I think we all have a streak in us which will cause us to up and leave a paying claim if we think the next claim will be even better. I'm a particular sucker for the "big gold" stories.
A few years ago I was having a beer at Murphy's Bar when a mining buddy of mine, Bob Flanagan, grabbed the stool next to me and ordered a beer.
He asked how I was doing and I replied about a pennyweight a day, which was a lie, I was doing worse than that but didn't want to admit to it. By my calculations I'd be doing better serving up lattes at the Starbucks than mining my existing claim.
Bob said "I heard there's good gold on Starvation Creek."
"Really?" I paused mid-drink, knowing full well this was going to lead to nothing good.
"Yeah, I know a guy who took out 7 ounces a few years ago."
I replied, "I heard Starvation Creek was all worked out and it's almost impossible to work because of the boulders and brush."
"That was before the '98 flood. It's all been ripped out and it's good dredging now." Bob replied. "I talked to a guy who was in there and he said the gold is just laying up on the bedrock."
"If there is good gold there, how come you're not mining it?" I had to ask the obvious question.
"I'm still working up on Yellow Jacket Gulch, but I'm going to file a claim on Starvation Creek just below the bar where Suicide Gulch comes in."
I mentally filed Starvation Creek as something I'd have to check out. I knew Bob routinely got better gold than I did, and the truth was my current claim was just about dredged out. When I started it was good gold, but it was about time to look for better ground and if Starvation Creek was good enough for Bob, then there just might be something to it.
That night I found myself looking at the maps and I convinced myself it looked pretty good on the a map. It seemed like it was in the right area and the historical reports said big nuggets came from that creek. Best of all, there were no mining claims on the creek so I could jump Bob's plans and get in there before he could.
A few weeks passed and I found myself thinking about Starvation Creek. My pennyweight a day wasn't sounding so good compared to the possibility of ounces a day, and how long would the snipers leave that gold just sitting on the bedrock I thought. I made the decision to go prospect for a better claim. I packed my dredge out which took me two days and threw it in the back of the truck figuring I'd go ahead and pack it into Starvation Creek and be dredging again in a couple of days.
The map showed a road which looked passable and would lead me to a ridge overlooking the creek. From there it looked like only a couple of hundred yards to get to the creek, then I could go up or down creek for my prospecting.
After a two hour drive down a paved road I reached the turnoff to the dirt road shown on the map and had to reduce my speed to about 5 mph with the occasional need to stop and shift into four low. Luckily I brought a chainsaw as the winter's deadfall was still lying across the road. It looked like a couple of years of deadfall and they really have the ability to get bound up when they're laying across the banks, but I managed to have enough gas in the saw to clear the road. I reached what I thought would be the jumping off point, but it was already 4 p.m. so I figured I'd better turn back and get a fresh start in the morning. Knowing the road was finally cleared meant I could make good time packing in the dredge tomorrow. Luckily my spare tire was good and I made pretty good time changing it, considering my flashlight batteries were dead, but who would think you'd need a flashlight for a quick trip?
The next day I was up early with the confidence of knowing I'd be dredging by noon. I had to wait two hours for the tire place to open, but I didn't mind so much as my arms were pretty sore from clearing the road the day before. I finally got my tire and was on my way to Starvation Creek.
Because of the tire it was nearly 3pm by the time I reached my access point. I figured I still had an hour or two to try to find a trail so in the waning afternoon I put the truck in 4 low and followed what appeared to be an old access road. The road wound down a steep ridge which was heavily washed out but with each click of the odometer I found the side brush closing in on me. Rather than back up I figured I'd eventually find a turnaround spot on what had by now become an old goat trail. You know the deal, you just don't want to back up a hill all that way, so you keep going. Finally the trees completely blocked my path. Backing up a hill in a 4 low is really quite challenging in the daylight, worse in the dark. I don't listen to the radio that much so losing the antenna wasn't so bad and it actually stayed attached to the truck by the cable which was handy for finding it the next day. The brush really makes an awful sound against the side of a truck, but I figured with a little buffing I could fix that and I'm not real sure you need both your side view mirrors to be street legal, but I'm no expert on the law.
In the light of the morning the scratches looked like they may require more than a little buffing, but with some duct tape I had my mirrors and antenna back on again and I was off once more for Starvation Creek. This time I had the experience of knowing I couldn't drive down the old road, so I wouldn't have to waste time with it. I'd look for a trail instead.
The old miners didn't have the advantage of lightweight gear and vibram soled hiking boots so I knew I could find a passable trail in with a little patience. I made good time getting back to the parking spot and it was still before noon when I parked the truck. The map showed only a couple hundred yards to the creek and it seemed to me following the ridge down made the best sense even if there wasn't a trail. I'm sure it grew up over the years.
Maps tend to be horizontal tools, the real world tends to be a bit more vertical. What was a couple hundred yards on the map was also a couple hundred yards of vertical drop. If I'd paid closer attention to the contour lines I would have seen the contour intervals were 40', not 10' which meant I had just about a straight drop into the canyon.
Not being one to let a little bit of elevation change keep me from prospecting I pushed ahead with my chosen path certain my skills as a seasoned prospector would get me to the creek.
Poison Oak really grows big in the canyons, don't you think? I alwasy considered myself relatively immune to it but I knew at some point I could only withstand so much exposure which is why I always carry some Tecnu in the pack. Tecnu requires water by the way, I'm not splitting hairs about the product, but there's very little water on the side of a Poison Oak covered slope. I figured I'd be to the creek soon enough and would have plenty of time to wash it off.
After a couple hundred vertical feet I felt I was making pretty good progress, I could see daylight ahead and knew I'd be at the creek within the hour. The funny thing about seeing daylight going into a canyon is it can also be a good indicator of a cliff. I didn't want to try my luck at technical rock climbing, with no ropes or skills, so I backtracked back up to the ridge and took a sideways path looking for a way around the cliff.
There's a lot of rock in the Sierras and an amazing amount of it is vertical. I found myself blocked time and time again by the cliff.
The light was giving out and I decided I'd better abandon my attempt for the day. I felt pretty good about at least confirming there was a cliff there, that meant the trail was somewhere other than the cliff and I'd find it for certain the next day.
The guys at Tecnu are pretty serious about their directions to use it within a couple hours of exposure. I took a week off in my attempts to get into Starvation Creek to deal with the rash.
I decided to talk to some locals in the town of Hardrock, which is the closest town to Starvation Creek. They were evenly split between telling me there's no way into Starvation Creek, and there's a great trail into it because someone they knew told them about it. None of them had actually been to Starvation Creek. They were consistent in their opinion that if a quad couldn't get in what was the point of going there.
I've discovered there is a wide gulf between those of us who hunt for gold, and those who don't. When I look at a mountain I wonder if that's a quartz vein I see, when they look at a mountain they wonder if a quad could make it to the top. When I look at a river I wonder how much overburden is on the bedrock, they wonder if there's any trout behind the boulder.
I don't know what people who go to the mountains do all day. If you're not looking for gold what is there to do other than stare at pine trees and rocks. If you've ever been to one of the public campgrounds then you know the vast majority of them don't leave. It looks like a U.N. refugee camp for the affluent and well fed.
I'm not critizing the affluent, or well fed. I'm just neither. I think it would be nice to have a truck with under 100,000 miles on it, but the affluence part of it might get in the way of mining.
A week of suffering from Poison Oak clears the mind about your choice of trails. So after a week, and with pink arms, I found myself once more loading up for Starvation Creek.
The opposite ridge looked good, but required 50 additional miles to get there, but I concluded it was the only way in. I got up extra early and managed to arrive on the far side by around 11 a.m. The road on the far side of the canyon was a bit rougher, I managed to only lose one shock on the washboard road, next time I think I'll slow down a bit, but the shocks were old and were bound to fail one day anyways.
The drop into the canyon was definitely less severe and actually looked doable. Right where I parked the truck was the old trail but it looked like it hadn't been used in a long, long time. Good for me I thought.
At the risk of sounding more experienced in these things than may be warranted, I've found there are two types of miner's trails. There are those which are switch-backed, which meant they spent some time on it, then there are those which just drop straight down the hill. This was the second type.
The trail was heavily overgrown, and only slightly less steep than an Olympic ski jump run. Down I went crashing through the brush intent on finally reaching Starvation Creek.
I have no idea how the old timers did it. No matter how steep, how thich, how rocky and rattlesnake infested the area, they were there before you and managed to pack heavy equipment in and move every rock in the canyon. This was Starvation Creek. Piles of boulders 8' high and pieces of old machinery littered an alder choked canyon with barely enough water to run a dredge.
The trail took me right to the point where Suicide Gulch joined Starvation Creek and I thought I'd head upstream. If you've been in one of these canyons then you know about walking over alder brush, under it, through it while it slaps your face, grabs your hat and keeps a hold of your legs. My thoughts of dredging for the big gold quickly evaporated as the jungle of alder brush made it clear Starvation Creek was a brush choked, worked out disaster.
I'd made it that far, so I had to pull out the pan and try. Nothing. I'd just spent the past month and a half of gold season chasing down the "good gold" and it wasn't there. Maybe at one time it was, maybe before the alders choked out the creek; maybe when you're not in a drought year; maybe when you could find a decent trail, but that was a lot of maybes.
A few months later I ran into Bob Flanagan again at Murphy's Bar. I'd settled back into my old claim doing about a pennyweight a day again, some days worse.
"So did you check out Starvation Creek?" Bob asked.
"It took me two weeks to even find it," I replied, "Ruined the trucks paint, got a bad case of Poison Oak and the creek is nothing but an alder choked worn out dribble of a stream."
"Did you go in through 12 Toe Dan's camp?" He asked.
"Where?" I replied.
"You just take a left at 12 Toe Dan's camp, then park at Wiley's Diggin's, it's just down the hill. You could take a quad about halfway down if you wanted."
"No, I didn't."
"Oh." Bob said. "How'd you get in?"
"Through Suicide Gulch." I replied.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
"Well, it's only a 30 minute walk from Wiley's Diggin's. I staked a claim I call the Biscuit in there two months ago, I've been getting about a half ounce a day."
"There's no water in Starvation Creek and you can't get through the alders." I told him.
"You've got to go downstream from Suicide Gulch, it's pretty thin up in there, but it widens out downstream. Pretty nice dredging really. I think there's still a spot open upstream, but it's pretty close to Suicide Gulch."
"Thanks for the tip Bob." I said as I picked up my glass of Old Tailings draft and downed it, threw five bucks on the counter and went home to look at the maps.
You can read more of this series at Murphy's Bar