A Prospector's Tale
Rattlesnakes and Canyons
Rattlesnakes seem to show up at the most inappropriate times. Like when you're clinging to a cliff with the fingertips of your left hand, while your right hand dangles your brand new Honda engine 30' above the water. Nothing like the buzz of a rattlesnake in the rocks to focus your attention. Your options become jump; drop the engine; or go forward. It's go forward with the engine.
It's just another day in the mountains for those of us who dredge the canyons and ravines of the Motherlode. Not all dredgers are on the Yuba, American and Feather Rivers, although sometimes it seems that way. For over twenty years I've been dredging the deep canyons and don't have a whole lot of advice, at least not good advice, to offer anyone who's just starting out. I've always been willing to listen to advice, but rarely follow it, I prefer to learn the hard way.
For most folks sticking with the big rivers is good advice, but it doesn't come from me. You can buy a big dredge with cup holder, get a good claim and recover some really nice gold. It's almost too easy. When I drive by the big rivers I'm looking at the gulches and canyons coming in and wondering whether I could wade the river right there and get up into that canyon. The thought of just moving rocks all day just doesn't appeal to me, I want to push further into the canyons, I want to find the source of all this gold, or at least the source of some of it.
Above. Pushing into another remote canyon.
In the canyons you learn your own lessons. A lot of them you wouldn't want to document. There's no point trying to make a list of where to go, or what to do. Each canyon is different. When I'm not dredging I'm looking for new canyons which takes me to a lot of places, some of which I regret going to. Everything looks easy on a map, few things are so easy on the ground. Once you get into one of these canyons you find yourself wondering why you didn't check the topo line elevations a little closer. What you thought were 10' contour lines were actually 40' contour lines, but it's best to never stare at a map too long. You'll talk yourself out of even going.
Most of these canyons had trails into them at one point. Few of them do now. A few years ago I was looking at a map and saw a nice trail heading the way I wanted to go. After a few tries to find it, I gave up and just started to go overland. The trail had been overtaken by buck brush and I found myself fighting through acres of throny shrubs. After some time, and some lost flesh, I broke into a small clearing with a seasonal spring. There was the tell tale evidence of a an old mining camp. It looked like it was probably from the 1940's based on the bottles. It's hard to resist an old mining camp, the question becomes "what were they doing here?" Always without a good answer, but I set out to find the answer.
It was clear from the quartz littering the ground they were working a lode so I thought I'd delay my hike deeper into the canyon to find their old lode mine.
One piece of advice I can safely provide is quartz tends to roll down hill and I was at the bottom of a hill which left me one way to go. I followed the chunks of quartz uphill through the brush and it just kept going with bits of quartz scattered pretty thick on the slope. I kept following it up a steep slope until it ran out. Once would think this would be where the mine would be, but nope. No mine. So I started looking up, down, left and right, still no mine and no evidence one had ever been there, just a bunch of quartz.
Maybe today we'd chase quartz bleeding out of nowhere, but in the 1940's they didn't. They had to find gold to pay the bills. I thought there must be a mine, and I mentally filed a note to try it another day so I could continue into the canyon.
Now, if you're dredging the Big River, it's unlikely you carry a pack and throw quartz rocks in it, unless you need balast for a pontoon. I grabbed about 20 pounds of quartz, threw it in my pack and continued on. There's nothing like another 20 pounds of rocks in your pack to make your original mission just a little less enjoyable.
After covering a total of half a mile in just over three hours it became apparent I wasn't going to reach the part of the canyon I was hoping for, which was another mile and half. Even prospectors can do the quick math on that and realize you should have brought a flashlight.
I called it a day and toted my quartz back to the truck.
A few weeks later I was out searching for another mine I knew from historical records was there. I found the mine, picked up some more quartz and headed back to the truck - mission accomplished. I was certain the old mine, which had some really nice quartz chunks was going to show some nice gold.
I sent off the samples for assay and the quartz from the old mine showed just about nothing. The quartz from the buck brush? An ounce a ton. Nice. That sounds great until you realize you have no idea where the vein is. Without the lode you're going to be nothing but a rock hound. It's there somewhere, and the assay results tell me to go back and find it. That's on my list when the snow melts. Well, that and about ten other places.
I've been diverted from my objective a lot of times. You start off on a day of dredging but get diverted. It's not necessarily ADD but when you're packing in a dredge and you see tailings from a quartz mine it would require an iron will to not drop the pack and start chasing the quartz.
It's never a short trip. To me it's like putting together a puzzle. You see something like an old timber with a spike in it and the next thing you know you're thirty feet above the creek following some tailings uphill. A few hours later you're 800 feet above the creek wondering where that old mine track came from. As the sun begins to disappear behing the ridge line you remember you've got a dredge down there somewhere but you're not going back down to get it. A whole lot easier to just head for the truck and dredge tomorrow.
Working the canyons I have a list longer than my expected life span of places to sample. I might get around to 10% of them. Maybe.
That's why I'm one of the worst people to dispense advice. My experience has always been gold is where you find it, and often it's where you don't want to really be. My only analogy is its like mushroom hunting. If you find one, you're gong to find more.
Some days you can sit and ponder why the gold ended up where you found it, but it's merely a way to pass the time because there's so many factors which change gold dynamics in a canyon.
I once found a seam of nuggets in a bedrock crack well above the creek. I spent the rest of the day looking for more and didn't find so much as flake. I returned a few weeks later with a friend with a lot more experience than I and asked him where the gold was coming from. "Let's go find out." He replied. We spent the rest of the day going upstream and panning and never found so much as a speck. At the end of the day the answer was "Damned if I know."
Quite frankly the gold shouldn't have been there. If gold would behave more like the books say it should we'd get along much better. On this particular day you would have been better off following leprechauns as trying to follow where the gold should be.
So, you study the maps all winter, you plot the inside bends, the tertiary channels, the fault lines and you take your first spring trip. Poison Oak is especially virulent in the spring - that's another piece of advice I can give with some certainty.
I'm not sure that's in the books, but gold does seem to collect in places you just don't want to be.
Dredging the canyons you end up in some tight spots. Literally. One day I was dredging a small ravine which had riffles too small to put a foot valve in, but a series of pools offered enough water to work. I dropped a little dredge in and started following an impacted crevice towards the bank. Along the way I was picking up some very nice, but ugly, nuggets (if gold can be ugly). As usual I was just head down, nozzle down and working my way into the bank when I hit some pretty thick root mass and had to call it a day. I pulled my head out of the water to find a decomposed mouse floating right in front of my mask with a grease slick spread throughout the pool, and on me. Gnarly way to surface.
Then there was the day I was working some really shallow water and just picking up some nice gold on skinny bedrock. I was in nice sunshine, shallow warm water and doing pretty good on gold. The type of day where you see it on the bottom. When I finally surfaced it was right into a hornets nest. Not the paper kind, but the little hole in the ground kind. Did I mention I hate hornets?
Above. Taking a 4" into a remote canyon
There are certainly days where I think about the Big River and the Big Dredge. It would be nice way to spend a summer. Listening to the hum of an engine twenty feet above your head and picking up an ounce a day.
I'm not sure I'd have the patience for it. It just could be ADD, but I think if I found the motherlode itself I'd throw it back and hope for something bigger in the next canyon.
My plan for this year involves going where the gold isn't. It's as sound as a plan as I've come up with yet. After years of chasing where it should be, I'm going where it shouldn't be. I think I'll kill it this year.
Oh, and those rattlesnakes? If you're wearing headphones you can't hear them, but they do show up at the worst times. For me it seems to just compound trouble I'm already in, like taking an uncontrolled slide down a slope I was sure I could cross. One last piece of advice I'm pretty confident in, those rattlesnakes seem to collect where the gold is, or the gold collects where the rattlesnakes are, I'm just not sure yet.