Sunday, July 5, 2009

A modest real life adventure -- prospecting on the American River

I had a little adventure on Friday that I wanted to share with y'all (but I had other things that had to come first, so I'm doin' it now). It was one of those "Kon-Tiki" experiences that give you some small insights into people's lives in the past: my friend Aldo and his father-in-law Gregg invited me along on a gold prospecting trip to the North Fork of the American River, a little ways to the east of Sacramento, California.

When they asked, of course I said "Hell yeah," and laced on my old Corcoran boots and met up with them for about an hour drive, the last portion of which went down a winding dirt and gravel road that was scraped into a pretty steep hillside. This triumph of engineering led down to the Ponderosa Way bridge (see picture, above), where we disgorged from the jeep with gear that included shovels, five gallon buckets, a small pick with a scoop blade, a sifting box, a little portable sluice box, a gold pan, and some other miscellaneous accessories of low-tech mining. We climbed over a low barrier and went down to river bed. The water was fairly low and moving kind of fast. The exposed part of the river bed was a field of loose, rounded river rocks (some qualifying as boulders), sand and gravel. We then hiked a ways over the rocks, heading downstream from the bridge until Gregg saw some likely looking spots among the boulders and gravel of the bar.

We spent a good part of the day digging up gravel and sand, sifting it into the buckets and then putting the resulting material one handful at a time into the sluice box (which was set into the flowing stream so water was running through it). The water washed away the lighter sand and gravel, leaving the heavier bits (including hopefully, some gold) against its "riffles" (small ridges). Finally, when it looked like the crap was mostly gone, we took the remnants and did the panning thing, swirling it around in the pan and washing away more of the light material.

It was a wonderful, wonderful place: absolutely beautiful. The river water was clear and cool and the rocks, though a pain in the ass to hike over, were fascinating. Gregg pointed out various piles of rocks here and there which he identified as "tailings" from earlier mining operations, perhaps going back as far as the 1850s.

In the course of the day, the three of us actually found two minuscule flaky little pieces of gold, which Gregg carefully retrieved from the pan with a little suction gizmo and put into a jar.

I can't tell you what those little reddish yellow flakes might be worth, but I can tell you that finding them taught me a couple of things, things that I think have a significance for those of us who are trying to create stories about life in a 19th century gold mining community.

First and foremost, placer mining for gold in the old, hands-on way that guys did it in the 19th century is goddam hard work.

You are mostly bent over or squatting. You are pulling up big rocks and tossing them out of the way so you can get at the finer material -- the sand and fine gravel -- that lies underneath and around the bigger stones. Much of the time, you are scooping up this stuff with your bare hands to put in the buckets, because the shovels, and even the little scoop/pick tool, are too unwieldy to get the sand and gravel out of the crevasses. And Christ it sorta made your brain hurt -- Aldo and I spent a lot of time squinting at the sand and gravel as we washed it through the sluice and then swirled it in the pan, concentrating so terribly hard, like badly-trained mentalists trying to bend a spoon with brain waves. We were both scared shitless that we would accidentally wash away something that was of some value.

But Gregg was a lot more blase' about it all. He's been doing this stuff for years and he says it just gets to be second nature. And he was really, really nice to not give me a ration of shit about my spectacularly inept efforts to swirl the sand and gravel and water in the pan in the proper way. I could just imagine the grief that oldtimers probably would have shoveled on to some poor, feckless, dewy-eyed greenhorn who was trying to get the hang of it for the first time.

So we were doing this for only one day, and it was kinda rough on the knees (though we wore knee pads) and on the back and on the fingers. And I'll admit all three of us are older and more sedentary than your average historical 49er. But goddam, it gave me a whole new level of respect for those guys. Especially the ones who got to California by taking a fucking hike across several thousand miles of prairies, mountains and deserts to get there.

The experience also made me ponder some things. One thing I noticed was that here we were in this astonishingly beautiful place, and before long, you stopped seeing it. Your eyes were focused down: among the rocks, in the sluice box, in the pan. Were the argonauts of the past blinded to nature's wonders in the same way?

And I wondered if the guys in the 19th century talked at all while digging, running a sluice and panning. I know we didn't have much to say, other than things related to the work itself:

"How about this spot?"

"Hand me that bucket."

"Is this anything?"

"Watch your fingers there..."

I could also understand how if you did this for weeks, or months, or even years, it probably aged you prematurely. And I could see how other ways of making your living -- blacksmithing, bartending, gambling, robbing stagecoaches, stealing chickens, or farming -- must have become very, very attractive sooner or later. Especially in the valleys of California, where it never snowed, the land was fertile, and all kinds of stuff would grow, did the lure of the yellow metal ever completely fade, or did it hold you in its grip forever?


  1. Hll yes - I've always marvelled at how humans have been able to tackle terrible working conditions day in day out for years on end. I've been down slate mines in Wales (as museums, not working mines) and seen the conditions people only a few generations back put up with and been amazed they a) did it, b) didn't die at 20 , and c) didn't riot!

    Thanks for the great insight into a side of life I've never seen.

    p.s. I hope you got to keep your gold!

  2. Years ago, while living in southern Arizona, I also went out on a hunt for the yellow metal. While it was more of a family excursion, I agree with your perceptions: that was damn hard work--even when you're playing at it!
    My father and I purchased copies of maps from the 1800's (dad was intent on finding the famed Lost Dutchman-lol) and had a grand time looking for all the small towns shown (reduced in present day to rubble and dangerous mine shafts).
    Your story brought back some fond memories, Dio. Thank you for sharing it!

  3. This is a great story, Dio :)

    I love all your blogs, thanks for sharing it!Keep on writing, please :)


  4. hey there Deac! glad to see ye dropped by Hon. Thank you for the kind words -- I don't plan to stop writing any time soon.

  5. *grins* I've been here for some time already, just sneaking around, standing in the shadow ;)

    Fun thing is, that this post remembered me at my childhood. There was a great event of "panning for gold and silver bars" at a feast.
    Not really comparable to your "real life panning in the wild", BUT I was proud to hold my real little tiny silver bar in my hands at least.

    If anyone plays a grumpy, worn out miner in Deadwood, I have finaly an idea about his reasons ;)

    Tough job...

  6. A very interseting article *smiles*