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When the Fever Hits, Lure of Gold in Those Hills Is Irresistible

In the parched, hot mountains, there’s a place where the San Gabriel River cuts close to a high ledge of polished bedrock and along a grove of alders casting shadows on warm sand. Under the trees, families loll in hammocks on listless Sunday afternoons. They barbecue, listen to ranchera music and splash with their children in the shallow pools.

But among them, there is also is an odd scattering of people hard at work.

They are men, and some women, with aching backs and tall, tall tales of good fortune and busted luck.

They trample around on their knees in the water, grunting and heaving boulders until their muscles shoot with pain. They scan the channels and rapids and eddies. Rocks crush their toes. Cold numbs their limbs. And the sun sears their skin until eventually, as the old-timers can attest, they get iguana necks.

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But once the demon infects you, they say, weekend after weekend will undoubtedly pass in this hard-bitten way.

Looking for gold.

“It’s like the devil,” says Bernie McGrath, 65. “It keeps calling.”

McGrath is a former heroin addict with broken teeth, wispy white hair and arthritic hands. He moved to his mountain trailer at Camp Williams years ago and has since become a beloved character in the gold-digging community, known for his generosity, expertise and half-believable stories about crazy hermits, speed freaks and gold’s sometimes-devastating allure.

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The regular crew of prospectors who work the San Gabriel Mountains includes everyone from the almost-homeless to building contractors to corporate executives.

They call this place Nugget Alley--an evocative name that vastly overstates the output of the steep, rocky canyon in the Angeles National Forest. The prospectors who have day jobs had best keep them.

Ron Hoagland, who owns a prospecting store called Azusa Gold, guesses that no more than 75 pounds of gold comes out of San Gabriel Canyon every year, a small fraction of what is found in the gold country of Northern California. Most individuals bring out small flakes or occasional nuggets worth around $20.

And at $256 an ounce, even a good day will never pay expenses.

Jesse Martinez exports skateboards for a living. Every summer weekend he packs up the camper and his family and winds up Highway 39, up the East Fork, past Camp Williams to his favorite spot where the flaming dry yucca spears give way to quaking aspen.

The 34-year-old from Venice unloads his “dredge” and lugs it across the bleached white boulders to plunk it down in the river. The gasoline-powered machine is the most common technological device used today.

Martinez spent $1,600 on a used Keene dredge with a triple sluice box and a four-inch hose. It sits like a lawn mower on two pontoons, rapidly vacuuming the rocks and sediment off the stream bottom. The water and debris come through the hose and pour out behind the motor, over several grates, where the gold is sifted from the chaff.

Those without the money can use more primitive sluice boxes or gold pans to accomplish the same task, only much more slowly.

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“The more money you make, the bigger toy you buy,” Martinez said. Which in the world of prospecting, means the bigger hose. A five-inch hose can suck more muck.

Environmentalists complain that the dredges also suck up fish eggs and pollute with noise and exhaust. The prospectors deny the allegations, stressing that they have permits from the state Department of Fish and Game and that they stay out of areas where fish are spawning.

On a hazy afternoon last weekend, Martinez manned his dredge while a friend hurled boulders onto a pile in crushing blows. His wife bobbed nearby on an inflatable raft, and his son used a sluice box to get his own “color” from the stream.

But it wasn’t a good weekend for gold.

Most prospectors were reeling from a flash flood two weeks before. A wall of turbid water came down Cattle Canyon, right through Nugget Alley, where numerous people were stranded on the wrong side of the river and had to be rescued. McGrath, Martinez and others, meanwhile, scrambled to secure dredges in the torrents.

However, the prospectors’ holes were filled with worthless silt. Most of the last few weeks have been spent digging back down again.

Martinez hasn’t come up with much gold in the three years he’s been working the river--maybe an ounce or so. Still, he hopes he might get a good nugget, as prospectors here sometimes do.

“I got the fever,” he said. “I like seeing the color.”

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Gold mining has been practiced in the San Gabriels since at least the mid-1800s. There is some evidence that the local Indians may have dug primitive mines as far back as the 1700s, according to author John Robinson, who wrote a book on the subject.

A peak year was 1859. A heavy snowpack melted on the high mountains, and the water rushed down the East Fork, through a small clapboard mining town called Eldoradoville, at the upper end of modern Nugget Alley. It carried a bonanza of gold. Soon, the town became a lawless and rowdy mix of hard-drinking fortune-seekers--Yankees, Indians, Mexicans, Californios, Southerners, Chinese and blacks.

But three years later, a flood destroyed the town, and by the 1870s, much of the placer gold--that which is carried down in streams--was gone. Heavy mining into the hillside took over.

Over the decades, the population of prospectors has ebbed and flowed, peaking once more during the Depression.

Today, about 10 people keep their dredges in the river all week, and about 40 prospectors come up on busy weekends. Some of the older guys no longer work the river, but use metal detectors to find gold in dry, ancient stream beds up the hillsides. It is also hard, dirty work.

“I don’t want this portrayed as a get-rich scheme, because it’s not,” said Hoagland, the store owner who is also a longtime miner with big mutton chops.

Many prospectors say their hobby offers little more than an excuse to be in a beautiful place.

“This is the place to be,” said Jonathan Smith, 28, of Glendora. “It’s the place to get your back burned and breathe clean air.”

As he spoke, a swallow dipped out of the air and skimmed the water. Dragonflies caught the afternoon light, and the dark ridges above faded to blue as they edged toward the hot flatlands below.

But asked why he really came here, his eyes lit up. “I want that one-ounce nugget, man!” he said.


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