Outdoorsmen emerge from their tents and truck beds in the early morning light. After a big breakfast they ready dry suits, diving masks, air hoses and a contraption that looks like a small pontoon boat.
This group is carrying on the age-old tradition of small-scale gold mining. Their method of choice is known as suction dredging.
“People have been prospecting for gold since prehistoric times,” miner Ron Larson says. “Gold has always lured mankind and man has always chased it. We feel a connection to those early miners.”
Larson and his mining partner, Sean Wheeler, connect a gas-powered motor and a series of hoses and clamps to the pontoon. With a few tugs of the starter cord, the machine roars to life.
While Larson oversees the motor, Wheeler dons his diving gear and plunges into the water of Peshastin Creek. He clears rocks and small boulders from the streambed into neat piles alongside the stream and then begins to vacuum the creek bed.
The water and sediment rush through the hose back to the main part of the dredge and spill out of over a series of baffles that look like a huge washboard. “Gold is heavier than every other mineral in the stream,” says Larson. “So it will fall and get trapped in the grooves while the rest of the sediment goes back into the river.”
Hydraulic – or suction – dredges allow miners to go through many times more sediment than a traditional gold pan. Over the last few decades they have emerged as the preferred tool for most serious miners. But their activities haven’t gone without notice.
Calling For Tighter Controls
Beginning in California, where portable gold dredges first became popular in the 1990s, environmentalists, anglers and native tribes have built an activist movement against suction dredging. They contend it degrades fish habitat and causes water and noise pollution. It’s a movement that’s been steadily growing throughout the West.
In 2009 California enacted a statewide moratorium on dredging. Oregon’s own ban on motorized mining takes effect Jan. 2. In Idaho, pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency resulted in severe restrictions on dredging that outlaw the practice in nearly every watershed. And north of the border in British Columbia the government has banned dredging pending further study.
Though other states like Colorado and Alaska also allow dredging in many of their waterways, the fight is now concentrated on Washington state, where a relatively hands-off regulatory system has led to an increase in mining activity. This has in turn angered fishermen, environmentalists and some legislators. These opponents have formed their own organization, Fish Not Gold. Their goals are to expose the harm that dredging causes to fish habitat and to either completely rewrite the rules on dredging or shut down the practice for good.
Last summer’s drought raised water temperatures and reduced flows in rivers throughout the Northwest, creating conditions that were lethal to fish. In response, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enacted emergency restrictions closing many popular dredging spots for several weeks.
People like Fish Not Gold Director Kim McDonald would like to see these kind of restrictions become permanent.
“Nearly every river in the state has fish that are going extinct,” McDonald says. “Since the 1990s we’ve been talking about what we can do about it. Should we tear down dams? Should we do away with hatchery fish? This is something we can do.”
Back on Peshastin Creek, miners Ron Larson and Sean Wheeler shut down their dredge and the quiet trickle of the stream can once again be heard. After a few minutes of carefully searching through the baffles, Larson spots what he’s looking for.
“Ooh yes I believe it is!” he says as he pulls a small shiny rock out into the sunlight. The glint of the metal is unmistakable – gold. Larson estimates its value at about $50, less than the cost of the gas to get to the site. But for miners like Larson, it’s worth it.
“Gold fever is very real,” he says. “It’s like an addiction and it keeps you coming back.”
And he swears that as long as there’s gold in these rivers, he and other miners will keep coming back. “When we’re faced with losing a way of life that we’ve had for so long it brings us together. And we’ll keep fighting the fight.”