California Gold Adventure
by Alex Dolbeare
During the first great western gold rush, the “call of gold” was strong for many men who couldn’t resist the sense of adventure and possibility of riches awaiting them in the California goldfields. Fast forward a little over a century and a half later and prospectors still search out adventures in goldfields away from home, whether it’s a trip to Alaska’s many gold districts or anywhere else that’s a break from the familiar prospects of home. What draws us as prospectors could be the chance at finding more gold, larger gold, or even a grand adventure in a new location only seen on television or read about in magazines.
I, too, have had this yearning for adventure. For me the trip wasn’t to a new place, but a return to a small prospect I grew up near in California. It all started when my friend Lonnie showed interest in traveling from the Midwest to explore the goldfields out West. He had some ideas about going to Colorado since it was a fairly short drive and he knew a few people there who might be able to point us in the right direction. But we were still uncertain about finding some good ground to prospect. After some thought I suggested traveling further west to an area I had been well acquainted with during my childhood. I told him of the good gold finds my dad and I had made on a small, obscure creek in the heart of the Mother Lode country of California. He was “in” and the trip was a go.
Weeks prior to starting out on our adventure I had done some Internet homework to ensure our trip would be a success and not a waste of time and gas. I had to determine whether the land was still available to prospect and still accessible. Also, I had built a backup plan of places to go in case the little stream had been discovered by others and was played out. The backup locations were places my dad and I had other decent gold finds in the past but not nearly as good as this particular stream.
The days leading up to our trip were full of anticipation. We had a good plan and all the necessary supplies. Upon our departure we were brimming full of excitement and talked about expectations of what we might find, much like the prospectors of the past probably did when they started out on their journeys west. We kept our expectations realistic and grounded, but still talked of the “what ifs” and possibilities. We at least hoped to find enough to cover the cost of our trip.
The drive took us two and a half days. For Lonnie it was his first time seeing the vast deserts of the west and the imposing Sierra Nevada Mountains. Even for me, seeing these sights again was awe inspiring and filled me full of amazement and old memories of my youth. After all, Lonnie and I are used to seeing cornfields and small, rolling hills every day in the Midwest.
Upon arrival we wasted little time—grabbing our pans, backpacks and shovels, we headed out hiking down into the steep canyon. Our first day’s plan was to test pan different locations along the creek to find a suitable spot to set up shop for the remainder of our trip. As we neared the stream, we could hear its faint roar over a set of small waterfalls. Finally, we had made it! The creek was just the way I remembered it—a densely overgrown canopy of brush and vines with very little sunlight. The stream was full of cobbles, medium boulders, and exposed bedrock. It looked great—and untouched!
We sampled all day long, checking several bedrock crevices and around large boulders. All locations gave up some gold, but one particular section of exposed bedrock with steep, packed crevices kept giving us good, consistent results. We had found our spot.
With evening coming on, we had to find a place to set up camp. We chose a spot where I could easily park the truck and still have the creek nearby to have access to water for our daily clean ups. The next day we drove to a new location along the canyon that gave us a shorter hike down the steep ravine to our spot. We hiked down with sluice boxes, shovels, buckets, and our backpacks full of supplies for the five days of mining. According to the GPS, the distance from the truck to our spot was an eighth of a mile, but it was reading this distance as the crow flies. This eighth of a mile hike took us about 45 minutes with gear in tow, as the canyon walls were very steep and in some places dangerous. The hike down was slow going. Creekside, we had very little sunlight and the mountain stream water was frigid. Around noon and 3pm was our only shot at sunlight, and we took full advantage, pausing to take in the sun’s rays to warm up. At the top of the mountain the daily temperature was over 90 degrees, but deep in the shaded canyon and in the creek the temperature was much cooler.
We started working a crevice in the schist bedrock. This crevice was perpendicular to the stream’s flow, much like a natural riffle in a sluice. It ran the whole width of the stream and was nearly vertical and full of smaller fractures. Our plan was to process the contents and gravels of the crevice by digging downwards, shoveling and classifying to 1/4 of an inch and running the material through our sluices. We would check the material larger than 1/4 of an inch for nuggets before discarding. After all, I remember my dad finding a 1/4-ounce nugget in this creek years ago.
Within an hour we had several pickers caught in the ribbed matting and gold visible behind the first riffle—this was something we were not accustomed to in our prospects at home in the Midwest. We were amazed, and it was as good as I remembered it. Lonnie knew that our expectations could definitely be met and was glad we decided to go the extra distance to the California’s Mother Lode region. At the day’s end we were tired but looking forward to the day’s clean up back at camp. The climb back up was an arduous hour and a half with many frequent stops. We left our shovels and sluices and non-essential items along the creek and only carried our backpacks and our buckets of concentrates from the day of sluicing.
Back at camp we ate a simple miner’s dinner of beans and canned tuna, then crushed and panned quartz samples and processed our day’s concentrates in a recirculating highbanker. We were well pleased with our first day’s run and anticipated the next several days of running and getting deeper into the gold-rich crevice.
Day two went about the same. By the middle of day three we thought we were at the bottom of the crevice and needed to open up a new one. The bottom was solid, but still giving up some respectable amounts of gold.
Later, we found the best was still to come. With further investigation we found that we weren’t at the bottom of the crevice at all, and that there were some large boulders packed in tight. After prying and winching by hand and pry bar for over an hour, the big boulders were rolled out of the massive crevice. What lay underneath was a mixture of small cobbles, decomposed schist bedrock, and gold-bearing sands and muck. We had found the good stuff!
With the crevice cleared of the big boulders, the end of the day was upon us. That night we again anticipated a great couple more days of prospecting in the decomposed bedrock.
Day four Lonnie found the first small nugget. As he was feeding the sluice and I was working the crevice. I soon heard a “chink”—the sound of something heavy hitting metal—followed by, “Come over here and check this out!”
I instantly knew from the sound it made in the sluice that it was something good! It wasn’t a monster nugget, but was still big enough to make a noise in the sluice and not move off the slick plate. After snatching it out, we found that it only made it through the 1/4-inch classifier screen diagonally and that more caution was needed in searching the 1/4-inch and larger material before discarding it. Later, as Lonnie was working the crack, he pulled out a scoop of mucky material that had 4 or 5 pickers embedded in the muck on the tip of the shovel.
Wow, we couldn’t believe our trip was coming to an end. We had joyfully toiled in the stream for five days. Before leaving we filled in our crevice with cobbles and tailings then packed everything out one last time. It was time to start the long journey back home, but we weren’t in any kind of hurry. We knew of a few old placer drift mines and hard rock mines in the area that we wanted to search out and sample. I also showed Lonnie around Placerville, the old hometown of my youth.
We decided to explore a little and check out some of my backup locations for future trip ideas as we worked our way back home. We made the trip back across the Sierras to explore some of the placer and hard rock deposits my dad and I had prospected in Nevada. We packed enough water to run the small recirculating highbanker and do some panning, and we did some dry panning too.
We ended up working a dry desert wash for a day. Again we found some good gold, but not as good as we had in the stream in California. I did find a large picker and some nice little chunky pieces—still worth the stop! We thought that this would be a good location to come back to with a dry washer someday and process a larger amount of material. Finally, we headed off to a nearby hard rock deposit for some exploration and sampling of some quartz outcroppings before hitting the road for home.
We had traced the footsteps of the forty-niners, developed some fond, adventurous memories of gold country, and had some small success finding gold. All in all, the trip was a success. At home I reprocessed our concentrates for fine gold and I crushed over 100 pounds of quartz to extract any gold locked up inside. Our initial gold cleanups we processed in camp in California was just shy of 29 grams. With the final, fine gold clean up and extracted hard rock gold, our take was a few grams over a troy ounce. We had passed our minimum expectation of covering the cost of the trip, and then some.