Pay Dirt

Bucket loads of adventure

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

As a reward for our most recent round of laborious trail improvements at his hard-rock mine in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, our supervisor invited Uncle Don and me to spend a “leisurely” weekend gold panning on his placer claim.

Although it was hardly the chartered saltwater fishing trip he had promised, we accepted his offer sight unseen and loaded our gear into his jalopy with considerable ardor.

The road to his “diggings” had accrued considerable flood damage over the years and as our rattletrap conveyance heaved and bucked through a gauntlet of boulder-strewn blowouts I began to suffer motion sickness. 

Disregarding my incessant pleas to ditch the vehicle and continue afoot, our supervisor calmly advised me to brace for the worst. 

Finally, after we encountered a washout so gruesome and indisputably impassable, he was persuaded to abort the mission.

But the road wasn’t done with us yet. Turning around to park, our front-passenger-side tire sank into a soft patch of gravel and our entire rig slid slantwise down an embankment.  

We didn’t capsize, but an intervening tree stump wedged our passenger-side doors so tightly all four occupants had to exit from the driver’s side.

Sheba, Uncle Don’s wolf-dog, was the first one out and she rewarded herself by absconding with a critical piece of footwear.

“Bring that back!” our supervisor snapped as she dragged his neoprene boot away. 

“You’re lucky it’s not a sandal or a climbing shoe,” cracked Uncle Don as he fired up the power winch. “She tends to eat smaller amounts of rubber whole.” 

The process of disgorging our vehicle did not go smoothly. When we finally reached the river channel we were hot and bothered with each other. 

After setting up camp on a shady terrace, we assembled our panning equipment and fanned out upriver to set up operations. When our supervisor located a favorable spot, I joined him, but Uncle Don kept searching.  

“Dig here,” our supervisor told me, spearing his pry bar into heavy cobble. “And keep the buckets coming.”

While he assembled his portable sluice box, I put my shovel and sorting screen to work and classified a stockpile of alluvial material.

Once our sluice became operational I hauled a bucket over, poured a scoopful of fines into the trace and watched the heaviest pebbles collect against the riffles. Fifty buckets later, we’d recovered enough concentrates to circulate through our pans.  

A few gold flakes and tiny nuggets were hardly the bonanza we’d envisioned, but there was still plenty of riparian recreation to relish. And when Sheba finally reappeared for dinner that evening, she relinquished a valuable item our supervisor assumed he’d never see again—let alone be in wearable condition.

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