Dredging the Arkansas River
As appearing in The Gold Nugget, March 1998
by Leonard Leeper, "The Golden Optimist"
(See Leonard's website at

At Last! Three months had passed since the Mother Lode Trip to California and I had not taken any other major dredging trips. I was beginning to get itchy feet. I had gone on many one-day trips but nothing can replace the feelings of a several-day expedition. The Gold Prospectors of the Rockies (GPR) had planned their annual major outing as a three-day prospecting trip to Central Colorado. It was to be held near Buena Vista and was situated on the Arkansas River. The Arkansas is well known locally for it's production of flour gold. I had never prospected it and was really looking forward to the camping, socializing, beer drinking, and most of all "dredging."

Finally, the big day arrived and I eagerly pointed my truck south heavily laden with my camping equipment, clothing, and all of my dredging equipment. I was leaving a day early as I wanted to "stake out" a great spot before all of the other prospectors arrived. Actually I wanted to spend four days on the river and not the three that the club had planned.

Arriving in Buena Vista I headed for the local grocery store. When camping I don't like to plan meals too much in advance. After selecting my 4 days of meals I was off again. Of course I had purchased my one required meal of beans. All good prospectors eat beans so who am I to break the tradition. Next stop the liquor store. I had to have a couple of sixers just in case someone came to camp. I really didn't want any myself but you know how unsocial it would look if I couldn't offer my visitors a brew or two. Of course, if they are drinking, it wouldn't be right if I didn't have a couple also.

From the liquor store I drove up the road a short distance to register with the claim owner and the sponsors of the outing, Vista Mining Adventures. Vista is a prospecting store and the headquarters of the Chaffe County Gold Prospectors Club. They were going to register the visitors, go over the claim rules, and generally assist the newcomers in any way required. I filled out the forms and paid my fee and asked about a camping spot. They pointed me toward several likely spots, one of which was free. Guess which one I picked. Not that I'm cheap, it's just that I knew that many of my club friends were and they would all be there. After arriving at the camping spot, I selected the best spot under the small trees, as I was the first, and quickly set up my tent and unloaded all of my camping equipment.

Now for the fun. I headed out to the claims which were about three miles away. Arriving at the parking spot I looked for the river. It wasn't too close but that just meant that all of the "wuss" prospectors would go somewhere else. With a song in my heart and a smile on my face I headed off down the trail. After about a little less than a quarter of a mile I headed down the river bank and arrived at the water's edge. Big boulders and river rock were everywhere. I could see the claim owner's 4" Keene dredge sitting on the bank near a large dredged-out hole. I walked about 100 feet above his hole and located some large rocks and decided that that spot looked as good as any. No matter what all of the experts say, with only four days on the river I wasn't going to spend two or three of them sampling. Besides, the claim owner must have been getting good results or his hole wouldn't be so big. As I said before, I select my spots very scientifically.

With the golden hot spot selected now came the hard part. Magically, I transported a four-inch dredge and all of the assorted support equipment from the back of my truck almost 1/4 of a mile away to the river. What makes that ever harder is the strange fact that most rivers are located in a dip in the landscape. In this case a fairly formidable one. Looking around for a helpful, able-bodied prospector (translate to sucker) to assist me and, finding none, I began to disassemble the dredge into it's component parts so I could carry them myself. Figuring that I would take the heaviest parts first, I grabbed the 5-horse motor, pump, air compressor, and frame assembly, and trudged off down the trail. All of about 100 yards. At this point, I decided that I could drag the whole combination a whole lot easier than I could carry it. Well, maybe not a whole lot but at least somewhat easier. After about 30 minutes and many stops I finally carried it down the big dip in the landscape and I arrived at the river's edge. One trip down, a few more to go.

Next trip I carried the sluice box and foot valve. Another 30-minute round trip. Then the float assembly and float frame. 30 minutes more. Suction hose, nozzle, air line, and hooka. Here I began to wish I had a 5-foot suction hose, not the 20 footer that I had. Even bungeed together, it still is an awkward load. Pullng the weight belt out of the truck, all 75 pounds of it, I made a decision that 50 pounds should be more than enough to sink me and I took out two 12 1/2-pound packs and left them in the truck. In reality I never even put it on. I just carried it back and forth. From now on I'm not taking it to the water. If I need it, I'll walk back and get it. Then came all of the gold pans and buckets. I began to wonder how the old time prospectors' poor burros carried all of this stuff. Finally, after six trips and four hours, all of the stuff was sitting on the river's edge. The only problem now was that it was late afternoon and I was about half dead so I decided that tomorrow would be a great day to start. I hiked back to the truck and headed down the road the three miles to camp.

Supper was planned to be the requisite beans and bread. It may seem dumb but a tradition is a tradition and so must be observed. I could hear cars in the distance so I popped the top on a brew so that I would be ready "just in case someone stopped by." As I cooked my super, a veritable feast of bread and beans, I drank my brew to prevent it from getting warm and when it was done I opened another just to be prepared for any visitors. After supper was finished I washed the dishes and retired to bed.

Awakening at 7:00 a.m., I made some coffee and prepared a small, goldminer breakfast. One half pound of bacon, four eggs, and four big pancakes. If you work hard you can eat big. I didn't plan on stopping for lunch so I loaded up. As I finished with dishes and cleanup, my dredging partner arrived from Denver. Good timing. He brought his four-inch Proline and was planning on running it. I told him, "Wait until you see where we will have to carry it." Leaving the camp site we drove to the claims.

At the claims parking lot we gathered up our pans, hooka, and some of the other small items and headed off down the trail. When we arrived at my dredge we decided to run it as partners rather than carry another dredge down the trail. (This was a very good decision as two weeks later, when we set up at another location, the dredge wouldn't start--it had an ignition problem. We would have carried it in just for exercise.)

We examined the gravel bar and selected a likely looking spot and began pitching rocks. It seems like all of the good dredging spots are always under a rock pile. If there aren't a couple of yards of rocks to move, there probably isn't any gold. After about 15 minutes we had a clear spot all ready to dredge. We both put on our wetsuits and started the dredge and then the fun began. Dave begun to run the nozzle and I drug out the "serious" rock moving equipment. I then proceeded to drag and roll some large rocks out of the way as Dave dredged. After a couple of hours we traded off. I had expected to see a few other club members come by but they didn't take the time to carry their equipment up the river as far as I had. (They probably had more sense.) After running about six hours, we were both tired and ready to clean up for the day. We shut off the dredge and eagerly examined the sluice box. There were a few small flakes showing but nothing large. This was not unexpected as this area has glacial gold and it is mainly small sized. We lifted the upper riffle tray, pulled out the mats, and washed the concentrates into a bucket. Then we removed the cover from the under sluice and did the same. Dave grabbed some of the concentrates and panned them out. Success. There was flour gold all over the pan. We both could see that dredging here would be different than what we were used to. We then moved the dredge up onto the bank, got out of our wetsuits, and changed into dry clothes with a great feeling of satisfaction. We weren't rich money wise but were millionaires contentment wise. Hiking up the trail to the truck we discussed plans for the next day.

At camp that night we cooked and ate supper with a small group of other prospectors. (No beans tonight. Macaroni and cheese with Chorizzo sausage chopped into it. Not fancy but then there weren't any leftovers either.) Afterward we sat around a small campfire burning wood harvested from the wilds of 7-11 and discussed the activities of the day. Life doesn't get any better than this.

The next morning after another group breakfast we hit the road to the claim. The weather man's predictions were finally coming true and it was a grey and dismal day. After the previous day's work, neither one of us felt like working very hard. I climbed into the cold and clammy wet suit and Dave said that he would just pan concentrates.

I dragged the dredge into place from the bank, tied it off in the current, and grabbed the footvalve. A quick push down into the water, a quick pull up to the surface of the water, another push down, and another pull up. Funny, that pulled up really easy. Looking down I saw the end of the suction hose minus the footvalve. It had come off. Instantly I began thinking all kinds of nice thoughts. In the current that I had the dredge anchored in, it had to be at least 1/2 mile downstream by now. Could I prime the pump with no footvalve? Could I purchase a replacement in town? Not much chance of that either. What about stealing the one off of the dredge that was sitting on the bank a hundred yards downstream? They probably wouldn't be on the river today. It would be possible to do but not something that I would do. With very little hope for success, I picked up my mask and snorkel and put them on. Sticking my head under the water I couldn't believe my eyes. The footvalve had dropped straight down into three feet of water and all I had to do was simply reach out and pick it up. The moral of this story is to put a sheet metal screw through the hose into the foot valve assembly. This will prevent it from slipping off. You might not be as lucky as I was.

The spot that we had dredged at the previous day was becoming rockbound so I moved over about ten feet and began a new hole. I dredged for three and a half hours. The material I was working in was sandy and didn't have a lot of very big rocks in it. My past experience with this type of material wasn't very good so I wasn't very enthusiastic about working hard. Once, as I surfaced and looked around, I encountered a rainstorm. My partner, Dave, was sitting on a rock at the side of the stream hunched over and panning concentrates. I hadn't even been aware of the rain.

After the two previous day's work, I had about all of the dredging that I wanted for the day. After cleaning out the dredge and placing the concentrates into a bucket, I panned a small pan to see what my results were. Success. Gold was flecked all over the pan. Feeling better about the day's work, I then dragged the dredge back onto the bank, changed into semi-dry clothes, gathered my wetsuit up, and headed back to camp.

That night we sat around the campfire and burned the last of the firewood and talked about everyone's results. Everyone had found gold no matter which prospecting method they had used. There were a lot of smiles on faces. Results had been much better than at any other place that we had worked locally. Even with the less than desirable weather, a good time had been had by all.

In the morning Dave and I decided that since he had to make an early return to Denver we would just pack out the dredge rather than try to get in a few more hours of wet work. We were both dreading the mule work of carrying the dredge back to the truck. After carrying it out though, it really wasn't all that bad. Two people really made the difference. After a few trips it was securely loaded in my truck. Dave left and I wandered up the river to take a few final pictures. I then met the claim owner carrying a dredge pump to his car. The end of dredging season was a few days away and he was packing out for the year. Remembering what it was like carrying my dredge in alone, I gave him a hand and after a few more trips he had all of his equipment at the road also.

After talking to some of the remaining prospectors I drove down to Vista Mining Adventures store. Phil Martinez, the owner, had offered to run my concentrates through his centrifuge. Not being a great fan of hand panning concentrates, I quickly took him up on his offer. The results were very satisfying. My three hours of dredging had produced more gold than we had found on the day before. Approximately 2-grams worth. A really nice looking pan of fine gold. Most of it pepper to sand size. I only wished that the dredge season wasn't ending. I felt that I finally had found a place that I could actually come close to paying expenses for the first time in Colorado. Oh well, there's always "next year."

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