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It's a lode on their minds

To plucky prospectors on the San Gabriel River, there's gold in that thar mud. They've found dust and flakes, but not the pay dirt of their dreams.

July 14, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

ON a bright afternoon, about two dozen people gathered on a bend overlooking the San Gabriel River.

The idyllic sounds of birds and flowing water mixed with the low growl of gas-powered suction dredges. Clusters of men (and one or two women) crouched in the water with vacuum hoses, circular pans and sluice boards. Their goal -- in some cases, their obsession -- was the same.

"The gold looks so good underwater," gushed Coel Schumacher, a 19-year-old junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "After you've been at it for a while, you start to wonder if it's worth it. Then you find something and you go, 'Yeah.' "

Nearly 160 years after the gold rush that helped populate the West, a hardy band still patiently coaxes treasure from the earth. A mix of permanent residents who live in nearby camps and part-timers who drive up every chance they get, the prospectors have formed their own self-policing, gold-obsessed community.

Thirty miles north of Azusa and deep in the Angeles National Forest, near the Camp Williams trailer park, they chase shared dreams, watch over one another's claims and swap tales of the mother lode just over the next hill.

"I think there's endless amounts of gold up here," said Ron Strand. "We just need a good storm to wash it all out."

Working the river is painstaking stuff -- hours spent crouching or submerged in water to produce a half inch of glittery dust in a vial.

With gold selling for about $650 per ounce on the international market, they're looking for just one healthy score. But judging from several visits, nobody seems to be paying his rent from prospecting.

"I have yet to see anybody get rich out here," said Bernie McGrath, who lives in a trailer at Camp Williams and has been working this stretch of river since 1989. "They're all chasing dreams."

THERE are now just 16 sites that the state classifies as "active gold mines," most of them in Northern California's Gold Country. Camp Williams is not among them. There are several websites on which prospectors share locations where they've found gold -- but, again, Camp Williams isn't mentioned.

Nationwide, the U.S. Geological Survey said that about 260 metric tons of gold were produced in 2006, with a value of $5.1 billion. But only a tiny fraction of that amount, officials said, was from individual prospecting.

Despite a dearth of reports of big finds, prospectors have worked this stretch of the San Gabriel River for decades; it's easily accessible by car and at the limit of where suction dredges can be operated legally.

A submerged Craig Stevens poked and prodded the riverbank mud with a hose. On the surface, his fiancee, Carolyn Decker, alternately played with the couple's three dogs and tended to their suction dredge -- a device that looks like a lawn mower engine floating on pontoons and trailing a metal beaver tail.

The 16-horsepower engine provides vacuum power and pumps air through a tube down to Stevens -- a method known as "hookah diving." The dredge's 6-inch-wide hose (hose size is crucial with these folks) sucks up mud and silt and dumps it onto the sluice -- a multistage obstacle course designed to trap and separate every last gold flake from the surrounding muck.

Metal grids and perforations weed out the rocks and large chunks of dirt, while black plastic ridges capture many of the heavy gold flakes. The runoff flows onto a jumble of what looks like plastic vermicelli. The so-called miner's moss traps the tiniest remaining bits of gold dust.

Stevens, 47, emerges after several hours, water dripping from his bushy goatee, and checks the sluice.

"It's loaded right now. I hit a great patch and was just watching the chunks go up," he said, grinning.

Stevens and Decker are spending most of June and July in the forest, camping in a family-size tent and working the river almost every day. They leave only to check on their home in Crestline or buy supplies in Azusa. The gold they find this summer will be melted down and used to make their wedding rings.

A former truck driver, Stevens has been prospecting in one form or another for most of his life; his grandfather got him started when he was 13. Now he's up on the river for weeks at a time. His 6-inch dredge hose is the largest legally permitted in the forest by the state Fish and Game Department, although larger hoses are allowed in parts of Northern California.

Stevens' prospecting days run on a clock-punching rhythm. Most mornings he's underwater by 8 a.m. He stays down for hours at a time -- breaking only for lunch and resuming until midafternoon.

It's hard work, he says, but "I'd rather be out here than anywhere else."

For all his years of prospecting, Stevens' most valuable find had nothing to do with gold. Last year his hose captured a cut diamond apparently lost from somebody's ring. He sold it for $11,500. "That paid for all my equipment for a while," he said.

Stevens' story is typical for the San Gabriel River: big dreams, lots of effort, little gold.

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