Trip To the Mother Lode
As appearing in The Gold Nugget, July-August 1997
by Leonard Leeper, "The Golden Optimist"
(See Leonard's website at

As I left Colorado and the miles clicked off on the odometer, my anticipation began to build. I was going to gold country. Not Clear Creek or Central City in Colorado where I usually go, but real gold country.

     The high Sierra's!
     The mother lode!

Leaving Reno on I-80, I pushed my right foot closer to the floor trying to squeeze out a few more miles-per-hour over the speed limit without attracting the notice of the state police. I was a nervous wreck. I was almost there. Crossing the California state line, I had 21 more miles of I-80 before my turn onto hi way 89. From there on it would be two-lane road the rest of the way.

As I turned off onto hi way 89, I noticed a Forest Service office. Now would be a good time to find out where all of the good gold panning spots are. Who should know better than the Forest service. They were in charge of the land weren't they?. Asking about gold panning brought the answer:

"Thats done down the road about 50 miles. We don't know anything about it".

That wasn't exactly the answer I had hoped to hear. I had just traveled 1,000 miles and couldn't get any information about 50 miles down the road. It was even in the same National Forest.

Trying not to make the stop a complete waste, I purchased a national forest map that covered the area I was interested in. They asked me if I was going to camp and when I said yes they told me I would need a campfire permit.

"I'm not going to use a fire. I have a cook stove"

"You'll need one for that also" they said.

The good thing about it though was it was free.

Back on the road again. Now the road had narrowed to a small two-laner and was curling around in the mountains. After driving another 19 miles, I came to a small town. Sierraville. Slowing down for a stop sign, I saw the magic numbers: Hiway 49. The famous magic road I had read so much about which traversed through the heart of gold country and the mother lode. I turned onto it and headed west expecting to see gold mines and placer works everywhere. Boy was I disappointed. For the next 25 miles, I couldn't even see any water, much less any sign of gold.

Arriving in Sierra City, I began to see signs of a stream "waaaaaay" down in the bottom of a canyon. Could this be what I was looking for? After traveling a few more miles, I saw three people loading gold panning equipment into the back of a truck. This had to be a good spot. They had been panning and they were parked at the entrance to a closed campground. It was probably closed to allow the gold prospectors better access to all of the gold. These were probably locals. Who could be better to ask about where to go. Stopping and backing my truck up I introduced myself. About that time I noticed the license plate. Montana. Not very local but at least they had been panning in the area. Maybe they could give me some advice about where to go. (At work I usually get a lot of this kind of unasked-for advice but these people wouldn't know me, so their advice might be useful.) It seemed that the spring floods had been even larger than the 1996 record floods and had washed through the campground making it unusable. After a short visit, I decided to stay in the campground where they were staying and then return with them the next day to this spot. That turned out to be a very good decision.

After setting up camp, I decided to look around. There was only one other camper and he also was from Colorado. Small world. After a discussion about where to camp the next day, we decided to move to the other campground as it had just been opened. The next morning, after a hurried breakfast, I packed up my camp gear and headed down the road.

Arriving at the campground I noticed other prospectors busily at work. In a new place sometimes it is a good idea to see how and what other people are doing. This wasn't dredging season yet so everyone was screening and classifying the gravel, then carrying it to their sluice boxes in buckets. Always the inquisitive one, some might call it nosey or snoopy, I watched as gravel was dumped into the sluice. Gold! Gold flakes were magically appearing on the front mat and riffle of the boxes. In Colorado, I had never seen that much appear that easily. Checking with other people, I found out they were all having the same results. Everyone was finding flakes of gold. Anxious to try out my luck, I returned to my truck to unload my equipment.

As I carried my buckets, shovel, sluice box, pans, and all of the other required gear over the rocky gravel bar, I wondered 'Would this be the place I would find my first big nugget'?

Looking around the gravel bar, I tried to find a place to dig that was close to where the water had a nice drop where the sluice box would have the proper slope and had a big rock to dig behind. No such luck. All of the good places had a prospector busily digging away or was about 75 yards from the good sluice box spots or had already been dug up. Oh well, that just meant I would have to carry my buckets a little further. Eagerly I began to dig and classify out two buckets of gravel. After filling the two buckets to the top, I grabbed one in each hand and carried them to the sluice box. (Little did I know then that after 3 days of this, I would be carrying one bucket at a time and that one only half full!)

As I began to dip gravel out of the bucket, one can at a time, and slowly running it through the sluice box, the magic began to happen. Gold appeared on the front of the box. Not just one flake but several. This was a new experience to me. Never before had I seen more than a flake or two at once. Excitement mounted as the more cans I processed, the more gold appeared. It took a lot of restraint to actually run four buckets of material through the box before I took it out of the water to do a cleanup.

Checking out the box after I removed it from the water, my hopes were confirmed. Gold! About 10 flakes showing. Nothing huge but quite a few 1/16" or slightly larger. Definitely not the dust that I was used to finding. On a good day in Colorado dredging I might not find any more than I had here in four buckets of material. Hopes were high. If I could find this much this easy, how much could I find in a full day's work? As the day passed on, I continued to get gold with every bucket. The thrill was still there but I thought nothing could match the thrill of the first two buckets of gravel. I had never before seen as much gold captured as easily as those. That feeling, however, was to be replaced at a later date.

I was only able to spend one day on the mother lode hard at work sluicing. Early the next morning, with many misgivings, I packed up my camp. After saying goodby to my new-found friends with promises to return in two weeks, I headed north to Oregon. Leaving after only one day of finding the best gold that I had seen in my two years of prospecting was one of the hardest things that I have done. Did I make a fortune? Did I get an ounce of gold? Yes and no. Yes, I feel that the friendships I formed were indeed worth a fortune. No, I did not get an ounce or even close to it. I did find more than I had ever found before and it was nice size small flakes. It was worth every bit of the 2,200-mile round trip, even if that was all that I found on the trip. Which is just another way to say, "It's not over yet".

For two weeks in Oregon my thoughts continued to return to the one day I had spent in what I considered "A gold prospectors paradise!" How much gold could I have found if I could have spent more time on the gravel bar?

Events and commitments worked out such that I soon found myself with all my camp gear packed up and traveling south toward California on Interstate 5. I had three more days of vacation left before I had to begin my return trip to Colorado. As I turned off from the interstate and headed toward Grass Valley, I began to wonder, 'Would there be a camping spot any where near the river'? This was Memorial Day weekend and in Colorado camping spots would be at a real premium; campground spots would be completely gone. As I approached the campground, I couldn't help the worried feeling that had been creeping in on me. Entering the campground my earlier suspicions were confirmed. There were campers everywhere. After passing a campsite with a dredge sitting on a trailer in front of it, I stopped and introduced myself. These were dredgers. Everybody knows all dredgers are nice people. After a few minutes of friendly discussion, an offer allowing me to pitch my tent in their site was given. Now at least I had a spot to stay. Thanking them for their kind offer, I mentioned that I may have friends further down the road and that if that wasn't the case I would be back. Traveling to the end of the road, I saw a familiar truck and camper. My friend from Colorado also had returned. After a friendly reunion, I pitched camp and we sat around the fire discussing the events of the last two weeks.

Early the next morning, after a hearty breakfast and coffee, I headed across the gravel bar with my equipment in hand. The gravel bar looked completely different from two weeks ago. There didn't appear to be any square foot of area left unturned. After searching up and down the bar, I decided on a place that was actually in the water's edge. At least it hadn't been worked before. After spending most of the day searching the new area and finding very little gold, I decided to take a break from the hard work. My earlier suspicion that "just any old place is as good as another" had proven to be incorrect. Getting discouraged, I decided to try the other side of the river, as I remembered the old saying "The gold is always more plentiful on the other side of the river."

The problem with that was there was no good access to the other side. The water was still almost waist deep in the shallowest areas and it was too swift to stand up in. As I stood at the edge of the water wondering if I wanted to take a chance, a young boy came running up to the edge of the water, jumped in, and swam to the other side. Not wishing to appear chicken, I waded out as far as I could, threw my shovel to the other side, and jumped in and swam across also. The current was swift enough to carry me downstream about 100 feet before I touched bottom on the other side. Now, at least, I had a new untouched area to prospect. After spending an hour or so on that side of the river and not finding much in the pan, I swam back across and took the rest of the day off.

The next morning, after another big breakfast, I carried all of my equipment back onto the gravel bar. After carefully examining the dug-up area, I decided that if I were to move a large pile of rocks I could find some virgin gravel. As anyone that has gone dredging with me would tell you, moving rocks is something that I really don't mind doing. At least if they are rocks that I haven't already moved once.

After about an hour of throwing, dragging, and rolling rocks, I had a clear area ready to begin digging. After filling two buckets half full of gravel, I carried them to the sluice and began to run them through a can at a time. After a couple of cans, gold began to appear. Each can brought several more flakes. As more and more flakes appeared, my excitement grew. One can had a piece about half the size of a small pea. It settled right in front of the first riffle and stayed as if it was glued there. I continued adding more gravel.

All of a sudden the large piece jumped the riffle and moved down the box two riffles. Not wanting to take any more chances, I lifted the box to shut off the water, picked the small nugget out with my fingers, and then stuck the box back into the water and continued running the gravel through the box. After running all of the gravel through, I removed the box and eagerly checked it out for gold. I could count between 20 and 30 pieces exposed in the sluice. This was more gold than I usually got on several days of work.

After cleaning out the sluice box and panning the concentrates, I found that in those two half buckets of gravel I had found almost as much gold as I ended up with in the rest of the three days. More digging in the area where I had gotten the gravel failed to bring the same results. I had found a small hot spot. At least I have had the experience of finding a hot spot. Many people have never had that luck.

The last day I decided that I would continue digging in my old hole. The previous night I had left some of my equipment in the hole and prospector courtesy reserved it for me. I found more gold but not as much as the day before. It was still great and in the late afternoon I was worn out from the two previous day's digging and decided to quit. I needed to take a bath in the river to get cleaned up for my trip back to Colorado. After putting on my swim suit, I decided to swim to the other side again. Selecting another place to cross, I jumped in and swam across. Once again I was carried downstream about 100 feet before I reached the other side. Now I understood why white water rafters had enjoyed this stretch of the river each day.

As I explored the other side of the river, I wished that I had my sluice and equipment. This side didn't even show any footprints, much less dug up places. Bedrock extended to the edge of the river and there were virgin gravel bars everywhere. All of a sudden I saw a flash of light. About four feet above the gravel the sun was glinting off of a piece of gold wedged in a crack. After close examination I could see that it appeared to be about 1/8" in size. At least what I could see. How big was the hidden part? Having swum the river to get there, I had no tools or even anything to put it in if I could retrieve it. Not willing to leave it for someone else, I once more jumped in the river and swam back to get something to get it out of the crack with and something to put it in.

Rummaging through my equipment, I found an empty 35mm film canister (you would never guess that I would have one of those) and a screwdriver. I stood there puzzling where to put the tools that they would be secure during the trip back across the river. The film canister would fit in my swim suit pocket but the screwdriver might fall out. I really wasn't worried about loosing the screwdriver but I didn't like swimming the river well enough to have to make an extra round trip if I lost it. All of the prospectors on the bank already thought I was nuts swimming in the cold and swift water. Finally, a roll of black electrical tape solved the problem. With several wraps I taped the screwdriver to my left forearm.

Jumping into the river, I swam across for the second time. This time I only got swept down the river about 75 feet. I guess practice makes perfect. Anxiously walking back down the gravel bar to the gold, I was mentally adding up my fortune. There was only one big problem. I couldn't find it again. I was so excited the first time that I assumed I could walk right back to it. Boy was that a mistake. The next time I find something I will erect a billboard to help me find the right spot again. I think I know how a prospector must feel when he can't find his mine again. After about an hour of looking (I was determined not to give up), I found it. It was only a large flake. It had it's largest size exposed. Still, that was the easiest piece of gold that I have ever found. Jumping back into the water, I swam the river for the last time.

The Valley Prospectors claim covers all of the river through the campground. Two Valley prospector dredgers did quite well less than 30 feet from this spot. My thanks to them for the rope that they left with me when they left. It was put to work in Colorado many times that year and I hoped to return it to them the following year when I could dredge in a neighboring spot with my dredge as a new Valley Prospectors member.

The campground camping spots are located adjacent to the river and in large trees. Facilities include fire rings, picnic tables, drinking water, and restrooms. The river and gravel bars are a short stone's throw from the sites.

After a bath in the river (most of the other prospectors thought I was crazy in what they called "the cold water"), I joined another pair of prospectors and we drank a cold one. Or two. Or three. Good thing I had made a trip to Downieville for drinks!

The more we beer drank, the better smoked turkey sounded for supper. Just because we were camping out in the wilds of the High Sierra's didn't mean meals have to be primitive. Firing up the smoker, we put on an 18 pound turkey and sat around the camp fire listening to the sound of the river, drinking and discussing what a great life this was as we waited for the turkey to cook. What a way to end a fantastic vacation. Great gold, great food, great drink, and fantastic companionship. Life could get no better.

My many thanks to the Valley Prospectors of San Bernadino. They own the claim upon which I was working. They allow non-members to prospect using non-motorized equipment. They have other claims on the Yuba River. They have a one-time membership fee with and additional annual fee. I met many friendly members during my stay. If they were a good representation of their club, I really want to be a member.

Invitations were extended to stay on and do more prospecting but I was unable to stay. Plans were made and addresses were exchanged for the following year. Now the only thing left to do was eagerly wait until next year.

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