tailings and added, "Well, they wouldn't have jurisdiction in Nevada, now would they?"
Rocky sighed, turned around, walked over and turned off the neon "Open" sign.
"Whisky?" He asked returning with a couple of shot glasses. "It's from Alabama."