Outside magazine, September 1994
Glistening in a wetsuit and diving gear, 56-year-old Chuck Tabbert splashes to the surface in a section of the Klamath River that was three feet deep earlier in the day. Now he's emerging from a 26-foot hole created by the hose of a voracious, pump-driven dredge that shoots water and river bottom over a floating sluice box. This gizmo separates muddy gravel from what Tabbert is after: gold. "You get gold fever," laughs the avid recreational miner, who admits he spends more money than he makes. "When you get gold in your box, it's quite a feeling."
For other users of northern California's stream-riddled national forests, it's quite an annoyance. Recreational dredge mining has caught on throughout the West, especially in California, where Tabbert's hometown of Happy Camp is the base for the 550-member New 49ers club, a growing collection of amateurs and professionals who obtain mining rights from the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees mineral claims under the Mining Law of 1872.
The gripe is that the New 49ers tread heavier than old-timers with tin pans. On the Klamath, rafting parties have their otherwise peaceful trips disrupted by exhaust-belching dredges. Fly fishermen step into holes the size of houses. And environmentalists charge that the miners are hoovering up salmon fry and roe, altering the rivers' flow by winching boulders, and tattering the banks. "If you see miners every once in a while, it can be almost entertainment," says Scott Armstrong, owner of Walnut Creek, California-based All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting. "But it's beyond the point of being an attraction."
So far efforts to muzzle the miners have been fruitless, thanks in large part to the New 49ers' 41-year-old founder, Dave McCracken, a former Navy SEAL turned commercial diver who first tried gold mining in 1979 to escape his then-job of cleaning yachts in Los Angeles Harbor. "There was something demeaning about a rich guy sipping a martini," recalls McCracken, "and me with barnacles in my beard." With two partners and a stake on southern Oregon's Illinois River, McCracken pulled up a measly $79 in gold when it was selling for $800 an ounce. Since that skimpy start he's become a wealthy legend in the gold-mining subculture. A thousand tourists come through Happy Camp every summer to work 51 miles of mostly federal mining claims. So far, says McCracken, they've pulled out $5 million.
To environmentalists, McCracken and his partner, Eric Bosch, are a muscle-bound Laurel and Hardy team with a stubborn independence unique to those who live off land that they don't own. Last year they brushed back the first major challenge to their operation, which began when the California Department of Fish and Game, prompted by concerns over depletion of salmon and steelhead, issued draft regulations that would have limited the size of dredge hoses, banned winches, placed seasonal limits on mining in some rivers, and closed other rivers to mining altogether. McCracken went on the offensive before Fish and Game officials last winter, insisting that mining actually helps fish. He argued that before the rivers were dammed in reclamation projects, storms whipped up the bottom, loosening it enough to accommodate fish spawn. Now, he said, the dredges do it. The holes they create also serve as safe areas in which spawning salmon can hide from hunting ospreys.
To the surprise of environmentalists, who consider these arguments specious, the final regulations indicated that dredge mining isn't so bad after all, and the changes consisted of minor tinkering. Opponents called it a stunning capitulation, and one group, Sacramento-based Friends of the River, is now pushing legislation that would require each dredger to file operation plans, signed by Fish and Game, with the local sheriff's office. The paperwork alone might scare off lots of miners.
After defeating the Fish and Game regulations last year, McCracken regards these new threats as mosquito bites, more annoyance than peril. "They started out with the intention of proving we were bad," McCracken says confidently. "And they just couldn't do it."