I had been bouncing from state to state, job to job and saloon to saloon since the end of my marriage–two years earlier. Bored and restless, craving purpose, freedom and adventure, I quit my job as a welder at a Seattle shipyard just shy of New Year’s Day, 1979. Thus, I became committed to the fulfillment of my lifelong dream—becoming a full-time gold prospector. I would pit my will against the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the dead of winter as an utter greenhorn—knockin’ on poverty’s door.
I hoped to spend all winter camping and learning to prospect for gold—far and away from the nearest honky-tonk saloon. But if I were to last until spring, I would need to do more than just prospect for gold; I’d have to actually find the stuff and turn it into cash before going broke. After blowing the lion’s share of my cash on good times and the gear I needed to survive in the bush, that wouldn’t be more than three or four weeks.
Yep, the pressure was on all right. However, I was seasoned to adversity and not lacking in confidence. I had every reason to believe I’d make it through winter and come out a bonafide Sourdough.
I set my sights on California’s North Fork of the Yuba River, downriver from the historic Gold Rush era mining community of Downieville. As a rugged mountain camp Downieville boomed to life with the discovery of placer gold in 1849 and quickly burgeoned into a prosperous mining community, reaching its peak population of 5,000 hardy souls in 1851.
Nestled at the bottom of a narrow, heavily forested canyon, D-ville straddles the banks of the North Yuba and those of the merging Downie rivers—2,966 feet above sea level. Today, as a picturesque little village with a citizenry south of 300, it retains much of the structure and Gold Rush flavor from its genesis and is largely dependent on tourist dollars for existence. It would be my closest source for supplies.
I had been lured into the region by a book I’d read—Bacon and Beans from a Gold Pan—in which Downieville had been prominently featured. The captivating biography chronicles four years in the lives of a depression era man and wife team of prospectors as they toil through California’s Mother Lode districts, wrestling a living out of their homemade sluice box (at 35 dollars an ounce). How could any Redblood not envy them or dream of following in their footsteps?
One late and cloudy December afternoon I rolled into the Indian Valley Campground on the North Fork of the Yuba River approximately 12 miles down river from Downieville; my Datsun station wagon was stuffed near to bursting with gear and groceries. I was pleased to see that except for a few empty beer cans scattered about and a gang of marauding raccoons scrounging for food, I had the place all to myself.
Scanning the Forest Service bulletin board at the entrance, I learned that the facility was not maintained during the winter season; that is to say, they did not provide drinking water, collect garbage, pump restrooms, or collect fees—great! A wrinkled, water-stained notice decreed a two-week camping limit throughout the forest corridor—not great! Regardless, I was determined to establish a camp and find a way to remain and hunt gold the winter through.
A spacious and sequestered campsite up against the water at the far end of the campground beckoned. Expeditiously, I pitched my canvas tent. Brand new and stiff, it fought me all the way, until I persevered twenty minutes later. Knowing that I was likely to see plenty of rain and snow over the winter, I opted to consign the tent to storage duty, thereby freeing my old Datsun wagon for sleeping—dry and cozy.
It was getting late. The sun was dropping. I had to work fast to get my gear stored. Picks and shovels and other mining tools, clothes, food, books, and odds and ends were all packed orderly into the tent. Once that was accomplished, I turned to making the wagon into my bedroom.
As soon as camp was organized, I planted my Coleman, gasoline stove on the campsite’s picnic table, fired it up and brewed a pot of coffee. I can smell the aroma even now: fresh, black coffee mixed with whiffs of incense cedar and pine trees from the forest and tobacco smoke from my hand rolled cigarette. Delightful!
North Fork of the Yuba River–late ’70s.
It was late afternoon; the sun was dropping behind the canyon’s ridgetop, bolstering winter’s chill. Shadows advanced into the woods, slowly, like a wary army. A thick, fluffy white pillow of fog floated serenely mere feet above the riverbed. The rain had stopped, but everything was wet, dripping and fragrant.
With a steaming cup of coffee in one hand, a burning cigarette in the other, I carefully navigated over slippery, wet boulders and thick brush to the river, scant feet from camp.
The turbulent stream was bucking and rolling by in a whoosh, and there at water’s edge, being pelted with spray—I was suddenly overwhelmed with relief and joy. I could not contain it. “I’m free,” I screamed to the heavens and to the noisy river and to the dripping forest and all the animals. “No more schedules for me, no more time clocks and traffic jams and honking horns for me. No more alarm clocks, phone calls or crowds. No more bosses on hosses for me. I am Freeeeeeee.”
“Yeeeeee haaaaw! Giddyup!”