Sunday, April 23, 2017

Vignettes From My Mining Past (Part 1)


In this series of posts I'll be relating small vignettes from my small-scale mining career. If you, the reader, are open to them these little stories, lessons, or incidents may contain a few pearls of mining wisdom and information as well as a bit of my sardonic humor. So read on, listen, and perhaps learn.

A Piece of the Action

In 1979 an ounce of gold sold for around $284.00. This is the year I became interested in small-scale gold mining and began fumbling my way around this mining and prospecting thing. No big deal right? But by January of 1980 the spot price of a troy ounce of gold rose to $788.00. Those one-ounce Krugerrands and Maple Leafs in your safety deposit box nearly tripled in dollar value overnight and the rush was on. This rush I speak of included not only speculators and traders, but every single Tom, Dick, and Harriet interested in getting gold out of those washes, gullies, streams, and seams scattered throughout the American West and elsewhere. This was the birth of small-scale gold mining as we know it today, despite the fact that individual miners and small groups had continued on with the old mining traditions in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It should come as no surprise that the brick and mortar purveyors of mining gear like gold pans, sluice boxes, dry washers, suction dredges, and highbankers were selling items like hotcakes. Nearly everyone wanted a piece of the action, even greenhorns like myself. As green as I was at the time however, I never expected to strike it rich which probably puts me at odds with most greenhorns who come into this small-scale mining and prospecting thing with piles of placer or lode gold dancing before their eyes like sugarplums on Christmas Eve. Anyway, the upshot of this time and situation meant old gold mining areas that hadn't even gotten a cursory glance in earlier decades were suddenly overrun with hopefuls at various levels of knowledge and expertise. Their aim? Get that gold.


The Old Breed

By the time the 1981-1982 time frame had rolled around some of the luster of that 1979-1980 mini-rush had diminished a bit. Gold had dropped to a little over $400.00 a troy ounce but the price of the yellow metal was still high enough to inspire and motivate many people, many of whom joined the new mining and prospecting clubs that seemed to sprout up overnight. I was one of those individuals, although my time in the club social thing didn't last all that long. A year maybe? I can't remember exactly but it wasn't all that long from a time progression standpoint. It wasn't long before I gained my journeyman miner's feet and moved on to "better" ground. I had help along the way, especially from a trio of REAL old timers who had been at this small-scale mining thing since the 1930s and early 1950s. To this day I consider their tutelage a privilege and an honor that all the money in the world couldn't buy. They shaped a damn decent gold miner out of a hard-headed, "do-it-my-own-way" greenhorn who balked at every turn, argued relentlessly with them, and reacted angrily to their no-so-gentle instruction at the time. These were good men, hard-working men, individuals who had come up the hard way in the worst of times. None ever struck it rich or became big names, but they were shining beacons of what's best about small-scale gold mining. They were the old breed. Each of these men was flawed, as we all are if we're perfectly honest with ourselves. They ran me through the wringer and kicked my ass figuratively speaking more than once. But they taught me well. These three men have all passed over the Great Divide but what they taught me I treasure more than any paystreak or pocket. And the biggest lesson they taught me was a love for all things mining. It's history, it's traditions, its equipment, and its methods. That was the most important thing I learned from them.

 (Yours truly.)

Human Nature

The price of gold has risen and fallen over the intervening decades but in 2008 it took a leap upwards that even the self-proclaimed experts didn't see coming. Coincidentally, that year is when Bedrock Dreams was born. Now here it is nearly a decade later and the beat goes on. People still search for natural gold but I sometimes wonder at their motivation for doing so. I've found that a good number of the e-mails and requests I've gotten over the past nine years are troubling at times. Why? Because there's been a certain subjective aura to them that underlies greed and not a love of mining. There's been a get-rich-quick mentality out there that disturbed me and a "give me a magic pill" attitude wherein the requester wanted some sort of instant path to success and piles of gold. This is human nature, of course. Perhaps not in its finest form, but human nature nonetheless. The saving grace as far as the rest of us are concerned is that these types of folks usually don't stick around small-scale gold mining very long. Once they realize the true nature of small-scale gold mining and the fact that much hard work must be expended to get small amounts of gold they drift off into whatever new Fantasy Land attracts them. The rest of us just keep on keeping on.


Get Out the Way

I don't have one iota of regret when it comes to my nearly 40 years of gold mining and prospecting experience. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I love this gig and most of you reading this do too. I never found a multi-ounce nugget nor a vast and incredibly rich paystreak. I've never made the news, been on TV, in prospecting mags or books (save for one article I wrote years ago). I'm no YouTube video "star" calling myself "Prospector Hank" or the "Gold Man" and I've never felt the need to take on some phony ass persona to validate myself as a miner or as a person. When TV production companies contacted me (and they have more than once) I made it perfectly clear to them that I wasn't good TV material for their staged antics nor would I mold myself to fit their venues. I'm a hard ass when it comes to small-scale gold mining and if you can't rise to the occasion you best move out the f'ing way!


Like my mentors, I'm flawed as a person but not as a miner. That's the way it should be for each and every one of you still reading this blog.

Keep the faith and carry on with your heads held high.

(c) Jim Rocha 2017

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com

10 comments:

  1. I wonder how many people you have mentored without you even knowing it from your blog. I would venture to say it's many more than you think. It would be nice if someday we all could thank you in person.
    I think we all kind of start out the same way. Get bit by the bug, and think we're going to hit the motherload. Most of those people fall off to the wayside after a short amount of time. But when you start to realize and get into the history and the culture, that's when you truly fall in love with prospecting and Mining. One of the cool incidentals is you meet some pretty awesome people are all along the way. Oh yeah you meet some pretty not so awesome people too. But ain't that life.
    My digging group consists of about 4 people. Yep we all start out with clubs. Then in time it was time to move on from the barbecues and raffles. The four of us are lucky to live close to an old time prospector. Old Jim Straight is well into his eighties now. We kind of look after him and take care of him. He in turn pays us in knowledge. He calls us his cell. We are lucky. We are blessed. Blessed to have people like you J.R. and Jim. Honest truthful no spin guys. Guys that don't mine the miner. So from the bottom of my heart thank you. Thank you for the most valuable gift of all. Knowledge.

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  2. Well said my friend. Jim Straight is a national treasure as far as mining is concerned. Particularly when it comes to desert gold and dry washing. A great man and humble as the day is long.

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  3. So many stories about Jim. Third generation minor. His grandfather was a minor. His mother was a minor. Grew up in Ely Nevada. Hard Rock Miner. During the Depression. You didn't find gold, you didn't eat. Simple as that. Learned to drywash the desert from an early age. Tells stories of making fires, putting corrugated tin over the coals. Then putting moist dirt on top of the tin. To dry it out. Then running it through the dryer washer. No gold no food. Hoping and praying when the train went by someone would throw a couple big hunks of coal down to them. That way they could keep warm for the night. Says back in the day everybody stuck together.
    So interesting how he reads the ground. When he tells you you're wasting your time the best move on.
    Yep as generous and humble as they come.

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  4. What a wealth if information over the years, thank you sir,,a fellow yellow digger from Ontario Canada

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    1. Thank you...that's high praise. You Canucks are some of the best gold miners around.

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  5. A damn fine man and one hell of a miner to be sure.

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  6. JR, well said. Prospecting is a lot like throwing scraps to a starving dog. It's not enough, but it keeps you around hoping for more.
    Different people do this for different reasons. Some just want to get rich (don't we all?), some see it as just a hobby, others like yourself, do it because they love it.
    Personally, anything that gets me into the mountains is worth while. To me, this is an escape from the "real world". A way to step back in time for a little while, away from the day to day problems of life today. Finding gold is the goal, but it's secondary. The love of the mountains,the outdoors,and the wild places is what does it for me. It's good for your soul.

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  7. I'm with you on the great outdoors and the wild places. Gold prospecting and mining will take you there in most instances.

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  8. J.R. I hear you. In 1980 I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to spend the summer dredging for gold in Alaska with 3 friends from Albuquerque. Everything was claimed up by the end of May, but there were a few public areas to cut our teeth on and near the middle of August we got onto a good private claim for 20% of the finds and dredged 27 oz's the last week. Had a hell of a time.

    Jim Straight is one fine fellow. I never met him in person but have kept in contact with him over the years. I have nearly all of his books autographed by him. We had a mutual friend ("Woody" Woodworth), with whom I did get to go on many prospecting trips with. "Woody wrote many articles for Western/Eastern Treasure Magazine.

    I hope a lot of folks that read this blog will carry on.

    Best wishes to you J.R. and all your readers.
    Rattlesnake Jim

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  9. Yep Jim, I agree. Jim Straight is as good a man as they get. Always willing to help others and a veritable encyclopedia of mining and prospecting knowledge. He's a treasure. You guys did good in AK. We never did that well on the N. Yuba but had a couple of exceptional seasons.

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