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The Kramers of Woodland Hills had struck it infinitesimal.

' T here are strange things done in the midnight sun

“By the men who moil for gold.”

--"The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service

Even Service, poet of the Yukon gold rush, might have been amazed by this strange thing: middle-class suburban gold prospectors who wouldn’t know a sourdough from a croissant.

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A group of prospective prospectors gathered at the Learning Tree in Chatsworth last week to hear about gold mining as a healthy outdoor hobby, like jogging or bicycling. Instructor Patrick Keene opened with a summary whose eloquent simplicity would have drawn whistles of admiration from Ernest Hemingway:

“Gold is a ductile, malleable metal, basically used for making jewelry. It has a specific gravity of 19.3. Since the beginning of time, gold has been elusive and has driven many people mad.”

Keene appeared sane despite a lifetime of pursuing the elusive nugget. A boyishly handsome 25-year-old in cowboy boots with a blond gunfighter’s mustache and a line of patter that would shame a snake-oil salesman, he looked like a choirboy studying to be a pirate. Or maybe the other way around.

He wore a chain with a 1-ounce nugget and a ring, all made from gold he mined himself, he said.

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“It’s in my blood. My father and grandfather were both prospectors.”

Although he sometimes finds $200 worth in a weekend, he does not live by finding gold but by selling mining equipment for Keene Engineering in Northridge, he said. “The company was founded by my grandfather, who started the whole third wave of gold mining in California in the 1950s by inventing equipment that ordinary people could use to find gold for recreation.”

The first wave was the Gold Rush of 1849. The second wave came in the 1930s, when thousands of the Depression jobless scoured the gold country. Didn’t they get all the gold to be found, except by commercial enterprises with expensive machines?

On the contrary, he said, “the best place to find gold is in the history books.” Where gold was found in the past, it will be found again. New flakes surface and wash out as weather erodes mountain rocks. New gold accumulates in creeks and washes on the rim of the San Fernando Valley, he said.

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He lectured on geology, equipment, legal requirements, ecological safeguards and detecting fool’s gold. Each student got a gold pan. Keene demonstrated the pan on dirt he shoveled from a white plastic bucket into a tub. Swishing water back and forth, he expertly separated heavier material from lighter, a skill he admitted “looks pretty easy, but actually takes a lot of practice.”

And there they were--slivers of gold thin as paper and half the size of match heads, but gold nonetheless, plucked by skill from what had looked like a bucket of worthless mud.

“Ahhhhhhh,” said the students. “Ooooooh, look!”

And the hook was in.

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In a world in which most people’s wealth is a check spit out by a corporation’s printing press or an electromagnetic squiggle in a bank’s computer, where every income and outgo is noted, toted, traced, recorded, audited, checked, attached, milked and nicked, where even “real money” is an IOU for a brick in Ft. Knox, there is a primeval satisfaction in ripping the real thing from the earth, no questions asked or answered, making yourself the first owner of this particular speck of wealth since the solar system cooled.

On Sunday morning Keene led 12 men, 7 women, a small boy and 3 teen-age girls into the mountains just north of the Santa Clarita Valley. Down Hard Luck Road they went, to the Hungry Valley campground. Ice rimmed Piru Creek, which runs past the campground, but the students began panning gravel and shoveling river bank dirt into a sluice box.

Is there really gold in nondescript dirt next to a public parking lot for Winnebagoes?

“Sure,” Keene responded, “the last class got a quarter of an ounce here,” about $100 worth at today’s prices.

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Mark and Katharine Warner from Sunland set up a sluice in the creek with Steve Goldsworthy of La Crescenta and his son Patrick, 6. Jerry and Margie Kramer went upstream. Their daughter Jennifer and another 15-year-old from Taft High, Shana Wall of Tarzana, dug under a boulder.

After about an hour Goldsworthy and the Warners turned up some glitter.

“Fool’s gold,” Keene ruled.

The Kramers asked about some odd-looking sand.

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“Tungsten,” Keene said.

Valuable?

“Only by the truckload. But there’s that little speck of gold in it.”

“WHERE?”

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“Right there.”

The Kramers of Woodland Hills had found gold. They had not struck it big. Indeed they had struck it infinitesimal. But it was gold, the stuff of quests and dreams, of madness and empires. Also, a heck of a distinctive ornament for the fireplace in the family room.

Goldsworthy and the Warners turned up “clinkers” worth about $5. The gang that had been shoveling dirt into a sluice box, pumping water through it from the creek for an hour, sifted their residue of dark metallic sand. The sluice trough sparkled with gold flecks.

“Allll riiiight,” exulted Janet Redman of Sun Valley, working with her daughter Melissa, 25.

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Others raced to dig another load for the sluice. “This is fun,” said Jill Piwowar, a Tujunga 13-year-old, setting to work with a shovel as tall as she was.

“It’s amazing how hard people will work once they’ve found a little gold and the fever gets them,” Keene said with a knowing smile.

There is only “a blue moon chance,” he said, of finding a big-money nugget, but the hunt can be fun, a picnic with a purpose.

Or as the poet Service put it:

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“It isn’t the gold that I’m wanting,

So much as just finding the gold . . . “


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