In the aftermath of an unusually wet winter, Californians are bracing not only for flooded fields and raging rapids, but also for a potential treasure hunt that experts are dubbing “Gold Rush 2.0.”
“It’s one of those 100-years events,” Mark Dayton, a Sacramento Valley metal detector expert, told The Hill.
With one atmospheric river after another this past winter, snowpack on the Golden State’s mountain peaks piled up to unprecedented heights. But as that snow gushes down the hillsides, the fast and furious flow is shuttling other materials along with it.
“When it melts, it comes rushing down at crazy speeds through narrow gorges and canyons, and it’s a torrent of raging water,” Dayton said. “This is even crazier than whitewater.”
The flow cascades like a waterfall from about 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet, at which point it begins “meandering into some of the foothills” and into creeks and streams, Dayton explained.
“What happens is the material is being ripped literally right off the walls of the creeks as they reshape themselves,” he added.
By “material,” Dayton means gold. And he said he anticipates a lot of it this year.
“It’s like a generational flood,” agreed Albert Fausel, the third-generation owner of the local Placerville Hardware Store, which opened in 1852.
“It’s been a flood that I’ve never seen in my life,” Fausel continued. “It’s all going to come down at once and just integrate a lot of new material into our river systems.”
El Dorado and the ‘Brass Medic’
Prospectors should expect to find “several different pockets of gold” in relatively shallow waters, as the snowmelt washes “all that material into the waterway,” according to Dayton. The heavier pieces, he explained, will stay up at higher altitudes.
“But most of the small stuff that we typically find year-to-year as gold prospectors is going to make its way not only down to where we typically look for it, in the 2,000-3,500-foot range, but all the way down literally to the Sacramento Valley,” he said.
Dayton, a former firefighter-paramedic turned self-proclaimed “Brass Medic,” has been treasure hunting for more than three decades in Northern California’s El Dorado County. From the Spanish meaning “The Golden,” the region is home to the original mid-19th century gold discovery.
That find came in 1848, when carpenter James Marshall spotted flecks of gold in a diversion channel adjacent to the sawmill he was building in Coloma, northeast of Sacramento.
News of his find soon spread, and the state’s non-American Indian population grew from about 14,000 in 1848 to some 250,000 by 1852, according to California’s Department Parks and Recreation.
That’s also the same year that the Placerville Hardware Store opened its doors, and its owner now believes that this season will bring “a little new mini gold rush.”
“I have a lot of people coming from all over. They’re looking for places to go, they’re planning their family vacations out here,” said Fausel, whose business is about 9 miles from the historic discovery site.
“I try kind of guiding them to local campsites, to good places to find gold, to the right tools to find gold — like gold pans or metal detectors,” he added.
In the “old days,” miners would begin by panning in a river, where they would find small pieces of gold, and then go up the river as the pieces became bigger and bigger, according to Dayton.
When the pieces “just dead stopped,” they’d know they were above the source of gold, he explained.
With the so-called “Forty-Niners” flocking into the region, the local Native American population particularly suffered as the newcomers devastated lands, water, space and other resources, the National Parks Service noted.
The Golden State lives up to its name
While gold mining occurred across California, the biggest concentration of mines was in the vicinity of the original discovery, according to a historic map from the California Department of Conservation.
From a geological perspective, this part of Northern California has a lot of quartz, which Dayton described as “the one matrix in which gold is formed in the Earth.”
“We have so much quartz here, and quartz outcroppings that are literally just sticking right out of the dirt all over the Gold Country,” he said.
Over time, he explained, the quartz that was “down inside the Earth has made its way up to the surface,” furnishing this region with gold.
Dayton is a jack of all trades when it comes to gold prospecting, although he said that metal detecting is his professional specialty. He stressed, however, that he likes to “do it all,” including methods such as panning, sniping and sluicing.
Sniping requires lying down in a creek bed and prying the gold piece by piece from the bedrock. Sluicing, meanwhile, involves flushing a gravel-gold mix with water in a tilted box designed to trap the gold, which is heavier than the gravel.
California has a lot of region-specific regulations, however, with many areas only allowing panning.
“We call it hands-and-pans — that means you cannot use a shovel to dig. You can only use your hands and a pan,” Dayton said, noting that this rule applies to most state park lands.
At state parks, one person can gather only up to 15 pounds of mineral material each day, and such material cannot be sold or used commercially for profit, according to the Parks Department.
Public lands administered by the federal government fall under the Mining Law of 1872, which allows U.S. citizens to explore, discover and purchase certain mineral deposits, per the Bureau of Land Management.
There are more than 5,000 mining claims — for gold, silver, gemstones and other minerals — on California public lands today. Mining claims can still be “staked” for locatable minerals, such as gold, on public domain lands.
Before staking a claim, however, prospectors must check both federal records and markings on the ground for prior claims, according to the Bureau. Most states require that markings be “conspicuous and substantial monuments,” such as stone mounds or wood or metal posts.
The Gold Country Treasure Seekers — a club in which Dayton is a member — stressed in a recent Facebook post that prospectors must abide by a “detecting mining code of ethics.”
That code of ethics advises gold seekers to “respect the country code,” as well as avoid trespassing, refrain from contaminating water supplies, fill holes, stay away from archeological monuments and report all finds to landowners.
Party like it’s 1849
At the Placerville Hardware Store, Fausel said that he is trying to teach his customers some of the rules, so that “we can all keep doing what we’d like to do” in California’s strict regulatory environment.
As treasure hunting season gets underway, Dayton said that he expects to see tourists flocking to the region “to get out and do something fun,” particularly since the price of gold is so high.
He predicted that panning and sluicing will work best for early explorers in June — once the water levels drop enough to “not have to worry about drowning.”
“But later when the water really starts to recede and it starts to dry out around August September, metal detectors will rule the world,” Dayton said.
“They will be the ones getting in and finding all the easy stuff — big and easy stuff,” he added.
For his part, Fausel said that he is excited to welcome families to the region and to teach new enthusiasts how to pan for gold.
“When they find that first piece of gold it really lights them up,” he added. “It’s exciting for them. It’s exciting for me because I’ve taught somebody kind of a new hobby.”