2003 Sierra City Dredge and Detecting Trip

By Chris Ralph

Every year for the past several years I have taken a prospecting trip to Sierra City, California to dredge on a friend's claim nearby.  Sierra City is a historic gold rush town  of a little more than 200 persons.  Known mostly for its rich lode mines, it also had some rich placers as well. Its now a center for various recreational activities including prospecting, fishing, etc. Last's years trip didn't go very smoothly for me, as mechanical problems with the pump caused me to get only about a day and a half of dredging in for a five day trip. Still, I did pretty good for the time spent, and I got about a penny weight of gold.  For 2003, I wanted to add a few days to get back the ones I lost in 2002, and I wanted to make a few improvements to the dredge. A few years ago I added a new pump, and I noticed a decrease in fine gold recovery at the same time.  The increased flow volume was blowing gold right out my sluice box. I was determined to make improvements for 2003, so I built a new sluice to replace the old crash box style unit I originally purchased from Keene in 1978. I am a Mining Engineer by training, so the project did not seem unreasonable to me. sierracity1.jpg (46664 bytes)  

The historic old mining town of Sierra City

For those who are interested in seeing more on the design and construction of my home made 3 stage sluice, click here: HOME MADE SLUICE BOX. The first day, all I really did was make the drive up from Reno, get my camp trailer situated, and move the dredge down the trail to the river.  I got going setting up the dredge the next morning. This was the first time I had set up the modified dredge in the water, so it took until noon to get it set up. By afternoon though, I was in the water and moving gravel and the the dredge seemed to operating just fine. The first clean up confirmed that I was getting much better fines recovery. I  worked an area with fairly good gold. The gold was coming in on the bottom of a flood layer, and there was a visible color change at that point.  There was very little gold actually in the lower layer, so once I hit the lower layer, I just moved over to the adjacent area. The barren flood layer was covered by one to two feet of clean recent gravel.  Bedrock was much farther down, though I never got close to it to see exactly how far. The deepest I went was the first week was about 3 feet. Previously I had gone to about 5 feet, but had not found bedrock. The second week I punched down to 5 feet again in another place, with still no bedrock. dredge_trip03-3.jpg (60759 bytes)
The modified Dredge in the N. Fork, Yuba River
The third day I went out to do a little detecting. I went with another prospector to a site that had been ground sluiced by the old time prospectors. There were several acres where the bedrock was fairly flat and close to or exposed at the surface. There were also many acres covered with stacked boulders. The area had a large amount of iron, as nails, scraps of sheet metal or bits of can. Iron discrimination was definitely needed. Unfortunately, my detector was not operating properly, as I had accidentally broken off a switch on my MXT before I left for this trip. This meant that I was locked at a certain ground balance setting, and the machine would not adjust (which the MXT normally does automatically). Still I covered a lot of ground, and though I did not find any gold here, I did find some small bits of lead, so I figure if I had put the coil over any gold, I would have found it. The guy I was with did find a few flakes panning surface material, but did not find anything with his detector, either. He had previously found nuggets to 5 dwt detecting at this site, but I think its pretty well cleaned out, now. He was using a Fisher Gold Bug II. That afternoon, I did get in a couple hours dredging, and did much better at finding gold with the dredge. ladies_canyon_aug03-1.jpg (78261 bytes)

Ground sluicing site - Bedrock in Foreground

Last year, I had scoped out an area among some boulders that I wanted to work with the dredge. Because I was only going down about a foot and a half to a flood layer change,  I had pretty much worked that area out by the end of the first Saturday. I just ran into too many large boulders, and though I was getting some gold, it wasn't enough to justify stringing up a come along. So, I just proceeded to move over to an adjoining area. There were adjoining areas of a similar nature a few feet away, so I moved over and kept working. My schedule was to make this prospecting trip out of two consecutive long weekends. I arrived on a Wednesday, and I would return home that Sunday afternoon, take care of work and the home front for several days, and then return on the following Thursday. Sierra City is only 2 hours from my home, so this schedule allowed me to get 9 days of prospecting, while only taking 5 days of vacation - and most of all keep the wife happy.  I was pleased with how things worked out as far as the two week schedule. ladies_canyon_aug03-2.jpg (55742 bytes)  
Chasing detector targets in exposed bedrock
Well, when I returned for the second half of the trip, we had weather problems. It rained before I arrived, but it started pouring down very heavy rain with frequent lightening about an hour after I got there. I hadn’t yet finished assembling the dredge, so I covered the motor went back to the house above the area we work, and waited under the eves for the rain to let up. After a while it let up – but we got almost an inch in about 20 minutes. I got the dredge running, but after about 45 minutes of operation the water got so murky from the run off that I couldn’t see more than about a foot, and I had to stop dredging. It continued to rain heavily with frequent lightening off and on for over 24 hours, and the river remained too murky to dredge. Early Friday afternoon, I decided to try a little sniping along the river with my pan, but the rains returned and I got drenched. It was cold, with a high of about 60 when it should have been in the low to mid 90s. Dredge_setup.jpg (43660 bytes)

The dredge and new sluice box in action

At about 3 pm on Friday it finally let up, but the water wasn’t clear enough to dredge until Saturday morning, and I had arrived on Thursday! While I was waiting out the rain, I spent some time looking at old reports, maps, etc and making plans for future trips. I had brought these to look at in the evenings, but I had lots more free time with the bad weather. I also spent some time talking with some of the other prospectors working in that area, and I heard a tale that we are going to chase down real soon. It’s a small tributary creek high in the gold country and we have a reliable report that it gives 2 to 3 rice to pea sized nuggets in every pan, without being too picky about where the pans are taken from (yah, I know these tales are usually exaggerated, but I need to see if its true). It’s a far hike from the nearest road to the site, so we’ll make plans and do it soon. At the end of the day on Friday, (after the rain let up, but the river was still too muddy) I spent a couple hours detecting with my metal detector along the exposed bedrock by the river. It has been well worked before, but I did manage a small 2.1 gain nugget out of a previously worked crevice. Sometimes folks think they have finished getting every little thing out of a spot, but the metal detector can let you know otherwise. The gold often hides right at the very bottom of the crevice. dredge_trip03-8_04_site.jpg (46143 bytes)

Next Year's planned 2004 Dredge site

By Saturday morning the weather was great and the river had cleared up, so into the water I went. The dredge had gotten all kinds of heavy dew condensate inside it, so it was a little hard to start the motor, but I got in about 5 hours of dredge time. I continued to work the shallow flood layer that appears in that part of the river, which I had been working the week before. I also took a little time to make a few plans for where I will dredge next year. I take photos of the river to help me remember. Of course if we get a big flood, it will all be moved around and I’ll have to start from scratch. One of my co-workers came up from Reno on Saturday to do a little panning, and after I was done, we went and got a burger at the local coffee shop.
Sunday was my last day, so I only got in about 1.5 hours of dredge time before I had to quit. It took about 3 hours to clean the sluice box and pan it down, disassemble the dredge and carry the parts up the hill to my car. I got my trailer from the campground and had a nice, uneventful trip home.
Detect_nugget.jpg (19716 bytes)  

2.1 grain nugget found with the MXT detector

The final gold tally was just a hair over 4 Penney weight. It was all small, the largest nugget weighing in at 9 grains. With the rain, detecting and dredge pack in and out, I only ended up with a total of 15 hours of actual dredge time over the whole 9 days. Next year my goal is to get in 30 hours. If I would have put in more time dredging, I’d have surely gotten more gold, but all in all, it was a great trip. The new home made sluice box performed real nice and did a great job holding onto the fine gold. The lower level of the box did not plug up, and the sluice was a big improvement on my box from previous years – I definitely got a lot more fines. I made some new friends, visited with some old ones I hadn’t seen in a while, got a little gold, saw some impressive nuggets, got some ideas for future prospecting trips. What more can you ask for (other than getting more gold!)? I know I’ll be back in Sierra City again next August, and hopefully the rain will stay away. Maybe if I get enough time in the water dredging next year, I'll top half an ounce. nuggets_2003.jpg (38665 bytes)

Final Results - 4.1 dwt. Gold Recovered

While I was In Sierra City, I met a prospector who had been working in that area during the summer months for many years. The previous year he had found a crevice that yielded some nice little nuggets. He wanted to follow it, but large boulder hung precariously on top of it. His son, who is also a recreational prospector, assisted him to winch off the boulder, and a couple more that were behind it. The crevice was out right out in the middle of the river, though the water at that point was too shallow to dredge. The crevice turned out to be nearly 10 feet long, and over a foot deep. When they cleaned it out, they were rewarded with almost 6 ounces of gold, including two nuggets of about 1.5 ounces each (one was just above an ounce and a half and the other was 28 dwt.). The two nuggets in this photo came from that crevice and are 8 dwt and 28 dwt in size. NFYuba_Gold.jpg (14417 bytes)

Yuba River Gold, unfortunately these are not mine


The same prospector also had this specimen which he did not find, but purchased. It is a crystallized gold specimen from the Red Ledge Mine near Washington in Nevada County, California. The Red Ledge Mine is famous for beautiful gold specimens of this type.

crystal_gold.jpg (8385 bytes)

Crystaline gold from the Red Ledge Mine

The North Fork of the Yuba River is a well known gold bearing river and has been heavily dredged, especially in the area both above and below Downieville. It runs for miles through the Sierra Nevada range. Where I am working it has been little worked in the last 10 years as the claim is pretty much surrounded by private property, and permission to trespass is required.  Here is how the river looks toward the upper end in the vicinity of Sierra City. This spot is actually a well known local swimming hole for the kids - but there are nice nuggets in the bedrock and among the boulders in the background. nfyuba_river_cmpgrnd.jpg (39284 bytes)  

North Fork, Yuba River - gold country

The second week I was there, I did a little detecting along the river at some exposed bedrock while the water was too muddy to dredge. Here is part of the place I worked, looking for gold in cracks and crevices in the bedrock. Although this site has been pounded pretty hard, I did find a 2.1 grain gold nugget. A lot of folks have found gold at this site over the years. BEDROCK1.JPG (53644 bytes)  
Exposed Bedrock along the river - detecting site  
The color on this shot came out really bad. It was shot in the morning in the shadows. It shows though, that the bedrock has deep cracks and crevices that can hold nice gold. This one has already been well worked, but you can see how this type of opening could catch gold. It can be tough to negotiate even a small coil around these spots, but it can really be worth it. CREVICE.JPG (106068 bytes)  
Bedrock Crevice - Previously worked  
Thanks for joining me on this virtual prospecting trip to Sierra City!

- Chris Ralph

ICMJ Prospecting and Mining Journal


All Copyrights retained by Chris Ralph, do not copy or reprint without permission


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