The Perfect Hobby

AT various times within the last two years my wife and I have searched for placer gold in the black beach sands above Eureka, California, along the lower courses of a dozen Sierra Nevada streams, in the San Gabriel Canyon, and elsewhere. As a result of our occasional trips, perhaps thirty altogether, we have accumulated two thirds of an ounce of raw gold, worth about twenty dollars. Pure gold is worth thirty-five dollars an ounce, but placer gold is never absolutely pure.

The largest single piece we have recovered is a tiny nugget which weighs one pennyweight, or half the weight of a new Lincoln penny. It is the size, shape, and color of a very small, stunted grain of yellow corn, and is worth approximately one dollar and sixty cents. We took it out of a crevice between two boulders on the north bank of the American River, thirty feet from the stream, a mile west of Folsom Penitentiary. While I held the boulders apart with a crowbar, Muriel scooped into our gold pan all the dirt on the bedrock beneath, using a garden trowel and a whiskbroom, and we panned the material in the river.

When the residue was no more than a teaspoonful we had not seen a color (a color being one visible flake or grain of gold), and then my wife gave the pan a peculiar little flip which is one of the tricks of gold panning, and there it was! I shall never forget the thrill I experienced when I saw that bit of precious metal standing out in bold relief against the bottom of the pan.

I have done considerable fly-fishing, and I enjoy that sport immensely, but the capture of that little gleaming piece of raw gold, something a million times more elusive than the wily trout, gave me a pounding of the heart such as I should not experience if a whale struck my fly. We were in the heart of the Mother Lode country, near the spot where James W. Marshall picked up the twelve pieces of gold which started the California Gold Rush, and all the history and romance and tragedy of that epic migration seemed to be embodied in the little nugget we had found.

The country about us was fairly rugged, a series of low foothills and valleys, covered with scrub pine and rock. It was deserted now, but in the days of the Gold Rush the Forty-niners were working feverishly on every foot of it, and in an unbroken line along the banks of the river. To get there they came from the ends of the earth, braved the Panama jungle swamps, fought their way through on the awful trip overland, and made the heroic journey around the Horn. Rushing pell-mell into these foothills, they encountered that fabulous cradle of riches, twenty miles wide and two hundred miles long, the greatest deposit of gold ever heard of in the world. In those days gold nuggets were sprouting in the ground like seed potatoes.

We had visions of making a great gold strike then and there — of finding more and larger nuggets, perhaps a pocket of gold. Why not? Near by was the spot where a single mass of gold twice the size of a man’s head, weighing 2340 ounces, was taken out in November 1854. But although we labored the rest of the day and all the next day around that spot, we discovered only two more colors. Our little nugget was simply a tiny piece of gold which had eluded the thousands of gold seekers who had worked that stream bank over and over again through the years; or perhaps it had come down the mountains in the flood waters of the American River the previous winter.

The expense of that particular trip was about twenty dollars, which will indicate that for us the profit in gold seeking is not limited to the actual finding of gold. My wife is a working artist, and it happens that our apartment in San Francisco is our workshop as well as our domicile. When we finish our coffee in the morning and go forth to business, I simply move to a desk in the next room, and Muriel merely shifts from the breakfast table to a drawing board. As a result of our incarceration we are especially exposed to that sinister creeping disease which I call apartmentitis. It is worse than tonsillitis, bronchitis, or laryngitis, and, like the goblins, it will get all isolated sedentary workers who live in cities if they don’t watch out.

We try to watch out. The symptoms of this dreadful disease are unmistakable, — nervousness, irritability, mental fatigue, — and whenever they appear in recognizable form we take immediate steps. The typewriter, that mechanical tyrant, is slammed into the desk; and the pencils, art gum, inks, brushes, tubes of water color, and other tools of the artist are set firmly aside. Out come the maps, — highway, Forest Service, and Geological Survey, — and we select our tentative destination.

‘Suppose,’ says Muriel, ‘we go up into El Dorado County this time?’

We open a little directory, published by the state, and read: ‘Gold placers of El Dorado County: Middle and South Forks of the American River, Consumnes River and its Forks, and all branch streams and tributary creeks; reached by way of Auburn, Plymouth, Placerville, and Sonora.’

Excellent! We can reach any of those locations in about three hours.

My wife puts on hiking pants or overalls and I usually change my clothes in the car. We throw the skillet and the coffeepot into the back seat, check to see if the tent and the rest of the gear are there, call the dog, and are on our way. We may camp that night on Coyote Creek, which empties into the Stanislaus above Melones, or we may spend the night at a miners’ boarding house where Muriel and the Italian landlord’s wife are the only women in a crowd of forty hard-rock miners who are working in the great Carson Hill Mine near by.

Whatever mountain stream we select to work in, we park the car as close as possible, sometimes in it, and start working upstream, taking only a light miner’s pick, shovel, and gold pan. I should say here that these Sierra Nevada streams bear gold as an orchard bears fruit, and that every winter, year after year, they bring down from the mountain a crop — an annual yield from what is apparently an inexhaustible source. That is what the Forty-niners harvested — the accumulated crops of gold brought down and deposited in the foothills through thousands of years. The fresh crop of raw gold is small each year, and is deposited over a vast area, but nevertheless there is some.

If we discover a few colors in a bend or a gravel bar, we may work around that spot for half a day, or we may continue on. It is difficult to stop anywhere, because you always feel sure that in that sand bank fifty yards ahead you will find a large nugget. We have followed a mountain stream for more than eight miles in one day, fording it a dozen times, climbing boulders, scaling cliffs. We are never in a hurry. The country is always beautiful. The sun is hot, to be sure, but the icy snow water of the mountain stream is a cooling agent. We may stay three or four days.

The purpose of panning is to wash out the lighter material, leaving only the heavier mineral grains. Gold is so heavy that you can drop one grain of it into a pan containing thirty pounds of sand and gravel, and if the panning is done correctly that one yellow speck will be in the final half teaspoonful of concentrates. But panning is tedious, and once we have selected a spot to test thoroughly, the pan is laid aside and the water is put to work.

We have a portable sluice box, which we designed and made ourselves. It is no more than a light wooden trough with riffles across the bottom, divided into two sections which fit together. We dig a little canal, diverting water from the main stream, and into this the box is set. After it is set properly, there is nothing to do but shovel sand and gravel into it and let the water do the rest. If the box slopes at the right angle, and the proper volume of water flows through it, even very small particles of gold will fall between the riffles and stay there, while nearly all the other material gradually washes out.

If any large gold grains appear we pick them up with tweezers and drop them into a tiny bottle. After a few hours there is always a small deposit of heavy black sand in the box, and we remove the riffles and wash this sand carefully into our gold pan. There it is moved slowly around in the V formed by the bottom and sides of the pan, under a little water, and if any gold is present it gradually appears as a little yellow tail. If such is the case we take up all the concentrates, black sand and gold sand alike, with an eye dropper and squirt them into a larger bottle. Later, in our apartment, we isolate the gold dust, or flour gold. Oh, yes — ‘home work’ is one of the most fascinating phases of gold seeking.

This gold-bearing black sand is not worked until we have accumulated, say, a teacupful of it. Then we pan it carefully in a large basin, washing out black sand until we can eliminate no more of it without losing gold. What remains resembles black and yellow sugar. Many of the black particles are iron, and these are removed with a magnetized knife blade. Then we drop a little quicksilver into the pan and roll it back and forth through the concentrates; the quicksilver picks up the gold, leaving the other particles undisturbed. Finally we dump the amalgamated gold and quicksilver into a pan, put it on the stove, and cook off the quicksilver. The tiny mass of yellow metal which remains goes into a little bottle labeled ‘Pure Gold.’

Our gold is very pretty, glistening and gleaming in its little bottle. It is not much, but it is undeniably ours. We took it out of the good earth with our own hands, and it is worth far more to us than its value in legal tender. It represents exercise, health, wonderful trips into the hills, sunrises over the Sierra, and campfires beside mountain streams under the stars.

In two years our gold seeking has cost us about three hundred dollars, and we consider the expenditure of that money the most profitable investment that we have ever made. We have discovered a game of absorbing interest, the pursuit of which has taught us a great deal and led us to make some fine friends. With another couple we are planning a gold-seeking expedition late this summer nine thousand feet up into the High Sierra.