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It’s a lode on their minds

Times Staff Writer

ON a bright afternoon, about two dozen people gathered on a bend overlooking the San Gabriel River.

The idyllic sounds of birds and flowing water mixed with the low growl of gas-powered suction dredges. Clusters of men (and one or two women) crouched in the water with vacuum hoses, circular pans and sluice boards. Their goal -- in some cases, their obsession -- was the same.

“The gold looks so good underwater,” gushed Coel Schumacher, a 19-year-old junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “After you’ve been at it for a while, you start to wonder if it’s worth it. Then you find something and you go, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Nearly 160 years after the gold rush that helped populate the West, a hardy band still patiently coaxes treasure from the earth. A mix of permanent residents who live in nearby camps and part-timers who drive up every chance they get, the prospectors have formed their own self-policing, gold-obsessed community.

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Thirty miles north of Azusa and deep in the Angeles National Forest, near the Camp Williams trailer park, they chase shared dreams, watch over one another’s claims and swap tales of the mother lode just over the next hill.

“I think there’s endless amounts of gold up here,” said Ron Strand. “We just need a good storm to wash it all out.”

Working the river is painstaking stuff -- hours spent crouching or submerged in water to produce a half inch of glittery dust in a vial.

With gold selling for about $650 per ounce on the international market, they’re looking for just one healthy score. But judging from several visits, nobody seems to be paying his rent from prospecting.

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“I have yet to see anybody get rich out here,” said Bernie McGrath, who lives in a trailer at Camp Williams and has been working this stretch of river since 1989. “They’re all chasing dreams.”

THERE are now just 16 sites that the state classifies as “active gold mines,” most of them in Northern California’s Gold Country. Camp Williams is not among them. There are several websites on which prospectors share locations where they’ve found gold -- but, again, Camp Williams isn’t mentioned.

Nationwide, the U.S. Geological Survey said that about 260 metric tons of gold were produced in 2006, with a value of $5.1 billion. But only a tiny fraction of that amount, officials said, was from individual prospecting.

Despite a dearth of reports of big finds, prospectors have worked this stretch of the San Gabriel River for decades; it’s easily accessible by car and at the limit of where suction dredges can be operated legally.

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A submerged Craig Stevens poked and prodded the riverbank mud with a hose. On the surface, his fiancee, Carolyn Decker, alternately played with the couple’s three dogs and tended to their suction dredge -- a device that looks like a lawn mower engine floating on pontoons and trailing a metal beaver tail.

The 16-horsepower engine provides vacuum power and pumps air through a tube down to Stevens -- a method known as “hookah diving.” The dredge’s 6-inch-wide hose (hose size is crucial with these folks) sucks up mud and silt and dumps it onto the sluice -- a multistage obstacle course designed to trap and separate every last gold flake from the surrounding muck.

Metal grids and perforations weed out the rocks and large chunks of dirt, while black plastic ridges capture many of the heavy gold flakes. The runoff flows onto a jumble of what looks like plastic vermicelli. The so-called miner’s moss traps the tiniest remaining bits of gold dust.

Stevens, 47, emerges after several hours, water dripping from his bushy goatee, and checks the sluice.

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“It’s loaded right now. I hit a great patch and was just watching the chunks go up,” he said, grinning.

Stevens and Decker are spending most of June and July in the forest, camping in a family-size tent and working the river almost every day. They leave only to check on their home in Crestline or buy supplies in Azusa. The gold they find this summer will be melted down and used to make their wedding rings.

A former truck driver, Stevens has been prospecting in one form or another for most of his life; his grandfather got him started when he was 13. Now he’s up on the river for weeks at a time. His 6-inch dredge hose is the largest legally permitted in the forest by the state Fish and Game Department, although larger hoses are allowed in parts of Northern California.

Stevens’ prospecting days run on a clock-punching rhythm. Most mornings he’s underwater by 8 a.m. He stays down for hours at a time -- breaking only for lunch and resuming until midafternoon.

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It’s hard work, he says, but “I’d rather be out here than anywhere else.”

For all his years of prospecting, Stevens’ most valuable find had nothing to do with gold. Last year his hose captured a cut diamond apparently lost from somebody’s ring. He sold it for $11,500. “That paid for all my equipment for a while,” he said.

Stevens’ story is typical for the San Gabriel River: big dreams, lots of effort, little gold.

Still, the prospect of a big strike lurks. The prospectors swap unconfirmed tales about supposedly massive finds on other parts of the river and farther in the forest. The real score is supposed to be at the “Narrows,” a seven-mile hike into the woods. The site is inaccessible to cars, and it’s illegal to operate gas-powered equipment there. The hope is that some of the gold in the Narrows will travel downstream to Camp Williams.

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There are different levels of commitment among the community of regulars.

Some, like Strand, a Long Beach mail carrier, have day jobs and spend almost every spare moment up here. Some nights he comes up after work and sets up battery-powered lights just to get a few hours of dredging in.

Then there are the weekend warriors with shiny new gear who’ve perhaps watched too many episodes of “Deadwood.” The hard-cores tend to view this group with amused condescension.

McGrath, 73, is a leader of the hard-cores.

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One recent afternoon, he looked down from the riverbank at a group of relative newcomers. They’ve chosen their spot badly, he declares, with no steady water flow to wash away debris and keep the muck moving.

“They’re rock-bound. They’re going to end up working their asses off,” he said.

Among the regulars, the sense of community is very real. By late afternoon each day, the prospectors gather -- beers in hand -- to compare notes on the day’s haul. They pull out glass vials full of glittering dust and show off their “pickers "-- pieces large enough to be picked up by hand.

“I got three nice pickers out today,” Stevens tells McGrath. “Yesterday I got four and last week I got a big one -- maybe a quarter gram.”

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Displaying the gold dust vial is almost a tribal ritual. Half a dozen people pulled out their bottles or vials within a minute of meeting a reporter.

At night, the prospectors hold communal cookouts and bull sessions. Stevens and Decker even have a battery-powered television, DVD player and PlayStation. Last month they showed the movie “Talladega Nights.”

The group enforces its own ethics code. It’s illegal to stake claims along the river -- so by unspoken agreement, once someone sets up his equipment, that spot remains his. Part-timers like Strand can leave for days at a time, knowing that their dredge and their excavation area will be protected. If an outsider tries to jump into a spot that’s taken, “we make these people feel very uncomfortable,” Strand said.

The San Gabriel River prospecting community even has its own “Mayor” -- the nickname everyone bestows on McGrath. Actually, the tiny Boston native, who has a white walrus mustache and no top teeth, may be closer to its poet laureate. He speaks vividly of gold’s allure (“It’s like heroin”) and describes the instinct for hidden gold that veteran prospectors seem to develop.

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“You’ve got to know where to look,” said McGrath, who lives on Social Security and veterans benefits. “Any fool can hold a nozzle. You have to have the knowledge. You have to know how to make the river work for you.”

Over the years he’s watched newcomers catch the fever and keep on returning, eagerly acquiring expensive new equipment.

“One week they’ve got a pan and two weeks later they’ve got a vacuum dredge, and they still don’t know how to pan,” he said.

Strand, 40, first caught the bug two years ago, researching gold prospecting on the Internet.

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Like most, he started out low-tech, shoveling mud into a pan. After about six months, he bought a suction dredge.

Wearing a wetsuit worn ragged at the knees and elbows, Strand guides the dredge’s 2 1/2 -inch hose into the riverbank underwater, flushing what he hopes will be a stream of gold-enriched mud onto the sluice.

“What can I say? I’ve got the fever,” he said. “If I had a wife or girlfriend, she’d need to be into this or it would be over.”

JUST upriver, Ricardo Varela, 36, an electrician from Rosemead, pursues the same goal the old-fashioned way: with a bucket and shovel. A relative newcomer, he’s been at this about six months and says he doesn’t plan to move up to a suction dredge.

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Valera comes up to the forest about two days a week. Prospecting, he says, is just a healthy outdoor hobby, and he doesn’t plan to sell any of his discoveries.

It took Varela six visits to find any gold. When he finally saw those first shimmering specks in his pan, he said, his jaw dropped. He stood alone in the river and yelled: “There IS gold!”

Now he works steadily, filling several buckets with mud from a carefully selected spot on the riverbank.

“I still don’t know how to really find it,” he said. “I’m getting there.”

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Standing in the middle of the stream, Varela shovels the mud onto the sluice and through the obstacle course. When the shoveling is finished, he wrings out the gold-trapping sluice liner into a bucket. The muddy mixture is then dumped into a circular pan, which Varela swirls, tips and shakes in the mild river current.

The rocky sludge gradually falls away, leaving a fine black powder. Half a dozen golden twinkles emerge.

Varela reaches into the powder, searching for a picker. Holding up a flake, he speaks with a quiet, almost reverential respect.

“See that? You and I are the first ones to ever see it. That’s what’s cool about this.”

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com


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