There are people mining gold illegally in California's hills
By Adam Popescu10 October 2016
In the hills near Los Angeles, a handful of prospectors are hunting for gold. But what they are doing is against the law and could be harming the environment
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The San Gabriel River, California (Credit: Richard Wong/Alamy)
If you travel 40 minutes east of Los Angeles, above a canyon town and up a winding mountain road, on a river that leads to nowhere, you can go back in time to the 1849 Gold Rush.
Beyond the sage and yucca lining the San Gabriel River, there are men in waders and cut-off shorts. Bent over, with beards long and caps low, they are searching for gold. Some squint into 14-inch pans. Others swing pick axes until they strike bedrock. They heave shovels of dirt into sluice boxes, then use the river's current to sift silt from stone.
"We're prospectors," one old-timer mutters.
Some proudly flaunt their discoveries. Others are secretive, and for good reason. What they are doing is against the law.
Laws like the General Mining Act of 1872 are clear that removing minerals from this river is illegal. Dredging, a practice similar to taking a vacuum cleaner to the earth, is banned. It is loud and expensive, and requires heavy machinery.
In May 2016, I spent two days in these mountains. I saw no rangers, and no government presence beyond plaques. But I did see around a dozen miners working in and around the river. There is gold in these hills and they are determined to get to it. But it is not clear what that will cost.
A 19th-Century gold miners' camp in California (Credit: Photo Researchers Inc/Alamy)
Thousands of years before Europeans set foot in the Americas, the Inca had mastered metallurgy. For them, gold represented the Sun.
They did not bother mining; there was no need. Gold was abundant in rivers and rocks. The Andes and the Pacific "ring of fire" ensured there was plenty.
Gradually the Inca's practices spread north, and so did gold. Then the Conquistadors arrived and took the Inca's gold from them, savagely.
By 1848, the US had bought Louisiana from France and collected other lands from a bloody Mexican war. It had achieved "manifest destiny". But these lands were filled with hostile tribes, so few dared venture in.
Everything changed when a chance dig turned up gold at Sutter's Mill in California. Then gold was found on the Feather River, the Sacramento and throughout the Sierra Nevadas.
A statue of a gold miner in Auburn, California (Credit: Nik Wheeler/Alamy)
The result was the Gold Rush of 1849, which lured tens of thousands to the golden state. In rocks, pools and eddies, men made fortunes scooping nuggets with spoons.
The gold is there because, 400 million years ago, California was at the bottom of the sea. Underwater volcanoes spewed out minerals rich in gold, which were later carried into rivers.
Rivers like this one, where there was once a town: Eldoradoville was founded in 1854. More than $12 million (in 19th Century money) in gold was discovered: enough to support six saloons, a bank and, of course, a brothel. But floods washed the town away three times. After the last wash in 1936, what was left was abandoned – including, supposedly, safety deposit boxes full of gold.
After Eldoradoville was lost, mining carried on in a small way. It was finally shut down in 1942 by the government, which was worried about a shortage of metals during World War Two. The restrictions were lifted again in 1975, but by then the gold miners were well into old age.
Commercial mining never did come to these mountains. Instead, they became a protected area.
The San Bernardino National Forest in California (Credit: Richard Wong/Alamy)
In October 2014, President Barack Obama declared 350,000 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest and the Angeles National Forest a national monument. This area provides about 30% of L.A.'s drinking water, and supports endangered species.
While that designation sounds major on paper, the land remains underfunded and understaffed by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages a staggering 193 million acres in 44 states on a shoestring. That is because the service is busy battling bigger problems than illegal gold mining.
On 12 April 2016, I submitted a media request to accompany the US Forest Service upriver. Press approval is a slow process, and agents told me off-the-record that mining "isn't a high priority," and "not well-enforced."
The San Gabriel River (Credit: Adam Popescu)
A month later, the official statement repeated what I already knew: all claims, prospecting, panning, sluicing and dredging are prohibited.
"With our current workload we do not have the staff to [accommodate] a trip out into the field," says public affairs officer Nathan Judy.
I tried state legislators and two sitting congresswomen from mountain districts. All refused to comment.
Local police told me there were no reported crimes committed by miners, or hiker run-ins. "We haven't received any calls," Azusa police dispatcher Lauren Santamaria confirmed.
Fair enough. But what are the miners doing to rivers and the species that live in them?
In the San Gabriel Mountains (Credit: Adam Popescu)
Peter Moyle of the University of California Davis has been studying California's fish since 1969. He says the simple act of dumping rocks damages the environment and reduces the prey available to fish.
"All these fish feed on aquatic insects, and they live on the rocks," says Moyle. "The more you turn over rocks, you lose habitat for insects, which is essentially fish food. You're changing the ecosystem and anything that disrupts the stream bank is harmful."
The miners claim dredging creates habitat, which prompts a laugh from Moyle. "I've heard that before," he says. "We actually studied that in the American River with salmon, and found that the effects are neutral at best."
Even the most conscientious miners will impact something's habitat, he adds.
This watershed is one of 20 river systems that feed Los Angeles. That means the people working in it could affect the purity of drinking water, even if they do not use heavy chemicals.
Mining is "a complicated issue," says Jane Hendron, a public affairs division chief for Fish and Wildlife. That means her department has been powerless to take action, even though they know it is bad for the species they are tasked with protecting.
Fish and Wildlife works with the law enforcement arm of the Forest Service, which is responsible for patrolling, to make the case for action. But this is a slow process.
"Every agency has limited funds," says Hendron. "We can't do everything we want to, and there are priorities."
Since 2007, her office has confirmed that a small fish called the Santa Ana sucker and the endangered Arroyo toad have both lost habitat as a result of gold mining. They have been urging the state to disallow a kind of mechanised mining called suction dredging. The matter remains in litigation with over 20,000 cases pending, but an August 2016 ruling did uphold the ban.
So who are these gold diggers?
Most gold comes in the form of small nuggets (Credit: Adam Popescu)
A 2014 documentary titled L.A. Miner depicted them as extreme hobbyists seeking a respite from city life.
The film's director, Thomas R. Wood, is clearly taken by this romantic element. "I like a world where there are gold miners," he says, before comically declaring he is not an advocate. He is clearly invested, and calls these miners his friends.
"There's a community up there," says Wood, stroking his unkempt beard. "Most of the time you work really hard, not to get rich, but to find treasure. And that treasure is being outdoors, being off the grid, which is beautiful. It seems super-American to be frontiers-y. That's just as precious as the weekend hiker who wants to go along a manicured trail."
Wood says mining is about people's sense of the West, the intrinsic value of nature, personal freedoms, and (what can appear to be) arbitrary regulations.
Jay, another gold miner (Credit: Adam Popescu)
There have been claims that some of the miners are homeless, but Wood rejects this. "One or two go up for long stints," he says. "[But] no one's hunting elk, living in furs. Are you gonna run into a bearded guy without a shirt? Heck yeah… Sometimes, nature is dudes who aren't pretty and clean, and they swear and like guns. If they were indigenous, they'd be in NatGeo [National Geographic] and people would be talking about the beauty of prospecting."
He has a point. Unkempt and often unwashed, these are mountain goats of men. They represent a very rugged kind of masculinity, especially compared to hikers in designer shorts and fluorescent sneakers, blasting music from iPhone speakers.
It is easy to understand why Wood respects them. While most people could not make it home without smartphone assistance, this group thrives with the same basics as the forty-niners that built California.
Still, the other accusation stands: that the miners are polluting the land with trash, diverting rivers and threatening species.
To show me what the miners are really like, Wood agrees to hike in with me and his film's lead.
Savage (left) and Pat (right) digging for gold (Credit: Adam Popescu)
A Pall Mall dangling from his chapped lips and a black hoodie pulled over his head, Pat (on the right) extends a hand marked by scars and tattoo ink. The star of L.A. Miner wears Wrangler jeans and Wolverine boots. There is an octopus tattoo on his right bicep, in homage to a former pet, and Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China on his forearm.
With his slow Oklahoma drawl and Cheshire cat grin, Pat has a calm confidence. I have never met him before, but somehow, in a parking lot on the side of a mountain, he seems the safest person to head into the unknown with.
As we gear up, streams of twentysomethings pass. I ask where they are going.
"Bungee jumpers," Pat answers. "Hikers are the real problem. They come for the day, throw out their trash, never pick it up. Some even leave plastic bags filled with their dog's [faeces]. Can you believe that?"
On cue, minutes later, we walk past those plastic doggie bags. Pat scoops them up and dumped them in a trash bin.
"No one picks that up, but miners do," says Pat. "Miners are environmentalists first. We eat out of cans. After we eat out of cans, they're coffee cups. There's not a miner that trashes the canyon. We carry trash out."
Pat on his way into the San Gabriel mountains (Credit: Adam Popescu)
Pat has been coming here for six years. It is a kind of self-imposed therapy to battle depression. A mix of science, DIY gumption and internet savvy first gave him the confidence to start.
The 36-year-old calls himself a hick, but he is far more complicated, even if at times wrong. He has a degree in microbiology, with a minor in chemistry. He spent three years as a lab technician, "testing cancerous tumours for various types of proteins." Then he did a stint in lockup on a fireworks charge. Nowadays he works as a race car mechanic.
After L.A. Miner ended production, he threw himself into mining so religiously that he ended up with a severe back injury. Surgery and a year of rehab followed. Now he has nerve damage running down his left leg and is in constant pain.
But you would not know it by the way he scrambles over loose rock. He says he is 60% recovered, but he easily navigates slick logs and moving water while I slosh in soaked boots.
"This is nugget alley, where most of the lazier guys prospect," Pat says. Most of the gold here is "flower gold": fine, sand-like flakes in the riverbed.
The bigger stuff is further up. Getting it requires slave-like labour: placer mining, separating gravel from gold with hand tools.
"It's very solitary." Pat says. "Then you build a rapport and find locals, which is handy because they'll tell you what's already been dug, what's not. Then you get crude gold."
Bags of rubbish (Credit: Adam Popescu)
Getting serious gold requires destroying rocks and sometimes altering rivers. Many miners build shelters and fires, and stay in the wilderness over 21 days. This is all against the law.
"It looks bad when you see a big hole in a river that two dudes just made," admits Pat. "Granted, if everybody lined up shovel-to-shovel, that's bad. But half a dozen dudes every 200 yards?"
Pat says the harms of mining are overstated. "Turbidity looks bad to the human eye," he says. "It's cloudiness in the water. That's what river fish thrive on… The entire ecology of a river is predicated on nutrients picked up and dropped back into the water."
He also says his actions have environmental benefits. "It looks like ecological terrorism, but we're making fish habitat," he says. "The Sierra Club dredges rivers to revitalise [them]."
In fact, the Club's director Kathryn Phillips told me she is "deeply worried" about what is going on in these waters.
"Digging a hole in a river is not bad for a river," continues Pat. "It creates fish breeding ground, and in one rain storm it's gone, like it never happened. There is no permanent damage."
I am reminded of Moyle's comments to the contrary, but I do not get a chance to say so.
Pat shows off the canyon like a proud parent, but he gets serious further up. When rains hit, flash floods are a real danger. He has lost friends.
Thomas R. Wood with Pat (Credit: Adam Popescu)
In 2015, in the narrows, a section of river hemmed in by sheer rock walls, a miner in his 60s was crushed by a boulder. His body was not found for 10 days.
Another old-timer, Papa Bear – a Vietnam veteran who was a fixture along with his common-law wife, Mama Bear – also passed in 2015, from a heart attack.
Not many miners are left. "You could probably count them on fingers and toes," Pat lamented.
I ask about the tales of prospectors fighting Old-West-style to keep rivals away, even shooting each other. Pat shrugs. It is possible, he says, but these are not outlaws. They are more a breed of ultra-libertarians.
Pat (left) and Savage (right) (Credit: Adam Popescu)
Hours later, when we make camp four miles upriver, we encounter a short, furry man far stranger than any fiction. His name is Daniel, but everyone calls him "Savage."
One look explains it. A coarse beard, and long hair starting to dreadlock, obscures everything but a sharp nose and glinty eyes. Shirtless, his belly sucked in, he looks underfed. On his chest are tattoos of a skull and bones, and a shovel and pickaxe. They look like gang colours.
Savage staggers into camp like a wounded creature, fresh from battle. "My feet hurt, my hands hurt, oh it's great to be a gold miner," he laughs. The men pass around a bottle of Knob Creek whiskey, light cigarettes and bowls of marijuana, and trade tales of cougars, bears and bighorn sheep.
Hikers splash in the water a hundred yards off, but they could hardly be farther away. The "us vs them" mentality sharpens upon Savage's arrival.
Savage shows off a nugget of gold (Credit: Adam Popescu)
"Dude, I was born 130 years too late," Savage moans.
Something tragic happened to Savage a few years ago: something he does not want to discuss. The Bronx native quit culinary school, came west, and landed here. He has lived here for three years, only returning to "the flatlands" to restock.
Three years is a long time to be so far off the grid, and you can see the wear on his face, his body, his mind. His skin is leathery, his hands gnarled and cracked. He is bordering on feral. When he swings a tool he looks like he stepped out of prehistory, a Neanderthal reborn.
"I'm a nugget hunter," Savage declares. He shows me gold, some silver and a garnet.
Savage in his element (Credit: Adam Popescu)
Later that night, under cover of darkness because he is wary of unexpected guests, Savage showed us where he lives. It is a few feet from a trail, sandwiched against manzanitas and an overhanging oak. You could be leaning on his front door and not know it.
"Pretty cool, huh?"
He has made a yurt, with a wooden door that – once peeled back like an upturned can of tuna – reveals an early man lair. Inside, a tent offers protection from elements and animals. There is a cot and supplies, but little room for much else. Savage built the yurt after repeated raids from a cinnamon-coloured bear, which he swears he got rid of by kicking it in the snout.
"I'm a caveman," he boasts. "No wife. No kids. No bills. I'm free."
Is he? How long can anyone live on such an island?
For all Savage's bragging, it is apparent how lonely he is for company. He also needs better nutrition: all this work burns calories. Sure, there is some foraging: figs, berries, yucca, cherries, miner's lettuce. But it is hard work, and isolating.
It is also, in financial terms at least, not terribly worthwhile.
Thomas Wood, Pat and Savage (Credit: Adam Popescu)
At one point I ask Pat how much gold he has found. "Not much," he says. "Unfortunately I had to sell quite a bit over the last few years. I still have about 10, 11 grams at the house." With the price of gold around $40 a gram, that is hardly enough to retire, but he says the tug of a major find makes it fun.
"This is the most amount of work you'll do for the least amount of money," says Savage. But as far as he is concerned, that is not the point.
"It's about being out here," he says, using a twig to stir canned roast beef hash on a propane-fuelled skillet. "It's about being free."
He is rather contemptuous about money. At one point he throws a pile of greenbacks in the dirt and says "this does me no good here". But he promptly scoops the cash back up afterwards.
Back at camp, there are rumblings of a reality show about the miners. Pat builds a fire and we take turns letting off rounds from his .38, firing at cans. Then we bed down under the stars, just like the miners of yore.
The San Gabriel range overlooks Los Angeles (Credit: Chad Ehlers/Alamy)
As we hike out, I try to reconcile what I have seen in the mountains with what I learned from the scientists and government agencies.
The problem they all face – from miners to government agents – is the same. How do you keep a wild place wild? The definition of "natural" depends on who is asking.
Both sides villainise the other. In the miners' defence, I did not see any endangered species threatened, or miners dumping chemicals or trash. Yet, that does not mean they are not having an effect. Certainly, I saw plenty of streams diverted, and men working in them.
I also worry that, one day, a wayward trekker will startle a miner who has made a big find, and gold fever will turn tragic. Even if this dramatic scenario never comes to pass, the miners chuck rocks around carelessly, which seems like a recipe for an accident. Then gold mining will become a government priority for all the wrong reasons.
Greed and desperation did not send these men to the hills. They were attracted by something harder to define, something the city could not provide.
The miners are not bad people and they are not derelicts. They are just people, fitting many descriptions. Some are alienated, some are seeking fresh starts, and some just want freedom. All are looking to escape conformity. All revel in testing themselves against nature.
Still, it would not be a good idea for hikers in these hills to pick a fight with the miners. They have a code of honour that is hard to explain. If they are pushed, they will push back.
I wonder now if Wood missed the point when he said that the miners would be celebrated "if they were indigenous". Given that they have set themselves up as something separate from mainstream society, surely they already are an indigenous culture?
I also think about the recent court ruling, and wonder if new rules and regulations might be the best option. It is the last thing the miners want, but maybe there is a way to allow them to carry on what they are doing, while at the same time minimising the ecological damage.
After all, it is the job of government agencies like the Forest Service to protect all who come here. It seems to me that should include the gold miners.