EUREKA! Gold Panning: Alive And Well On The Mokelumne River
By Antoinette May Herndon
One day Bill Freeman took his pan and trowel to the Mokelumne River and came back a legend in his own time. In his hand was a nugget worth more than $1000. Filled with awe and envy, I ventured: “Guess you know where to look, after all, you are a fourth generation Mother Lodian. “Gold is were you find it,” he told me. “Anyone can get lucky.” The area around Mokelumne Hill sounded good to me. During the Gold Rush, strikes in and around the village netted some $10,000,000. Lucky prospectors plucked gold right out of the river. A few finds were so big that Mexican Argonauts named a town Melones (melons) for the nuggets they found. Nobody has turned up any gold melons lately, but Freeman still prospects just as his ancestors did. The prerequisites, he says, are a wide-rimmed shallow pan, a strong back, and lots of patience. He uses the pan to rinse the riverbed soil in water. With a rotating motion, he progressively discards the dirt while the heavier gold sinks to the bottom. Freeman’s method netted me nothing more than black sand. “That’s OK,” he encouraged. “It shows you’re doing good panning. The black sand is ore. It’s the second heaviest thing that collects in your pan. If there’s gold there, it’ll turn up with the ore. You’re learning.”
Even if you don’t find gold, the Mokelumne River is so awfully pretty. The true bonzanza is feeling sunshine on your face, listening to leaves rustle in the wind. The water sparkles, the surrounding mountains are covered with trees—not a house in sight. The only change since Gold Rush days is the quiet. Nobody’s drinkin’, shootin’ or spitting tobacco. Imagine that same river 150 years ago. Both banks lined by hundreds of miners, tents and mules. I did cross pans with one other prospector, Ron Dean, a Sacramento business man, prospects on weekends. Dean says he averages five nuggets a day. He takes them home in his briefcase. Dean’s homemade sluice box does the work, imitating the river by trapping black sand and gold within its natural riffles. The sluice catches and holds the gold, but in a concentrated way, reproducing in a small area what the river does large scale. He pointed out the features of his foot-long sluice. River water is channeled through an open ended trough over a metal lath which acts likes crevices to hold the gold like moss does over wooden riffles that imitate natural riffles in bedrock. The gold bug was really biting by now so I sought out Sheep Ranch’s celebrated Cate Culver. If there’s anyone who can advise on how to pan effectively, it’s Culver who literally can’t keep track of all the nuggets she’s panned over the years. Her beautiful, intricately carved wedding ring was made from gold that her husband panned. Culver learned panning from her grandmother who honed her own skills as a child in the 1890s. “Grandma gave me my first pan—a metal one—but now I prefer the black plastic ones because you can see the gold better, ” she explained Besides her trusty plastic pan, Culver has other tools that can be acquired in any hardware store. One called a sucker looks like a turkey baster only with a thinner snout. Her favorite utensil is an 18 inch pry bar. “I use it to get way down into crevices,” she said. “When I reach gravel I scoop it up. Then l use a trowel or even a tablespoon to get it into the pan. Remember, gold
is five times heavier than anything else in the pan. After a few swirling motions it sinks right to the bottom where you can find it.” When Culver walks along a stream she studies the configuration of the water. Where does the stream bend, straighten, part? Where does the water go fast, where does it drop? That dropping part is important because it generally happens right before a mud bar. That’s where the gold goes. Culver looks for crevices or other natural traps. When water washes by, the heavy gold gets caught. “I look for bedrock, too,” she says. “It’s solid. The gold can’t go any deeper. It’s trapped. I also look along the shoreline for bedrock. Perhaps at some time the stream changed its course or flooded, leaving gold deposits there.
“Gold panning is a nice hobby,” she maintains. “Anyone can do it because almost nothing is required by way of experience or equipment.”
I suspect the gold mystique runs deeper than that. The sense of freedom and equality connected with panning in the Sierra foothills is unique. There’ve been gold strikes for centuries, but the treasure always belonged to the pharaoh, the caesar, the czar, the kaiser, the king. Historically, miners worked their tails off for one government or another. The discovery of gold in a virtually unclaimed wilderness changed all that. The Gold Rush that ensued was quite literally a free for all. To some extent, it still is. Though some choice spots are located on private property—you need permission to pan there—many others are not. Much of the historic Mokelumne River is available to panners as are spots on the Calaveras River. New Hogan Dam outside San Andreas on the Central Hill Road has fishing and panning access. By now my own gold digging instincts had surfaced. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” had been a favorite tale since school days. When I discovered that there really was a Roaring Camp—the very same Roaring Camp that Bret Harte immortalized —and that people are still panning there, I determined to try my own luck. Roaring Camp is a working gold field. The departure point is at the Pine Acres Resort on Hwy 88 just beyond Pine Grove. Once down on the canyon floor, I hooked up with a veteran miner who found a 38-pound nugget in 1961 and never left Roaring Camp. He showed me around the museum where I saw an amazing collection of retired pans and shovels. They’ve seen a lot of action— possibly 150 years of it. There were stuffed cougars. I hoped none of their descendants were still around. Pointing out the mine operation, he lead me to a large pile of dirt that had been bulldozed out of the mountain. It looked to be about 10 feet high and 15 feet in circumference. People were shoveling it up, loading it into pans and carrying it down the hill to the stream below. Was this a set up, I wondered. I’d heard stories . . . Some places guarantee that panners will find gold because they plant it there. I had to ask, “Was this dirt salted?” “Lady!” He looked indignant. “We’re running a gold mine! What do you think?” I thought I’d better take a shovel. Digging deep into the pile, I dug out a large scoop and poured it into my pan. Then I walked down the hill to the river and waded out to a flat rock. Submerging the pan, I kept it level with the river surface. With this water, I puddled the dirt till it looked like thick soup. Then I flicked the edge of the pan into the creek, tilting a little
out the far side. Adding more water, I repeated the process. Finally the gravel was gone, then most of the “blond” sand. Eventually only black ore remained. Once again, I’d done the “good” panning that my original mentor, Bill Freeman, had complimented me on. But it wasn’t good enough. There was no gold in sight. I looked up the hill. The dirt pile was a long way away. It was nearly dusk. I could smell steaks grilling nearby. “Ready to give up?” my husband asked. He’d been sitting on a log nearby. Charles would much rather read Gold Rush history than reprise it. “Maybe just one more pan full . . .” He took pity on me, returning a few minutes later with my pan filled to the brim with new dirt. I took a deep breath and scooped up some water. Then I did the mud pie thing, mooshing the mixture with my hands. Pouring off the excess, I added fresh water and repeated the process, swirling the mixture round and round in the pan. I was getting the feel of it now. Panning for gold was like mixing a martini. I had the sloshing motion just right. Shake, not stir. The gravel was gone, the light dirt over the side. All that remained was the black sand . . . then as I sifted through it I saw that glorious glitter. “Eureka!” I’d found it. No attempt made to play it cool. The whole camp knew I’d struck it rich. But after a time I began to consider. It was Charles who’d struck pay dirt in the first place. We were really partners in this mining operation. I saw us embarking on a whole new career. Maybe staking a claim together. “Why don’t we just take your nugget to a jewelry store and see if there isn’t something you can do with it?” Charles is so practical. We went to Gold Mine Jewelers in Jackson. That’s where Bill Freeman takes his nuggets (he wears one great big one as an ear ring) to be made into jewelry. Tom Peyton, a gemologist who owns the store, showed me not only a variety of pendants, rings and earrings but an impressive array of nuggets ranging in price from $20 to $2000. So you see, there’s no need to leave the Mokelumne empty handed. If you don’t find a nugget, you can buy exactly the one you want already panned by a latter day prospector. Who says the Gold Rush is over?
IF YOU GO
There are several ways to try your luck at Roaring Camp. An all day trip from 10 to 5:30 enables you to spend plenty of time exploring the remote canyon still mined much as it was in 49er days. Besides panning, there’s swimming, a mining operation to view and numerous hiking trails. The price is $50. Another option is to rent a prospector’s cabin for a week. There’re clean and pleasant. The price is $600 a week for from one to two people. $120 for each additional person. Activities such as the Saturday night cook out dinner are included.
An additional possibility is to the visit the camp late Saturday afternoon, take a tour, pan in the river, enjoy a steak dinner outside, listen to music and family jokes. The price of the outing is $50 per person. For information, call 296-4100.
WHAT TO TAKE PANNING
Start off with plenty of sunscreen, a trowel, tweezers, tablespoon, shovel, and plastic medicine bottles to put your nuggets in. A snorkel might reveal treasure. At the least, it’s fun to use. Pans will be provided at the camp. If you get really serious about panning, you’ll want a pry bar, sucker, and eventually a sluicebox.