I’m not exactly certain just when my dream of gold mining began, but last year I said to my wife, “prospecting for gold is something I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t know how or where and have no idea who to contact to find out. If that opportunity ever knocks, I will definitely open the door.”

Just one week later, while going through the mail I noticed an article in the latest issue of Reader’s Digest, “Is There Gold In Your Backyard?” It mentioned a place called Gold n’ Gems Grubbin in Cleveland, Georgia; a working mine where you can actually pan and sluice for placer gold and gem stones. One quick look at my wife for approval and within minutes I was talking to Susan Devan at the G & G.

I explained that I knew absolutely nothing about gold mining from bedrock up, but that I wanted to visit the mine and find out. I asked if she could recommend a source of information regarding mining and gold recovery. She suggested that I read a book called “Gold Mining in the 20th Century” by Dave McCracken. She said the book would explain everything I ever wanted to know about small-scale gold recovery from panning to dredging. The book arrived within days, and I read it at least a dozen times.

In September I packed my truck and headed for Cleveland, Georgia. I was going to learn how to pan and find some gold. The spark had suddenly burst into flames.After I returned from Georgia, I placed a call to Dave Mack in Happy Camp to thank him for writing his book (one of many), and helping me to get started on my new adventure. I subscribed to “Gold and Treasure Hunter” magazine and read all about the New 49’ers. Then I ordered Dave’s video about prospecting along the Klamath River. However, that was 2,500 miles away. But the flames had spread like wildfire. I was ready to go it on my own, somewhere, and a chance to relive a part of the past with a pick, a pan and a shovel.

Then I remembered what Dave Mack had said at the end of his video-“Why not take a couple of extra days and come to Happy Camp. We have miles of proven claims, experienced instructors and no questions regarding property rights, just miners helping miners and …gold.” So, in April, after several months of planning, I started my trek from Louisiana to Happy Camp, California.

Soon after I arrived, New 49’er representative Bill Stumpf helped me set up a motorized sluice to use on a New 49’er claim. I couldn’t have done it without his help. As we set up the equipment, he explained the procedure step by step and the importance of settling dirty water up out of the active waterway. Then we washed a couple of sample buckets just for practice. Although Bill covered all aspects of using a motorized sluice, I must admit that I really didn’t get into that until later in my trip. I’d been panning, trying my luck at crevicing and working moss, and stocking up on material to take home. Maybe I was just reluctant to try motorized sluicing on my own.

Finally, I made up my mind to give the sluice my best shot. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And after all, I didn’t drive 2,500 miles just to collect dirt and scrape moss off a rock. I dug and filled my containers with about 20 gallons of material out of surface gravels up out of the water, and set up the sluice near the river, connected the hoses, anchored the intake line, primed the pump and cranked the engine just like Bill had instructed…and cranked… and cranked… for nearly an hour. The engine wouldn’t start. I thought maybe I had flooded it. Needless to say, I was glad no one was within earshot. I got so frustrated that I decided to find me a big, flat river rock, put on my clown nose and sit it down for a while to try to regain my sense of humor.

After I calmed down I walked back to try again and just happened to glance down at the side of the engine where the switch is located and realized that, like any engine, if you want it to start…YOU HAVE TO TURN THE SWITCH ON…like Bill had instructed. After that I managed to find considerable color the remainder of the day.

The next day, because the sluice was situated in such a rocky area, I decided to make it a little easier on myself and took the time to move it about 50 yards down river where I could maneuver without tripping over every Tom, Dick and river rock. After stockpiling another 20 gallons of material, I secured the engine, connected the hoses and anchored the intake line. That’s when I noticed the clear tubing had come loose from the priming pump. No problem. I reconnected it.

Then I pumped… and I pumped…and I pumped; and then started looking again for that same river rock. I must admit that I nearly lost it for good that time. Suddenly, it dawned on me…there are two connections that look identical near the pump handle. Maybe, just maybe, I had connected the tubing to the wrong one. So I changed it, and first pull on the pump…PRIMED! Cranked the engine…STARTED!

Then, can you believe this-the initial force of water going through the hose caused the elevated sluice box to tip over. I’d placed it so it would flow into a settling area and didn’t have it leveled. Now let’s go through this one mo’ time. Turn off the pump, run up the hill, upright the sluice, run back down the hill, check the prime, crank the engine…After that, all worked well.

By late afternoon I was into some serious sampling on the down river side of a large tree in the tree line. Remembering what I’d read in Dave’s book, that rocks sometimes act like riffles, I washed several pans and did get some nice color. Problem: I was 75 yards down river of the motorized sluice, and it was getting late. I decided that come first light I’d move it all, one more time.

I prayed a little on the way to my worksite next morning. “Lord, I only have three more days of vacation left. I have lifted, carried, pumped, primed and cranked until I’m about worn out getting ready to get worn out. Please, let it all go right.” I moved the rig, dug a few containers of surface gravel, connected, anchored, primed and cranked-AND IT ALL WORKED! How sweet it was. He must have been listening. I turned to and was diggin’ like a Siskiyou mole when I heard somebody yell, “You’re diggin’ in the wrong place!” Say what? Whoever it was, they were pushing their bodily well-being at this point.

It was Chuck Tabbert, a New 49’er member, who’d been laid up with a bad back, easin’ down the trail road, bad back and all. He introduced himself and said he wanted to meet me before I left Happy Camp. I said, “I’m sure glad you have a smile on your face, but what do you mean I’m digging in the wrong place? This is where I thought I was suppose to dig…out of the surface gravels and down towards the bedrock.” Chuck said, “That’s right. Gold is down on bedrock. But where you’re digging it’ll take you a month to get down there. You’re too high on the bank. Why not move closer to the river? Just below the flood gold stage, about in line with that tree, right there. All you’re going to find where you’re digging is seed gold from the spring flood-pinhead size pieces.” I must admit it did make a whole lot of sense because that’s exactly what I was finding. Chuck said, “Move down by that big tree, the one with the big rocks jammed against it.” Wouldn’t you just know it, that was the same place, same tree, where I was the day before.

Chuck said, “Get me your shovel.” I said, “Are you crazy, with that bad back?” He said, “Just get me your shovel and I’ll teach you something, real quick.” He took the shovel, walked to a sandy area near that tree and started “chunkin” the shovel into the sand like a probe. I said, “I thought you couldn’t find gold in river sand.” He said, “You probably won’t, but watch this.” Chunk, chunk, chunk…CHANG! Chang, chang, chang. “Hear that? That’s bedrock. About 6 inches under this sand. That’s where you’ll find larger gold. Clear off an area where you can work on top of this bedrock and dig along there. Look for those small, coin-sized river rocks and stay on bedrock.”

Just as in Dave’s book, Chuck explained the importance of getting to know the area where you are going to work being able to recognize tree lines caused by mineralization; how gold travels in a line; taking the time to sample; being familiar with your equipment (I had too steep an angle on the sluice box) and above all, remember the AU rule: “Gold is always in the bottom of your pan and on top of bedrock”. Chuck departed and I, with an abundance of renewed self-confidence, went back to work.

Just before the sun went down, with the body starting to stiffen from getting up and down, and from carrying containers to the sluice (makes one appreciate what the old timers must have had to endure), I cleaned the sluice, took my concentrates down to the river and began to pan down.

That’s when it all came together-Dave’s concept of miners helping miners. Thanks to the book, Bill’s seminar on setup and sluicing procedures and Chuck’s on-site instructions and suggestions, I managed to recover not only nice flakes but also the nicest string of fine gold that I had found around the back of my pan since I’d arrived in Happy Camp.

I don’t have to tell you that I was up Friday morning at the crack of dawn with only two days to go. I loaded my gear and provisions and was ready to go the whole nine yards right after I stopped at the prospecting store in Happy Camp. I knew that I wouldn’t see the staff on Saturday and wanted to personally express my appreciation for the first-class treatment I received. Then, I headed upriver.

Friday and Saturday went as smooth as worn bedrock. I managed to wash about 60 gallons of material altogether. Every evening I sniffed some of the nicer pieces of gold out of my pan and put them in my sample bottle. I brought the remainder of the black sand home for final clean-up. I’m still sniffing out the gold…one teaspoon of black sand at a time.

Nice part about my last day was that Chuck and Kay Tabbert brought their picnic lunch and came down to moss and crevice near the area where I was working.

I finally had to give it up about 3 p.m. Except for dredging in the river (due to very high water) I had done it all and enjoyed every bit of it, especially motorized sluicing.

Then it was back to the Angler’s Motel to finish packing for the long trip home. I took some time to relax and visit with the owner of the motel, a most gracious and pleasant hostess. Accommodations at the Angler were just right-not too little, not too much. Just enough country to be comfortable.

Leaving Happy Camp and all it has to offer-the sunrise on that snowcapped mountain as I headed upriver each morning; the blacktail deer and gray squirrels along the highway; that breathtaking valley view along the way before crossing the bridge at Thompson’s Creek; the solitude of experiencing my first morning along the river watching an eagle glide silently down river; Canadian geese honking their way upriver; the young king snake I disturbed when I lifted the rock under which he was sleeping, and quickly replaced (along with a few more); an osprey diving from atop a dead fir tree into the river to catch a fish, and more species of wild ducks and songbirds than I’ve ever seen in one place before-and even a potpourri of lizards engaged in their territorial disputes along the streambank.

Add to that the apple blossoms, the lilacs, and the dogwood in spring bloom; the bluebird flitting about in the tree outside my motel kitchen window; or, just sitting on the patio at the end of the day watching the sunset over the Siskiyou Mountains; savoring the peace and contentment-no, leaving Happy Camp wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But thanks to Dave, all the New 49’er staff, and especially my wife, I had lived my dream.

The first question I get asked about my trip: “Did you find a lot of gold?” Well, that depends on what you call a lot. “Did you find the big one?” That depends on what you call big. “Did you have a good time?” Now there’s something you can take to the bank! It was without a doubt the most exciting outdoor adventure I have ever experienced in my life. Long haul, yes. Physically tiring, yes. Worth the effort, you better believe it! And yes, I found some flakes and a lot of fine gold, some color in every pan. But what I found most were more important things than you will never find until you visit one of God’s very special places- Happy Camp, California.

As for the dream…it’s still burning bright as ever…and probably always will. But somehow I managed to bring it under control and my dream became what I wanted it to be…a reality.