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Chasing a Rumor of Gold

A new case of gold fever has broken out here in the famous California Mother Lode country. To the banks of the Sierra rivers and to the backwoods tributaries that feed them have come waves of prospectors equipped with metal detectors and sluice boxes, picks and pumps and shovels--and also with a theory.

They are calculating that the floods of January unearthed previously overlooked deposits of gold. As the rains poured down, they explain, the turbulent rivers eroded banks and scraped boulders and trees along river bottoms. And this dredging action left exposed patches of bedrock never before visited by a miner’s pick: prime hunting ground for gold seekers.

Or so the prospectors believe.

Or is the word hope?

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“Oh, we’ve found a few pieces, but nothing fantastic,” a burly man in brown coveralls said last Monday. He stood beside the south fork of the Stanislaus, at a place called Italian Bar, watching rock and mud tumble down a sluice box.

“We thought we’d get here a little early,” said the miner, 51-year-old Steve Roberts, who during the week calibrates machinery at a Sacramento air base. “We thought we’d get an early jump on the rest of ‘em.”

The rest of ‘em all pretty much had the same notion.

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Controlled by a co-op of miners, Italian Bar is a popular spot for weekend prospectors. Typically they don’t start showing up until the late spring, and yet by last weekend something like 40 of the claim’s campsites were occupied. Similar turnouts have been reported throughout the Gold Country, where merchants who cater to miners say business has been uncommonly brisk.

“If I wasn’t so damn busy,” an equipment supplier told the Modesto Bee’s Jamestown correspondent, “I’d be out there right now myself. This year is gonna be good--real good.”

Here his wife joined in: “They’re picking the gold right off the bedrock up there. . . .”

Whoa.

Before readers rush to load the donkey, a hasty disclaimer must be attached right here. Although it is possible in a single day to meet numerous miners who say they have heard of people finding gold, an actual encounter with someone who can produce the goods is a much dicier proposition. Not that any successful miner would share good news with a newspaper reporter; on the need-to-know list, scribblers rank right down there with competing prospectors.

“Oh, there are a lot of secrets up here, you bet,” said Leonard Long, caretaker of the camp at Italian Bar. “You never ask anybody where they found anything. They won’t tell you anyway, at least not the specifics.”

A suitably rustic-looking sort, wearing flannels and a thick, white beard, Long was a font of Gold Country history, wisdom and rumor. He told tales of “old sourdoughs” who still mine with donkeys deep in the hills, and of a weekender from Oklahoma who this winter literally tripped on a nugget “almost the size of your fist.” To which he added the gold miner’s creed: “Up here you might be one foot away from a million dollars, and you might be a million feet away from your next dollar. You never know. That’s what keeps them coming.” He concluded with a piece of sage advice for a prospecting novice: “Don’t forget to look down.”

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This current enthusiasm, of course, hardly compares to the great 1849 gold rush, which attracted miners by the thousands--and made millionaires of entrepreneurs who sold them whiskey and picks and jeans. Still, some symptoms are similar. The enduring faith in rumor is but one example: Someone else is always finding gold somewhere else, just up the river. Denial is another common trait.

The ‘49ers, by most accounts, rarely would confess to gold fever. That was an affliction suffered by others, not them. No, they would keep their heads and know when to head back to Ohio. Similarly, these modern prospectors dwell on recreational pleasures. They speak of communing with nature, of clean air, hard exercise, family adventure. They sound like the blackjack players who linger around Las Vegas tables just before dawn, the ones who insist they only gambled away money they could afford to lose--for the fun of it.

“It’s not about having the gold,” declared Scott Dawson, a bearded, 39-year-old working Italian Bar. “It’s about getting the gold, the adventure of it.”

The miner stood thigh-deep in a mudhole he’d dug with his partners. It had been hard work, requiring the removal of many boulders with crowbars. So far, Dawson reported, the hole had netted several sore backs and maybe $30 worth of gold. He did not seem discouraged, though, and in fact his eyes fairly glittered as he spoke of a fellow who--not long ago and near this very spot--dug up almost a million dollars in golden nuggets, all in a single day.

Or so Dawson had been told.


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