BY ANTHONY “LITTLE TONY” STEURY, SR.
As usual, I awoke to the sound of a mother osprey’s loving shrieks giving instructions to her two young ones who had not yet mastered the art of flight. The sun was just coming over the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, quickly cutting the chill from the night air.
I could tell by the thundering sound of the rapids below my camp that the mighty Klamath River was rising at an alarming rate. The flood gates at the dam were being slowly raised, and I knew my time was limited. I felt that I must get down to bedrock under the rapids in order to find the gold that I knew had been waiting there for a gold dredger with modern equipment since the earth was formed millions of years ago.
As I quickly prepared a hot breakfast to help brace myself for the cold water I would have to endure, I reflected on the past two weeks dredging with my 6-inch dredge slowly moving yards of material, throwing cobbles, and moving small boulders to bore my way down to bedrock and get deep enough to escape the white water force that kept blowing me out of the hole. I was now at a point where most of the turbulence went over the top of my head, and I no longer had to work on my stomach with my face next to the nozzle intake to see. When I first started this hole, I was using 85 pounds of lead around my waist. One slight turn of the head would mean getting my mask or regulator ripped from my face by the turbulent force of the rapids.
I was snapped out of my interlude by the smell of burning bacon and a beautiful eagle gliding gracefully up the river taking full advantage of the thermal river canyon updrafts. Had I known then what events waited for me at the bottom of the river this day, I would have stayed in camp and dreamed of all the gold I had found in the years past.
As I put on my wet suit, my dog “Treasure” was already in the truck patiently waiting to go to our dredging operation as she had done so many times before. I think she knew our time was running out, and swimming the river to work our claim would soon be impossible.
I finished suiting up and grabbed all my gear. Twenty minutes later we were at the dredge, gassing up and getting ready to dive.
I took a quick look at my water marker, and it showed that the water had progressed 18 inches higher since yesterday. Not a good sign in the life of a fast-water dredger. Just as I started my engine and was preparing to slide down the suction hose into my hole, an ominous black cloud came from nowhere and totally blocked out the sun. It gave me a strange feeling as I looked up the side of the mountain and saw the old growth trees bending to a heavy wind by its awesome power. The cold, fast water slammed into my body.
As usual, my gallery was waiting for me in the bottom of the hole. Two ugly eels, three big suckers and many small fingerlings.
Without the sun, and because of a heavy flow of algae, it made visibility less then ten inches. I grabbed the nozzle and started plowing my way deeper around the base of a large boulder that I knew was lying on bedrock. Every day I had tried to move it with an 8-foot pry bar without success. “Today,” I vowed it would move. I threw caution to the wind and felt if I moved enough overburden from around its base, the force of the water would drop it on down behind me to the bottom tier of the rapids.
After steadily working for an hour and a half, I took a quick look at my watch and saw I had ten minutes of gas left. I was just about to go up and refill when the sun came from behind the clouds, allowing me to see that I had finally reached bedrock. There was a one-inch crevice starting at the base of the boulder making it a natural riffle. I took my small pry bar from my belt and pried into the crevice. Yes, I was right! Out came the gold into my suction nozzle. I had found the paystreak; I had outsmarted Mother Nature once again.
Just as I turned to go up and refill the gas tank on my dredge, I heard the familiar grinding sound of falling rock. A breathtaking pain shot up my leg causing me to spin around and grab my calf. As I did so, my mask and regulator were torn from my face. Experienced reflex made me grab my air hose to quickly retrieve my air source which I shoved back into my mouth, blowing out the water so I could breath God’s clean fresh air again.
At this point, after diving rivers and lakes clear back to when I was a young boy, I still panicked, causing me to hyperventilate. My mind started spinning to warn me I was about to black out. From out of nowhere, a voice was telling me to slow down my breathing, lie still and think things out before I became another one of the river’s many victims.
As my mind cleared, I started to run my hand down my leg, since without my mask, I could see only a few inches in front of my face. As I did so, again came the full force of pain which I was now more prepared for. After a quick search, my hand told me my ankle and foot were pinned under the large boulder that I had released with my foolish dredging around its base. I lay back again waiting for the pain to subside. Fighting panic, which would only bring me death, I took off one of my gloves and started to feel around behind me knowing my 8-foot steel bar lay somewhere near-hopefully close within my reach. It was the only chance of freeing myself, and a slim one at that. After groping around as far as I could reach, I was about to give up when my fingers touched steel. I arched my back and got three fingers around the point. Grabbing it the best I could, with my leg killing me, I pulled it toward me far enough to get a better grip and have total control. Just as I got it under and behind the boulder, I heard the engine stop from above.
I knew that there were only fifty-two seconds of air left in my holding tank. I twisted my body allowing me to put my unpinned leg against the boulder while, with arms above my head, I grabbed the top of the bar with both hands. I knew there would be only enough air for one chance to free myself. My mind raced back through my past. I thought of all the sporting events I had won in my youth. All the brave men who had died for their country telling me of all the things they still wished they could do. My family who still needs me and all of life’s battles I had won.
I felt a surge of power entering my body along with that gut feeling one always gets just before a win. I sucked in the last remaining air in my tank, pushing with my leg and pulling down on the bar with the 180 pounds of power that my body had to give.
Instantly, I fe1t the boulder move and I wrenched my leg free. Without hesitation, I ripped open my lead weight buckle release and shot out of the hole and down the rapids at breakneck speed.
In times past, this trip would mean a one-mile walk back up the river along a very rugged river bank, plus a one-hour delay swimming back across the river, floating down to my dredge, and retrieving all the gear I was forced to drop.
This day as my body was bounced along the bottom and slammed into boulders, I felt only the breath of joy while thanking a power greater than myself for this gift of life that was once again given to a mortal such as I. In a matter of minutes, my high-speed float trip was over, after being hurled into a slow water eddy which allowed me to drag myself up on a pile of cobblestones left by the old-time 49’ers.
As I laid back, totally exhausted from the pain and nerve-wracking experience, thinking about the fantastic gold deposit I had located, I looked up into the sky just in time to see my friend the eagle drop a wing tip to catch another updraft. He was, as always, looking after me and all of those who respect and love the river, saying farewell until another day dawned fresh in the life of the fast-water dredger.