How I Became a Gold Hunter, Part Two

Philip at Decorah IowaBeing born in California, home to the greatest gold rush in history, probably helps bring out the gold hunter in anyone. The magnificent Sierra Nevada range runs from the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles all the way up the length of California to Mt. Lassen and Mt Shasta, for me, the most beautiful mountains on earth. I was probably imprinted with gold hunting fever at an early age. I met a Swiss visitor in Yosemite National Park who said, “The Alps are nothing compared to this.” It was a family trip to this park with my three boys where I first experienced symptoms of gold fever. We found glittering rocks along the edge of the Merced River and began yelling, “Gold, gold, gold!” A Native American watching from a distance stared at us soberly shaking his head. Of course, it was ‘fool’s gold’: iron pyrite, pretty glittering rocks, but nothing like the bright luminosity of real gold, which shines in the shade, which has been called the sun metal. Pure gold is so soft you can dent it with your teeth. Gold does not react to other metals; it doesn’t rust. Back in 1848 or ’49 gold may have been found along the banks like Easter eggs, but not anymore. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of gold left. A park ranger at Coloma (the original 1848 gold discovery site) told me very seriously: “There is more gold yet to be found than even the great sums taken from the earth in the last 170 years.” I wanted to believe him. This is musical candy to the gold hunter’s ears.
I began my raft ride on the Feather River early and it ended fast. Late July, the river water level was low, and I kept hitting rocks. I wanted this raft ride for the adventure, but also because I was writing a story called The Gold Hunter, about a young man who finds the lost Gold Lake, refuses to give up its location, and to scare him, bad men lash him into a canoe and send him down the white-foaming, raging river. I wanted to know what that felt like. I pictured my raft leaping and dodging among swells, snags and boulders, a nimble water horse on a magnificent water course. The reality was much different.
It was painful. As I sat in the raft, I got punched in the rear end by barely submerged boulders. If I knelt in the raft, my knees got hammered by the hidden boulders. A few minutes later, paddling madly, I crashed into a granite wall and snapped off a paddle. I had no replacements. It was the end of my rafting. It had lasted fifteen minutes. In a bad mood of fury and shame, I dragged my raft back to my car and drove up to where I had stashed my camping gear. My new friends were already in the river. They were wearing diver’s wetsuits, goggles and wearing 50-pound weight belts so they could walk underwater on the bottom of the river. I told them about my brief raft ride and they nodded knowingly. They waved and went under. A big six-inch hose emptied a continuous stream of water and debris on the boat, onto a riffle, and then out the other end. My friends were underwater ‘vacuuming’ the river bottom. This is how modern gold hunting is done. Since I was a writer and explorer (and not a rival), they allowed me a few days with them. They shared their secrets. They showed me their treasure. I didn’t realize how unusual this was at the time. Gold hunting and especially gold finding is highly secretive work. Not a good idea to let anyone know you’ve hit the jackpot. A rough-looking stranger called down to us one day while we were eating lunch wondering if we had any luck. My partner yelled back in a big bass voice, “Just making wages.”
The treasure my gold hunting friends gave me was knowledge and pleasant companionship. They knew nothing of a lost lake. But they knew rumors of an ancient river, ‘Old Blue’ buried somewhere in the mountains and said to contain vast reserves of gold in its banks. I wished them good luck finding ‘Old Blue’. They wished me good luck finding my lost lake. (To be continued).

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