by Scott Langston

As I waited for our group to gather for The New 49’ers Metal Detecting seminar I poked around in Dave McCracken’s mining store.

This place fascinated me. Dave had every imaginable gadget, machine and accessory that could be linked to gold mining. The walls and display cases were filled with the exotic paraphernalia of this subculture I had recently discovered.

When the seminar got underway, our instructor (Gordon Zahara) began by giving us some basics about metal detecting and admonished the “coin shooters” among us to slow down! The targets would be much smaller and less conductive than coins in parks and school yards. He counseled patience and slow, overlapping sweeps of the coil, as near to the ground as possible.

His instruction on ground balancing was practical, simple, and effective. He advised us to think of the knob as the volume knob on a radio. If the sound increased on the down-stroke, then do what you’d do if the radio got too loud. Turn it down (to a lower number). If the sound on the down-stroke got softer, turn the volume up (to a higher number).

After a lunch break we drove to an area where extensive hydraulicking had been done. On arrival we gathered at the base of a hillside for some field-testing exercises, using a “test nugget” (about 5 grains) encased in plastic for easy recovery.

We took turns listening to the sounds produced by that target, and also compared the sounds made by other targets we were likely to encounter in this area: nails, tacks, hot rocks, pieces of iron, and nails reporting a loud, brassy sound. The signal from the gold, however, was a much softer, yet firm, “zip zip.”

I then headed off toward the steep, exposed embankment at the far end of the clearing. I could see the hydraulickers had done their work there, and I hoped to find some good targets in the soil at the base of the slope.

Although I tried several areas around the edge of the clearing that afternoon, I had nothing to show at the end of the day. Nothing.

After striking out the first day I fought the feelings of letdown and focused on positive thoughts. I was looking forward to the next day.

The second day began in the field, and I carefully worked in 5 or 6 different areas, taking breaks every hour or so. I found square nails, boot tacks, cans, foil, miscellaneous pieces of iron trash, and a multitude of hot rocks.

I was finding everything but what I was looking for. I needed another internal pep talk.

Toward the end of the day, the good news spread that Porky, from Arizona, had found a little nugget. It was a three-grain beauty shaped somewhat like a grain of rice.

He and Margy were heading back to the campground, but they gave me directions to the area of his find and wished me luck.

I did my best to follow his directions, but I never did feel confident I made it to the right place. Anyway, I worked in that general area for an hour or two before I decided to pack it in myself.

The next day I was supposed to go dredging with Chuck Tabbert. He had very graciously offered to help me learn about gold dredging by allowing me to work with him on his 5″ dredge. But, due to the river level and weather, we decided to wait one more day.

Driving back to the RV campground I thought about Porky’s good fortune. The more I imagined the thrill he must have experienced, the more I wanted to nugget hunt again. Especially now that I had an unexpected free afternoon on my hands.

I began walking down an old overgrown road in the same direction as the day before. But this time, I veered off to the left and finally saw signs of recent diggings and some of the landmarks Porky had mentioned. As I continued on, I came to a place where the ground dropped off into a gully.

Rainwater runoff had caused some erosion here, which reminded me of something else I had read. Gold, being heavy, tends to move down soil slopes with the action of wind, rain, and weathering. For this reason, the force of gravity produces more concentrations toward the base of the slope.

I decided to work both slopes of the gully, but to give special attention to the trough in the middle and the lower ends of each side. I began at the high end and worked my way down. Halfway down the length of the gully I registered an interesting signal about 5 feet up the west slope. It was a good, solid, repeatable target that gave exactly the same response from all directions. Not loud, but a soft, firm “zip zip.” I felt my pulse quicken. I pinpointed and with 3 or 4 trowel scoops I had the target in my plastic gold pan.

As I went through the separation process my excitement level increased. With only a thin layer of soil left in the pan, the signal remained consistently the same. I pushed the dirt around with my fingertips until I felt a small, round kernel of hardness. I picked it up, cleaned it off, and looked at a small piece of lead bird shot!

That was my first piece of lead, and I was amazed (and disappointed) at how it sounded exactly like the test nugget. I rested for awhile to do a little daydreaming and recover after being seduced by these tiny lump of lead.

I continued working my way down the gully and hit another target about 10 feet away. This one seemed to be a carbon copy of the first one.

It made sense. Some hunter had unloaded a shotgun blast into that hillside and, naturally, I would be finding more than one pellet in the same vicinity.

I went through the separation process and was not surprised to get down, again, to a thin film of dirt without seeing anything of any size. Again, I probed the layer of remaining soil with my fingertips until I touched something hard. As I picked it up with my thumb and forefinger, I felt a jolt of excitement.

This lump was not round! It was larger than the lead pellet and had an oblong shape. But it was still covered with dirt.

I pulled out my canteen and poured water over the thing in my palm. The color of gold flashed in my eyes, and my heart pounded in response. I felt my face take on that same silly grin I had seen on Porky just the day before.

As I drove back to Happy Camp I could hardly contain my excitement. I had to show Porky and Margy. I marveled at how much our two little nuggets looked alike. Same size, and same shape. Looked like twins. We would celebrate the family reunion.

That night I slept well. I dreamed of hearing soft, firm, “zip zip” sounds and things that flash golden to the eye. I felt satisfied and very grateful to have found this small piece of God’s most beautiful basic element, created so long ago and waiting just for me.

How could such a tiny little dot, worth less than $5 in the marketplace, cause this much excitement? For me, and I suppose for most small-scale gold miners, the value of such a find is not determined by any market. The value is in the thrill of the hunt, the chase, the effort put forth, to feel a bond with so many who have gone before. And, to share in just a taste of that which drove the old miners.