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Until late last summer, when skin divers dug them out of a California riverbed and lifted them to the light of day, the bright, precious chunks of gold on the opposite page had lived a remarkably long and oppressed life as prisoners of darkness. These gold nuggets originally were a dissolute part of the hot heart of the earth that escaped into the upper crust only to be imprisoned there in congealing quartz. While the earth was having its primordial fits, the nuggets occasionally were set free by earthquake and the eroding force of ancient rivers but, victims of their own extraordinary weight, they always wound up buried again under tons of gravel and basalt.
By all odds these nuggets should have been dug up 110 years ago when the red-hot news from Sutter's mill attracted a hundred thousand miners to the California diggings. If not then, they surely should have turned up in the 1930s, when 10,000 hard-scrabble miners sluiced and panned the same overworked grounds, spurred on by the boosted price of gold and the need to make a dollar in the middle of the Depression. At least two dozen of these Depression miners sloshed through the Yuba River within 10 feet of where the nuggets lay, but still missed them. And this is perhaps fortunate. The miners of the '30s of necessity sold their slim pickings to the Federal Government, who straightaway melted all the beautiful nuggets into anonymity and buried them in a mass grave at Fort Knox.
By eluding the Forty-Niners and the Depression miners, these four nuggets have been spared this dismal end. They were discovered by three skin divers, Don Carter, Richard Anderson and Anderson's wife, Mary (see cover), who have no intention of reburying such beautiful gold at Fort Knox. This is an attitude shared generally by several thousand divers who. like Carter and the Andersons, are paying for weekends and vacations in the Sierra hills by picking in the bedrock of the old gold rivers. The desire of modern gold divers to keep their discoveries shining above ground is based on more than sentimentality. It also is smart business. The government's fixed price for gold, $35 a fine ounce, is simply too niggardly. The four nuggets that Carter and the Andersons found weigh four ounces and. when refined, would net about $ 130 from the government. On the collectors' market today these same nuggets are worth more than $260; the largest of them alone will sell for $200 to a museum or to any of a number of rock hounds who covet such lunkers for their private collections. This profitable traffic among collectors is legal—but only as long as the gold is kept in its natural state.
Four ounces of gold in one day of diving is a handsome haul—four ounces was a good day's take even in the 1850s, when miners began turning the Sierra hills upside down. But in gold mining, as in baseball, it is the season average, not the one big day, that counts. In three days prior to their big strike, Carter and Dick Anderson got only $25 in gold (about enough for seven dental fillings) and, to get that much, they carried 1,500 pounds of equipment into a rocky gorge of the south fork of the Yuba, put together a 50-hp dredge and with it sucked away 20 tons of overburden. Then on the fourth day, under five feet of gravel and boulders, in a single cleft where diverse strata of granite and serpentine abutted, they found their best three nuggets.
The gold diver today counts on hitting pockets that somehow were overlooked a century ago when the miners worked on a grander scale, tunneling and tearing down the hills and diverting rivers. The damages inflicted in the Sierra country a hundred years ago have mended rather well. The boulders that the old miners piled 50 and 100 feet high are partly veiled now by popple and brush; the raw cuts in the hills have vegetated and are topped by 150-foot pines.
Although the modern gold diver works on a relatively modest scale, disturbing the landscape only slightly, certain old truths still apply. Knowledge helps, but blind, stumbling luck often pays off as well. In the polyglot gang of miners who crowded into California in the 1850s, there were many—notably the Cherokees and whites of north Georgia, the Mexicans from Sonora, the Chileans and Peruvians—who knew how to deal with placer gold. A far greater number of the miners—the New Englanders, the French, Polynesians, Australians and the cussing, mean Missourians—came only with a big dream and not the faintest idea of how to make it come true. Many of the smart ones never struck gold, and some of the dumbest picked it up by the hatful. And so it goes today.
Neil Barrett, proprietor of the Aqua Shop in Sacramento, has seen the gold divers go to the hills and return, some proclaiming disappointment and some proudly showing their gold. Of all the success stories, Barrett remembers best two 50-year-old neophytes who ventured into a remote defile of the Bear River, armed only with snorkels, masks and ignorant enthusiasm, and brought back $5,000 in gold.
Even though it is only an avocation with him, the gold diver, like the old miners, must be willing to labor and, above all, dream big. Neither Gold Diver Dick Anderson nor his wife Mary is likely to abandon their two toddling children for the excitement of a gold strike. Since Mary is an accomplished deep diver who has on occasion almost paid for the pleasure with her life, and since Dick Anderson's job as an engineer for Health-ways involves diving to 300 feet to test scuba regulators that he designs himself, there is considerable excitement in their everyday life. Regardless, in their off hours they dream of gold, and for Dick Anderson this has led to some suspenseful moments. Four years ago, prospecting on the north fork of the Yuba, he took a misstep in the dark. He bounced and fell 150 feet down a rocky scarp, breaking two vertebrae and shaking ribs loose here and there. This summer, testing a new gold dredge on the Kern River, Anderson underestimated its sucking power. The overloaded barge capsized. Anderson was 12 feet underwater at the time, manning the dredge's intake on the river bottom, and had no inkling of the disaster until the compressor supplying him air landed on his feet. Still he dreams of making a million dollars at gold diving, and now is only 28,559 ounces short of the mark.
Anderson's diving partner, Don Carter, is not apt to leave his job as a plastics analyst for Douglas Aircraft and head permanently for the hills. Moreover, Carter has found several ways that pay for a Sierra vacation better than gold diving. On one two-week vacation, he earned more than $400 collecting ladybugs (the government does not buy them, but farmers who use ladybugs as insect predators pay $6 for a gallon of them). Although lady bugging pays better, Carter dreams of gold. As he points out, all ladybugs are about the same size—when you've seen your first gallon of lady-bugs, you've seen 'em all. But in the gold rivers it's different. In the rivers there is still a vestige of the old fever, an element of doubt, a reason to dream and, still, in some of the cracks, nuggets of exciting size.