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The new gold rush

“I first became interested in gold prospecting in 2009, right when the economy tanked. I happened upon this tiny newspaper article in a local California paper about a new gold rush involving people who had lost their jobs – including people who had been laid off from Hollywood – plunging into the wilds to make their own way like the Forty-Niners of the past. I left New York and flew to California. I’d been drawn west by just a couple of short paragraphs on the people to whom I would devote years of my life.”

“Finding the prospectors wasn’t easy. Many of them live in the national parks, where it is illegal to camp for more than two weeks. Some of them had overstayed by years, so were understandably reluctant to be found. But, via prospecting chat rooms and tip-offs, I found a group living in tents and campers along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River canyon in the Angeles – a location known as Nugget Alley. When I came upon them, most eyed me with a sense of suspicion. However, Martin  jumped up, handed over a gold pan and a black screw-top glass vial for collecting gold and invited me to come along. It was through Martin that I discovered the community. Over the years I alternated between a number of groups in northern, southern and mid-California. They had adapted the beautiful but dangerous landscape to fit their needs. Nugget Alley had wooden ladders going up the mountain and a pulley system to pull tools back to the campsite and drag loads to the water. One of the prospectors, Rick,  had even built a swing. They were trying to make it home.”

“The equipment varies from the very low tech to some quite sophisticated stuff. At the low end there’s panning, sluicing and digging. In short you dig along the side of the river a whole loads of rocks, dirt, whatever. You bring this to the river and in the river you’d have a sluice like the couple are using [photo above]. The water runs through it at a steady rate. You pour what you’ve dug into the pan, the water washes over it and any gold sinks because it’s the heaviest and gets caught in the mesh. The rest flows downstream. You then use a pan to separate this sludge into finer and finer particles.”

“You can move upwards from that into automatic sluices and dry washers [photo below], which operate purely with vibration. These will allow you to run more buckets at a time. Then there’s the suction dredge – which was the most controversial tool because some people claim it negatively impacts the environment. This is a sort of raft that has a sluice and pump attached. You take the pump into the waterways and, using scuba gear, basically vacuum up the bottom of the riverbed and that material runs through the sluice. The discarded material goes downstream and the gold is captured in a mesh. The advantage to that is that you don’t have to dig, you can get to places most people wouldn’t go and you can run masses and masses of material in a day.  So there are potentially bigger rewards for a lot less labour.”

“What I originally went in search of was the story of people going out into the hills with nothing, striking it rich and returning millionaires. I did meet some people who had had big finds – Will Wilcox, who was known locally as The Nugget Man, found a two-pound nugget in Southern California – but these are the exceptions. What I found instead was a community, sustaining itself hand to mouth with what it pulled from the ground.”

“This is a more realistic depiction of a day’s work: two ounces of gold sifted through from many, many buckets. But you’re living in the mountains and you don’t have a permanent home any more because you either lost it or sold it. If you don’t have a car, a phone or electricity bills to pay then  that’s enough to sustain you if you keep finding it. The price has fluctuated wildly since I’ve been shooting, from $1,145 to more than $1,921 an ounce. It was crazy, but some days they aren’t finding anything and if you don’t find anything you don’t make anything.”

“In 2013, in the Klamath National Forest near Happy Camp, close to the Oregon border, I heard about Steve, a prospector who had come from Wales in December 2012 — just a week or two before one of the most brutal winters in the mountains. Not long after he arrived all of his possessions were stolen. He survived that night, despite no cover, no sleeping bag and temperatures of minus five degrees celsius.  The next day he carried on digging. ‘It was my last option,’ he told me. ‘My flight money home, my cards, my wallet, my ID, all my money, all my equipment, all my clothes, all my food — that was all gone. So, I had, like, $20 in my pocket and that was me. The only option I had now… was to mine.’

So Steve mined with a fury unmatched by anyone else on the Klamath, digging up and processing 120 buckets of material a day. He survived on Sugar Puffs cereal and smoked frankfurters bought with rationed-out money from mining. Three months later he’d managed to replace all his camping stuff, had bought new clothes, and didn’t have a problem with food anymore. Steve said people asked him, ‘How can you run so many buckets in a day?’. He would tell them ‘Because I’m mining for my food.’

Steve told me that it’s a big difference from casually mining to mining for money. ‘At the moment’, he said, ‘I’ve nearly got enough money to go back home if I want to, but I don’t want to now’. As far as I know Steve’s still there.”

“In recent years the community has fractured. As well as the Parks Authority clamping down on camping, the environmental agencies have banned the use of the suction dredge, which has made the pursuit of gold far more difficult.

The environmental body’s concerns are that it disrupts fish spawning areas and it unleashes things that they’d rather weren’t disturbed. The original prospectors of 1849 left a lot of mercury, and the authorities are concerned that dredging disturbs that mercury and releases it back into the waterways.

Prospectors have an opposing argument. They claim that by vacuuming up these little pockets in the riverbed it actually creates areas for fish to spawn and in addition to that, because the mercury and the waste gets trapped in the sluice it doesn’t go downstream and they believe they are actually helping. I’ve seen some people illegally dredging since the ban came in, finding ways to modify their suction dredges to meet new requirements, or silently protesting by leaving their unused dredges parked on the waterways.

There’s a rule among many of the prospectors to leave the environment in the same condition that you found it. I experienced this myself. A prospector called Avery dug this giant hole (PICTURED) the size of a school bus. I went back there weeks after taking this photograph and you would never have known there was a hole. He filled it back in. It took days and days and that’s days and days of him not earning – but he did it.

I don’t think any of the legal changes or the physical dangers will deter these new Forty-Niners. A lot of the people I met were trying to escape their pasts as much as find their fortune. There were people who had worked in cubicles all their lives and needed to get back to nature. There were veterans suffering from PTSD and using the Californian wilderness as therapy. Retirees unprepared to stop. Divorcees. Ex-convicts. All looking for a new start.

Whatever their varied backgrounds and reasons, they cashed in their pasts on the wild chance that they could find a new outlook, a feeling of accomplishment, a new way of independently existing. And in the mountains and streams of California, they found it. Every time gold prices go up, more and more people head to the hills.

I can’t tell you how many times I have thought of giving it all up and joining them.”

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