In less time than it takes to build a good fire, Bebe and I moved our camp the short distance from the boondocking site to the prospecting location, where we had staked the new mining claim. Here we would remain for the rest of the season—until the nightly low temperature drops into the thirties.
Though the day had been allocated to the camp move, we were finished early—before the sun had crested the high ridges. There was plenty of day left for work.
I quickly set up the sluice boxes and started digging. This digging was hard because of the compacted character of the ground at the base of the ancient riverbed gravel bar, and I was doing well in processing about 1–2 gross tons of material per day. Slow and steady wins the race. I wasn’t trying to set any records for gravel picked and shoveled.
I was tired out in the mid-afternoon and decided to stop digging and do a cleanup on the two sluices. I was glad I did. By late afternoon, I had washed out the sluice riffles and underlying Miracle Mat and discovered that the paystreak was increasing as we moved upstream. The discovery coincided with the physical characteristics of the bend on the old stream. The closer to the center and upstream, the heavier material would have dropped out of the stream and eventually be worked down toward bedrock.
Well before sunset, we were back in camp, the fire was crackling, and it was time for an ice-cold beer from the old sourdough refrigerator—the creek.
Camped at the base of the massive ancient river bench, the gravel bar was 100 feet deep. The eastern exposure received no sun, and the camp stayed cool throughout the day. When this big river flowed, it was very deep and probably swift, too. The existing stream is from 20–40 feet wide, fairly swift, and shallow. During the last ice age, this area lay beneath 2,000 feet of ice.
The gravels I was working on were deposited more than 15,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch of geologic time, before the Missoula Floods of 12,000–14,000 years ago. Then there was a succession of enormous ice dams of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that blocked the river flow and, over and over again, would break and release massive amounts of ice and water to flow west, the water eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean in what is now Western Washington state.
Gold found here might have been carried south by massive flooding that originated in northern British Columbia. Or it might have been scoured out of the jagged uplifts created by plate tectonics and volcanic activity. Or all of the above.
Not much mining done here
What I find most interesting about this spot is that there was never much placer prospecting or mining done here—it was a hard-rock lode mining district. In all likelihood, the ground I was working on had never been thoroughly worked. I could find no signs of earlier prospects or placer workings in any of the drainages. Yet the district was only 25 miles as the crow flies from Silver Valley of Idaho, one of the world’s richest mining districts, and the location of one of the world’s richest silver mines—The Lucky Friday, owned by the Hecla Mining Company.
I thought about the dramatic and violent geologic past of our location as the sun dipped below the horizon. After supper, it was pitch dark. I put just enough wood on the fire to keep it alive, and Bebe lay near the flickering flame as I sat in my camp chair, waiting for the full moon to rise above the eastern ridges.
It soon made a dramatic appearance at the tree line and, once up, the camp and the greater world of the mountain stream between the towering walls of the mountain was bathed in the blue lunar illusion. In the distance, a timber wolf howled, then another, followed by a chorus of wolf airs. Bebe’s eyes widened with the sidelong Labradoodle look, “Uh-oh. Now what?” She made no move to answer her distant cousins, but it seemed like a good note on which to retire to the security of our little egg for the night.
Tomorrow, I would move a few more tons of that ancient river bottom through the sluices.