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California Drought Draws Modern-day Gold Miners

Retired truck driver Christo Rodriguez with a gold flake he found in Bear River, California. (J. Sluizer/VOA)
California is in the midst of a severe drought, with mountain water sources at record lows. But there is a silver lining, or more accurately, a golden one.

The rivers that drew gold miners to California in 1849 have run fast and deep for decades, but are now shallow enough to wade into and start panning for the precious metal.

Hopeful miners are heading to northern California in droves, chasing dreams of striking it rich.

Gearing up

Heather Willis manages Pioneer Mining Supplies in Auburn, California, a town that was founded by gold miners in the 1840s. With the extended drought, she says business at her store is booming as people head to newly accessible rivers to look for gold.

“Now that everything has dried up, the water levels are extremely low, so areas that were previously eight to 10 feet [2 to 3 meters] underwater are now, basically, like two feet [less than a meter] under water, if even that," Willis said. "So people are able to get in there and access larger pieces of gold and more gold in the middles of the rivers that they could not get before.”

Panning separates gold flecks and nuggets from the black sand on the river bottom. Willis says the tools to do that - buckets, sifters, vials and instruction books - are
Christo Rodriguez of Rocklin, California, works the shallows of Bear River, looking for gold. (J. Sluizer/VOA)
Christo Rodriguez of Rocklin, California, works the shallows of Bear River, looking for gold. (J. Sluizer/VOA)
​flying off the shelves. She also sells sluice boxes, like the one Christo Rodriguez anchors in the riverbed to sift through large amounts of sand.

Golden hopes

“I find me some big rocks in there and dig in front of them," Rodriguez said. "You know, the big rocks make a natural trap. It forms an eddy in the front of the rock.”

The retired truck driver often makes his way from his home in Rocklin, California to the Bear River, north of Auburn. Today, he is standing in water up to his calves in the middle of what looks more like Bear Creek.

He says so far it has just been a fun hobby, because he has put more money into equipment than he has taken out of the river in gold. But working the shallow eddies, he has hope.

“It is kind of like a gold trap so you've just got to go poking around and, hopefully, you will find a little spot with some color in it," he said. "I got some ribs in there that make eddies, so, hopefully, I will find a nice spot maybe with a couple ounces in it.”

Gold from these rivers has an 86 percent purity level. Willis says there are three general types.

“There is basically your flour, which looks like, basically, small particles of flour. Flakes, which is a slightly larger piece, and, then, you have nuggets," she said. "And nuggets are anything that you can pick up and drop that have substantial weight.”

Some of her customers have hit it big. One prospector found two good-size nuggets that together weighed almost a kilo. Another found a chunk of quartz with gold veins valued at an estimated $54,000. Willis especially enjoys helping the novice prospectors.

“A lot of young men are coming in, going out on the rivers, and finding the gold and going into these places and having it turned into wedding rings, engagement rings, jewelry," she said. "It is just really a sweet, sweet concept behind it. But they will take them out the first time and then continue going until they get enough to make something pretty for the girlfriend to make her a wife.”

Chasing dreams

Although the current drought conditions have drawn a lot of people to the river, Willis says this mini-gold rush is part of a cycle.

“Because what is going to end up happening is ... natural erosion, so when it rains or any kind of landscaping is done ... fresh gold will get deposited in these rivers and streams," she said. "And so that is what we are all chasing after.”

And where would the world be without people chasing their dreams?