By Dave Antonnuci
The Gold is Out There
A picture of the canyon my claim is in. Remote, rugged and peaceful
Back in my prospecting days (sounds cool doesn't it, like I was a 49'er) my buddy and I, or sometimes just myself, would take off in my 4x4 pickup without so much as a plan. We'd just hop in and charge across the San Joaquin Valley and drive into the mountains. We'd find some place we wanted to explore and park the truck and camp. We would start a new journey into some remote areas of the Sierras.
The experience was like a really thick history book, one you just loved to check out from the library and read, except we were reading the history on the ground. There was always a new story, and you never knew what the next chapter would bring and sometimes you didn't know if it would be on the shelf the next time you went to check it out.
You thought it was the history that kept you dreaming of fragrant pine forests, but really it was the thoughts of gold hidden in the rocks that kept you looking at the calendar for the dates of the next trip. For me, back then, it was always weekend trips, sometimes the lucky three day getaway, but it was never long enough. It still isn't. You know back then, fresh out of college, plans weren't necessary and I didn't need a lot of money. We always had the camping kit ready to go. Just add the staples and some cold ones, throw in the latest pile of maps and you're ready to go without much more planning than that.
Anyone who grew up in California had a keen sense of private property. It seems there are more fences and signs than open land. Don't get me wrong, California has a tremendous amount of open space but a good portion of the gold country is in private hands. I grew up in the Bay area where just about any kid who tried to ride a bike, or maybe just hike to a local reservoir realized his days were numbered. You could only get away with that so many times. It seemed you were always under the watchful eye of some irritable person who had nothing better to do than defend their property like a junkyard dog. Boys need those places to run and hide, they need places to explore; they just need places to go and be boys.
Give a 19 year old a 4x4 and he'll know most of the county sheriffs first hand within a year, or at least the sheriffs will know him.
By the time I was old enough to drive I was also wise enough to realize if I asked permission I had a 50/50 chance of actually being allowed onto the private property to explore for gold. We made quite a few friends running around the back country and one nice old couple even let us spend the night in an old miner's cabin.
What a blast! We were staying in an honest-to-goodness miner's cabin complete with an old stove made out of an old 30 gallon drum. The owners cautioned us to be careful of the oft drunken property owner next door who they said may shoot us if he found us camping in the tailing piles. That was if the rattlesnakes and scorpions didn't get us first.
Once I was out prospecting and I pulled into the spot I wanted to camp and there was another truck already there. It was two brothers who had been travelling across the United States propsecting any place with some history behind it. They had a bit of the old-timers in them for sure. I remember them picking a bunch of blackberries near the river and cooking them down to a thick, sweet preserve. Over the next few days I was invited to several inventive dinners and even watched them wrestle an entire, whole, cooked chicken out of a one gallon can. Plop! It tasted like it looked - odd. The two brothers had purchased all their food at closeout sales of restaurant sized canned food. anything to save money on their 7,000 mile odyssey.
The brothers had a separate, stand up sized tent just for their food. It was organized like an old time grocery store with meat on this side of the aisle, fruit over there. It was an amazing site considering where we were.
I remember once I had nothing left to eat but canned chili and box of ice cream cones. Tastes great but you only have about 45 seconds before the hot chili blows out the bottom of the cone.
Eventually you move up to owning your own claim, we all do. It's the holy grail of the part-time miner. With a claim you are a made man. You've finally reached the big times. Then you remember all the steep cliffs climbed, brush beaten and poison oak treated to realize this was a lot of work to get to the point you finally found a place you wanted to spend more time in.
There is, however, a real attraction to owning your own claim. Finally, you have a place to stash your gear and knowing you'll be the only human for 30 miles is a satisfying feeling. It also means from here on out all your trips will be to the same place. It lacks the adventure of my early days, and the spirit of the 49'ers where the best strike is over the next hill, but as you get older you find your ability to keep running around fading by degrees.
When you think of your own claim you think of the bucket loads of nuggets waiting for that super duper dredge your going to buy next season. It's always about a bigger, better dredge.
Well, we miners are all the same, aren't we? What started my search, and ended in my own claim was a book my Dad gave me a long time ago entitled "The Hell Roarin' Forty Niners" published in 1927 by Robert Wlles Ritchie. Ritchie went packing into the gold country and wrote about what was still visible back in the '20s, which was a lot more than today. It brought back all those weekend prospecting trips with my buddy. Ritchie had interviewed the last of the original old timers, the real 49ers. The book is filled with colorful first person stories of the gold rush. Not the sanitized, homogenized stories which make you feel good, but the gritty, bare knuckled stories of what it was really like. In my 18 years of prospecting I managed to find about half the places in the book.
Currently, my buddy and I are trying to buy the downstream claim from us. It would lock us into enough river to keep us mining for the rest of our years, and most of my wanderlust is gone. Purchasing claims in the Motherlode can be an unfortunate game. Over the years many have found selling claims is a whole lot easier than working them so there is a wide assortment of pretty shaky deals out there waiting on you. Most of the mineral bearing land seems to be owned by people who never mine it.
Forget the rule that claims need to be actively mined to maintain your claim. Back in the 49'er days if you left a claim for more than 14 days it was up for grabs. Today's claims are much larger than the 49'ers were, they run about 20 acres, or 1/4 mile of river. If you run them end to end it doesn't take long for a group of claims to lock up a whole river or canyon, and yet no one is mining them.
The reality is there may be only one actively mined claim every couple three miles of creek. And if those miners are like most they'll put in a couple weeks a summer dredging. In the big picture, it's pretty quiet in the old mining areas. Certain places, which are highly visible, like the North Fork of the Yuba, or the Klamath get a whole lot more activity. It's not uncommon on club claims to see five or six dredges clustered around each other.
We weren't able to buy that lower claim, but we continue to do our research and look for that next claim which will pay even better. We look at old mining sites with names like Missouri Bar, Poverty Hill and Poker Flat. All of them had good gold and will still provide nuggets if you're willing to work at it. Finding the claim is the hard part unless you're willing to shell out thousands of dollars for the one-off remote claims or up to $20,000 for claims on the Yuba. I believe some people are just buying it for vacation property, someplace to park an RV and do a little dredging, but I think I'll stick to my remote little canyon thank you very much.
There are lots of claims out there for everyone. Do your research and you'll have years of adventure. My canyon is shown above.
My advice? Go prospecting! Get out there and find some gold. Break out the maps, find some place and just hike into it. There is so much to be enjoyed wandering the Sierras. All that is gold does not glitter. I love this place and I protect what I've been given. I believe most of you are like me, there's more to it than just gold. The fever will take hold and there's no cure. Maybe I'll pass you on a mountain trail someday and we'll swap a few stores.