Gold Prospects

Prospects for Gold

Are the rivers going to be choked with nuggets this year? Most likely not.

The gold comes to the river from ancient placer stores in the hills. Most experts agree there is still more gold in the mountains than was ever taken out. Our crusty old source says the big placer reserves haven’t been found, and they won’t be, because it would require washing away hillsides and nobody is going to allow that anymore.

However, Mother Nature doesn’t need to file CEQA (yet; a local group is rumored to have dumped several tons of documents on Mother’s door a few minutes before Spring, seeking an EIR/EIS/EIEIO! on the impact of melting snow on the high water line).

As a result, She is free to wash all the gold she wishes from the steep slopes of the western Sierra mountains. But, will she?

The outlook isn’t great, but there might be something knocked loose.

The snow pack is reported to be a little above average. There is a possibility of slightly higher than average rain this spring. Temperatures are expected to be higher than usual.

What is needed is literally a "gully washer." A good deluge would rinse some of the ancient placer gold down to where folks can reach it.

But, how to get it? The suction dredge is illegal now, and the State Department of Fish and Game continues to crawl towards the paperwork that might, again allow suction dredging.

Maybe, but probably not, and it is pretty clear that if suction dredging does return, it will be a badly crippled shadow of its former self. Very likely there will be regs defining a shorter season, restricted areas, special silt and methylated mercury catchers. It is likely to take all the fun, and profit, out of gold dredging.

It’s odd there is so much heat and stink about 3200 dredging permits, but this is a special time in our nation’s history when madness is highly valued and hysteria is a powerful political force. The wilderness is just fer lookin’ at from the road, or a kayak, or hiking. Actual utilitarian use of our natural resources is for the crude hayseeds, people who marry their cousins and hope to catch a fetching feller in the deep woods.

As it happens, many people in the county still do make appropriate use of natural resources, and we haven’t married cousins here for several years. The death of dredging doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be taking some gold this year.

The price of gold is down slightly, from over $1,100 to about $1092. You’ll notice we have a link to live gold price feeds at the top of our Front Page. At a thousand bucks an ounce (it doesn’t take much gold to make an ounce) a lot of people between jobs might be out after gold.

But, how?

It’s still perfectly legal to pan or sluice for gold, at least for the time being. But, can you actually get gold that way?

The dredge, for those who are unfamiliar, uses a large pipe and a pump. The pump powers jets in the pipe which point backwards, up the pipe. When water passes through those jets it sucks creek water up the pipe after it pulling gravel and rocks and gold with it. The material then goes through a series of obstacles intended to stop the heavier gold but let the gravel and silt pass.

The process supposedly pulls up historic mercury, mashing and mixing it and sending it out in a large plume in the creek to poison hapless critters. There is some evidence this happens, but it is not known what the long term impact is. Dredging does indeed vacuum the bed of the creek.

But, there are other ways to get gold out.

Time tested, is the gold pan. It might be the oldest method of retrieving placer gold, or that gold which has been removed from its rock matrix, typically through erosion, and concentrated through natural flows. The pan is loaded with an amount of (hopefully) bearing gravel and gently "washed" until the gravel and sand is gone, and only "black sand" and enormous hunks of solid gold are left. The enormous hunks might only be a thousandth of an inch across. The black sand itself is often composed of magnetite but can contain other minerals or rare earths. Some black sand is composed of meteorites. Because black sand is heavy it is often associated with fine gold.

Gold!  (Link)

The gold pan isn’t the only way to find gold. The sluice box is still used, and it is still legal to use even in California.

In it’s simplest form, it is a series of obstacles like those of the dredge, which allow heavier materials to fall out while lighter materials are flushed away. The sluice is set up to catch incoming water, or a hose is used to bring a flow to the sluice. Traditional sluices are long shallow open topped boxes. Heavy riffles catch rocks and such, which are shoveled from the gravel bar. Water runs over the material, and smaller and smaller riffles are used to catch smaller gold particles. Eventually, material is washed down the box to a carpet or piece of burlap. If natural burlap is used, the burlap is sometimes burned, leaving fine gold behind in the ash. The sluice can process many times more material than the pan. It’s easy to build, quick to set up, doesn’t use any fuel, and is completely reliable.

While it is still legal (and mostly un-regulated) to use the pan and sluice, you have to be careful. There are still plenty of flatlanders to complain about what they might see as environmental degradation (see the note above about madness and hysteria). Either way, when digging around in the stream for gold, use common sense. Don’t release a long plume of silt into the river. Replace large boulders and other stream flow impediments; these can reduce the damage of high flows (and catch more gold). Observe the usual precautions: don’t litter, don’t pump your bilge or pinch a loaf near the water, be careful with fire. Be respectful of fishermen, sightseers, and the many, many nude sunbathers on the river (a little shake in the hands makes the pan work better). Be friendly to people, and answer their questions about your operation. Always tell them "no, there’s no gold here" and "I fished for two days and didn’t catch nuthin’" and "at least that escaped convict from the mental institution isn’t throwing rocks at me from the edge of the forest anymore." Don’t forget, when you meet people, it’s their forest, too, and they’ll use it if you aren’t diligent.

Above all, avoid stepping on someone else’s gold claim. There are many along our rivers and streams, and you have to be on the lookout for monuments. Folks here abouts are decent enough, but some are really touchy about claim jumpers.

Going after gold with a pan and sluice is great fun, and there is still plenty of gold in them thar hills.


Also, a rumor. The buzz along the river is that a Chinese corporation is investing in gold in Sierra County. So far, there has been no confirmation, and it might simply not be true, but if it is, this is a great opportunity for Sierra County to get a toe in early with the next great empire. Welcome,

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