Mining: Big Gulp
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Outside magazine, September 1994
Mining: Big Gulp
Some call it fun. Some call it a huge, rubbly mess. News from the prospecting frontier.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.”