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» John Coombs – A Miner

BY MARCIE STUMPF/FOLEY

PHOTOS BY MARIA

 

john_coombs_sept89
John Coombs is a miner. He hasn’t been one all of his life, but he is a miner in the truest sense of the word. He spends his summers in the river, dredging, and his winters thinking about the next summer’s dredging, no matter what else he happens to do. He has approached mining as he has everything in his life, with a zest that belies his age and the sense of adventure that has always led him.

He’s a Canadian and has spent most of his life in Vancouver, B.C. His sense of adventure has led him far and wide, however. He left home for the first time during the depression, at the age of 16, “riding the -rails,” alone to go to Quebec for the summer to work for an uncle.

The next summer he had a motorcycle, not something everyone had in the 30’s;and on it he set off across Canada for Saskatchewan to get a job harvesting wheat on the prairies. At the time he was so small that his brothers teased him about needing to be a jockey, and when he did get to Saskatchewan, no one would hire him because of his size. Although they still used horse-drawn wagons for harvesting at that time, he was finally hired because he knew how to drive a car.

A small crew who had the use of the boss’s touring car to go into town on Saturday nights had no one who could drive it, so they struck a bargain. He was much smaller than all of them, but they showed him the ropes and helped him, so he could take them to town and back. They protected him from the other crews in town, and generally took him under their wing. With his motorcycle he was a big hit with all the girls in town. When the summer was over, he returned home; his mother didn’t even recognize him. He’d grown four inches and gained over 40 pounds!

After several other occupations, John finally settled on being a commercial fisherman. He had a boat built, and he captained his own fishing boat for many years, making excursions to warm areas when he wasn’t fishing.

John remained unmarried until he was 40. While on a trip to Mexico, he met a lovely young woman and began courting her in the traditional way, with a “duenna,” or chaperone, along whenever they met. After returning home, they carried on a correspondence, and he finally proposed by mail. After marrying her in Mexico, he brought her home to Vancouver, where he had a home built for them, and they raised two daughters.

John is a gifted storyteller with a marvelously expressive face. As he talks of the days when he was a fisherman, it’s easy to picture yourself alongside him on his trips. You can almost feel and smell the salt spray, and the love he feels for the sea comes through clearly. As his daughters grew up, they became part of his crew, and a very special relationship grew out of the trips they took together. Just talking about them brings a bright twinkle to his eye and a smile to his lips.

Before he gave up fishing, he became friends with someone who
panned
for gold up in Canada, and after a few trips, he decided that that was what he wanted to do next, so he did. He spent a few years panning and sluicing in various parts of Canada, but there were so many restrictions against dredging there, that he decided to come down to California and try it here. He bought a small dredge, but decided that wasn’t what he wanted, so he went to a 5-inch dredge. Now each spring he packs it up and heads south, sets up his dredge and mines alone all summer.

I stress that he dredges alone, because John Coombs has celebrated his 70th birthday, and most people that age who do dredge don’t dredge by themselves. John has won the respect of all his fellow miners along the Klamath River, young and old alike.

Usually the first one in the water in the morning, he suits up while it’s still very cool. He spreads his weight belt with 60 lbs. of weights out on the ground; lies down on it to fasten it, then rolls over before rising. He adds his mask and regulator, then heads into the river while the younger guys are shaking their heads on the bank, still waiting for it to warm up some before going in.
His dredging days are long, and his days off are few. He works hard at what he does, and he is good at it. In all my conversations with him, however, it occurred to me that he never mentioned his gold. He was perfectly willing to talk about it if I mentioned it, and it finally dawned on me that the gold itself isn’t as important to John as the finding of it and the camaraderie he shares with his fellow miners.

This summer is over now, and John packed up his dredge last week and headed home for the winter, but I know that when spring returns, John will return with it. He’ll be full of life and eager to get into the river. He’ll have more stories to tell, more adventures to take me on, but only on his days off. That’s because he’s a miner. It’s what he does, and he does it well.

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