Dredging up the past
Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of a two-part series about gold mining in Nevada County, past and present. Now we explore gold mining today with hobby prospector Bruce Darlington.
Weekend gold miner Bruce Darlington eyed the stretch of creek like a fly fisherman watching for a rise or a kayaker gauging the water’s flow.
He was looking for spots on the inside of a bend where natural eddies form, and on the downstream side of big boulders where the water swirls.
“That’s where the gold’s going to settle,” said Darlington, up to his knees in Wolf Creek.
Darlington, who calls himself a “hobby miner,” assembled the 4-inch “recreational” dredge – which easily fits in the back of his pick-up truck – along the edge of the creek.
“When you get up to 10, you’re talking industrial dredging,” said Darlington of the placer mining contraptions featuring nozzles that range in size from 2 to 10 inches.
Darlington figured his chances of finding gold were pretty good on the claim, which lies along the creek south of Grass Valley.
“We might not find much, but we should find some,” said Darlington, who recently panned a couple of “flakes” and a “picker” from a ditch that runs through the backyard of his home near Condon Park.
People today know what gold mining use to be, said Darlington, as patches of shadow and light bobbed on the water where the sun shone through breaks in the trees.
“They know of the ’49ers, but nowadays people are so modernized that they don’t honestly believe there’s still gold out there,” he said.
Darlington tied the floating dredge to a tree along the bank and fired up the Briggs & Statton generator while horses watched idly from a pasture across the creek.
Guiding the nozzle with his left hand and lifting out rocks with his right, Darlington worked the creek bottom on his knees in about 2 feet of water.
Sand and gravel is sucked up the nozzle through a power jet and into the sluice, where it’s sorted out by riffles, Darlington explained.
The riffles (grooves) act as natural eddies, pulling the sediment into the miner’s moss, a natural carpet at the bottom of the sluice where the heavy metals – gold, lead and mercury – collect.
As the hole he was working in the creek bottom got deeper, Darlington put on a diver’s mask and dipped his face in the creek until only his back and shoulders stuck out of the water.
The idea, Darlington said, is to dredge down to bedrock where the gold is deposited, which in deeper water requires a wetsuit and hookah air tank attachment that runs off the dredge’s generator.
“The fun part is when you clean out the sluice and see what you’ve got,” Darlington said, smiling like a kid digging for the prize at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks.
Darlington emptied what the sluice caught into a bin, dipped out a pan full of water and sediment, shook it, then started swirling it around in circles.
“And the gold goes right to the bottom,” he said. “Then you pull the water off the top and do the same thing again and just keep working it down.”
“See where the black sands are beginning to show up at the bottom of the pan? That’s where the gold’s going to be,” Darlington said.
Sure enough, there it was, a glittering gold speck …. and then another, and another, and another.
“That’s flour, every bit of that’s flour gold,” said Darlington.
In the second pan he found a couple of pickers and some fines stuck to chunks of mercury, remnants of the process used by Gold Rush miners to recover gold at the old North Star stamp mill upstream.
Darlington won’t get rich from his find, but that’s not the point, he said. The gold he found at Wolf Creek will probably end up on a shelf in a glass vial.
“I just do it for the fun of it,” said Darlington, who started treasure hunting with a metal detector when he was 14 years old.
“But every now and then, you’ll hit some gold,” he said with a grin.
As for the social and environmental impact posed by mining today, Darlington said the weekend hobby miner should not be lumped together with large-scale industrial operations.
It’s night and day when you compare them, he said.
“You’re looking at someone who goes out on the weekend as a hobby,” Darlington said. “If he finds gold, that’s fine; if he doesn’t, he still had a hell of a good time.”
Of course, the small 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton on Darlington’s dredge made some noise and there was a little exhaust.
But no one was around but the horses, and they didn’t seem to mind.
When Darlington went back the next day, however, an irate property owner on the other side of the creek tried to run him off the claim, even though he had permission to dredge there from the claim’s owner.
To bring in tourist dollars, Darlington said, old mining towns up and down the Sierra are advertising Gold Country this and gold that.
“But when it comes right down to coming in and saying ‘I’m a gold miner, I’m a prospector,’ that’s a dirty word,” he said.
To say dredgers are ruining the rivers and destroying the environment is ridiculous, he said.
Dredging actually aerates the creek or river bottom and makes it better for fish to live and breed.
“When you dredge, you can see fish swimming at the end of the sluice, biting the worms and bugs and the stuff you’re actually dredging up because they can’t find food anywhere else,” Darlington said.
Of course, environmentalists don’t agree with Darlington’s views on dredging, and there are many other interests competing for the rivers and streams, he said.
You can take every dredger in the state and put them on the Yuba River for a week, Darlington said, and they won’t do any more damage that a big storm does in a week.
“The most destructive thing on this planet, even more than an atomic or hydrogen bomb, is water,” Darlington said. “It doesn’t care how big you are or how bad you are or how smart of an engineer you are – if it wants to move it, it’ll move it.”
Gold mining in Nevada County isn’t what it use to be.
When the cost of mining began to outweigh the profits, mines across the state were forced to shutdown in 1956, spelling an end to California’s Gold Rush era.
Today, there are 50 to 60 dredge claims on both the south and north forks of the Yuba River, according to the U.S Forest Service.
“There’s some operations that no doubt are making money,” said Jack Kemp, assistant minerals officer at the North Yuba Ranger Station in Camptonville. “But as far as anyone becoming a millionaire, that’s not going to happen.”
Today, Darlington said it’s all the more important to preserve the history the gold miners left behind and to keep the traditions they handed down renewed and alive.
“If our children can’t go out there and mine, it’s a heritage that’s lost,” he said.
InfoBox: Types and sizes of gold pieces that can end up at the bottom of a lucky prospector’s sluice pan, according to Darlington:
— Fines and flour: Small granular pieces of gold.
— Flakes: Thin, flattened pieces of gold, usually tiny but sometimes the size of corn flakes.
— Pickers: Bigger pieces of gold you can actually pick up out of the pan with your fingers.
— Nuggets: Buckshot to pea-sized pieces of gold.
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