The state’s historic drought has ended. Riverbeds, once dry, are torrents, and California’s Gold Country is living up to its reputation.
Standing on a narrow bridge over Eagle Creek, weeks before the Detwiler fire ravaged the foothills to the south, Robert Guardiola watches nearly 40 miners spread out. Wearing knee pads and waders, they have begun to organize their equipment — buckets and classifiers, hog pans and cradles — along the edge of the stream.
Some cut into sand bars with their shovels; others adjust their sluices half in and out of the flowing water. A few have begun swirling mud in their gold pans.
“Everything begins and ends with a pan,” says Guardiola, pleased with the activity. He helped organize this outing, a monthly foray for a local prospecting association known as the Delta Gold Diggers.
Settled in a nearby folding lawn chair, Russ Tait is doing his part. A latte-colored slurry circles the perimeter of his emerald-colored pan.
With a floppy hat, ponytail and a white beard that hasn’t been trimmed in 18 years, the 72-year-old looks like a refugee from Knott’s Berry Farm. Even his blue eyes behind silver frames have a bit of a twinkle.
Tait has bone cancer, so getting down to the creek isn’t easy. But even if his days are numbered, he isn’t above dreaming. He peers into the murky solution, hoping to glimpse something shiny.
“I guess you call it gold fever,” he says. “You get out there, and there’s times where you get tired and you don’t want to quit.”
For years, especially during the drought, Tait and his friends stood on the riverbanks of California’s Mother Lode alone with their obsession. Now, as record snowmelt scours these watersheds, washing gold into streams, that’s seldom the case.
More and more strangers are out on these rivers and streams, looking for that sparkling metal.
Since first smelted almost 6,000 years ago, Au 79 — one of the 118 elements on the periodic table — has inspired an enduring madness.
Ovid tells the tale of Midas, John Huston of a similar malady in the mountains of Mexico, and television cameras bring home the frenzy on the Bering Sea.
But gold is admired not just for its beauty and worth. In a chaotic world, it speaks with evangelical zeal to values less ephemeral. Populists and politicians champion it as a stabilizer for the dollar. Survivalists see salvation in its worth when civilization collapses.
But on the banks of Eagle Creek, the talk is more about the poison oak, twining its way through the brush, as unwanted as the mining regulations that have come out of Sacramento.
In 2009, the miners complain, a state judge issued an injunction that put a temporary moratorium on the use of motorized equipment near the state’s rivers and streams, putting an end to dredges that suction rocks, sand and pebbles from the bottom of a creek and pumps that circulate water into sluices located high on river banks.
A coalition of tribal, conservation and fisheries representatives said such practices compromise riparian habitat, and the judge ordered the matter to be studied. A final ruling has yet to be made.
But what regulations have prohibited, nature has allowed, and with all the water blasting through these mountains, prospectors have a new kick in their step.
Geological gumshoes, they search for ancient rivers, for rounded boulders tumbled together, for orange soil tainted by rusted iron and veins of quartz hiding gold.
They read streambeds, imagining how the current flowed during floods, hunting for any irregularity — a riffle, a ledge, a waterfall — that could create a backward eddy for the gold to escape the water’s momentum and drop to the floor.
Heavier than most metals, gold, they say, has arms and legs for its propensity to climb deep into bedrock where it lies trapped.
Late afternoon, after nearly an hour in the water, Guardiola totes two five-gallon buckets up from the creek. One contains trash collected from the shallows: a spark plug, a shotgun shell, a square-headed nail, a spatula and part of a car door.
The other contains his concentrates, less than a cup of dark sand sloshing about in water.
Panning it, he separates the lighter material from the heavier to reveal a few gold specks, each no bigger than a fat flea.
What could possess a man to stand for an hour in snowmelt with a shovel and gold pan for the sake of a few microns?
Every miner has an answer, and Guardiola’s reply comes two days later on his personal claim, some 20 miles south of Eagle Creek near the town of Moccasin.
California’s Mother Lode is a lonely place — twisting roads, tall grass, ancient oaks — haunted from the days of 1848, when the Argonauts panned out from Sutter’s Mill. Gold littered the ground like potatoes, then like marbles, and finally a dust they called flour, all totaled: $2 billion extracted by 1852.
Their legacy lies not only in the rusted debris and flattened mountains they left behind, but in the blackberries, the fig and apple trees they planted, still growing in these forests, vestiges of their dream.
Guardiola, 52, purchased the right to mine these 20 acres in 2001. When he first walked out on this property, he knew he could be happy here. Ten deer, two bucks and fawns browsed beneath the oaks. A stream — Grizzly Creek — cut through the property, which already had two mines on it, always a good sign.
Seven years later, after losing his equipment rental store in Modesto to a broken plumbing pipe and a slow insurance claim, he began to work the claim more seriously.
Prepped for the cold — insulated waders, booties, wool socks and sneakers — Guardiola wades into a pool of 55-degree water as deep as his thighs.
“We’ll see if Mother Nature was kind and restocked my bank,” he says.
Above him, the stream cascades over a rocky shelf, creating a small waterfall. The sun plays peek-a-boo behind the clouds.
Two years ago, the stream was dry. Last year it was a trickle. But this winter brought a torrent of water, and with it, nearly 2 feet of new rock and gravel deposits, called overburden, into the pond, and the water has not stopped flowing.
With his face right up against the surface, he muscles a submerged boulder aside — 200 pounds by his estimate — to get at the deeper material. With a choked grip on a short-handled shovel, he fills his gold pan and examines each scoop.
His T-shirt is drenched, his hair plastered to his scalp. Mosquitoes land on his neck, and suddenly he flinches as if a pulse of electricity had passed through him.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said, surprised by a decent-sized nugget, a little smaller than a pea, shining up at him.
An hour later, shaking from the cold, he wipes his eyes and gathers up his gear in the waning light.
Historian H. W. Brands, in his account of the Gold Rush, “The Age of Gold,” writes that the epic quest shaped history “so profoundly because it harnessed the most basic of human desires, the desire for happiness.”
Not everyone found it, he adds, but that democratic vista has left its imprint on today’s miners.
On the South Fork of Stanislaus River, Tom Mutschelknaus confesses to taking home buckets of concentrate and just letting them sit in the yard.
“As long as I’m not sure what’s in the bucket,” he says, “I have hope.”
In a former life, Mutschelknaus worked on the kill floor of a meatpacking plant in South Dakota, then as a cross-country truck driver. At 63, he is living his “dream come true,” caretaking 160 acres, a place called Italian Bar, owned by a national prospecting group, the Lost Dutchman Mining Assn.
A few miles west of here in the 1970s, one especially lucky miner, George Massie, pulled nearly 800 ounces out of the ground and went on to extol recreational gold mining to the rest of the country.
Surrounded by live oak, cedar and sugar pine, Mutschelknaus stands in Silver Creek, having reduced three gallons of material to one-and-a-half cups that he swirls in his pan. On his right hand is a ribbon tattoo in memory of his first wife who died of breast cancer in 2011.
The afternoon breeze wafts through the canopy overhead, white clouds, blue skies. Mutschelknaus stops panning to listen to a robin. He saw a mountain lion on the road the other day.
“When I’m around the sound of water like this,” he says, “I can be feeding my sluice and actually fall asleep.”
Once trapped inside the Earth, gold made its way to California when the Pacific plate crashed into the North American plate, heating up layers of sediment, liquefying rocks and creating a soup that flowed to the surface carrying the gold.
One ounce — which would almost fill a lipstick case — is worth more than $1,200, and at 49er Mining Supplies in Columbia, Rob Goreham is always in the market.
“I’d be stupid not to,” he says. Buy low, sell high is his mantra, his hedge against financial uncertainty.
Goreham pulls out his purchase tray. A stack of $100 bills lies on top of the zippered baggies and black-lid vials filled with gold: crystalline gold, leaf gold, placer gold, lode gold and gold dust, fine as sand. He’s quick to mention that he doesn’t keep it all on site and what’s here is secured by a .45 semi-automatic loaded with hollow points.
His purchases are made from prospectors who scour the nearby hills: plumbers, roofers, air conditioning workers, bank managers, U.S. Forest Service employees, chiropractors and a few who live off the grid.
But, Goreham says, it’s a mistake to put all your faith in gold. When strangers call looking for advice, saying they quit their day job in the hope of striking it big, he can only despair.
“Looking for gold,” he says, “is no different than playing a scratcher — if you don’t have the knowledge.”
Before Shannon Poe started prospecting, he did his homework.
Poe, 55, quit his job in 2009 as the director of loss prevention for a few retail businesses in the Bay Area. Tired of corporate politics, the suit and traffic, he turned to the Sierra, and after researching the equipment, talking to a few old-timers and putting in five days a week, he made in one year a little more than $150,000.
But when the ban on dredging was passed, his income dropped to $25,000, and Poe started the American Mining Rights Assn. (“fighting for your right to mine”).
In his company, gold mining seems less a get-rich-quick scheme than a libertarian impulse, an exercise in independence and self-determination as much a part of the American heritage as the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Ask him what his political party is, and he’ll say he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.
“We are more constitutionalists than anything else,” he says.
Eager to show what the winter storms did to his claim, Poe leaves his SUV — plastered with its appliques of an American flag, an eagle, the Constitution and a gold pan — in the parking lot, and he and his mining partner, Don Siegel, pile into their so-called scratch truck, better-suited for whatever pin-striping the brush might add to the paint job.
“I think you’ll be interested,” he says. “It’s not like anything I’ve seen.”
Bounding on a dirt track outside of Greeley Hill east of Coulterville, they enter the woods and take Old Yosemite Road.
The scratch truck rocks and rolls over ruts filled with water and mud. Rising above Lewis Gulch, Poe glances at the exposed rocks in the distant creekbed.
“That’s what we call yum-yums,” he says, imagining the gold beneath them.
Just when the road grows impassable, Siegel stomps on the brakes and cuts the engine. Bull Creek, a braided stream flowing into the Merced River, spreads through a tumult of fallen trees and new and dying vegetation.
The stream bed, however, is stripped clean, water coursing over smooth rock faces.
In early January, says Poe, the vegetation here was so thick that you couldn’t walk through it, and the overburden took two days to dig through.
But when the storms arrived, the beetle-killed trees in the area fell, creating small dams, and when the dams broke, the water ripped through the canyon, sweeping the riverbed to bedrock.
“Mother Nature did what we would normally do with a shovel,” says Poe. “All these cracks hold very good gold.”
Crossing to the opposite bank, he starts digging where the stream eddies around a small ledge. He calls Siegel, and they push a boulder aside and begin filling a bucket and sand bags with the mud.
Running it through their sluice, they watch as the gold accumulates in its riffles, a good sign for just 45 minutes of work.
“Holy cow,” Poe says. “Whatever that was just lit the box up.”
Credits: Digital design and development by Sean Greene. Drone photography by Jason Neubert