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» The Koehler Family Odyssey

By Sara Koehler

It has been said that there is a time for everything under the sun. Well, the time for dredging is definitely summertime…And, there is no better place to dredge than Happy Camp, California! “Happy Camp.” The very name makes me smile in disbelief! This place really does exist! The water is cool, but not too cold, and the weather is usually quite mild. Better yet, there are “Gold Nuggets” as big as your thumbnail! We always find enough nuggets to make every day feel like a “surprise” birthday party!

Wherever we settle in for our dredging season, we all work as a team to make our home away from home as comfortable and relaxing as it can be. The children take turns taking care of our trash, making sure we always have a nice, clean camp. Everyone takes turns doing dishes and setting the table for meals…all except for Scott and me! With six children there are plenty of extra hands, eager to be of help.

When Scott and the boys get our equipment ready to launch at the spot we have chosen on the Klamath River, we dredge for a couple of hours at the beginning of each day. We can’t contain ourselves, and check our sluice box for gold every time we stop the engine to refuel. If some of the children are on the beach and hear the dredge engine being turned off, they all dive into the river and swim up to the edge of the dredge to get a sneak preview. We lift the flare’s flap, and “Surprise,” there are beautiful gold nuggets staring us in the face!

At the end of the day, we jump in our car and drive back to our camp. We try to take turns talking about everything that had happened to us during the day. Our adventure is not just about finding gold; but, also about the frogs, the insects, the birds, the swimming feats, the great lunch, the interesting people we meet at the river, the weather conditions, and all the “little things” that make us laugh.

How did we find this place? We’ve always had an interest in gold mining and had heard about Dave Mack’s videos from a friend of my brother. We bought Dave’s video at a mining equipment store in Sacramento, and had become spellbound watching Dave’s mining techniques, instructions and demonstrations. This is the first time that we had ever heard of the New 49’ers and Happy Camp! I knew that my husband, Scott, was going to get really excited about “all this new information!” Immediately we called the New 49’er office, that very same day!

We don’t want to sound like expert gold nugget hunters, because we’re not. We don’t own any private claims. When we became members of the New 49’ers Prospecting Club we instantly had over 60 miles of mining claims along the Klamath River and its tributaries in the northwest corner of California. Thus, we began our dredging adventure –we signed up for group dredging projects, and we even ordered a 5-inch dredge!

All winter long we watched all of Dave Mack’s videos, so that when we finally got to meet him face-to-face, our kids thought that they already knew him personally. Dave was very surprised, and taken aback, by all the admiration and affection our kids showered on him. If Dave Mack had a free hand, one of my kids had a hold of it. The other ones just waited until another free hand became available so they could latch on. I have to say that Dave took our children’s affection with good cheer and appreciation.

Our six children accompany Scott and me on our gold mining adventures. I do all the cooking and run errands, but there is also plenty of time for me to enjoy reading and sewing on the beach. It is very relaxing, and when Scott comes up for a break or lunch, we enjoy just being together in these great outdoors and fresh air. The children assist in all the various aspects of dredging, but there is plenty of time for swimming, getting sunburned, and eating!

Scott spends as much time as possible under the water, “vacuuming” the bottom of the river. We started out with both Pro-Mack 2-inch and 5-inch dredges. Then the second summer we ordered a 10-inch, customized, “wonder”-dredge. It is a beautiful piece of equipment! Being on it makes one feel like a “King and Queen of the River.”

We made our first trip to Happy Camp in June of 1995. Taking our tents, tent-trailer, and dredges, we camped at the Anderson Campground, on the Klamath River. The weather was chilly and wet, but we sure did have fun anyway! We dredged, panned, and high-banked. We attended group mining projects and attended claim tours. We cooked, washed clothes, read books, talked-over ideas and created many “plans.”

During our first week in Happy Camp the Discovery Channel (Cable TV) paid us a visit at our home on the river. Their crew was producing a show entitled “Easy Does It!” They wanted to film a piece on small-scale gold mining and they spent most all of one day with us. The cameraman filmed Scott dredging and the children panning. They interviewed both Dave Mack and us. The next time we heard from the Discovery Channel was at the end of the summer when they called our home to ask how much gold we had found. A few weeks later they sent us a copy of the 5-minute segment that they had made for television. Then a few months after that we were actually on television! We were thrilled!

After our time at “Anderson Campground,” we moved to a place down-river from Happy Camp named Independence. During that same first summer we camped on a roadside turnout, 230-feet above the claim. Getting down to the river each morning, which was a difficult access from that location (downhill), made for an exciting beginning and ending of each day. Scott and the kids immediately went to work cutting a trail down to the river. It was a very steep trail, and perilously paved with poison oak! Our children became experts in identifying poison oak! The section of river we were on had small and large boulders that created a nice area for our kids to swim in, away for the rushing flow of the Klamath. It was deep enough and safe enough for Ben, our youngest, to dive off some of the boulders. At the end of the day we would all get filthy-dirty clawing our way back up to our camp. The “best,” or should I say most challenging, part of the day was that we had no running water! But, otherwise we certainly got a lot of great exercise! That particular summer was extremely hot, and there was no break from either the heat or the “jack-braked” semi-trucks. The high point of our experience at Independence was being invited by some very hospitable, new friends to take showers in their home!

The next summer, 1996, we stayed with friends in their house, and felt free to dredge anywhere that looked appealing. We learned how to work the 10-inch dredge. We couldn’t believe the attention the dredge received, running or not. It has incredible size, volume, power, and beauty! This is when we first met the Andrezejewski family for the first time.

By the beginning of the summer of 1998 our family was no longer working and functioning in isolation. We teamed up with a wonderful couple, Max and Lesley Andrzejewski, and their five children. They had driven to Happy Camp every summer for three years from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with their children. We “hit it off” immediately when we met them for the first time at a weekly New 49’er potluck. We have become extremely good friends since then! We have done so many things together; dredging, eating, shopping, making repairs, putting out fires, and even doctoring “ouch-ies.” All these activities have firmly “cemented” our friendship!

Two sets of parents, eleven children, two dogs, a pan full of gold, and a cool river on a hot day all add up to non-stop adventure and fun! We have all learned a lot from each other in many, many ways! Some of the lessons we learned together even included “bloopers,” such as: Don’t fill your dredge’s gas tank while it is still running; keep plenty of duct-tape on hand; don’t forget to wash your ears out with Domeboro after dredging; peanut butter and jam sandwiches taste best when eaten on a beach; any kind of cookies and chips will be devoured; and be sure to take lots of food to the Saturday night potlucks! Happy Camp is a great place to bring a family. There’s no doubt about it! It’s also a good place to invite your friends to come and visit. The area is really beautiful and the New 49’ers are a great group of people. They are helpful, friendly, hardworking, and adventuresome.

But, did we find many gold nuggets? Yes! We kept our ears open and heard a hot tip from Dave McCracken during one of his river tours with 20 or more people. “Go to this spot! It has nuggets along the far bank,” he said. We checked it out, and sure enough, he was telling the truth!

We’ve been coming to Happy Camp for the last four summers. We’ve camped in campgrounds and on a highway turn-out, stayed in a motel, “borrowed” and rented friends’ houses, and this year we’ll probably buy our own property. I will be glad to have a “permanent” place to call home during the summer when that “dredging itch” needs scratching, and we all climb into our car and head back to Happy Camp!

Really, though, we didn’t start gold mining to become rich. God has truly blessed us with a wonderful family and many, very dear friends—who have become family. We have already found the Motherlode!

 

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