April 28, 2008

Gold diggers

Members of High Desert mining groups head into the Mojave for fun, relaxation, and perhaps treasure

Hugh Kidd, left, sifts dirt over a gasoline-powered dry washer as Guy Praster, right, looks for another shovelful during a gold prospecting trip in March near Barstow.

Victor Valley Daily Press

Huell Howser may be looking for California’s gold, but Norm Corey knows where to find it.

Corey has two claims in the High Desert, and both lie miles and miles down obscure dirt roads.

There are other claims he can work, though. His club, the Valley Prospectors, has claims that can be worked by anyone in the club. As far as we know, there have been no six-shooters drawn to defend a claim nor to steal one.

Mining is a bit more friendly nowadays. Mining clubs work claims together, and for the most part, just have a good time.

Corey, like most other miners, sees mining as an exciting way to relax. Although that sounds like an oxymoron, most prospectors will tell you it’s the best way they know to while away their time and get back to Mother Nature.

He and companion Eleanor Praster brought her grandson, Guy Praster out to work a claim on a recent Saturday. It was his first time out and it was something he wanted to do before joining the Marines.

Corey obviously enjoys mining. It doesn’t bother him a bit that it takes about 125 shovels of dirt — thrown into a machine that shakes out the dust, large pebbles, and other particles — to come up with enough dirt to start panning.

Of course, on this particular Saturday, he has Praster’s grandson along to do a lot of the digging while he supervises.

Corey, donning a rugged looking slouch hat with a wide rattlesnake band around it (one he killed and skinned himself), has a fairly wry sense of humor.

When he tells you that you can find gold using a dowsing (divining) rod, you don’t know if he is joking or not.

He is backed up by another prospector named Barstow Bob — a tall dark man with a white beard and handsome features — who says you can find anything you want with the dowsing rod.

He says if you’re looking for water, all you have to do is think water — let yourself become water — and the rod will find it for you.

“If you’re looking for gold and think gold, the rod will find it for you,” says Bob.

There is a certain wildflower, found in the sparse vegetation of the area, protruding from the dirt and pebbles. The stem is rotund and hollow, topped with tiny purple flowers. No one seems to know the name of the plant, but some prospectors believe that wherever they find it, gold is close by.

Gold miners are like Las Vegas gamblers. They have their own superstitions regarding where and how to find gold.

Instead of rolling dice after blowing a warm breath upon them or even feeding slot machines with quarters after some kind of ritual, miners look for signs that tell them where to dig.

Most gold miners seem to have an air of rugged individualism. They like being out in remote areas that lay at the end of bumpy dirt roads, and they don’t mind getting dirty. They enjoy the quest about as much as actually finding the gold. They just have a really good time.

There are differing ways of mining. There is dry wash, and there is wet wash, and many use metal detectors. So while most miners enjoy getting back to nature, some are incorporating technology in their searches.

The General Mining Act of 1872 made it legal for anyone 18 years or older to locate and mine a claim on Federal land. Before this, the laws governing mining were made up by miners as claims were established and word spread that California was rich in gold deposits. Newly acquired through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1849, California had no real laws except those made up in mining camps.

The HBO series “Deadwood” portrayed the development of such a lawless mining camp. It showed how the town created its own laws out of a necessity to bring order to the camp, and more importantly to protect claims. If you have viewed any of the scenes from this program, you know the language was pretty strong, but “Deadwood” gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the development of mining towns.

Ted Sparks, a retired geologist who works part time at Mining and More, a mining outfitting store in Hesperia, says, “It is important to know the geology of the area in which you are working.”

“I hate to burst somebody’s bubble,” Sparks adds, “People come in with what they think is gold, and I have to tell them it’s not.”

Sparks says that chances of getting rich are slim, but he remembers a couple of guys who came out with 16 troy pounds of gold. There are 12 troy ounces in a troy pound. On April 7, an ounce of gold was selling for around $924 per ounce, while silver was going for about $18 per ounce.

“I want a way of life that is not constrained,” says Sparks. “I don’t want to listen to my neighbors’ dog barking. Whether I find three specks or an ounce, (the fun) is being with people you enjoy.”

Hugo Mietzner says he has over $10,000 in equipment. He is one of the miners who sees the government as encroaching on public land, making it harder for miners to use the land as they see fit.

Although Mietzner has quite an investment, you don’t need to spend a lot to get started. Norm Corey has about $800 tied up in his generator and about $400 in the dry washer.

However, all of the local clubs urge newcomers to join and go out with someone who has equipment before investing any money.

The Au Mojave Prospectors of Hesperia meet the 3rd Thursday of the month at Los Domingo’s restaurant at 15885 Main St. in Hesperia. The meetings begin at 7 p.m. The club welcomes anyone interested in prospecting. For more information, you can call Hugo Mietzner at 524-1822.

The High Desert Gold Diggers meets the second Tuesday of the month at Church of the Valley in Apple Valley at 20700 Standing Rock Road. Their Web site is www.hidesertgolddiggers.org