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Dredging on the Arkansas
The headlights sliced through the darkness as I threaded my way carefully along the 2-lane highway towards Buena Vista, Colorado, and the Arkansas River Valley. It was 5:00 a.m. and my truck was heavily loaded with camping supplies. The trailer towed behind held my 4” dredge and all of its associated items. It was the first of 4 days of dredging over the Labor Day weekend.
I had been looking forward to this trip since last year when the annual trip had rewarded me with a ¾-pennyweight nugget. That’s not large by California or Alaska standards, but the Arkansas River is famous for its abundant flour gold, not nuggets. None of the prospectors I had talked to could remember anyone ever finding anything of that size previously in the river. I was determined to search out more of its fully-grown golden relatives.
This year’s destination was to be different than the past years as I had been unable to obtain permission to dredge on the private claims I normally worked. As an alternative, the GPAA’s Arkansas River Group claims were selected. Besides, they were only 2 miles downstream from my normal destination and 2 river miles couldn’t make that much difference—or so I thought.
Arriving mid-morning, I pulled off the road into my selected camping spot. Shutting off the engine I anxiously walked over to the riverbank and glanced down the 25-foot embankment to the water’s edge. Uh oh, there was quite a bit more water than expected for this time of year. September is normally a low water month. My plan of crossing the river to dredge the other side did not seem too smart. The only way across was by floating, and earlier in the year these rapids were class 4 to class 6 white water. I would just as soon not find myself clinging desperately to the dredge, riding it downstream amongst a group of kayaks, while searching for a way to get all of the equipment ashore—safely or otherwise.
I was the first of several prospectors to arrive so I had my choice of spots to set up camp. There would be plenty of time to enjoy the river after the work of erecting the tent and unloading the truck. Besides, if I were to hit the river right then, I’d have to carry the dredge to the river by myself. That’s not really that hard, but it would take several trips. I preferred to have some help with the bulky motor and pump assembly. I selected a nice spot under a large pine tree and quickly set up the campsite.
Early afternoon arrived and still no one else had materialized. My campsite was setup and I was getting anxious to try out the water. After a walk up and down the river’s edge, surveying the prospective dredging locations, I selected a great looking spot on my side of the river. It would be easy to access it with the dredge. That probably meant that everyone and his brother had already dredged it about a million times. I had camped in the area over the last 3 years and I had never seen anyone dredging this section of the claims though, so I thought it just might be okay. Most prospectors dredged on the lower end of the claims near a pay campground. If the location on this side of the river proved unproductive, I could cross the river when more help arrived. I was sure it would be virgin dredging there.
Finally I could wait no longer to try out the water, so the pack-mule part of the trip began. At least it was downhill to the river. The hard part would be carrying the dredge back up the bank, but hopefully by then I’d have help. Maybe with all of the gold I was going to find I could just leave the dredge there and buy a new one! The motor went first, the sluice box second, and then the weight belt. Those were the heaviest pieces. I always like to do them first. Thirty minutes and six trips later, all of the pieces were piled on the rocks near the water’s edge. The exertion required—plus the nearly 9,000 foot elevation—had my body screaming that I wasn’t as young as I used to be. After a short rest I changed into my swimsuit and headed for the water with my wet suit over my arm. We always wear a wet suit in Colorado. Fifty-five-degree water is the ultimate summer dredging experience here. Most of the time the water is in the 40s.
I assembled the dredge and pushed it out into a large pool directly behind a huge section of bedrock and tied it off. If there was any gold on this side of the river, it would be right here! I could picture exactly how the bedrock was going to look after the overburden was removed. I almost went back to camp for some sunglasses so that the golden gleam wouldn’t blind me. I started the dredge motor and warmed it up as I slid into my wetsuit. Hmmm! It must have shrunk. It seemed a little tighter than last time. I exhaled deeply and zipped up. Great, at least I could still get it zipped up. I gave the motor more throttle, spit in my mask, rinsed it out and pulled it down over my face. I was all set. I carefully slid into the water. It was a great feeling to be back underwater. I slowly swam around a little, searching the bottom gravel for the best place to begin. I selected a likely spot, grabbed the swivel nozzle and began vacuuming up the overburden. It was softer than I liked—not hard packed like the stuff I’ve found usually holds the good gold. This was washed in over the last few years. It contained all different size pieces though, so I wasn’t moving someone else’s tailings. Maybe it would harden up as I got deeper.
My hole quickly enlarged and deepened. It wasn’t getting any more difficult though. There still wasn’t any hard packed material. Oh well, I was having a great time; the water was warm and clear and the fish were interested in what I was doing. The only way to improve this was for gold to be filling the box. After 2 hours the dredge ran out of gas. I had a pretty respectable hole going. I filled the gas tank and started the motor again. After running it for a little while to clear the box I shut it down and eagerly began to search through the box for any nuggets. None there! That wasn’t totally unexpected though as nuggets here are extremely rare. I carefully washed out the dredges upper and lower sluice boxes into the cleanup tub, rinsed the mats and began the job of panning the concentrates out. An hour later I had about a dozen small pieces to show for the afternoon work. Nothing larger than a couple of sugar grains. Definitely not impressive! That wasn’t good even by my low standards. I really hadn’t liked the gravel composition and the cleanup had confirmed my feelings. Either my site selection was poor or this spot had been dredged recently.
After a big breakfast I suited up and headed the 100 yards to the river and the dredge. My plan was to continue looking for some hard pack in the area I had dredged yesterday. There were some other likely-looking areas to try. I donned the weight belt, mask, and slid beneath the water’s surface. Sampling around, I was still unable to find any good looking material to dredge. After two hours of additional work I surfaced to check the box. Not a trace of gold was seen. It was time to take a break, and I was ready to try another spot.
As I was relaxing in my camp, Ed drove up. I had been expecting him. We sat in the shade and discussed a plan of operation. I don’t like to dredge alone, so a partnership was soon formed. He had brought a 2 ½” dredge; but rather than haul it to the river, we would work together and share mine. He carried his wet suit to the dredge, and we prepared to give my spot one last try. I refilled the gas tank, and Ed took over the nozzle. He moved out into the river further than I had previously worked and began a new hole.
Late afternoon arrived and we decided it was time to quit and do a cleanup. We carefully emptied the contents of the double sluice into the cleanup tub and washed the mats. After classifying the material, (no nuggets found), we panned the remaining material. All we found was a few more small specks. Evidently this was not a very good spot. Even if it had been dredged last year, we should have found some flood gold that had been carried in by the spring runoff. It was time to pick another spot. We decided that we would try the other side of the river. It contained a huge boulder field and you know the saying, “Big rocks, big gold.” We would move the dredge across tomorrow.
As the water was heating for the morning coffee, I walked down to the river. The plan required a free swim to first gain access to the other side. There was no road access. Ed would then throw a rope to me and we would anchor it on each end, leaving a lot of slack trailing down the current in a large “U.” To cross we would walk downstream about 20 feet from an anchor point, pull all of the slack out of the rope from the other side, lay down in the water and let the current swing us across like a pendulum. This was a technique I had seen used in fast water rescue techniques at work, and I had previously used it on the Yuba River. I was a little nervous about the initial crossing of the river. I’m not much of a swimmer and there was only about 75 feet of relatively calm water in the area I was to swim across. At the lower end of the calm area was another wild section of white water. I definitely didn’t want to get swept into that. It would take me about ¼ mile of white water drifting before I would get washed into another calm section. That wouldn’t be what I would call a particularly desirable situation.
Breakfast completed, Ed and I stood at the water’s edge. I explained the process to him and then the moment of truth had arrived. I selected a huge rock that was at the lower end of the boiling white water. The river was only about 20 feet wide at this point and I felt I could jump out about 8 feet of it before I hit the water; then I would swim as fast as I could for the other side. I would wear my full wet suit to gain extra flotation. I would lose flexibility, but at least it would be hard for me to sink. I counted to 3 and leapt out as far as I could. I had my arms windmilling at about 200 RPM even before I hit the water. Before I knew it my hands hit the rocks on the other side and I was able to pull myself out of the water and ashore.
Ed threw me the rope and we secured it. I then pulled it taunt and demonstrated the crossing technique to Ed as I hung onto the rope and easily floated back to his side. We loaded the dredge and Ed floated across to the other side to act as a catcher for the equipment and me. I tied the dredge to the rope, grabbed onto the rear of the sluice box to keep the front end of the floats high and pushed off into the current. The current carried the two of us easily and gracefully to the other side where Ed grabbed the dredge. I heaved a sigh of relief as I stepped out of the river beside him and we pulled the dredge safely up out of the water.
We walked over the boulder field searching for a likely spot to begin dredging. The rocks were huge and packed in so tightly that there weren’t very many spots large enough to shoehorn the dredge into. Finally we selected a spot that looked big enough. There was a large assortment of rocks, from pea size to 6 feet in diameter. We would have to carry the dredge over nearly 50 yards of rocks half the size of a car to reach our selected spot. It would be a difficult carry. We hauled the small items first. Finally the dredge was almost sitting in the water. After moving a few more 2-foot rocks, it was floating at the right angle and ready to go.
I started the dredge motor and began to remove the top layer of gravel. The rock was cemented in so tightly that I had to loosen it with a pry bar. Great! This stuff hadn’t been moved for ages. The boulders formed huge natural riffles filled with gravel and small rocks packed into the crevices between them. If there was any gold in this river, it would be here.
Ed and I alternated turns on the nozzle. The person not running the nozzle used the pry bar to move the larger rocks. We soon had a respectable hole. We were only working the crevices, as the big boulders were too large to move by hand.
In the late afternoon, we decided that it was time to quit. We had inspected the box twice, but hadn’t seen any gold. We cleaned the sluices and began panning the concentrates. Forty minutes later we had a few measly golden specks showing for our effort. I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t found a couple of pennyweight of gold at a minimum. Our read of the river had predicted gold. The rock concentration’s size and hard pack also predicted gold. Two miles up river was a great spot. What a disappointment! We slowly hauled the dredge back to the rope, packed it carefully and uneventfully crossed back to the other side.
As we sat around camp that evening, drinks in hand and a huge citronella candle on the ground burning brightly (there was a campfire ban in effect), we discussed the trip. This was most likely the last Arkansas River dredging trip of the year as the dredging season ended at the end of the month. We had met new prospecting friends and the weather had been great. The temperature had been in the high 70s and the water had been warm. What a great trip it had been. If only we had found more gold!
Footnote: Although the Arkansas River near Buena Vista, Co. contains plentiful flour gold, I can show you two spots that don’t. Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen anyone dredging these two spots before. Water velocity during runoff may carry the flour gold over the rock bar and then deposit it at a calmer spot. But then, that’s what prospecting is all about. I’ve never been able to get good gold every trip, but it’s still valuable to know where the gold isn’t.
Leonard Leeper has been an avid although not particularly productive dredger for 6 years. Most of his dredging is done in Colorado with occasional trips to California and Oregon. He has a web site documenting his prospecting activities at www.golddredger.com —All photos are courtesy of Leonard Leeper.