Small-scale gold miner Shannon Poe with vintage mining equipment near his Mother Lode claim. (Matthew Green/KQED)
ight after we meet, Shannon Poe asks me if I’m a) allergic to poison oak and b) freaked out by ghosts. Because where we’re going, he says, there’s a lot of both.
“Everything out here either stings you, sticks you or bites you, but we still love it," he says. "Now let’s go find some gold.”
Poe is a professional small-scale gold miner, a rare breed of Californian still chasing the Gold Rush dream. I’m tagging along with him and his buddy Don, a retired potato chip salesman from Modesto, as they head out to explore their new claim at the bottom of a small canyon near the North Fork of the Merced River. And Poe’s feeling good about the prospects.
“See that little cut in the hillside? That little gully,” he says, pointing towards a small canyon. “That is where all those nuggets are coming down right onto our claim. That’s where we’re going.”
We start out at Poe’s property in the tiny town of Greeley Hill, tucked into the foothills just west of Yosemite. Aside from a small garage workshop packed with mining gear, the spread is mostly undeveloped, a random assortment of machines and tools scattered about.
Poe says he bought the land from an old miner about 10 years ago.
“I found a guy that had 10 acres up here and I offered him basically a baby food jar of gold” Poe had "pulled out of the ground" nearby.
“He took it, and we own the property now," Poe says.
Poe’s a stocky guy in his mid-50s, with the weathered skin and gruff manner of someone who spends a lot of time alone in the woods. He’s intense, gregarious and quirky, with a mischievous grin and flair for the grandiose. One minute he’s recounting some daring mining exploit in Papua New Guinea, the next boasting about his supremacy as a fudge-maker in a yearly Christmastime cookoff with a neighbor.
We throw our gear into Poe’s dusty Kawasaki four-wheeler, he fires it up, and we head for the claim on nearby federal land.
Soon we’re roaring down rutted fire roads onto federal land, through a dry landscape of oak and manzanita. The hills above are barren except for the charred skeletons of trees burned in last year's huge, destructive Detwiler Fire. Yosemite's high country rises up to the east.
It’s beautiful, but far from pristine -- an environment that’s been used hard since gold was discovered on the American River in 1848. The roadside is littered with a strange amalgam of old and new trash: the occasional soiled mattress and dumped garbage alongside huge multi-ton mining machinery and metal pipes that were hauled into the hills more than a century ago and left to rust.
Poe kills the engine on the Kawasaki, and we scamper down a trail to the creek below. He drops his pack and starts sniffing around like a bloodhound, eyes fixed to the ground, tapping on rocks, weaving around thick tangles of poison oak and pointing out the sporadic pile of bear and cougar scat.
He stops at a bend in the creek, zeroing in on what he calls the drop zone, where the current is slow enough for small particles of gold to fall out.
“Well, I think we’re going to find some places here,” he says. “See what we can come up with."
Poe digs up a shovelful of rock and sand from the creek bed then washes out the sediment in his ribbed gold pan.
“Nothing in that," he says. "I've got to get to the bottom of that crack before we're going too find anything.”
lacer mining is a kind of surface-level scavenging. It’s a low-tech, highly repetitive activity, requiring some serious persistence: scooping and filtering rocks and sand from creekbeds over and over again, holding out hope that gold will eventually materialize. Like California's early gold seekers, most modern small-scale miners use little more than a shovel, a pick and simple devices like a gold pan or sluice box.
The most important skill, Poe says, is knowing what to look for and where to start digging.
Gold is commonly found hidden inside veins of quartz. And the presence of iron, another dense heavy metal like gold, is also a good indicator of its whereabouts.
“They say gold rides an iron horse,” he says. “In order to be a good gold miner, you really need to understand geology, hydrology, topography and be just dumb enough to come out and work your ass off to try to find it.”
And then there’s the historical element.
“You have to know the history in order to find the really good gold,” he insists.
We’re in the heart of the southern Mother Lode, an area criss-crossed with the gold-bearing quartz veins that helped make this ground zero of the Gold Rush. Hordes of prospectors flocked here to strike it rich. Some got lucky. Most didn’t.
“People came from all over the world," Poe says. "There were newspaper articles in France saying that you could walk around and pick up five-pound nuggets just laying on the ground."
Hundreds of thousands traveled from the eastern United States and from around the world. The newcomers displaced the remnant Native American population as well as the Spanish-Mexican settlers who had arrived starting in the mid-18th century.
Treasure hunters used increasingly more destructive methods to extract gold from streams and hillsides, reaping millions of ounces of the precious metal by 1860.
But Poe is confident there’s still plenty of gold here. The old-timers left a lot behind, he says, especially in the unexplored ground right below where they built their cabins. Those are the spots he looking for.
“We know that through all of our historical research that this was started to be mined in this particular area in 1851,” he says. “And if they came down and they built a cabin here, there’s a good chance that the ground underneath here has never been touched by human hands before.”
oe grew up panning in the streams near his Oregon hometown. But gold fever didn’t fully kick in until he came to California about 15 years ago for a corporate security gig: a loss-prevention investigator charged with weeding out employee theft at a retail businesses in the Bay Area.
“I wore a suit and tie and and I got really sick and tired of company cars and human resources and all that kind of crap," he says. "So I decided to take a year off. ... I had some mining claims and we pulled over six figures in a couple of months.”
Poe quit his day job, and after doing some research and gleaning some tips from the veteran miners, started working these hills year-round.
He's since become a gold-mining evangelist, touting the pursuit as something of an American birthright, a quintessential exercise in independence and self-determination. He spreads the gospel through a group he formed -- the American Mining Rights Association -- which helps other small-scale miners access and defend their claims. His truck is covered in a huge American flag decal along with an image of an eagle, the Constitution and the tagline: “Fighting for your right to mine.”
“It's about freedom man," Poe says. "I get to do what I want. I'm out in God's country every single day. This is where I have lunch. This is my office.”
But it’s hardly easy money, Poe says. He proudly rattles off the broken ribs and other common injuries he's incurred on the job.
“In order to find the really good gold you've got to hike a long ways, and most of the time there are no trails or it's a goat trail,” he says. “What we do is dangerous.”
But if you are willing to put in the effort, he says, you can actually make something. Gold is still one of the most valuable commodities in the world. An ounce today goes for about $1,300.
“What we get to do is not just fun. It's a hell of a good way to make a living if you really want to,” he says.
Last year was one of Poe’s best hauls in years. That’s thanks, in part, to California’s recent extreme weather swings: years of terrible drought followed by last winter’s historic rains created the ideal conditions for small-scale miners.
Poe says trees that bark beetles killed during the drought toppled and formed dams in the creeks, holding back huge volumes of water when the rains came. And then they broke.
“You had walls of water that came down these canyons that were sometimes 30, 35, 40 feet tall and it just literally scoured everything,” he describes. “All of that material that we had to dig six and a half feet down to -- all the trees, all the brush, all the poison oak, the blackberries -- it was all gone. And it was bare bedrock. ... We pulled ounces and ounces of gold.”
oe has a handful of registered mining claims in the hills here. They’re all on public land, so anyone else can hike and camp on them. But as the claim owner, he has exclusive access to the minerals underground.
It’s a right Poe guards vigilantly, and one that sometimes puts him at odds with environmentalists who often have different visions for how public land should be used. He's particularly bitter about California’s moratorium on a mining technique called suction dredging that involves vacuuming the bottom of a stream and filtering out the sediment with a motorized pump. The state temporarily banned the method in 2009 out of concern that it could disrupt stream ecosystems, and harm native fish habitat.
Poe dismisses these concerns. He argues there’s been little scientific evidence to support them, and the ban has caused real financial hardship for serious miners. His income dropped dramatically as a result of it.
“We all want to protect our natural resources and protect the environment,” Poe says. “But then again, there's fundamental rights that small miners have when you own a claim. You know I own the gold on this ground here. I should be able to get it. That doesn’t mean I should be able to bring a D11 (bulldozer) in here and rip a mountain away or dump mercury in the water. But that’s not what we do.”
After lunch, we hop back on his four-wheeler to check out some of the "haunted" old mines Poe's been mentioning.
On an embankment about 100 feet above the creek, we come to rickety picnic table at the gaping mouth of a mine Poe estimates was dynamited out in the 1860s or 1870s. The tunnel’s about 12 feet wide, disappearing quickly into darkness.
“This actually has tunnels that go on for a couple of miles,” he says. “There are some rooms inside this lode mine that are the size of basketball courts.”
You can still see the remnants of the makeshift shelves the miners chiseled into the walls to hold oil lanterns. Cool air blows out from deep within the shaft. Poe says it's always 64 degrees at this spot, no matter what the temperature outside.
“That's why we set up the picnic table," he says. "It's a great place to camp, if you're not afraid of ghosts.”
According to Poe, there are tons of lode mines like these sprinkled throughout the hills. Most aren’t marked on any maps and remain hidden under thick layers of brush. He just recently discovered a whole string of them after last summer's fire swept through and cleaned out much of the vegetation.
Poe says there’s still a good amount of gold left in many of these mines - mostly in the waste pile tailings the old timers left behind. But venturing inside them is extremely risky - many are on the verge of collapse, their walls often held up by little more than 150-year-old rotting wood supports.
“This goes back to that whole thing when we talk about ghosts,” he says. “Imagine how many miners died up here in the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, and I mean just got crushed and their buddies drug ‘em out and buried them right next to the mine shaft. I mean I wouldn't be surprised if we're 50 feet from dead people right now.”
He pauses to let me look around.
“If you sit here and there was absolutely no sound or anything else like that, you would hear people using picks inside here,” he tells me earnestly. “I’ve heard it dozens of times.”
Back at the creek, Poe wrestles with a large rock on the stream bed, and I help him roll it over. He grabs some debris and pans it. Grinning, he hands me a tiny speck of gold, not much bigger than an apple seed.
“That’s some nice gold there,” he says. “How’s that? Not bad. $20 pan. Way cool.”
It’s not the big nugget I was envisioning, but there is a small thrill in finding even a tiny piece of the glimmering mineral just lying there on the creek bed.
"That's really $20 worth of gold?" I ask him.
“Oh yeah, easily,” he insists. “Thin stuff, but nice. Here you gotta take that home with you and tell everybody you found gold. You moved the rock.”