BY “MEAN JEAN” STEURY

Who would have thought that only a few short months ago I would be paddling across the Klamath River in my own little rubber raft to my sluicing and dredging operation. Particularly since when my husband, Little Tony, first presented me with, “Let’s go for the gold,” I thought he had completely gone off the deep end!

He tried to indoctrinate me by placing treasure and gold mining magazines on my night stand; the stack getting so high I couldn’t see the alarm clock, which needed to be set to make sure I got up in time to go to work. Being the curious, adventuresome person I am, Tony didn’t have to do too much fast-talking to get me to agree to give it a try. My feelings were that I could always go home.

Of course, my family, friends and co-workers gave me some strange looks, and I knew they were whispering behind my back that perhaps I was only temporarily mad for quitting my two jobs to go off in the wilderness with my crazy husband to look for gold. After all, everyone knows the gold is all gone; the miners took it all in the early “Gold Rush Days.”

We quickly prepared for our adventure, shopping for what looked liked a year’s provisions. Three of our sons, Tim 18, Ron 16, and Robert 13 and family pets Willy, Muffin and Treasure, were all packed. The caravan was ready to go.

 

Shortly after our arrival into Gold Country, I was anxious and full of enthusiasm, ready to learn what I needed to know about gold mining, which prompted me to enroll in a Gold Dredging Workshop”, being put on by Dave McCracken, founder of The New 49’ers Prospecting Group.

I must say, I quickly met head on with my first challenge. Half way through the training program, we were to have lessons in diving underwater in the river. After a short 15 minute deep water dredging lesson with mask, regulator, wet suit and 65 pounds of lead weights strapped around my waist, I bravely descended into the river following my leader into the 14-foot dredging hole. Within minutes, I knew I was out of my element. I couldn’t breathe as my face mask and regulator filled with water. Forgetting all my topside instruction, weights and all, I headed for the water’s surface, as I knew I was going to drown. Luckily, the training program included capable helpers who were right there to help me out. Nothing short of a fist fight would have gotten me back down into that hole! Thus ending my career as a deep water dredger. However, Dave did tell me I was very brave. That made me feel a little better.

Now, you have to understand, I have always preferred being a participant rather than a spectator. There was no way I was going to spend the entire summer on the riverbank safely reading the many treasure magazines that somehow seemed to have found a place in the camper conveniently on my side of the bed.

A few days after my underwater experience, there was a rumor in camp that “Highbanker Bob” might have his successful sluicing & dredging equipment for sale. Thus began my friendship with Bob and my love affair with the Klamath River and surface sluicing.

No longer caring what time it is, as that seems so unimportant here on the river, I fill my thermos, fix a lunch, hop into my swim suit, shorts, and soggy tennies, still wet from the day before. After asking my partners Willy and Muffin (whose percentage is what a dog’s should be), “Are you ready to go to work?” with a wag of their tails and barks, they agree it is time to leave.

We head up the road to the “Mega Hole“, where the river and raft are patiently waiting for us. Forgetting all troubles and worldly affairs, I quickly prepare to make the raft trip across the river. Donning my wet suit top and stowing a gas can, my trusty bag that holds lunch, treasures and supplies, then telling my partners to jump into the bow of the raft, with a little shove, I quickly jump in the stern and we’re off! Forgetting my past fears of the river, I begin to paddle slightly up stream so the current can help bring us to our cross-river destination.

Upon arriving, I eagerly prepare for the day’s work, anxious to know what treasures lie hidden beneath the rocks and dirt, hoping to recover a few. Not being a mechanic, I am very thankful when the engine to my portable water pump starts with the first pull of the cord. I welcome the purr of the engine, as it is pumping the water through the maze of hoses to my sluice box.

Sometimes, I shovel dirt into the sluice box. But I usually prefer the dredging method, allowing more material to wash through the sluice box. This is where the water pump powers a small dredging unit that I use in shallow pools of water up on the stream bank. The material I dredge is directed through a hose into the sluice box.

More often than not, I find myself daydreaming, enjoying the sun’s rays on my body, not caring that I have mountains of rocks to move, many of which find their way into my pockets.

I Often have to remind my partners they are not doing their share of the work. They are too busy chasing toads and dragonflies, and occasionally startling a rattlesnake, one of which bit Willy on his muzzle and chest. Fortunately on that day, Ron and Robert were helping me. They killed the rattler with my mining shovels, Robert proudly showing his trophy of nine buttons. I bravely buried the snake’s head and body in separate holes, as I was told this was the proper thing to do.

Needless to say, I thought this would end my friendship with Willy and his mining career. However, being the macho poodle he is, he survived the bite and has gained the respect of his fellow miners. This was a good lesson, as he is now more cautious, watching carefully for any movement, often letting me know of any other snake’s presence.

Occasionally, a nosey bear comes wandering out of the woods, only to make a hasty retreat with Willy and Muffin in close pursuit.

Judging from the sinking sun and my sore aching body, I realize it is time to clean up the sluice and get a closer look at the gold I recovered. For me, this is the highlight of the day. I carefully pan the concentrates, soon revealing my finds for the day, hoping that perhaps today I will top my all-time high of 83 beautiful flakes of gold. The greatest thrill was finding not one, but two, nice gold nuggets in one day. I soon realized I don’t have gold fever; because the nugget I prize as the most, is a tiny quartz nugget nestled inside a lacy gold flake.

I am proud to say there has not been a day that I have not found gold sluicing along the Klamath River. I experience a great “high” when I see the color in my pan. I know personally each flake of gold that I carefully place in the one-ounce glass vial, filling it ever so slowly. One day, when the vial is full, I will have reached a goal I set for myself with mixed emotions, realistically knowing some of the gold will have to be sold.

After having the day’s treasure finds placed safely in my bag, some of which are old square nails encrusted with rust and rocks, I get a welcome reminder from the Blue Heron telling me it is time to go home. He has allowed us to intrude on his domain as long as he cares to.

With the sun quickly fading, I take a last look around, drinking in the beauty and serenity of the forest and the rushing river. Happily, we head for the raft, feeling good about our day’s accomplishment.

When I begin to quickly paddle the raft that will safely get us back across on shore, I can’t help but chuckle when I remember my first attempt at paddling back across the river and going nowhere but in circles. Oh, how far I have come in a short period of time!

Back at camp, we are greeted with, “How was your day? Did you find any gold?” I smile and say, “It was great!”

Regardless of the varied backgrounds of all the gold miners, we have a common bond that has brought us together. Gold!

I know when the time comes to make the return trip home, I will not only take my treasures of gold, rocks, nails and such, but the feeling of richness from having made new friends, remembering the shared stories, poems, music, food and all the laughter. All of this I will take home, looking forward to next year’s gold mining season. I will no longer be a greenhorn but a seasoned miner who has paid her dues.

 

BY ROBERT MILES

“What began only as a dream a little more than twelve years ago is now Chet and Nancy Long’s very special gold-finding retirement lifestyle.”

 

Retirement and finding that elusive gold is what Chet and Nancy Long have been working and saving toward for well over a decade. And while many people may have no idea of what they’ll do when retirement finally rolls around, these two new retirees are doing exactly what they enjoy the most…gold mining and nugget hunting together.

They both smile a lot, and you can tell they like what they’re doing. And they’re good at it, too, with Chet having found over 206 gold nuggets in a single two-month period, using a metal detector and working a desert area just outside of Yuma, Arizona. “My dad,” Chet recalls, “has always had a metal detector, and he’s the one that got me started. We’ve always read a lot of stories about people finding gold and relics, and I guess we just figured we could do it, too. At first it was really hard going, and I even wondered if I’d ever find a nugget, but now I know it’s there and anyone who’ll persist and take the time to learn a bit can find them. In fact, in just one day I managed to take 40 different pieces.”

And if anyone happens to be talking about gold mining and Chet and Nancy are nearby, you can be sure they’ll be listening. “We’ve learned a lot about mining and prospecting from a lot of great people,” says Nancy, who’s got a thirst for adventure and a smile as big and warm as a home-baked apple pie. “So much of the fun of finding gold, or at least the way we’ve done it, is meeting the other miners. We all help each other locate the gold, because most people who are into good gold love to share their experience.”

Today their home is where the gold is, but it wasn’t always that way. Before they retired Nancy was an editorial typist for the Air Force Test Pilot program, and Chet was a civilian electronics technician, working on America’s Space program at Edwards Air Force Base in Arizona.

“I got him a dry washer for a wedding present,” Nancy recalls. “Chet had gotten the gold bug after studying geology and anthropology at the college in Antelope Valley, and as soon as we started getting out into the desert and finding a little color, that was it, and we were from that moment on just destined to be gold miners and prospectors.

“Then listening to people tell how much fun it was to actually dredge for gold in the creeks got us into buying our first 2-inch dredge. It didn’t take us long to really get hooked on that because we found a real nice nugget on our very first trip. After that we would go up to the creek on the weekends and holidays, and Chet would start the holes, and then I’d get in the water with a snorkel and push them as deep as we could go. It was great; we really had a ball doing that for the next five or six years.” About this time we started dreaming of getting a new five-inch dredge, and then when we finally got it, we took it up to Piru Creek where the water, in a lot of the good spots, is only 2 to 6 inches deep. We had to dredge a hole with our 2-inch dredge to put our new five-incher in. Then we’d use the tailings to make a pool to get it floating; it was great fun and we found some really nice gold.”

These days Chet and Nancy make their home pretty much wherever the gold trail takes them. As lovers of the great outdoors, their 24-foot 5th wheel trailer and four-wheel-drive truck make perfect partners in their gold mining ventures. “We didn’t always have the RV,” Chet recalls, “and for years we’d get off work at four o’clock on Friday night, head out, and not return until late Sunday night. Nancy would cook on the tailgate of the truck, and I’d kid her about how I take her out to eat more often than any four other people.”

To Chet and Nancy, finding gold has far more meaning than just the value of the gold itself. It is the thrill of finding it and sharing the excitement and pleasure with their friends. “Whenever we’d come back from a weekend gold hunting trip, on Monday all the people back at work would gather round and say, ‘Okay, show us the gold.’ We’d be so excited, and they just couldn’t believe we’d work so hard just to find that little bit of gold that was in the jar, but we were. And of course if you’re a miner you’d understand.”

Now that they’re retired, each new day holds a promise for Nancy and Chet Long an opportunity to live the life they’ve worked so long and hard to have. From their home in Yuma, Chet is able to make frequent trips out into his favorite nuggets hotspots, many with his dad, Chester Long, Sr., who’s now 88 years old and still finding his share of that elusive gold.

Whether metal detecting, dredging, (Dry-washing) dry washing, or just shooting the breeze about a good gold location, they’re living the kind of life that many only dream about. And to those of us who can feel adventure calling, Chet and Nancy Long are the first to say, “Come on, lets go…there’s gold out there.”

 

BY JUDE’ COLLEEN KENDRICK

Mail man from Fairfield, Connecticut finds his first gold nugget in Happy Camp, California!

Four hours of panning and I was totally hooked!” Those are the words of a new gold prospector, Henry Kutash of Fairfield, Connecticut. When asked how he got started in gold prospecting, Henry said he had originally panned for gold in historic Jamestown, California and also a little in various areas of southern California. But he didn’t find much gold there, so he kept searching for a new, more productive, area to spend his valued vacations.

Last summer, Henry traveled 2,800 miles to attend a weekend training program sponsored by The New 49’ers gold prospecting association in Happy Camp, California. Very educational weekend training programs are scheduled throughout the summer months. Members of this Association gain access to 60+ miles of mining properties managed by The New 49’ers, and get to keep all the gold they can find. Henry was determined to recover his fair share!

The New 49’ers sponsor a number of organized events, including specialized training programs and group mining projects. Henry definitely took advantage of each and every day of his two-week visit to Happy Camp. He participated in every activity that was scheduled, took every lesson that was available and went along on all the organized outings. He was particularly impressed with how friendly and helpful everyone was in Happy Camp. According to Henry, “The nicest thing about the New 49’ers is that they are so family-oriented. A lot of family members were enjoying prospecting together.”

During the first week, Henry learned how to really use his metal detector for nugget shooting. “Not that it’s so difficult, actually,” said Henry, “It’s just that it takes some practice to atune yourself to what you are listening for. To find gold nuggets with a detector, you just have to get out there and work at it. Happy Camp gave me the opportunity to receive some expert help which moved me along quite rapidly on the learning curve. Of course, it also helps to be in the right location!” Henry attended the advanced class taught by Gordon Zahara—who is northern California’s leading specialist in metal detecting for gold. Gordon sets up a special double set of headphones for his students so that he can listen in on what they are doing with the detector. Sometimes there is very little difference in sound from specific hot rocks and some gold targets. So this training is worth years of trial and error. Henry learned to identify the sounds of hot rocks vs. good targets. He also became familiar with the ground balance function of his detector. Once he had mastered this—he was on his way to success!

Henry spent most of his two weeks panning and sluicing for gold—which mostly was fines and small flakes. While he was happy with this, he really wanted to find a nice nugget to take home. Deciding his best chances were with the use of his metal detector, he arranged with Gordon to go out to the Independence Claim and do some nugget shooting.

Soon after he began, Henry received a strong signal that for some reason started to decrease about four or five inches down. Yet, after he and Gordon removed some of the bedrock, the signal became strong again. Henry did not know there was a nugget until Gordon washed it off and dropped it in a cup—offering the prize to Henry.

“It looked like just a black rock to me,” said Henry. Yet, there in the cup, was a one-pennyweight nugget sitting up like a chocolate bunny!

Now that’s the way to end a vacation!

Besides, Henry had vowed not to shave until he found a gold nugget, so I’m sure there are some happy postal workers back in Fairfield!

Henry had sent postcards to many of the patrons along his route back home; but now the “clean shaven” Henry was really looking forward to showing them his nugget—especially to the woman at the bakery where he gets his coffee every morning…

“She’s going to faint when she sees this!” stated Henry.

Henry shared that he has no ties back home, that he can come and go as he pleases—so I feel it is safe to say that one of the places he’ll go next year is right back to Happy Camp, California.

Good Luck Henry!

 

BY CHUCK MORRIS

 

I’m not exactly certain just when my dream of gold mining began, but last year I said to my wife, “prospecting for gold is something I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t know how or where and have no idea who to contact to find out. If that opportunity ever knocks, I will definitely open the door.”

Just one week later, while going through the mail I noticed an article in the latest issue of Reader’s Digest, “Is There Gold In Your Backyard?” It mentioned a place called Gold n’ Gems Grubbin in Cleveland, Georgia; a working mine where you can actually pan and sluice for placer gold and gem stones. One quick look at my wife for approval and within minutes I was talking to Susan Devan at the G & G.

I explained that I knew absolutely nothing about gold mining from bedrock up, but that I wanted to visit the mine and find out. I asked if she could recommend a source of information regarding mining and gold recovery. She suggested that I read a book called “Gold Mining in the 20th Century” by Dave McCracken. She said the book would explain everything I ever wanted to know about small-scale gold recovery from panning to dredging. The book arrived within days, and I read it at least a dozen times.

In September I packed my truck and headed for Cleveland, Georgia. I was going to learn how to pan and find some gold. The spark had suddenly burst into flames.After I returned from Georgia, I placed a call to Dave Mack in Happy Camp to thank him for writing his book (one of many), and helping me to get started on my new adventure. I subscribed to “Gold and Treasure Hunter” magazine and read all about the New 49’ers. Then I ordered Dave’s video about prospecting along the Klamath River. However, that was 2,500 miles away. But the flames had spread like wildfire. I was ready to go it on my own, somewhere, and a chance to relive a part of the past with a pick, a pan and a shovel.

Then I remembered what Dave Mack had said at the end of his video-“Why not take a couple of extra days and come to Happy Camp. We have miles of proven claims, experienced instructors and no questions regarding property rights, just miners helping miners and …gold.” So, in April, after several months of planning, I started my trek from Louisiana to Happy Camp, California.

Soon after I arrived, New 49’er representative Bill Stumpf helped me set up a motorized sluice to use on a New 49’er claim. I couldn’t have done it without his help. As we set up the equipment, he explained the procedure step by step and the importance of settling dirty water up out of the active waterway. Then we washed a couple of sample buckets just for practice. Although Bill covered all aspects of using a motorized sluice, I must admit that I really didn’t get into that until later in my trip. I’d been panning, trying my luck at crevicing and working moss, and stocking up on material to take home. Maybe I was just reluctant to try motorized sluicing on my own.

Finally, I made up my mind to give the sluice my best shot. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And after all, I didn’t drive 2,500 miles just to collect dirt and scrape moss off a rock. I dug and filled my containers with about 20 gallons of material out of surface gravels up out of the water, and set up the sluice near the river, connected the hoses, anchored the intake line, primed the pump and cranked the engine just like Bill had instructed…and cranked… and cranked… for nearly an hour. The engine wouldn’t start. I thought maybe I had flooded it. Needless to say, I was glad no one was within earshot. I got so frustrated that I decided to find me a big, flat river rock, put on my clown nose and sit it down for a while to try to regain my sense of humor.

After I calmed down I walked back to try again and just happened to glance down at the side of the engine where the switch is located and realized that, like any engine, if you want it to start…YOU HAVE TO TURN THE SWITCH ON…like Bill had instructed. After that I managed to find considerable color the remainder of the day.

The next day, because the sluice was situated in such a rocky area, I decided to make it a little easier on myself and took the time to move it about 50 yards down river where I could maneuver without tripping over every Tom, Dick and river rock. After stockpiling another 20 gallons of material, I secured the engine, connected the hoses and anchored the intake line. That’s when I noticed the clear tubing had come loose from the priming pump. No problem. I reconnected it.

Then I pumped… and I pumped…and I pumped; and then started looking again for that same river rock. I must admit that I nearly lost it for good that time. Suddenly, it dawned on me…there are two connections that look identical near the pump handle. Maybe, just maybe, I had connected the tubing to the wrong one. So I changed it, and first pull on the pump…PRIMED! Cranked the engine…STARTED!

Then, can you believe this-the initial force of water going through the hose caused the elevated sluice box to tip over. I’d placed it so it would flow into a settling area and didn’t have it leveled. Now let’s go through this one mo’ time. Turn off the pump, run up the hill, upright the sluice, run back down the hill, check the prime, crank the engine…After that, all worked well.

By late afternoon I was into some serious sampling on the down river side of a large tree in the tree line. Remembering what I’d read in Dave’s book, that rocks sometimes act like riffles, I washed several pans and did get some nice color. Problem: I was 75 yards down river of the motorized sluice, and it was getting late. I decided that come first light I’d move it all, one more time.

I prayed a little on the way to my worksite next morning. “Lord, I only have three more days of vacation left. I have lifted, carried, pumped, primed and cranked until I’m about worn out getting ready to get worn out. Please, let it all go right.” I moved the rig, dug a few containers of surface gravel, connected, anchored, primed and cranked-AND IT ALL WORKED! How sweet it was. He must have been listening. I turned to and was diggin’ like a Siskiyou mole when I heard somebody yell, “You’re diggin’ in the wrong place!” Say what? Whoever it was, they were pushing their bodily well-being at this point.

It was Chuck Tabbert, a New 49’er member, who’d been laid up with a bad back, easin’ down the trail road, bad back and all. He introduced himself and said he wanted to meet me before I left Happy Camp. I said, “I’m sure glad you have a smile on your face, but what do you mean I’m digging in the wrong place? This is where I thought I was suppose to dig…out of the surface gravels and down towards the bedrock.” Chuck said, “That’s right. Gold is down on bedrock. But where you’re digging it’ll take you a month to get down there. You’re too high on the bank. Why not move closer to the river? Just below the flood gold stage, about in line with that tree, right there. All you’re going to find where you’re digging is seed gold from the spring flood-pinhead size pieces.” I must admit it did make a whole lot of sense because that’s exactly what I was finding. Chuck said, “Move down by that big tree, the one with the big rocks jammed against it.” Wouldn’t you just know it, that was the same place, same tree, where I was the day before.

Chuck said, “Get me your shovel.” I said, “Are you crazy, with that bad back?” He said, “Just get me your shovel and I’ll teach you something, real quick.” He took the shovel, walked to a sandy area near that tree and started “chunkin” the shovel into the sand like a probe. I said, “I thought you couldn’t find gold in river sand.” He said, “You probably won’t, but watch this.” Chunk, chunk, chunk…CHANG! Chang, chang, chang. “Hear that? That’s bedrock. About 6 inches under this sand. That’s where you’ll find larger gold. Clear off an area where you can work on top of this bedrock and dig along there. Look for those small, coin-sized river rocks and stay on bedrock.”

Just as in Dave’s book, Chuck explained the importance of getting to know the area where you are going to work being able to recognize tree lines caused by mineralization; how gold travels in a line; taking the time to sample; being familiar with your equipment (I had too steep an angle on the sluice box) and above all, remember the AU rule: “Gold is always in the bottom of your pan and on top of bedrock”. Chuck departed and I, with an abundance of renewed self-confidence, went back to work.

Just before the sun went down, with the body starting to stiffen from getting up and down, and from carrying containers to the sluice (makes one appreciate what the old timers must have had to endure), I cleaned the sluice, took my concentrates down to the river and began to pan down.

That’s when it all came together-Dave’s concept of miners helping miners. Thanks to the book, Bill’s seminar on setup and sluicing procedures and Chuck’s on-site instructions and suggestions, I managed to recover not only nice flakes but also the nicest string of fine gold that I had found around the back of my pan since I’d arrived in Happy Camp.

I don’t have to tell you that I was up Friday morning at the crack of dawn with only two days to go. I loaded my gear and provisions and was ready to go the whole nine yards right after I stopped at the prospecting store in Happy Camp. I knew that I wouldn’t see the staff on Saturday and wanted to personally express my appreciation for the first-class treatment I received. Then, I headed upriver.

Friday and Saturday went as smooth as worn bedrock. I managed to wash about 60 gallons of material altogether. Every evening I sniffed some of the nicer pieces of gold out of my pan and put them in my sample bottle. I brought the remainder of the black sand home for final clean-up. I’m still sniffing out the gold…one teaspoon of black sand at a time.

Nice part about my last day was that Chuck and Kay Tabbert brought their picnic lunch and came down to moss and crevice near the area where I was working.

I finally had to give it up about 3 p.m. Except for dredging in the river (due to very high water) I had done it all and enjoyed every bit of it, especially motorized sluicing.

Then it was back to the Angler’s Motel to finish packing for the long trip home. I took some time to relax and visit with the owner of the motel, a most gracious and pleasant hostess. Accommodations at the Angler were just right-not too little, not too much. Just enough country to be comfortable.

Leaving Happy Camp and all it has to offer-the sunrise on that snowcapped mountain as I headed upriver each morning; the blacktail deer and gray squirrels along the highway; that breathtaking valley view along the way before crossing the bridge at Thompson’s Creek; the solitude of experiencing my first morning along the river watching an eagle glide silently down river; Canadian geese honking their way upriver; the young king snake I disturbed when I lifted the rock under which he was sleeping, and quickly replaced (along with a few more); an osprey diving from atop a dead fir tree into the river to catch a fish, and more species of wild ducks and songbirds than I’ve ever seen in one place before-and even a potpourri of lizards engaged in their territorial disputes along the streambank.

Add to that the apple blossoms, the lilacs, and the dogwood in spring bloom; the bluebird flitting about in the tree outside my motel kitchen window; or, just sitting on the patio at the end of the day watching the sunset over the Siskiyou Mountains; savoring the peace and contentment-no, leaving Happy Camp wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But thanks to Dave, all the New 49’er staff, and especially my wife, I had lived my dream.

The first question I get asked about my trip: “Did you find a lot of gold?” Well, that depends on what you call a lot. “Did you find the big one?” That depends on what you call big. “Did you have a good time?” Now there’s something you can take to the bank! It was without a doubt the most exciting outdoor adventure I have ever experienced in my life. Long haul, yes. Physically tiring, yes. Worth the effort, you better believe it! And yes, I found some flakes and a lot of fine gold, some color in every pan. But what I found most were more important things than you will never find until you visit one of God’s very special places- Happy Camp, California.

As for the dream…it’s still burning bright as ever…and probably always will. But somehow I managed to bring it under control and my dream became what I wanted it to be…a reality.

 

BY GENE MEDENWALD

 

 
Recently, after about a two-year absence from gold mining with a suction dredge, I returned to the activity.

I guess I am what is known as “middle-aged.” After the first day of dredging and diving (and not a long day), I found my body wracked with painful protests at what I had subjected it to; I mean aches and pains—everywhere. After the second day of dredging, my aches and pains had aches and pains. Just crawling into bed was agony. Getting out of bed the next morning was no easier.

On the third day, after I had run a tank of gas through the dredge, I found myself sitting on the bank of the river enjoying a coffee break; and the thought came in to my mind:

Why? Why are you doing this, Gene?

Well, I thought, I must like doing it. But then again came the question, why do you like it?

And then I remembered something I’d come across years ago in some obscure reading: Around the turn of the century, there were hundreds of signs posted throughout the Southwest which read: RIDE WITH PANCHO FOR GOLD AND GLORY! The small print on the signs supposedly told in glowing terms of Pancho Villa’s efforts toward furthering the Mexican Revolution and how he needed courageous and adventuresome young men. Some historians have called Pancho a plain and simple bandit and not a revolutionary at all—but that is beside from the point.

The point is, I think I’ve figured out why I do what some people call a totally insane activity: this business of gold mining by diving with a suction dredge…FOR THE GLORY OF IT! There is so little, too little, many say, opportunity for glory in the lives of contemporary Americans. Everything is organized, corporatized, burocratized.

How often have you been in a group of people where everyone does not know everyone else and the inevitable questions comes up, “What do you do?” The asker doesn’t want to know, really, what the person does. He or she wants to know, not what you do, but who you are. And how often when the response is, “I’m a mechanic-painter-doctor-lawyer or typical whatever category,” you hear the flat “Oh.” And there is a decidedly noticeable lapse in the conversation? Well, when the question is put to me and I respond, “I’m a gold miner,”there is no “Oh.” Instead, I must again respond to further questions and remarks like, “No kidding! Where do you do that?” and “Really! Can you actually make a living doing that?” and “Is there really still gold out there? I thought the old-timers got it all?” etc., etc., etc.

The nifty thing is, I think that most people like to put most people that they encounter into comfortable categories—and they don’t have a ready category for a “gold miner.” But what, really, do I mean by this idea called “glory?” Certainly, as regards cocktail party conversation, it is a quality of uniqueness. But it is much more than that. If I cannot define it accurately in so many given words, I can describe it by relating the first five minutes of a typical day of dredging for me.

It matters not if the weather is hot, cold, clear, rainy or even snowing. When I reach my dredge site, the first thing I do is slip out of my small backpack, pull out the thermos and pour myself just a small dash of coffee and pull out a cigarette and lighter from the waterproof pouch…light up, sit back with that dash of coffee and survey the scene before me.

The wildlife…the blue heron is working for his breakfast in the placid shallows as he is every morning. Some mornings, there is a black bear watching me from across the river, and he feels I don’t know he’s there, but I do, but don’t want to him know that I do (why disturb him?). The same silly mallard duck is foraging above the rapids (one day he’s going to begin his frenzied paddling toward the quiet water a tad too late!)…

The flora…two seasons now I’ve watched it turn from the lush green of summer to all of the brilliant yellow and reds and gold of fall to dreary winter drab…

I am here…it is wonderful…I am free…No one is telling me I have to be here, when I have to be here, what I have to be doing here, and how I have to be doing what I am doing here.

The gold I get here is important, very important. For, if I do not get it or enough of it, I cannot continue this life. But, for me, it is truly a secondary significance though a very important one.

And as I finish my coffee and cigarette, I reflect on yesterday’s activities. I got to my dredge site late yesterday. Only ran less than a tank of gasoline. I’d spent almost the entire day helping Larry move his dredge. But I’d volunteered to help him. Because two weeks after I’d arrived here, he helped me move my machine. And I owed him? Not really.

Glory and those who participate in it yield a kind of camaraderie that few humans alive ever have the good fortune to experience. It is not a question of owing. It is a goodwill, man to man, man to life.

And it is not all the proverbial bowl of cherries. The hardships are severe. It is a physically taxing activity to the extreme. Everything is against you. The rocks are sometimes so slippery with moss and slime, it can be dangerous attempting to walk upright. Add a 40 to 60-pound weight belt and it is, indeed, dangerous.

The river’s current is constantly, unremittingly, attempting to wash you downstream. Cobbles and boulders, which one must move constantly and as efficiently as possible, are unwieldy, slippery, cumbersome, heavy and tedious to exasperation. This, when things are going well. I’ve seen a series of exasperating breakdowns drive a grown dredger to tears, and been near the experience myself.

Managing your money in this business is incredibly tricky. One day you may be rich with gold. Pounds of it. Then you may go for 60-days or more without finding more than a few pennyweights. Meanwhile, you have daily operating expenses, daily living expenses, breakdowns which can be costly, the constant risk of uninsurable theft of some or all of your equipment or machinery, and the constant worry of having to set enough aside for the constant and rapid depreciation of your gear and equipment. There have been times when I’ve felt guilt for going into a restaurant to share a cup of coffee with a friend; or buying a pack of cigarettes instead of rolling my own, which is much cheaper.

There is no wonder nearly all miners are single. What lady would want to participate in a venture of such uncertainty? And yet…

Yet, when you see two miners together who have spent the last three or four days in a row underwater to the point where they are obviously taking well-earned days off because of sheer bodily exhaustion, what are they avidly speaking of and gesticulating about? Dredging!

In a very real sense, this dredging activity is almost a kind of madness. And, yes, I am proud of myself for doing what I am doing and for the fact that I am doing it. I bow to no man. In the words of William Hailey:

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

And yet, the dredging-miners for whom I have the most admiration are those who are not only successful and making a living or a very good living at it, but who are doing so with the companionship of a lady-friend.

Being a man, it is of course impossible for me to view things from the point of a woman. Yet, knowing this is not the kind of vocation the typical man embraces, I am doubly sure it is not viewed positively by many of the female gender. The evidence supports me! I have not seen so many lonely single men engaged in one activity since my woeful experience with the military. Yet, contrary to my military experience, I have never met so many dedicated, intelligent, physically virile men of all ages gathered together in one spot in my life.

Glorious men!

If I were a lonesome single lady, an absolute sure-bet for sophisticated companionship would be to drive along a gold-veering river, keeping my eyes out for a machine floating on yellow pontoons. For, underwater, not far away, is one hell of a man — a bit grubby in appearance, perhaps, but only temporarily. One friendly, feminine grin will most assuredly send him immediately to the nearest tonsorial parlor with the day’s take in hand…

But, alas, whimsy is not reality. My coffee cup is empty and my cigarette is smoked down to the filter. It is time to crank up the engines and don the weight belt and the rest of my gear and begin another day of diving for Gold and Glory.

More Stories by this author:

 

 

BY ERNIE PIERCE

“Finding new friends and gold on the Klamath River”

 

It was the end of a real good gold prospecting trip and a nice July morning when my family and I finished packing and headed East on Highway 96 away from Happy Camp. I was very pleased at the outcome of this trip I had dredged up over 35 pennyweight of gold. As we traveled home I thought “It sure would be nice if I could come back before the weather turned cold………”

Well, let me tell you about the power of positive thinking or making a wish come true. We arrived in Austin to find an unusual set of circumstances that allowed me to take the time off, put enough money in the bank for Mary to pay bills for September, and with the rest I started packing and thinking of Happy Camp….

August 26th rolled around and I was headed for California. Yes!! After a good trip I arrived in Happy Camp at 10:30 p.m. on the 28th (Monday).

Tuesday morning I gathered up supplies for my much modified 5-inch dredge, then went to Morgan Point to set up camp. Putting the dredge in the water and getting it set up was interesting, to say the least. I had extended the frame for more stability and added another motor, (an eight horsepower and a five) so it took some time to get things balanced and the sluice set.

The next two days I sampled and fine tuned the dredge so I was getting very good recovery and losing very little gold. I then had to change to another jet tube—I felt I was not getting the suction I should. The replacement jet tube had more power with only one motor (the 8hp B&S) than the first with both going! The dredge could really move some gravel after that. I found out quickly that I wasn’t getting much gold here so I decided to move to another claim.

I decided to go back to the claim I’d worked in July to try a little further downriver from the place I stopped working. Dave McCracken had told me back in July that I might drop back downriver from the pocket I was in and work the top couple of feet of gravel to see how much gold was in it. I didn’t have the time then but felt it was something that should be done. Now, Dave knows what he is doing in the gold dredging business and knows the rivers around the area, so he can be relied on to be correct if he suggests something you could do.

On the way to the claim I stopped at the Savage Rapids claim to help handle some maintenance a group of New 49er’s was taking care of. With the large group that was there it didn’t take very long to get the work done. While doing this I met a very nice fellow from Arizona, Philip, and we formed a partnership to work the claim on up the river.

I really love to camp out in the woods, out away from almost everyone, where you can listen to the insects, the birds and other wildlife. When Philip arrived we got his gear set up, then floated down through the claim to see where to put the dredge, using face masks and snorkles to watch the bottom. I noticed the inside bend of that part of the claim had a lot of large boulders, the current was much slower, and the spaces between were hard packed with gravel. The area looked like the typical gold trap to me! This definitely looked like the place to try a sample.

Going back to the truck we decided it was too late in the afternoon to set up the dredge but we made ready so we wouldn’t lose time in the morning.

Next morning we setup the dredge and got it ready to float downstream. Did I mention to take it through a nasty set of rapids? Well, we floated it near the bad part, then stopped to assess the situation. I showed Philip where I needed him to be to help catch me and the dredge after we came through the rapids. He agreed to do that with no reservations after I explained how I was going to guide it from behind all the way through them. He said he doubted my sanity but figured I knew what I was doing (little did he know).

After he was in position I eased the dredge out into the current (where it promptly turned and went the wrong direction around a large rock). This got interesting real fast when it went in between two large boulders, then got hung up on a third that was just underwater. Here I was, trying to hang on so I would not be swept away from the dredge and to get this thing off the rocks before it flipped over (you can think fast when you need to). In a few seconds I figured where to push or pull, then it was sliding on over that rock and a wild ride was beginning. Whoa, Nellie!!! I got through there and Philip pulled the dredge and me onto the gravel bar. Whew! This sure was a lot more fun and exciting than winching around and over this area.

I figured we’d have to make a few sample holes before finding the pay-streak, so the first place we tried was where the large boulders stopped and mostly smaller ones started. This, it turned out, was the right place the first time. After dredging for just over an hour we checked the sluice. Man, did our eyes bug out… Wow!! We had hit a good pay-streak on the first try. I could see gold all under the screen and in the mat. Oh boy! Screening this down quickly I could see we had a lot of gold so I set this aside to weigh separately. Later we found out it was about 2.5 pennyweight. A real good start. Feeling good, we went back in and dredged until the gas was gone. As we were dredging, we noticed flakes of gold as they were uncovered and went up the hose.

We developed a system of working. this area when we discovered that the gold was indeed in the top two or three feet of gravel. We’d go down till we hit a hard packed layer, work an area about ten feet wide from midstream at an angle up to the bank, then go back midstream and do it again, throwing the cobbles into the area we’d dredged.

I noticed the gold was still coming out of the gravel and off the hard-pack. It sure looked good underwater. When I saw it I showed Philip, and that got us encouraged and going again.

We had some very, very nice gold on this cleanup and added it to the rest. The next day we needed supplies, so into town we went to sell the gold. What we had for approximately seven hours of dredging was eighteen pennyweight of gold. (I measure dredging in hours underwater rather than days). Not bad at all.

On one dive we were dredging around a large rock (about 200 lbs) when we noticed that a lot of gold was in the area around it. We dredged a hole about three feet deep in front of the rock, spread it out some, then realized it was time to refuel the dredge. After taking care of that, back down we went to clean out that area. I forgot about the rock and was standing in the hole about thigh deep leaning on another large rock embedded in the side of this hole, dredging more of the hole out when I felt a grating vibration… I jumped straight up and pushed away from the suction hose which, thankfully stayed in the hole. As it was, the rock still hit my ankle very hard when it slid into the hole and into the other large rock. The suction hose kept them from pinning my foot in the hole. It took another three minutes to move the rock off the hose.

After the close call Philip signaled for us to go to the surface, but I wouldn’t go. What we did was stay down and keep working.

My ankle was hurting badly and I couldn’t put much pressure on it, but I kept right on going. I just placed my ankle against the rock where it hurt, then kept right on dredging until the pain quit. When the gas was getting low we went up for the day. Later at camp we looked at my ankle and it had a very dark bruise about the size of a half dollar, but I could walk very well on it.

A couple of days went by and the gold kept coming up real nice and stayed about the same amount or better so we kept going straight upstream. One day I tried to get a little further out in the middle of the river. This produced less gold so we continued to work the slope of the riverbed where the big rocks were.

Now on Saturday afternoons the New 49er’s put on a potluck dinner and all are invited. This is a real neat affair where everyone gets to sit around, eat, and tell their stories — you know, just really have a lot of fun. Philip and I really looked forward to Saturday night potlucks in Happy Camp even if we did have to drive thirty miles to get there.

Then one morning Philip bent over to tie his shoe laces and when he raised up he pulled his back out. For the next day or so he tried to recover, but when his back didn’t get better he decided to head back home. I enjoyed his company while he was there and missed him after he left.

I got my hands on a wetsuit heater that fits on the exhaust of a dredge engine and installed it. This heats water fed through a hose that fits inside the wetsuit. Oh, wow, it sure felt good to have warm water flowing while I was in that cold water every day. This sure helped to be able to stay in the water longer each day as I could barely stay in for one tank of gas before.

I now was working alone and had to really hustle to move a lot of gravel per day but I just did it and was soon to the point where I was moving an area about fifteen feet wide, about ten feet long, and two to three feet deep every four to five hours. That was moving a lot of material! This was also paying off very well. I was averaging half an ounce of gold every four or five working hours. For the next eight or ten days the area stayed productive and when I worked I found gold. The water was turning colder and I wouldn’t work every day. Two days later at the Saturday night pot luck dinner my nose started to bleed (I never get nosebleeds, ever). I realized I had a bad sinus infection. I took it easy Sunday, but on Monday I was still getting nose bleeds so I decided that it was time to head for Austin.

As this trip came to a close I started to look forward to next summer. I traded some of my gold for the pieces to put together a six -inch dredge. In a few hours I had most of what I needed, so I left Happy Camp with something to keep me busy over the winter.

I reflected that I had indeed had a good adventure. I met and got to know some very good, trustworthy people. I’d accomplished what I started out to do — find more gold and have a better time. The total gold for this trip came to just under five ounces. This was three times what I’d done on the last trip. Not bad at all. So, the target for next summer…..you guessed it, no less than three times what I recovered on this trip. Can I do it? You bet I can! I’ll see you on the Klamath.

 

BY JUDY SHAW

 

A prospector, checking the lay of the land, becomes a surveyor, a geologist and often an historian. By the very nature of his activity, he is a hard worker and an outdoorsman. However, prospecting does not have to be a solitary pursuit. It can also be a family affair.

That gleam of gold peeking from among black sands has never excited me. But rather than become a prospecting “widow,” I began to go along with my husband. After a thousand whys and how comes that I didn’t receive a satisfactory answer to, I found myself enrolled in a geology class at the local community college. Far from answering many of my questions, I discovered more and found that geology is not a staid and static science. In California and much of the West, it is a living discipline as the earth slips, slides, shifts and changes each day.

If geology isn’t to your liking, perhaps you will discover the exciting world of rock-hounding! I don’t believe there is a person alive that doesn’t enjoy precious gems, and you’re sure to discover a garnet or two in the dredge tailings. A drab desert rock may turn out to be jasper, opal or fire agate. Armed with a good book, you will soon become adept at identifying many rocks and minerals. I would recommend Simon & Shuster’s “Guide to Rocks & Minerals,” or my favorite field guide, the “Audubon Guide to Rocks & Minerals.” A visit to your local lapidary store or prospecting shop can supply you with additional information and equipment.

All kids like camping, and soon you may find that you have an amateur naturalist in your midst. Again, a good book will help to identify lizards, flowers and other fauna and flora. You may get tired of hearing what everything is, but after a while this slows down and the knowledge remains.

If dredging is your thing, you’ll also find improved fishing in the areas where you’re dredging. Chances are, someone in your family would willingly use a fishing pole and supply dinner for a couple of nights.

Simply being outdoors is reason enough for prospecting to be a family affair. In the springtime, the desert comes alive with wildflowers. Many people in the Los Angeles area make an annual pilgrimage to the deserts to view the riotous colors. But if you are a prospector, you are in the midst of the flowers. From a car, it is difficult to view the tiny, fragile flowers carpeting the desert floor or smell the scent of some of the perfumed varieties.

In the summer, mountain streams run clear and cool. If you choose your area with care, you may find quiet and solitude. In today’s hectic urban environment, this alone is reason enough to bring the family along on a prospecting trip.

Wildflowers and cacti, rocks and precious stones, and history! Most of the productive areas today are the same as those mined by the old 49’ers. Research adds to the enjoyment of finding gold in these areas; and often you will discover a place new to you. Many books have been written about the early gold rush camps. Whether you become a real history buff or not, you may enjoy reading about the early days of mining.

My son’s special interest began at the age of ten, when we gave him a metal detector for Christmas. At the age of 13, he has entered several hunts; and although not in the trophy category, he has had some success. Once again, research plays a part in metal detecting. He has a good knowledge of our city’s past from searching out good places to find treasure. Of course, for him treasure is more like a “Hot Wheel” rather than a silver coin. Come to think of it, I know some older guys that feel the same way.

For our family, as well as other families, prospecting has definitely become a way of life. It’s fun and you do meet the neatest people-PROSPECTORS!

 

 

 

BY ULF DANNENBERG

 

The memory is still very clear. When I was a kid about 9 years old, we played Cowboys and Indians in the ruins of bombed-out Hamburg in postwar Germany. We kids consumed the mandatory literature about Billy the Kid, the Lone Ranger, and the exploring of America’s Wild West. Sometimes we read with a flashlight under the bedspread, reading until deep into the night.

These stories had such an impact on me that my fantasies about America nearly became an obsession. The dream that formed in my mind at that time came true in 1965.

My first time in America and I was hooked. I spent the second half of the 60’s in Hollywood, California, became part of the Hippie crowd with all its good and bad things. While I survived all of that in pretty good shape, I was hopelessly spoiled. Unable to go back to the 9-to-5 routine in Germany, I became a world traveler with odd job opportunities that lay left and right along my way of life.

Mining for gold was one of the more adventurous tasks I took on in ’81. The last frontier–Alaska was calling me from afar. My old VW camper was shipped from Germany to Houston, Texas; and after four weeks, I picked it up and was on my way. I made a stop in Phoenix, Arizona and bought a 2″ dredge, together with all the other mining paraphernalia that was needed

The distance between Los Angeles and Fairbanks on a small scale map doesn’t look very far–but drive it and you’ll be surprised. It took me about a week to get there. Fantastic landscape and thrilling wildlife throughout the trip. Breathtaking, awesome, unbelievable, hard to put into words!!

My first mining experience was a bad one. Everywhere I went along the rivers and creeks, I saw huge signs with KEEP OUT, ACTIVE MINING CLAIM. After two days of looking, I ended up along the old Steese Highway some 30 miles out of Fairbanks, working the tailings of one of the old bucket-line dredges they used in the past. The outside temperature was 75 degrees by the end of June; but when I put my hands into the water -brrr – I pulled them out and checked for frostbite. The water temperature was barely above the freezing point, and it took all the fun out of the gold mining.

Disappointed, I left Alaska and went south. A short stop over in Auburn, California along the North Fork of the American River looked much more promising. I recovered two ounces of gold in six weeks – not bad for a beginner with my little dredge.

When I went back to Germany (I had run out of cash), I decided to become a belt-maker. For the next five years, I worked in Spain on the lovely island of Ibiza, making and selling my designer-belts with great success. In 1987, I tired and retired. I had enough funds to be on the road again for the rest of my life and could do whatever I wanted.

Shortly after my retirement, in Germany, I saw a TV special about the New 49’ers Gold Prospecting Association in Happy Camp, California. The impression I got was sound and solid. I was off to California in a jiffy and arrived in Happy Camp in July of 1989. I joined the New 49’ers and scouted out the miles and miles of claims along the Klamath River.

Because of my busted eardrum, deep diving was out of the question. I could only operate a gold dredge in shallow water, hoping to find bedrock in no more depth than five feet. For the rest of the summer, I was finding enough gold to show the folks back home.

I especially like the fringe benefits of mining, like the unspoiled nature, the abundance of wildlife, and the friendly, helpful people. That was something I had never experienced before. Socializing at the Saturday potlucks with raffles, stories and games, made my stay a happy one.

I have returned to Happy Camp multiple times in the preceding years. I can think of no other place where there is more active small-scale mining going on, and so many other people who have similar interests.
The very valuable training and assistance I received from the New 49’ers was thorough and founded on many years of experience. All I can say is – thank you – you’ve been a great help – and I’ll be back!

 

Let me end with a little poem that just crossed my mind:

The summer is gone,
Now is September,
And the end of your vacation is near.
You had a good time,
And you’ll remember –
Back home – frustrations you fear.
Then think of the Klamath,
Its gold and its fame,
Make plans for the upcoming year.
And maybe – who knows –
I’ll be seeing you again,
‘Cause part of my heart is left here.

 

BY ROBERT MILES

“Whenever I need some money, I tell my wife Karolyn that I’m going down to the bank to get some…the river bank that is. And so far, my belief that the gold is there, combined with hard work and good fortune, has never let me down.” … Jim Britton

 

Jim Britton’s the kind of man who will tell you right off that he’s doing exactly what he’s always dreamed of doing — that’s mining for gold. And even if he’s not pulling gold at the level he’d really like to at a particular point in time, he’s quick to say, “I’d rather be here beside the river enjoying the looking and anticipating the discovery than living in the city and breathing all that pollution and just working at some regular job.

“I was introduced to the Gold Bug at a very early age,” he says with a warm smile that turns quickly into a grin and makes one think that he may be about to spin a yarn. “Probably when I was six or seven years old. Back then, all us kids would watch adventure movies. I was hooked on the ones that had anything to do with gold. Then as I grew up I started reading about the old 49ers, and I just couldn’t seem to find out enough about where they mined and the methods they would use. Still it wasn’t till a few years later when I was out on my own with a shovel and a pan that I really got the ‘gold bite’. It was near a little town called Quartsville, just outside of Sweet Home, Oregon, where I actually found my first gold — about 1/2 pennyweight, and I’ve never been the same since.

“I’ve always believed you’ve got to do your homework, and that includes a lot of research. And in those days I had just began to discover all about underwater dredging, and I figured that since panning for gold was giving me such a kick, I would pull more gold and have a lot more fun if I had a dredge. So I went out and bought myself a two-inch suction dredge, and within no time at all I was pulling two to three pennyweight a day and just having a great time.

“That was really just the beginning,” recalled Jim, “because within a short time I had run into another guy who let me spend some time on his five-inch dredge. After a half an hour of pulling gold with it, I just couldn’t go back to working with my little two-inch. That’s when I had to get my entire family gold bitten,” he reflected. “My dad and mom had always been really supportive of the things I tried to do, but this time they just couldn’t believe that you could really just go out and find gold. Like most people, they figured all the gold was already found. However, within a short time I had them out there with me on the river bank, and by just getting them exposed to the gold I was bringing up with my two-inch, they were gold bitten real hard. Then within a short time, the entire family, including my older brother, was mining with our new five-inch, and we were pulling more gold than any of us had ever seen at one time.”

Like most successful gold miners, Jim Britton has tried working at a number of different jobs, but he says he just can’t get the river and the gold out of his mind. “It’s the thing I love to do,” he reports, “and besides, where could I ever get a job that pays as well as gold mining and has as much job security? There’s been gold miners since the dawn of recorded time, and there probably always will be. Some days I’ll make as much as $800 or even more, and I’ll do it in four hours. Of course, you gotta do your homework, and you gotta pay your dues.”

Jim’s formula for success still begins with a gold pan. “Before I put my dredge into a spot, I’ll pan up and down the bank, usually on both sides of the river looking for the point where the river’s deposited the most color during high water. I’ll have picked a particular stretch to check out, either because my knowledge and experience of how the gold is carried and pay-streaks are formed tells me that here should be good, or because someone else had been working there and either couldn’t locate the pay-streak, or had wandered off the mark and had decided to move on to a different area. By using my gold pan, I can usually get a good idea of where the river is ‘willing to payoff’ or at least where the pay dirt has hit the bank, and there’s where I’ll put my dredge in. I’ll first punch my hole and pay very close attention to the different pay layers. A lot of times I’ll find that the gold is lying four to five feet above the bedrock, and if I’d continue on down I’d just be wasting a lot of time and energy. Other times the bedrock’s where it’s gonna be, so I just have to keep on punching down till I hit bottom, and then I’ll begin a cut straight across the river channel.”

Jim has worked a lot of different areas of the Pacific Northwest, basically following up the different strikes of the old 49ers. He says he’s hit most of the hot spots in eastern and southern Oregon as well as spots in Idaho and California. Right now he’s mining the Klamath River in northern California, using a customized six-inch with a Keene power train and sluice box that is mounted on an R & R Mining frame and float bag kit.

“When I first saw the Klamath it looked mighty big, but within three days from the time I launched my 5-inch, I was into the gold and had enough money to cover my expenses and meet the bills for the next couple of months. I’ve dived this river for two years on a commercial basis, even in the winter when the dredge was white with a layer of ground frost, and the water temperature was probably 45°. Last summer in just three weeks I pulled one and a half pounds of gold in an area we call Glory Hole.”

Jim is also quick to point out that while mining is right for him, it may not be right for everyone. A person’s got to work really hard and be mentally and financially able to stand the dry spells. “I’ve been able to make it work because I’ve got the full support of my wife Karolyn and our two daughters. Karolyn, who lives and works in Vancouver, Washington, makes the long trip up to the Klamath every two weeks, spending the weekend helping to tend the dredge, enjoying the beauty of the great outdoors, and picking nuggets out of the sluice box. My folks have also been behind us a hundred percent, spending ,time at the river as well.”

Everett Gene Britton, Jim’s father, who helped finance that first 5-inch dredge, remained an avid gold miner until his death early this spring, stating in no uncertain terms that some of his very best days were spent panning gold and tending dredge.

In the local area surrounding the Klamath, Jim Britton is known as a man who will lend a helping hand. The kind of person who will take time out of his own diving schedule to get a neophyte gold miner off to a little better start. And he’s an advocate of “miners helping miners” and the necessity of miners working and standing together to protect their rights as granted under the 1872 Mining Law.

“My life is gold,” he reports. “In fact whenever I’m back home and someone comes to visit, my wife will tell them not to mention gold, or I’ll never stop talking about it. I’ve even tried to stay away from the river and the dredge, but it’s in my blood, and I get withdrawal pains whenever I’m away from it. My life is like living an adventure, and if someone would offer me a job at say a $100,000 a year, I would just have to pass it up, because finding gold is what I love and it’s what I’m good at.”

 

BY ROBERT MILES

Dan and Verna  Good clean-up

Theirs is a story that reads a bit like a fantasy from a modern romance or a legendary yarn from a fictional book…A husband and wife team, who not only love each other and the adventure of finding gold, but can also consistently find and recover literally pounds of it!

It was a cold and very wet day in 1978 on the Sixes river in Oregon, windy and coastal Oregon wet, not at all the kind of day one would expect to later recall as extraordinary. Sitting in his little camp trailer, Dan Fifer was bored to death. And even though the river right next to his campground was running 10 feet or more above summer levels, he decided that since he had bought that gold mining stuff, which included a 2 1/2 inch Keene gold dredge, a wet-suit, and assorted gold mining screens, buckets, and pans, he might as well go ahead and try it out.

Not knowing a thing about gold mining or what he should look for when setting up a dredging location, Dan just put on his wet-suit, mustered his ambition, situated himself and his gear, and then set up the dredge in front of a huge boulder and started pumping sand and gravel for something to do.

As the morning passed, Dan ran out of gas and headed up to the trailer for some hot coffee and more fuel. “My boredom was gone now, replaced with at least something interesting and new, but then as I returned to the dredge and looked in the trays, I was completely blown away, because there were pieces of gold lying behind every riffle.”

“Having no working knowledge of gold, I didn’t know the first thing about what I had just found,” recalls Dan. “I didn’t know how to clean it up or what it would be worth if I did want to sell it. So I just picked the gold out along with a lot of black sand and put it in a bottle. Well, my good fortune just seemed to continue; because a few days later, an old oriental gold-buyer from San Francisco came by the campground asking if anyone had gold they wanted to sell. I said I wasn’t sure, but I thought I had a little bit. Imagine, here I was, not knowing a thing about gold, not even how to clean it.”

“I just handed him my bottle — the gold still mixed with black sands and other heavy material — thinking how happy I’d be if I had pulled $10 or $15 dollars worth. Imagine my surprise when after helping me with the clean-up process, he grinned and paid me over $3,000 dollars for it. Needless to say, I’ve had a passion for gold mining ever since.”

Gold in a pan Watching dredgers

By the following year, Dan had purchased a new triple sluice five-inch dredge with air. He also met Verna, who was already a gold seeker, herself. Verna recalls how she was panning and sluicing on the bank and digging about in search for the elusive golden flakes when Dan, after getting acquainted, tried to talk her into putting on a mask and dredging with him on the bottom of the river. “I wouldn’t have anything to do with it at first,” she says with a knowing twinkle in her eyes, “But Dan was really smart, and he fixed up an extra air line and just left it lying on the bank along with a face mask; and before long, I not only was married to him, I was down there right next to him bringing that beautiful gold right up from the river bottom.”

8-inch dredgeThat was nearly ten years ago, and today Dan and Verna consider themselves to be some of the luckiest people in the world. Lucky because they have each other, share a love for the beauty of the great outdoors. They also have the greatest job in the world… looking for and finding gold. “Now that’s not to say that we don’t get disgusted and even a little depressed now and then,” says Verna. “We’ve even considered making our living in some other way. In fact, one time we sold our trailer and even our dredge and bought a house. But the minute that sun started shining, we just couldn’t stand it. We sold the house and bought our 34-foot travel trailer and a new dredge and headed out for the gold and the river. When you come right down to it, there’s just something about professional mining and getting into the gold that makes all the hard work worth it.”

To Dan, the enticement seems to lie more in the “sense of discovery,” than in the finding of the gold itself. “Of course, we enjoy the money that finding a real nice pocket or pay-streak can bring, but I know that I can make a good living doing any number of things. For me, when I get under that water, whether I’m moving the rocks or nozzling, the rest of the world just seems to not even exist.”

Verna says that for her, it’s the beauty of the gold, especially once it’s been cleaned and turned into exquisite, but simple, jewelry. She also feels that gold dredging is the greatest exercise program in the world. In fact, in a single season she and Dan will both take off as much as 15 or 20 pounds of extra weight put on during the winter months while not in the river dredging.

Verna FiferVerna is a firm believer in the equality of the sexes as far as gold mining is concerned. She gets a real big kick out of taking her turn at running the nozzle on their eight-inch Pro-Mack dredge. “You know, it’s amazing how many miners’ wives and girl friends I’ve turned on to the fun and adventure of actually getting under the water where the action is. At first, they often seem reserved or even a little taken aback, but boy do most of them have fun once they actually suit up and try it.”

Both are quick to point out that their success is a direct result of hard work with the right approach. Having access to so much mining property through The New 49’er membership program has laid the foundation for their success on multiple levels.

Like most of us who love gold mining, the Fifers readily admit wanting to hit the real big one, of constantly prospecting for that rich pay-streak. “We’ve had spectacular days;” they say, both grinning from ear to ear, “Like those two-and-four-ounce days — last year in the Glory Hole on the Klamath River in northern California, when every single spiral in our wheel would be just full of gold in nearly every single clean-up. Last year, we pulled a little over four pounds, and that was with our five-inch dredge. And this year, we plan to do even better with our new eight-incher.”

Gold in Gold wheel

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