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With The Drought Over, "Gold Fever" Grips California

The heavy rains that pummeled California this year ended the state’s historic drought in spectacular fashion, saving the state’s farming and tourism industries from an uncertain future. But the return of rainfall has had other less obvious economic ramifications, including, as the Los Angeles Times reports, the revival of an activity that’s been associated with the state for more than 150 years: Prospecting for gold.

Thanks to the rain, the yellow metal is once again being found in the state’s riverbeds for the first time since a judge’s controversial ruling prohibited the use of pumps and other equipment that were once required to extract gold from the state’s rivers.

Russ Tait

And now that word has spread, the possibility of discovering immense riches underfoot is inspiring entrepreneurial Californians of a variety of ages and backgrounds to venture to the state’s rivers and creeks in search of the shiny yellow metal, sometimes equipped with little more than a pan, as they hope to collect gold fragments buried in the muck under the water, according to the LAT.

Many have also taken to prospecting to suppliment their incomes, as wages in the US have stagnated and more than 90 million Americans aren't working.

Russ Tait, an elderly man who spoke with the LAT, insists om venturing down to Eagle Creek in Central California – not far from where the Detwiler fire broke out in Northern Mariposa County.

“Tait has bone cancer, so getting down to the creek isn’t easy. But even if his days are numbered, he isn’t above dreaming. He peers into the murky solution, hoping to glimpse something shiny.

 

“I guess you call it gold fever,” he says. “You get out there, and there’s times where you get tired and you don’t want to quit.”

Even in the middle of the drought, Tait, a longtime prospector, and several friends would venture down to the river looking for gold, only to return empty handed. The reason? Back in 2009, a state judge temporarily blocked prospectors from using motorized equipment near the state’s rivers after environmental groups complained that they could damage fish habitats. The ruling was meant to be temporary pending a study, but to this day, no final ruling has been made.

"The equipment was once necessary to separate gold from the slowing rivers. But now with water gushing forth from the state’s mountains, the motorized equipment isn’t needed.  

Now prospectors hunt for “irregularities” in rivers that could create “a backward eddy” that would allow the gold to drop to the water’s floor.

 

Excessive ria severe flooding, and very nearly the failure of the Oroville dam in Northern California, has changed that.

 

Geological gumshoes, they search for ancient rivers, for rounded boulders tumbled together, for orange soil tainted by rusted iron and veins of quartz hiding gold.

 

They read streambeds, imagining how the current flowed during floods, hunting for any irregularity — a riffle, a ledge, a waterfall — that could create a backward eddy for the gold to escape the water’s momentum and drop to the floor."

One prospector named Robert Guardiola helped organize an outing of nearly 40 miners to the Golden state's “Mother Lode." Guardiola and company are wearing waders and knee pads and equipped with pans and cradles.

“Late afternoon, after nearly an hour in the water, Guardiola totes two five-gallon buckets up from the creek. One contains trash collected from the shallows: a spark plug, a shotgun shell, a square-headed nail, a spatula and part of a car door.

 

The other contains his concentrates, less than a cup of dark sand sloshing about in water.

 

Panning it, he separates the lighter material from the heavier to reveal a few gold specks, each no bigger than a fat flea.”

As the LAT explains, the “Mother Lode,” which runs along the Sierra Nevada mountain range, was the epicenter of the 1848 gold rush, which saw $2 billion in gold extracted from the area in less than five years. For Guardiola, prospecting has become a second career of sorts.

“Guardiola, 52, purchased the right to mine these 20 acres in 2001. When he first walked out on this property, he knew he could be happy here. Ten deer, two bucks and fawns browsed beneath the oaks. A stream — Grizzly Creek — cut through the property, which already had two mines on it, always a good sign.

 

Seven years later, after losing his equipment rental store in Modesto to a broken plumbing pipe and a slow insurance claim, he began to work the claim more seriously.

 

Prepped for the cold — insulated waders, booties, wool socks and sneakers — Guardiola wades into a pool of 55-degree water as deep as his thighs.

 

“We’ll see if Mother Nature was kind and restocked my bank,” he says.

According to the LAT, the stream was dry during the worst days of the drought. Last year it became a trickle. Then this year, the winter brought a torrent of water as well as two feet of new rock and gravel deposits known in the profession as “overburden.”

For the amateur prospectors, the hobby has brought with it a kind of hope.

“As long as I’m not sure what’s in the bucket,” says Tom Mutschelknaus to the LAT, “there’s hope.”

Mutschelknaus prospects near the South Fork of Stanislaus River, a few miles from where one lucky miner pulled nearly 800 ounces out of the ground. Many prospectors have been following gold’s climb this year, excited that an amount that would almost fill a lipstick case is worth more than $1,200.

While the LAT doesn’t touch on the parallels between the gold miners and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, often referred to as “digital gold,” Shannon Poe, 55, described prospecting in similar terms to the techno-libertarians who represent bitcoin’s most hardcore users.

“In his company, gold mining seems less a get-rich-quick scheme than a libertarian impulse, an exercise in independence and self-determination as much a part of the American heritage as the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

 

Ask him what his political party is, and he’ll say he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.

 

“We are more constitutionalists than anything else,” he says.

With this framing in mind, the rush of amateur prospectors is hardly surprising. Since bitcoin first entered the public consciousness in 2013 thanks to stories of hobbyists becoming newly minted millionaires overnight, Americans everywhere are looking for the next easy score. In that respect, similar impulses appear to be behind both trends. But at least with prospecting, the only thing hobbyists are risking is their time.