(North Fork of the Yuba River, California.)
"Hitting the big one" is a term I use to describe any event that brings great financial reward to a small-scale gold miner or treasure hunter. Me? I've done OK in my treasure hunting endeavors but never hit it big in gold mining. That statement made, here's the true story of a small-scale placer miner who DID hit the the big one.
Far Enough Removed
If I disremember correctly, in the 1980s when I was doing the bulk of my suction dredging and highbanking the spot price of gold per troy ounce was running in the high 300s to mid-400s or so. Doesn't sound like much for gold compared to the prices we've been experiencing the past five or six years, but back then it was high enough to keep Northern California's gold-bearing rivers packed with suction dredgers, myself included.
Those were happy times for me...free and footloose and getting the gold. My pards and I were working a section of the North Yuba River that was in a very steep ravine and a real bitch to get to with your gear, gasoline, and supplies. The claim wasn't the remotest one out there, but it was far enough removed from "civilization" and easy access to make it a wondrous spot in terms of natural beauty and the amount of placer gold it contained. We lived and worked out of tents staked onto a huge, tree-covered gravel bar where the river chose to split into two channels, one narrower and shallow (our working area) and the other wide and deep.
Every Gram of Gold
Upstream and downstream of us other dredging crews were hard at work too, trying to suck up as much yellow as they could from bedrock. One of those dredgers was a savvy and hard-working young guy in his late 20s I'll call "Taylor" (not his real name). Taylor, unlike most of the rest of us, didn't have the luxury of falling back on other income streams to support his dredging activities. He needed that gold to pay the bills and to support his wife and new-born child who lived in a tiny rental cabin somewhere between Downieville and Goodyear's Bar. Times were tough for Taylor and his little family, but he was pulling just enough gold to keep a bit of food on the table and the wolves from the door. He might have been young (I myself was in my 30s at the time) but Taylor knew his placer mining and was a very hard worker. More than that, he was a stand-up dude.
Taylor believed that the hole he was dredging would prove to be a rich one. The overburden gravels he was sucking out of that hole sure didn't underline that premise but then overburden rarely does. Knowing what I knew about him, I sometimes felt bad we were getting more gold than Taylor. But there was a practical side to this...there were four of us and only one of him. There's also an inherent safety risk to dredging alone and Taylor was fully aware of this fact. But he needed every gram of gold he could get and couldn't afford a two-person (or as in our case, four person) split. So Taylor just lowered his head, went to work, and kept the faith.
Making Things Right
My pards and I had a pretty good take that dredging season. In fact, I've never gone home with that much placer gold since. As we broke down and packed out our gear we wished Taylor well. He was still fussing around in that same shallow hole and starting to pull some very good gold from its sidewall gravels. He still persisted in believing that his hard work would pay off, that something good was coming out of that hole. Although my cynical nature was in direct conflict with his boundless optimism, I still hoped that Taylor would hit that pocket or paystreak. After all, any miner who can't admire that level of commitment probably needs an attitude adjustment.
It was about two or three weeks later that I heard the news. In debt and with the wolves literally howling at the door, Taylor had hit the big one. Late one morning as he dredged that very same hole, he spotted a large flash of gold roll out of those sidewall gravels. It was a nugget, a very large nugget, one that you couldn't enclose in your fist because it was too big for your fingers to wrap around. In fact, it was one of the largest placer gold nuggets found along the North Yuba and its feeder streams since the old days. It's gold (melt) value at that time was around $50,000...as a specimen it would command much more money...maybe three, four, or five times that amount. In a single pass of his intake nozzle Taylor had (with a bit of luck thrown into the mix) validated his own intuition and consummate skill in that hole, had cleared his financial issues, and had made things right for his wife and child.
Yep, Taylor hit the big one. But the real success story is much larger than that, much more heartfelt.
Good luck out there.
(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2014
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