Gold Prospecting for Better or Worse: Doomed from the Start
November 2018 by Scott Harn
I think it was 1983 when my brother Steve and I headed up to gold country to try our hand at suction gold dredging for the first time. I was 18 and my brother was just two years older.
Having grown up doing odd jobs for mom and dad at the Mining Journal, like getting monthly shipments ready and taking photos to accompany articles, we thought dredging looked fairly easy. All we had to do was get the proper equipment and go vacuum up the gold that was waiting for us at the bottom of every creek and river.
I had saved enough money to pick up an ATC Wetwasher, which was a 4-inch dredge manufactured by an old miner named Clarence in the small town of Aptos, California, near Santa Cruz.
I visited Clarence once a month to deliver copies of the Mining Journal for him to sell at the counter in his shop. He sold chainsaws and other power tools at the now defunct Aptos Tool Crib, which was only ten minutes down the road, and he manufactured gold dredges as a side business, which he advertised through the Journal.
The Wetwasher was a sturdy, well-built machine. Its only shortcoming was the unsteady rubber inner-tubes it was designed to sit on.
Clarence gave me a decent deal on the dredge and gave me a quick lesson on where the oil and gas went and how to prime the pump. He asked what I was going to use to supply air while underwater, and went on to explain why an air supply is needed after seeing the blank expression on my face. He told me to stop by and visit Frank at Pioneer Mining Supplies in Auburn, which was near the area I was going to try my luck at dredging.
Steve and I arranged for some time off work from the local grocery store, we loaded up my dad’s truck, and we set off one morning to strike it rich. We figured four days was plenty of time to get our share of the gold.
We had a grown a bit tired of listening to the Journey cassette tape when we rolled into Auburn, but we were still anxious to get started. We bought a gas-powered air compressor, air lines and masks from Frank, and he showed us how to set things up. We didn’t have extra room on the dredge platform, so we made sure the lines were long enough so we could run them from the shore.
I’m sure Frank knew we had no clue what we were doing based upon the questions we were asking, but he didn’t talk down to us. Before long he realized we didn’t even have a location picked out. Frank drew a map for us and sent us on our way to a location where gold had been found in the past but wasn’t currently under claim.
We arrived in mid-afternoon and were ready to get started. We were able to park a short distance from the river and we made multiple trips down to the water’s edge with our food, camping gear, dredge, air equipment and supplies.
Frank had mentioned that we should look further downriver so there was less of a chance the spot had already been worked. We saw a nice bend about 200 yards downstream. After inflating the inner-tubes, assembling the dredge, and loading all of our additional gear on top, we set out with about an hour of daylight left.
Steve and I manned opposite sides of the dredge as we guided it down the river. The water was about waist deep—at least it was at first.
After we floated about 150 feet, the current picked up speed and we were no longer able to touch the bottom except for the occasional large boulder we felt under our feet. It soon became apparent that we were just along for the ride.
The dredge and our gear, with us clinging on to the sides, bounced along until it got hung up on a large boulder in the middle of the river. Water began to splash over the top. We knew we were in trouble, but it was too late. The dredge dipped to one side and most of our gear landed in the water. It was a mad scramble as we tried to recover whatever we could before the current swept it away.
I was able to fish out some of the food, my wet pillow and the sealed gas cans. Steve guided the dredge over to the shore while watching his pillow and sleeping bag float downstream. He ran down the rocky shore and eventually dove back in and dragged out his soaking wet sleeping bag. We never saw his pillow again, and watched as a few oranges bobbed up and down as they disappeared in the distance. It was a rude awakening for two novice gold dredgers.
We decided we really didn’t need to reach the bend in the river—where we landed was good enough. It was a rocky shore, strewn with small and large boulders. There were no flat areas to set up camp.
That warm summer day soon turned into a cool evening bordering on cold in the shade of the canyon. I gave Steve some of my extra clothes that had managed to stay dry. I felt guilty that I had a dry sleeping bag to lay on while he fell asleep that night between a couple of boulders, looking very uncomfortable.
We were determined to still make the most of this experience and find some gold. After breakfast, we got the dredge and air compressor going and got to work. We cleared several feet of overburden down to bedrock that first day but didn’t see any gold. We knew we just had to expand our hole the following day and the gold would be there.
I tried to loan my sleeping bag to my brother for a few hours that night but he declined the offer. I still felt guilty while I watched him try to sleep on a large rock.
The next morning we were raring to go. We expanded the dredge hole and kept watching for the sunlight to illuminate all the gold that had to be waiting on the bottom. We checked the box a few times, but there were only a few specks in the top riffles.
We continued expanding the hole and vacuuming up the bottom throughout the day. Around mid-afternoon we uncovered what looked like an old campfire site at the bottom of the river. Tin cans and other garbage were piled underneath some rocks. Apparently the section of riverbed we were working had been out of the water during the last drought.
By the end of the day we had (maybe) two grams of gold to show for our efforts and any adrenaline we had when we started this trip was long gone. We were both frustrated, tired and cold, and we were about out of food.
We had seen all the photos of gold that dredgers were recovering recently. We decided maybe it wasn’t quite as simple as it seemed.
Steve and I surrendered. We spent a few hours lugging our equipment and belongings back to the truck and headed back home with our pride knocked down a few notches and our tails between our legs.
I started actually reading some the articles about dredging published in the Mining Journal after that trip. It sure would have been nice to know that we were supposed to clean out all those cracks we uncovered in the bedrock before we started!
Saturday came and it looked to have the makings of a dreary, misty day. Undaunted, I loaded my truck with my sluice, buckets and gear, and headed for the claim.
Making matters worse, we could feel the truck moving very slowly down the mountain along with the trees and mud. It was an uncomfortable sinking feeling, as you might guess.
We all love to see that first glimmer of gold when it peeks out from under the black sand in our pan, or feel the weight of a nugget in our scoop when we dig a good target. But sometimes things don’t go quite so smoothly.
The temptation to enter the dark interiors beckoned to me before the day was finished but I resisted.
With one outstretched hand grasping the bottle and the other waving at air, I moved forward feeling for the tent. No tent. No tree.
The dredge and our gear, with us clinging on to the sides, bounced along until it got hung up on a large boulder in the middle of the river.
I have a slight mental disorder. It causes frequent lapses in common sense, good judgment and bouts of high fever—gold fever.
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