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PLP Update: Oktoberfest Weekend

by Thomas Farley and Linda Dodge

(Editor’s note: I was unable to make it to PLP’s Oktoberfest. Tom and Linda attended the event and provided this summary.)

The gold bug was biting hard recently near Randsburg, California, as Public Lands for the People (PLP) held their first Oktoberfest in five years. Forty prospectors lucky enough to sign up early spent a weekend looking for gold and talking about gold. And there is nothing better than doing both.

The event ran from Friday to Sunday, October 9-11. Friday saw arrivals and set up; Saturday, mining, prospecting, the barbecue, and raffle; Sunday, a service, a little mining, and departures.

I left Pahrump, Nevada on Thursday, October 8. Going a day early gave me time to unhurriedly drive through Death Valley National Park and then spend a few hours rockhounding outside the park before finally driving to my Ridgecrest hotel. I wouldn’t be camping because of a wrenched lower back. The distance was some 185 road miles.

A blinking Caltrans message board at Death Valley Junction near the Amargosa Opera House announced that the park was open but with social distancing enforced. Once inside the park, however, Death Valley looked like it had been evacuated.

The Zabriskie Point overlook had two visitors. The Harmony Borax Works was mine alone. Normally bustling Stovepipe Wells had more crows than people. Panamint Springs was quiet. Outside the park, on the road to Ridgecrest, Trona was alive but that is a working town and not a tourist attraction. Despite Covid, the processing of evaporite minerals continues from the induced brine of Searles Lake.

On Friday morning I visited Ace who owns Minerals Unlimited in Ridgecrest. She has over fifty years of experience in selling minerals from around the world. Her store is an Aladdin’s Cave for any collector.

I wanted scheelite from the Randsburg area. The PLP handout said the ground we’d be prospecting was gold- and tungsten-bearing. That had me really interested since I also collect fluorescent minerals, not just gold. Tungsten is what is called an activator, often prompting a UV response in tungsten minerals, of which scheelite is one. My research said the pretty blue mineral under shortwave light was indeed in the area, so I had my shortwave fluorescent lamp in my truck for a nighttime hunt.

While getting a reference sample of scheelite in local rock, I also bought a rock containing rhodonite with black manganese oxides. Mary Frances Strong’s venerable Desert Gem Trails said this mineral was also in the vicinity and, in fact, Ace at Minerals Unlimited had a sample from near Atolia in the Rand Mining District, exactly where I was headed. Rhodonite is a pinkish-looking mineral that is sometimes cut and polished by lapidary folks. It’s the official gemstone of Massachusetts.

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After that, I turned my truck to the 24 miles to the claim. I stopped into Randsburg, heart of the Rand mining district. The little museum was closed, but a sign promised that visits could be made by appointment. Randsburg is a good-natured ramshackle of a town populated by desert rats and tourists. Some people still live there, hanging on to the independent spirit and lifestyle of the Old West. The drive back to Highway 395 on Butte Avenue was marked with informative signs about such places as Doc Drummond’s Place and the Kelly Silver Mine.

I found on arrival that PLP’s event was quite different than the Oktoberfest held five years ago. That weekend was on different ground—the nearby Sleeping Bear claim. That event hosted three hundred miners, not the forty or so people of this year. This weekend’s celebration and fundraiser sold out quickly and was intended for what they called friends of the PLP; miners who have supported the PLP in the past.

Thousands of people are, of course, friendly to the PLP. For this event, though, you had to be a member (or become a member) and you had to sign up early. I registered months ago when it was first announced. Space was limited this year because it would take a tremendous number of volunteers to carry off an event like the one staged five years ago. Care to join the PLP and volunteer?

PLP’s Walt Wegner spoke to me as I signed in. He talked about PLP’s current work and the event at hand.

“Public Lands for the People tries to protect our rights for small-scale mining and our access to our public domain,” said Walt. “We’ve got a lot of projects going on in Washington, D.C. We’re trying to get justice on the federal level because we have not been able to get a whole lot of justice from the State of California. Out here in the beautiful California desert we can pause awhile to have a great time getting together, prospecting for gold, and to put together a wonderful barbecue.”

Friday was a setup day for most folks. Tents, RVs, and even a large motor coach made the trip. Meeting anyone produced an instant discussion on gold and prospecting. We all looked at the claim ground eagerly, as any prospector does, sizing up the landscape and trying to read it.

The claim owners say their ground lies in the Stringer District but that may confuse some people. William B. Clark doesn’t recognize that district in his seminal work, Gold Districts of California, of which there is a link at the ICMJ website. Instead, the Stringer District is, as mindat.org suggests, more properly thought of as a subdivision of the larger and heavily-claimed Rand Mining District. It’s logical that miners wanted to more easily identify their claims in the Rand by placing them into a smaller unit. Stringer was a settlement or camp, named after the gold stringers found in the local rock.

I ran into Bill Samarin of Mad Mining. He’s a PLP board member. He wanted to avoid “business talk” this weekend, but responded quickly when I asked him what got him into gold prospecting. To Bill, it was all about being outdoors in the beauty of the mountains or the desert, and sharing.

Bill recalls, “We came out with some friends and they had some young children that they had brought along and one of the most memorable times was taking them out into the desert and showing the young eight-year-olds what wildlife actually exists late at night. We took some UV lights and we found some beautiful scheelite specimens. We also found some scorpions and it was just a thrill to watch them enjoy that beauty which the desert can offer us. One of the young men has been so taken by what he saw he now prospects for gold and he really enjoys it. That has been a really great experience for him and for me.”

Bill then led me over to a plant he calls “miner’s grass.” I’d seen it before but I couldn’t at that moment place the name. He says the plant indicates highly mineralized ground. I said I’d tend to agree because that plant was the only herbaceous perennial I’d seen in the Striped Hills near Lathrop, Nevada, when I was searching for a lost copper prospect. The more common name is Desert Trumpet or Eriogonum inflatum, so named for its inflated or bulbous stems. Something to look for.

Bill took off and I wandered over to the shade shelter of Jack Page and Gerri Williams of Miner’s Keepers. These are true supporters of the PLP, with organizers saying they could not have held their fundraising raffle without Jack and Gerri’s donations. The pair gifted numerous gold nuggets and other prizes. I remembered the two from 2018, when they were at the Quartzsite Gold Show. They referred me and the odd-looking slabs I had to Professor Dr. Erik Melchiorre who wrote the Gold Atlas of Quartzsite, Arizona. The good doctor was only a few tables down and he helped me greatly with identifying minerals in those slabs.

Jack told me he started in gold when he bought a Tesoro Lobo detector back in the mid-1990s. 

Asked how he branched from detecting to jewelry, he said, “I got to know a lot of miners because I’m a mechanical engineer and I can fix equipment. I know belt bearings, conveyors and all that. Working around miners I got to know that they buy and sell gold and my business just grew from there.” He added, “We support PLP because they’re for the people and the land. We just know they’re good people and they’re doing something that needs to be done. That’s all. We’ve got to stand up for our rights.”

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Let’s go back to that tungsten mineral scheelite and later on in the day. My Friday nighttime hunt produced only specks of scheelite; no decent-sized rocks with same. I had been told earlier on that all the big pieces had been carted off long ago. I did find some green glowing material which I have yet to identify and some quartz that clearly contained rhodonite. In broad daylight on Saturday, though, I found that there was an enormous amount of pink-tinged quartz on the claim, that color possibly from rhodonite. I didn’t take the time to find anything gemmy.

Before returning on Saturday, I stopped at what looked to be a prospecting store that locals simply call The Owl. It’s run by Daniel Stanton, contributor to the Mining Journal and an authority on the Rand Mining District. (Check out his article, “Exploring the Historic Rand Mining District, Southern California,” in the September, 2019 issue.). Stanton’s store is packed with gold mining memorabilia and it might take you hours to see everything. And while you may not spot brand new mining equipment hanging on the wall, ask Daniel about what you want; he sells from numerous lines.

After spending way too much time talking to Daniel at The Owl, I got back on the road for just a few miles to the claim. I met Douglas Madison of America’s Strategic Minerals. Doug was principally there to help the PLP as a volunteer, but he did have his trusty handheld XRF gun. We talked about rare earth element minerals and his particular interest in thorite. I had brought my REE mineral collection with me to the Oktoberfest, most of which was sourced from Minerals Unlimited. I fetched the collection’s four cases and Doug spent a happy half hour going through the material. (To make clear, XRF is for element identification, not for mineral identification.) He said one thorite sample possessed the highest concentration of Th he had yet measured. He also looked at the XRF report that came back on those mystery slabs I took to Quartzsite. He compared the results of that report with the readings he just took with his gun. We discussed the differences and I hope I understood everything Douglas patiently explained.

I spent the rest of the day going from mining spot to mining spot, as prospectors used dry washers and metal detectors to tease color from the bone-dry ground. Brett Humphries was using his battery-powered dry washer and the start of a heavy afternoon wind fortuitously kept dust from blowing back on him and other operators. Rick Tucker was another dry washer who took a break from teaching panning to show me where he was digging. People weren’t finding much but its near impossible to find the right spot on a 130+ acre claim in just a few hours. I’d probably need a week just to sample.

Out of curiosity, I got out my old but still well-performing White’s GMT. I’ve used its black sand tracker feature in NorCal to greatly cut down my search area on gravel bars and other possible gold bearing ground. I normally don’t pan or sample until the White’s reads 45 or above. I went to two dry washer spots and my display only reached nine. Most ground looked like developed soil and there was lots of brown water in the pan. So much for what I know, since the Rand Mining District has been one of the greatest gold producing districts in all of California. And to this day, every foot is still under claim.

Notable among the miners was the enterprising Frane Sosic, who joined the PLP on just this day upon the recommendation of Jack Page of Miner’s Keepers. Frane was busily working when I spotted him diligently chipping, brushing, and sweeping up rock in a low spot of ground. I agreed with Frane that despite the effort and long shots that some mining pursuits require, like cleaning bedrock, it’s often better to satisfy our curiosity than to wonder endlessly about what we might have found.

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Many ceased mining in the afternoon as wind picked up to return to their shade shelters, RVs, or tents, awaiting dinner. Some drove off to the Owl and others went into Randsburg for all manner of ice cream specialties served at the general store.

Dinner around the bonfire was followed by a report on PLP’s current legislative direction and recent developments in lobbying by Clark Pearson. Clark said that changing laws at the state level had proven impossible. The only productive pursuit was to get the federal government to assert their control over federal land they themselves do not already restrict.

This is not an attack on the concept of states’ rights, he said, rather, it is the preservation of rights belonging to the federal government that they have relinquished to the states in the past. Under the right conditions, say, executive orders stating that mining is critical to the federal government’s defense, state laws like those of California’s onerous ban on dredging may be trumped (pun intended).

Pearson said that new and positive developments are coming and, as always, you can read about them in the Mining Journal. With deference to other groups doing good works, I assert that the PLP remains the central force behind legislative change and court action to benefit the small-scale miner—and in turn, America.

Saturday night’s activities concluded with a gold-oriented raffle, including many good-looking nuggets. People stayed in small groups around the campfire after that and others wandered off to bed. Although I was unable to attend on Sunday morning, I understand a service was held and that some mining was done before everybody said their good-byes.

The 2020 Oktoberfest was a gathering of like-minded souls, a mutual interest, people you could relate to—all in an historic desert setting with wonderful October weather. Given enough interest and volunteers, the PLP is receptive to growing the event again. Will there be another Oktoberfest? Join the PLP to make sure!

© ICMJ's Prospecting and Mining Journal, CMJ Inc.
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