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Heeding the Call to Mine the Unknown

June 30, 2002|DAVE McKIBBEN and MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They venture into where it is dark and damp. Where breathing can be a struggle. Where the walls can cave in at any moment and the wrong step can mean being swallowed up by the Earth.

For those who explore California's abandoned mines, it is a hobby that lies at the opposite end of, say, stamp collecting. They collect glimpses of history, and to do so, they risk their lives.

"It's kind of hard to explain," said Bill Carr, 45, of Seal Beach, who has probed more than 100 old mines. "I just like to explore the unknown. It's something that's in my blood. If I see a hole in the side of a mountain, I have to explore it."

The death last week of two Santa Ana brothers who waded into the murky waters of the abandoned Blue Light Mine in the Cleveland National Forest underscored the dangers posed by the many mines left behind by California's 19th century prospectors.

But it also sheds light on the subculture of mine explorers, a loose-knit group of hikers and four-wheelers, amateur historians and adventure-seekers who fear that the deaths of Nicholas Anderson, 23, and brother Glenn, 18, will spur efforts to plug old shaft openings and rob them of their avocation.

"America is about freedom," Carr said. "If you want to take your chances, you should be able to do it. I don't believe in over-regulation. I know the parents of those kids are devastated. But a lot of this is common sense. Common sense should tell you not to do what they did."

The grief-stricken friends and family of the Andersons are circulating petitions demanding that authorities seal the Blue Light Mine. But not everyone who lives in Orange County's rugged canyons feels that is an appropriate solution.

"Every time I come up here, I find a new entrance. You could never block them all off," said Mike Boeck, a volunteer with the U.S. Forest Service who has been exploring the area's back country, including its mines, for 35 years. "You can't eliminate danger from life. It's like saying 'Let's close the beaches down because two people drowned.' What about the rest of us who go swimming without getting in over our heads?"

Reggie Gould, 64, grew up in Orange County and explored its mountain backdrop, including its abandoned mines. Today he lives in Garden Valley, in rural Northern California's Gold-Rush country, and insists his hobby, poking around mines, makes him no different from any other thrill seeker.

"I am not a nut case; I do value my life," said Gould, who has an abandoned mine in his backyard. "Why do people climb mountains and risk their lives or go deep-sea diving? It's a fascination, a rush."

Gould said the Andersons fell prey to the most common trap of mine exploration: inexperience.

"I blame it on the thrill-seeking shows I've seen on TV," he said. "It's just a shame they lost their lives on something so foolish. I've never taken those kinds of chances, and most of us don't."

It's been 45 years since Gould and a few friends canvassed the Blue Light Mine, looking for a way in. Gould still remembers one water-filled portal that wasn't worth the risk.

"We were all excellent swimmers and we had diving masks, but it was too dangerous," he said. "As soon as you go into murky water like that, you stir up the mud and you can't see in front of your face."

Gould and his buddies eventually slipped into a two-foot hole that dropped into a tunnel, part of the five miles of shafts that make up the mine. They spent several hours envisioning what life must have been like for those who spent their days swinging pick axes hundreds of feet below the earth.

"I like to reconstruct the past. I like to pretend I'm with the old miners," Gould said. "I wonder how they ran their day-to-day operation. I like to think I'm in there swinging with them, mucking out the ore and shoveling it into the ore cars. I'm a historian and my history is underground."

Karl Kasarda, 28, who lives in Modjeska Canyon, was bitten by the abandoned mine bug about five years ago while on an off-road trip to a ghost town. He has since explored, photographed and researched 30 closed mines in Nevada, Arizona and California, including several in Orange County's mountains.

"It's one of the most significant parts of my life now," he said. "I love history. When you get inside some of these mines, it's amazing what you'll find: old tools, drill bits left stuck in the walls.

"You get to see the conditions these guys worked in ... in an attempt to make it rich. Museums don't have that, the flavor and taste of how it was. It's abstract. The mine is the heartbeat of what these towns were."

Kasarda will venture only into horizontal shafts; vertical shafts he won't touch. He goes in prepared: never alone and with multiple lights, ropes and with word left behind about where he is going and when he plans to return.

He has inched his way into the darkness and has felt lightheaded; he has been struck by tunnel vision. To Kasarda, they're signals that it's time to get out--quick.

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