By Jude Colleen Kendrick
I remember, in my beginning days of prospecting, driving through the Upper Mojave Desert in Southern California, looking for mines to explore and tailings to scratch through. Occasionally, off to the sides of the road, I would spot small areas where dust and sand billowed up. At first, I thought that they must be “dust devils,” yet they never seemed to change position. In my imagination, I wondered if someone was sending up smoke signals, because that is what they appeared to resemble. One day, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and follow a dirt road up to the puffs of dust.
As I drove up, I saw an old man shoveling gravel into what I now know was a dry-washer. My own previous experience in gold mining had been with suction dredges, so I was excited at the possibility of another way to find gold! The gentleman was kind enough to show me how his dry-washer worked. He explained that he also dredged during the summer. But during the winter months, he headed for the more moderate desert-climates. The thought came to me that now I could prospect year-round, and that everyone in my life would really be annoyed at that. This was because I didn’t leave much time for anything else but gold prospecting, as it was!
For a more comprehensive explanation about dry-washing, please click here.
The old prospector’s machine was a “Nicks Nugget;” which, as I understand it, was constructed upon the design of an “Old Beck’s” dry-washer. It basically worked from a large bellows which was run by a small gas engine set up around 10-feet away (to separate the motor further from the dust). There was a 10-foot leather belt attached to the pulleys. I noticed that the pulleys were connected in such a way that the entire machine vibrated when the bellows opened and closed. The man told me that he would not have any dry-washer other than a Nicks Nugget I, of course, asked him where I could find one for myself. He told me, “Someone one has to die, because they are not made anymore and that’s the only way you’re ever going to buy one!” That is exactly what happened about a year later. An old prospector in the town of Randsburg passed away. I heard that his equipment was being sold and bought the Nicks Nugget!
My machine has great recovery. I have tested my tailings throughout the years; and to my knowledge, I have never lost a single speck of gold!
The desert is peaceful and quiet. At night, you can see the sky and stars in a way that is beyond words…
I should point out that dry-washing is a dirty way to prospect. No matter where you set up the machine so that the dust blows away from you, the wind figures out what you are doing. Then it changes direction so that you get a mouth-full of dust with every shovel-full of gravel! I suppose this is just one of Mother Nature’s many ways of making you pay dearly for her most cherished golden treasures!
Most of the time, I wear a bandanna, which helps a little. But when I go back to camp, I still look like “Pig-pen” from the Peanuts cartoons! Still, it has always been worth it.
Winter in the desert can be hard at times, because the temperature-changes are quite drastic. It will be a comfortable 70 or 75 degrees during the day. Then, the afternoon winds can gust up to 60 miles per hour, and the temperature can drop as low as 20-degrees during the night. I woke up one morning to find that all of my panning water was frozen solid. I could not believe it!
The desert also demands the most out of your creativity and imagination. Very often, we all forget some part of our equipment, no matter how careful we are about packing. Yet with a little thought, anything can be fixed. On one trip, I had forgotten my large panning tub, so I ended up digging a hole, lining it with a large plastic garbage bag, holding the edges down with rocks. Presto; a baby swimming pool! I used it to pan down and perform final clean-up on the concentrates from my dry-washer.
Another time, the worst possible items were forgotten; which were the legs to my dry-washer. Can you imagine? I was frantic! After a few moments of figuring my whole trip was for nothing, I looked over the poles from my picnic awning, and the light went on in my head. Shortly thereafter, I took two of the poles, broke them off at the length I needed, and punched four holes in the poles for the nuts and bolts. Within minutes, I was already cranking up the dry-washer. There is always some solution if you are in the right state of mind; you just have to find it! I’m sure this is all just a part of gold prospecting.
The beauty of the desert makes up for any discomforts which you may experience along the way. Usually, nobody is around for miles. It is peaceful and quiet. At night, you can see the sky and stars in a way that is beyond words. And the gold has always been there for me, from flour to nuggets of various sizes and shapes.
One of my favorite things to do while dry-washing is run my machine all day, collect all of the concentrates; and then at night, by lantern-light, pan everything out! There is something wonderful about working everything down to that glimmering, beautiful gold at the end of my day!
During my years of dry-washing, I have spent Christmas out in the desert a number of times. One year, I grabbed three friends (who have parents and family in other states), and took them to one of my mining claims for a “different” type of Christmas celebration. We decided we would cook our turkey on the BBQ and try to make the side dishes on the Coleman stove. A friend of mine had hooked-up an apparatus so that my rotisserie on the BBQ worked off a 12-volt battery. It was great!
My friends and I thought everything was under control until we realized we had bought too large of a turkey. So we ended up eating our Christmas turkey at 10:30 at night! By then, we had already eaten all of the side dishes as “appetizers.” After a few toasts of champagne, nobody seemed to care much about how or when the turkey was done! It was sometime during that evening that one of my friends decided to make a “snowman” out of three large round lava rocks. Even though there was no snow out there, we found ourselves making the best out of our situation. I’m certain that none of us will ever forget that Christmas experience!
Now-back to the important thing — gold! I have usually dry-wash alone; but when I do have a partner, it certainly makes things a bit easier on both of us. One person can be breaking-up the gravel while the other can shovel. During one of my trips, I ran into my friend Ed “Half-Bucket” Daugherty. So we decided to team up for a while. Later, when we realized that we were onto some good gold, he and I were both feverishly shoveling gravel into my machine so fast, that several times we crossed our shovel handles and sent gravel flying everywhere. To this day, I am convinced that it was those lost shovelfuls which had the big nuggets in them! I’ve often wondered if “Half-Bucket” ever went back out there to get them…
I once watched a young man with a whisk broom and dust pan going from one prospect hole to the next, left behind by other people. He merely swept the shelf completely clean and panned-out what he had collected. He found more gold that way than I did running yards of gravel into my dry-washer! So I started using this method, but took it a step further. I took a gas-powered vacuum, sucked up the layers left on the shelves by others, ran that material through my dry-washer, and then panned-down the concentrates. Trust me; by following this method, I have always recovered a lot of color and sometimes a small nugget or two. I nicknamed this method “dry crevicing.”
While I have not tried it yet, I have run across others in the desert who have made fantastic gold recoveries using modern metal detectors to locate pockets and “patches” of nuggets. I have this plan of trying to combine modern electronic detecting with dry-washing…
At the time of this writing, it remains a little warm to start working my mining claims in the desert. Writing about it, though, has me counting the days until the weather cools.
Until then, I’ll look at my gold from last season and imagine my bottles completely full for the next time.
But even if they aren’t full, the desert and dry-washing are wonderful for the winter months. I can’t wait! Good Luck!!