gold in them thar hills


                GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS – part 1 

The big nuggets and easy pickings are gone. You have to move a lot of dirt and rock. It is physically demanding, but there still is gold in them thar hills, and plenty of it. 

Over a lot of time, the gold will eventually work its way to the lowest point on land, or in the water. Perhaps a river or stream will cut through a vein of rock carrying the gold. It comes in all shapes and sizes and in rock known to be associated with gold. 

The gold found in water is rounded, flattish, and smooth, having been eroded by the rush of water and moving material. That found on land is rougher and angular, and perhaps larger having traveled less distance from the source.  

We look forward to the spring snowmelt runoff where more material is eroded out of the earth and moved along the surface. A strong runoff will churn the river bottom over and over hopefully moving the gold to a more accessible place from where it settled deep on the bottom long ago. 

The rock most often associated with gold is quartz. It is very white to shades of rust. The internal heat and pressure from deep in the earth forces the melted gold and quartz upwards through fissures in the rock mantle. It cools and solidifies in various stages as it nears the surface, sometimes outcropping on the surface.  

Miners looked for these quartz veins and if gold bearing, followed them as far and as deep as possible, and if economically feasible. There are hundreds of miles of tunnels in the earth where these veins were followed. These are lode mines. 

The Empire Mine in Grass Valley CA, has over 350 mind-boggling miles of tunnels. These veins proved very rich. The Allegheny 16 to 1 Gold Mine, also very rich, has 26 miles of tunnels but has produced many of the most beautiful, large, and precious specimens (for making jewelry) of gold nuggets found.  

Even microscopic gold is found in the Carlin Trend. Tunnels big enough for oversize dump trucks and bulldozers to pass each other work the underground near Carlin, Nevada. Tons upon tons of earth is dug up and processed. It is one of the world’s richest gold producing districts.  

Did I mention mining is labor intensive? And expensive? 


Placer (surface) claims are much easier to work and costs much less than lode mining. Dredges and metal detectors bring the costs up but it is still doable for most who get serious about prospecting. 

Placer claims and lode claims are legal rights to prospect/mine for gold. You can’t build permanent structures on it or keep people off of it. People can hike, swim, and camp, but not prospect on your claim. Placer claims are usually plotted out in twenty acre lots over land and waterways.  

Lode claims are trickier as they tend to follow the lay of the land, and the vein being followed. The Bureau of Land Management handles all claims. Claims must be renewed yearly with certain requirements being met, or forfeiture of the claim.  

We have placer claims. They are in the Downieville area, at the northern end of Highway 49, which runs north and south through the heart of California’s gold. We have yet to hit the Mother Lode, but the geology, or natural gold indicators are good. When it’s good, we make expenses. It is always enough to want to come back for more. 

Most gold found is small, and smaller down to specks. “Pickers” are pieces of gold you can pick up with your fingers. When found in abundance, gold adds up in weight quickly, and is worth the effort. Sometimes good size chunks weighing ounces are found still in the rock that hosted it. These can be specimen samples, worth much more.  

Dredges and high bankers are used to work the rivers. Pumps power suction hoses that bring dirt, rock, and sand from the river bottom up to a sluice box where the material is sorted, the gold drops to the bottom of the box, being heavier in nature, and the rest of the material exits back into the river.  

When using high bankers, you must bring the dirt and rock to the machine where water hoses wash and sort it as with the dredge. There is a lot of digging and hauling buckets of dirt and rock. It is much more physical in nature. Done right, you will be tired. 

Contrary to environmental concerns, dredging does no harm and actually removes much lead and junk from the river while stirring up the soil providing better fish habitat. The days of huge dredging operations, and hydraulicing (using water under pressure that brought down hillsides and polluted downstream), no longer exist. 

Dredging is illegal in California, thanks to our politicians who know what’s best for us. But still, it goes on as most law enforcers know it is harmless, and importantly, miners are a huge contributor to the economy of the people they serve. 

Metal detectors can signal likely gold targets beneath the surface. It isn’t an exact science, but it is very good. These machines can cost upwards of ten thousand dollars. More than adequate ones are less than a thousand. 

There are two types of detectors. Pulse Induction, the more expensive and deeper seeing, good for larger pieces of gold, and VLF (Very Low Frequency), which is cheaper and sees smaller targets nearer the surface. There is good reason to have both. 

 It takes time to learn your machine and it is now my favorite way of prospecting. Depending on the machine type, and rock/dirt makeup of the ground you are detecting, your detector can “see” a few inches deep to many feet in depth. The deeper finds are often specimen quality and can weigh up in the ounces or better. 

But you have to be over the gold. A signal beam from the detector coil goes down conelike to a point beneath the surface, it doesn’t fan out. Once finding a suitable area to detect, completely canvassing the area in grid like fashion is preferable to just walking about. Slow and methodical. 

In part 2, more about my prospecting. 

                                                        End part 1 

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Image by James McNeil