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The principal tool of the modern gold prospector is the dredge, a kind of out-sized underwater vacuum cleaner mounted on an inflated truck-tire inner tube and powered by a small gasoline engine. The suction hose attached to the motor is directed against gravel-filled crevices in the stream bed to remove the "overburden" of small stones, sand and (with luck) bits of gold. The overburden runs into a sluice box mounted aft of the dredge on another innertube. Heavy metals collect in the sluice box's riffles, to be panned later.
After they assemble their two dredges, the three men put on wet suits and go to work.
"We're going to start on the downstream face of this big boulder," Collett says. "Because gold is heavier than any other mineral in the stream, it falls straight down when it's tumbled over a rock by the runoff. The longer it's in the stream, of course, the deeper it sinks, so we want to work clear down to bedrock. Sometimes I've found gold under eight or 10 feet of gravel."
For an hour they strenuously work in hip-deep water, shifting small boulders and the larger rocks that would jam the dredge hoses. Then Collett pulls on his face mask, attaches a hose from an air pump to his regulator and, belly down in the cold water, begins moving gravel. With his broad back gleaming wet and black in the diver's suit, Collett resembles a giant seal hunting for fish. Goldfish? Gravel tumbles down the sluice box and a tailing of tan murk spills downstream.
"Good smoke," says Tinsley, who has climbed out of the water to warm up. "The discoloration from the mud and clay—the 'smoke,' we call it—means that this stream hasn't been dredged in a long time. I just hope when we get down to bedrock it won't be slick. Gold won't stick on a smooth rock surface. There have to be crevices to hold it."
All day the partners work the dredges, coming out of the water only to warm themselves when their lips turn blue. Meanwhile, a campfire has been kindled, tents erected and supper is cooking—hot chili, beans, hunks of spicy linquica sausage, whole-wheat bread and a gallon or two of steaming black coffee. Toward sunset the partners emerge, still not at bedrock. Kiki, his lips almost black with the cold, shivers beside the fire. Collett boils some milk, then adds honey and brandy. "St. Elmo's fire," he says. They toast one another and the river.
At dawn there is hoarfrost on the sleeping bags, and after a few quick gulps of breakfast the men are back in the water. By midmorning bedrock is in sight. Collett, shifting a 400-pound boulder, almost gets his foot trapped when it rolls out of his grasp.
"That's why you always want a partner," he says. "Guys who've gone dredging alone have been trapped underwater by falling boulders. When you remove the overburden, the rock is unsupported. It can tumble without a warning, no teetering or groaning—just slam, squish."
The hole below the boulder, hip-deep when the partners began, now yawns 12 feet deep. The bedrock gleams pale and shadowed under the rippling water. Collett dives down for the moment of truth. For long minutes his black-clad body moves slowly over the bedrock, his hands probing the crevices, poking, pulling, scraping. Then he emerges.
"Slick as a banana peel," he says, pulling off the face mask. "Nothing."