Gold Fever II: An Unforeseen Reward
Moe and I had somewhat of a misfire on our first prospecting trip, mistaking what is appropriately called ‘fool’s gold’ for the real thing but hey, even an expert will slip on a carefully-placed banana peel, although we certainly weren’t anything close to expert and the banana peel was just casually tossed in our direction. Still, we came out of it alright. Well mostly alright, a bit ego-flattened maybe, but much better in at least one respect; the biggest booby trap of all time—‘fool’s gold’—had now been efficiently thrown out with the bath water, or however that goes.
On our second trip Moe and I decided to try our hand at placer prospecting rather than the hard-rock stuff. Placer gold is distributed downhill from its point of origin by the movement of water mostly, whether by river, run-off or flash flood. In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that distribution is by streams and rivers, which makes it easy to find a place to pan because of the plethora of streams and rivers. There apparently is not, however, a plethora of gold. You have to figure out the best places to look, which is where my extensive research should have come roaring in like Rambo. And I expected it to, but Moe, not so much. I’m pretty sure he was still a bit miffed about the fool’s gold thing, as if it was all my fault. I started to remind him it was he who held up the original ‘gold’ nugget and set us to collecting that trunkful of false dreams, but, wisely I think, I held my tongue. Moe was still ignorant of the canary business (see Gold Fever 101) and it would be best not to poke around in those ashes.
Out of all the choices available I was drawn to the Mokelumne River, which was not pronounced ‘Mock-a-LOOM-nee’ as you would think by looking at it, but ‘Mock-ALL-ah-mee’ as the guy at the gas station informed me after he was done laughing. I liked the way the real ‘Mokelumne’ rolled off the tongue, and I took that as a sign of good things to be found there. Fortunes have been found on lesser impulses, you know.
I didn’t explain any of that to Moe of course. When he asked why we were starting there I confess to having fudged a bit; “Because that’s where the original 49er Gold Rush began.”
“Really?” He asked, “I thought that was at Sutter’s Creek.”
“A lot of people think that.” I said, woefully aware of the liar’s tangled web I had begun to weave.
Thankfully it was at that point that we came to a concrete bridge spanning a river identifying itself as the ‘North Fork of the Mokelumne River’. Ah, sweet success. I pulled over onto a wide turnout that funneled into a pleasant parking place beneath shade trees. We planned to pack in for a mile or so to get into less picked-over diggings, but first I took a six-pack of Hamm’s beer down to the river, which was 15 or 20 feet below, and anchored it firmly underwater beneath some rocks. For when we came back out late tomorrow, see. It felt like, and almost was, a brilliant example of foresight.
We shouldered our packs and sleeping bags and cooking gear and headed upriver, ducking through brush and weaving around trees while gabbing like kids on their way to the circus, which wasn’t as far off the mark as one would hope. The first couple hundred yards were easy because of wistful fishermen; they pretty well beat down the brush in both directions from any and all waterway access points in order to get to less-visited sites, much like what we were doing. After that though the going got rougher whilst us participants got expectedly tougher, to a point; the terrain got steeper both ahead and sidehill, and the brush slowly retreated into rockier ground.
We came to a stream bed blocking our path, running from right to left in a summer-trickling sort of manner, and I recalled reading about runoffs like this that could reveal a gold deposit from above if one were to, say, stumble onto the Mother Lode of All Time quite by accident.
Well it could happen, you know.
It was therefore with exuberance that we clambered down to where the stream joined the river and dropped our packs, readying our newly-acquired prospecting gear for its inaugural run. Our gold pans were the main thing of course, and I had spent several hours practicing the written instructions on how to separate gold from the not-gold. It entailed a combination of swirling and shaking in a consistent manner until there was about a half-cup of material left that concealed the goodies, slowly revealed by a wavelike swishing of the water. It should be noted here that the gold pans of the 60’s were very unlike the gold pans available today; they were not made like the molded plastic ones with riffles along the sides to catch the gold, they were stamped out of one piece of tin with its chief attribute being absolutely smooth surfaces. I’m sure this enabled all the worthless stuff to slide out easily, but it sure didn’t help to keep the gold in. Also the color of the new ones are usually green or black, the better to see the gold. Tin is just tin though, and when it sits around wet it’ll rust rather than just be shiny, either of which makes the gold harder to see. So my first prospecting tip to Moe was to ‘blue the pan’, which I’d learned from my extensive research. I’m telling you, the guy was really lucky to have me around.
Bluing the pan consisted of holding it over a flame until the bottom turned blue from the heat. You have to do it before each trip naturally, but it really did the job well and it was said that you’d easily see the yellow gold against that blue backdrop. I’d only done this a couple times back on the stove in my apartment so we had to do things a little differently out here; we gathered some kindling and fragmented driftwood and built a small fire inside a ring of rocks, then balanced my pan in there and waited until the color crept in just like it said in the books.
Then I reached over and grabbed it, burning the fingertips of both hands before I could let go. Moe heard me yelping and turned around just in time to see me drop the hot pan on my canvas tennis shoe which smoked a bit before I was able to kick it away into the creek water. The pan sizzled and started to float away, and when Moe quickly grabbed it by the upper edge it burned his fingers too. What a maroon, eh?
Once we had that all sorted out and the fire built back up we blued Moe’s pan also. More carefully this time, as we’d just been duly cautioned against impulse actions which could easily lead one to the ‘unforeseen consequences’ sometimes seen in obituaries.
We spent most of the afternoon working on our panning techniques, which proved to be more difficult than you’d think. I had an old medicine bottle about half-full of small fishing sinkers which I’d cut in half to throw into the pans as a gold decoy. We’d work a couple scoops of dirt scraped from under the rocks at the creek’s mouth along with three lead decoys. Lead is lighter than gold but not by a lot and if you still had two out of three lead decoys in your pan at the end you supposedly were ready for the big time. It’s very frustrating for a while, but when you start getting the hang of it you perk up a little, and when Moe found a little piece of yellow next to the decoys he became nearly apoplectic;
“Gold,” he yelled, much like he had last time when we brought back a load of fool’s gold, “This time it’s real gold!”
So he read my thoughts, did he?
I got out my magnifying glass and inspected his ‘gold’ and by golly! This time it looked to really be gold! It was small, perhaps the size of a pinhead, but when I scraped it to the side and gently pressed my knife blade into it the thing was malleable, so it was gold. Iron pyrite, or fool’s gold, is brittle and would have shattered.
Wow. We very carefully tweezered the flake into a small specimen jar full of water which Moe then wrapped in a sock and slid into a side pocket of his pack. With that done and several do-se-dos around the gold pans we carried our gear back up to a nice level camping site maybe ten feet above the river. The sun was long gone behind the treetops and night was just beginning to fall when we scraped out our sleeping spots and lit a campfire. It was nice until the chill started seeping in, and after a dinner of beans & franks washed down by a couple of Hamm’s brews and a little backslapping rich-folk talk we called it a day. A very good day, with another promising one on the cusp.
Except it wasn’t. We woke astounded to find the river, which had been several feet below our campsite last night, wasn’t. It was now maybe two feet below our wiggling toes. So we arose to an entirely different set of ‘prospects’; Moe’s Mother Lode was now in the realm of the fishes and had become unreachable just that quickly.
But how? The water wasn’t muddy like you’d probably see if there had been a storm way up in the mountains above, and it didn’t seem likely any self-respecting hydro-power reservoir dam up there would unleash that much water in anticipation of another hot August day of air conditioner use, but…?
Never did figure it out. We just packed up and packed out, dejected and despairingly still broke. And when we got back to the Chevy we couldn’t even retrieve my cleverly concealed six-pack of Hamm’s down there in the now-depths.
In its own way Moe’s real gold had morphed into another sliver of fool’s gold.
That should be the end of this story but there is one more footnote from later; Cousin Bob and I went through this area a couple years afterwards on a deer-hunting trip, and when we came to this bridge over the Mokelumne I noticed the water level was way down like it had been the weekend of Moe's Lost Mine. I stopped and could see the large flat rock I’d placed over the Hamm’s stash so I asked Bob if he’d like a cold beer. Silly question I know, but occasionally it’s fun to throw a wounded sardine in front of a shark, and when I came up with a weather beaten six-pack of Hamm’s I thought he was going to swallow his face. It was priceless.
Moral: Even a prospecting trip that goes awry can turn into future riches.