This is a story about a professional, hardcore gold sniper, whom, for reasons of anonymity, I will call Alabama Jack (AJ). The tale, 100% true, chronicles one of his frequent forays into the untamed backcountry of one of California’s gold districts in quest of a sufficient quantity of gold to bankroll his expenses in the bush and those back in town.
Intimate details of his adventure, including a focus on his camp life and gold sniping techniques, are revealed as he goes about his daily business of gleaning placer gold from a remote creek winding through a forsaken, deep canyon ecosystem.
AJ the sniper had a scanty, little red cabin sequestered amongst a tall grove of cedar trees on the outskirts of Georgetown, California–a brassy, little Sierra Foothills community, established during the Gold Rush of 1849.
Early one morning, late in August of 1982, just shy of sunrise, AJ, in his mid-30s, tall, bearded, and robust, slapped a padlock on his front door.
The sun was peeking over the horizon minutes later when, behind the wheel of his stodgy, old pickup truck loaded with camping supplies and mining equipment, AJ rolled through town. Main Street was deserted except for a slovenly drunk, passed out, supine on the porch of the Georgetown Hotel bar–a scrawny, stray dog standing beside him, leg cocked–whizzing over him.
He was headed up-country (as the locals called it) into the vast, verdant maze known as the Eldorado National Forest. Miles after the pavement on the main forest road gave way to dirt, he turned onto one of the numerous logging roads in the area. In a cloud of dust, he bounced over ruts for jarring miles before switching onto a narrow, scarcely discernible trail, dozed out of the forest years before when the section was last logged. The pathway showed no recent evidence of use and was being reclaimed by the forest. Bushes were growing tall in spots; the going was slow and trending uphill. Multiple berms (water bars) crossed the trail and had to be crawled at a snail’s pace; switchbacks were many and several times he stopped to move large branches from the way.
Three-quarters of a mile in, he had to fire up his chain saw to cut an 80-foot fir tree that had fallen across the road into logs small enough to roll aside; a quarter mile further on, it was a burly, old oak that had to be dismembered.
Mid-morning found him turning off onto an overgrown, barely recognizable trail that loggers had once used to skid logs up to a landing on top of the hill. His truck labored in low gear while chugging up the steep trail to his staging destination, the ridgetop, nearly a half-mile above his objective-the wild, gold-bearing stream he intended to prospect. It was a watercourse that had been prospected and mined haphazardly during the gold rush era, but forsaken ever since–by and large.
Two long trips, backpacking heavy loads, were required to transport his mining and camping gear to the bottom of the canyon–creekside. There were no established trails in the area leading to the stream, making it necessary for AJ to blaze his own.
At the top, with over 80 pounds on his back, he had to fight his way through a deep, six-foot-tall, nearly impenetrable manzanita thicket that draped the ridgetop, leaving behind shirt fragments and blood smears on sharp, snaggy branches–a little patch of hide too.
Once free of the wicked manzanita patch, it was a steep, 2,300-foot drop in elevation to the bottom, the trickiest of it over long, slippery slides of fractured, loose shale beds. To keep from losing balance and tumbling down the mountainside, he found a sturdy, dead branch to use for a third leg while traversing the slides.
About halfway down the canyon wall, he stepped out onto a wide ledge and was instantly alarmed by the ominous, unambiguous buzz of a rattlesnake. Pulling his revolver, the first two rounds being snake shot, he aimed at the bush five-feet away where the noise was coming from–and froze. Without difficulty, he spotted the animal, a four-foot rattler coiled under the shade of the bush, getting with the program–rattling his tail like a maraca.
“Thanks for the warning, old-timer,” AJ said. And, holstering his pistol, cautiously backed off and continued on his way.
Twenty-five minutes later, legs tired and wobbly, he made it to the bottom where he dropped his load on the creekbank and slurped a long, cold drink from the stream. With satisfaction, he noted that despite stacks of moss-covered boulders along the stream’s bank (vestiges of age-old mining operations), there was not a solitary sign of recent human activity in the canyon. Aside from the old timer’s tailings piles, the setting appeared pristine, at least along the section of the creek within sight.
Grabbing his bulging backpack to use for a pillow, he stretched out on the ground under the shade of a tall ponderosa pine to relax, eat the peanut butter sandwich he’d packed in for the occasion, and roll and smoke a cigarette. Twenty minutes later, empty pack on his back, he trudged back up the mountain after the rest of his supplies.
Topside, before setting off with his last load, he maneuvered his truck into the woods, off-trail and out of sight, leaving a footlocker full of groceries (dry goods) under his camper shell for resupply-if sniping results justified working the stream much more than a week.
By the time the last load was piled beside the stream with the rest of his gear, it was getting dark. Setting up camp would have to wait for daylight. Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served as dinner–the open ground for a bed.
The next morning, after tossing rocks and dead limbs out of the way, AJ pitched his tent on a flattish spot, twenty-five feet back from the stream, and organized camp. Afterward, he was able to put in a few hours of sniping–recovering but a disappointing few specks of gold.
Early one morning, days later, still not having found enough gold to cover expenses, AJ sprang from his tent, singing Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.
Naked, except for boxer shorts, course sand squishing up between his bare toes, he fired up his propane single-burner stove and went about cooking breakfast–oatmeal laced with raisins, honey, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and almonds–singing merrily all the while–big, and hellishly off-key.
When cooked, he drowned his porridge in milk made rich from a double measure of powder. From his battered cooking pot, doubling as his serving bowl, he daubed a generous spoonful of oatmeal onto the top of a flat rock next to his tent and dribbled extra honey over it.
Standing back from the rock, he shoveled gruel into his mouth from the pot with his oversized, antique, silver spoon, found in a crevice while sniping years before. Disdaining forks as superfluous, it was the implement he favored to eat with while in the bush.
As he quietly ate breakfast, he watched two little chipmunks skitter down the bark of a nearby pine; chattering, they darted in a beeline for the rock, freezing for nervous seconds along the way to scan for predators. Once at the rock, they hurriedly stuffed their little cheek pouches with booty, then, cheeks bulging, streaked in tandem back to their sanctuary in the tree to savor, in relative safety, their loot. It was a routine established the morning after AJ set up camp. A splash of custom porridge they got each morning; at suppertime, they always showed up for a taste of whatever he ate, usually beans or packaged mac and cheese mixed with canned tuna.
After breakfast, AJ scrubbed his spoon and pot with dry sand and rinsed them out in the creek while his coffee water was coming to a boil. Next, taking a pinch from his can of Top tobacco, he sprinkled the whiffy shag over a gummed cigarette paper and rolled a smoke as perfectly round and smooth as the finest tailor-made cigarette. Then he charged his tin cup with steaming coffee and, still in boxers, sat down by the creek on a dewy, moss-covered log.
To AJ the sniper, the backwoods were a constant wonder and a joy of the highest order, ranking in intensity with the greatest ever sex, yet not nearly so ephemeral. As he smoked and sipped idly of his coffee, he soaked up, like a hungry sponge, the earthly beauty and fountain of serenity dispensed freely by his little slice of the canyon wild. Within a stone’s throw, clear, cool waters rolled past, crashing over rocks, boulders, driftwood, and other natural obstructions in the streambed and producing a mumbling of gibberish, sounding not unlike a room full of toothless, amped-up octogenarians, all yammering at the same time.
The fresh, early morning air was cool and kindly flavored with pine and cedar scents wafting off trees and mixed with the sweet tang of the slowly composting carpet of leaves and pine needles ascending from the canyon floor. Above the creek, a wispy, enchanting mist hung, seduced out from the water by the first kiss of the rising sun.
AJ eased his body to the ground and leaned back against the log. While he lazed, sipped creamed coffee, and sucked smoke from his cigarette, his thoughts drifted. Eyes closed, he conjured up a platter, stacked high with steaming cheeseburgers, fries, and tall, thick milkshakes–so enticing, they tugged on him like a tow rope.
He was tempted to race for town to satisfy his cravings. However, it would take the best part of an hour just to gain the ridgetop. After that, it was miles over trail and logging roads to pavement, and from there, a long drive to the closest burger joint; he would lose at the least a day’s work. Most importantly, so far, he had made little more than enough gold to fill his gas tank, let alone squander on superfluous munchies. So, he promised himself a grand feast in town when his accumulation of gold would justify the expense. For now, he would content himself with mere dreams.
After coffee and a cigarette, he grabbed his entrenching tool and charged off to a soft patch of ground at the base of the canyon wall–50 yards away, where fine dirt had been sifting down from above for ages–now two feet deep. Close up against the wall, seven mounds of fresh dirt, shaped like muffin tops, capped holes recently filled. When AJ sauntered away minutes later, feeling unburdened and toting his shovel back to camp, there was an eighth mound in the line and a little less tissue in camp.
A second cigarette and coffee later, AJ wiggled into his Farmer John wetsuit bottoms; then he lashed on his tennis shoes and dashed nimbly down the creek–off to work walking the tops of wet, snot-slippery rocks and boulders, just as carefree, cocky, and surefooted as if he were strolling down Main Street after a coffee and a newspaper.
To shield his suit against wear, he wore pull-on pads over his knees, fashioned by himself from inner tubes. Even so, from the everyday rubbing against bedrock, sand, and gravel while crawling around on streambeds searching for gold, now into a third season, fine abrasives that daily worked in between his pads and suit had worn holes through it at the knees; little pink patches of scuffed skin puffed out at those breaches. It was past time to patch his suit (again), or better yet, buy a new one.
Underneath his suit, pressed firmly against his chest, were two zip-lock bags. One contained two sandwiches made from pan-fried bread wrapped around a generous spread of peanut butter and jam–burrito style. The other held cigarette tobacco, a lighter, and rolling papers. Higher up was a bulge in his suit caused by the plastic bottle he carried–meant to hold nuggets too big to pass into his sniping/suction gun.
By day’s end, he will be working at his self-imposed distance limit of approximately two hours round trip from camp. So far his gold take had been disappointing; if at the end of the day, he decides to continue sniping this drainage, he means to move camp about an hour’s hike beyond where he quits today. Then, over time, he will snipe upstream and then downstream from his new camp, as always, an hour each way, before moving camp again. If the creek pays well, he could work out of his new camp for a week or longer, if not—if it pays poorly or not at all, he will move to a different section of the canyon or pull up stakes and relocate to another stream altogether.
Arriving where he had quit sniping the day before, hot and flushed, he hastily pulled the zip lock bags and nugget bottle from under his suit, laid them on the bank, yanked the Farmer John straps off his shoulders and folded his suit down to his waist, kneeled at the streamside, and plunged his head underwater to cool off and drink his fill.
Refreshed and shaking water droplets in a flurry from his hair, he listened with pleasure to the gurgle of the stream’s rippling waters mixed with the cacophony of bird, squirrel, and chipmunk chatter clamoring from its banks.
Gazing upward almost half a mile to the top of the canyon he scanned the horizon where sheer rock wall crashed into cloudless, pale-blue sky. The long, choppy line of the ridgetop was dotted with stately pine, cedar, and fir trees towering tall above a thick mantle of ash-green manzanita bushes. “Wow! it never gets old. There’s nowhere better to be and nothing better to be doing. I’m the luckiest fucking dude on planet earth!” he whispered, reverently.
But, he pondered, what if I get sick or hurt? Could I make it out? What if I get bit by a rattlesnake or slip and crack my skull or break my back. What then? I couldn’t hike out; nobody knows I’m here. I’d be screwed. I’d die, slow–hurtin’. He shook his head disdainfully and grumbled, “To wimp out is to die too, only harder.”
With purpose, he moved higher up on the bank to the lone madrone tree, where yesterday after work, he had hung his wetsuit jacket out on a branch to dry. Tossing stones out of the way, he plopped down next to the pile of sniping tools he’d also left. Shaded under its umbrella of branches and leaves, but bothered by pebbles in the sand pressing against his butt, he shifted for comfort and slumped back against the smooth, reddish skin of the madrone.
From a pinch of tobacco, he rolled and lit a cigarette.
Scanning the creek, he spotted a long run of exposed bedrock fifty yards downstream that had serious potential as a gold catch. He drew deeply on his cigarette, held and relished the taste. A moment later, head leaned back against the madrone and eyes closed, white smoke whooshed in a cloud from his lungs to rise and vanish in the breeze before it reached the tree’s bottom branch. Sucking in another deep pull, he visualized his gold bottle crammed full of course, lumpy nuggets. A faint, familiar tingle of excitement flushed through his head, intensified, dropped like a waterfall into his chest and flooded through his body to the tips of his toes. In a billow, he let the smoke go–grinning as avidly as if he had spotted hundred dollar bills dropping out of the sky.
Twenty minutes later, after gulping down one of his sandwiches and puffing another cigarette, AJ pulled his Farmer John wetsuit bottoms up, fought his way into his jacket, picked up his tools, strapped his face mask with attached snorkel high onto his forehead so as not to obstruct his vision while walking, and set out to study the dynamics in play at the long, auspicious looking run of bedrock that had caught his eye.
Halfway to the spot, at the edge of the stream, on a thin spread of gravel inches from flowing water, he observed a three-foot-long watersnake, head raised a foot above the ground, working with the aid of gravity to swallow an eight-inch trout ambushed and pulled from the water minutes before. With the trout’s head and half of its body gone into the snake, there was no fight left and little sign of life remaining, just a feeble quivering of the fish’s tail.
Moving on to a thickset crowd of willow trees standing along the stream’s banks, AJ arrived at his target. There, under a cooling canopy of shade, he stopped to study the topography. With mounting interest, he noted that the stream narrowed, dropped, and flowed approximately 250 feet through a channel worn into the slate bedrock. Due to the drop and narrowing of the channel, the speed and force of the current quickened. Consequently, the bedrock was kept clear of deep overburden throughout most of the run. To AJ’s delight patches of bedrock were almost completely bare. At the bottom of the chute was a contact zone where the slate bedrock gave way to serpentine; the channel fanned out again, and the current slowed and spread over a deep, wide field of boulders, sand, and gravel.
With a practiced eye, AJ paced the full length of the chute. From beginning to end, he identified over a dozen gravel packed crevices. Midway through the run, there was a smooth, oval-shaped depression in the center of the streambed, approximately 1 ½ foot deep, 8 feet long, and 5 ½ feet wide at its widest point. A foot and a half long dollop of overburden, capped by boulders, laid in a heap over the pool’s center; a jagged, gravel-packed crevice streaked from side to side of the depression while passing under the overburden. Auspicious!
AJ resisted his impulse to immediately tackle the promising-looking pool. Instead, he stuck to his long-established routine of working stream runs starting from the downstream end so to avoid covering up unworked crevices behind him with newly excavated overburden carried downstream in the current during the excavation process.
It took him an hour to clean the crevices below the pool and claim their gold—amounting to approximately 6 pennyweights (dwt).
Now, back at the depression, standing in the streambed at the edge were the crevice began, the current flowing around his lower legs, he scrutinized the crevice bisecting the pool. Where visible, it was approximately 3 inches wide, jagged, and jammed tight with gravel dappled in places with a thick rust-colored crust. The crevice was buried beneath a modest mound of gravel in the center of the pool that was topped by three boulders. The gravel consisted predominately of rounded, white-quartz pebbles. The crevice reemerged on the other side of the overburden, traveled across the pool, rose halfway up the wall of the depression and pinched into a hairline crack.
To prevent his mask from fogging, AJ spit in it–three times. With his fingers, he rubbed the spittle over the glass, then swooshed the mask back and forth through the creek water, strapped it over his eyes and plugged the snorkel into his mouth. Next, he kneeled in the pool, on the downstream side of the gravel-covered section of the crevice, and facing into the current, water foaming past in a rush, he dropped his tools beside him on bedrock for easy access.
Facing upstream, beginning on the right where the crevice was exposed, he worked toward the gravel mound. With his rock hammer, he pounded loose the impacted material in the crevice and, using his scratcher and jets of water from his sniping gun plus the fanning of his open hand, cleansed it thoroughly. Among the trash ejected from the crevice was a fish hook, two rusty, square nails, and a three-ringed, Civil War Era rifle bullet. There was a smattering of fine gold too, nothing exciting, just specks, no nuggets. Undeterred, he moved on to tackle the middle run of the crevice that was buried under the overburden.
With hands sheathed in thin, industrial quality gloves, AJ pushed and pulled against the largest rock covering the overburden–a rounded boulder weighing roughly 90 lbs. It was mired, wouldn’t budge. Working his gad bar under the stubborn stone, he was able to jar it loose. A smoky, white swirl of sediment rose from beneath the rock, became caught up in the current and was swept downstream. Locking his arms firmly around the now loosened boulder, he stood, and, straining, pitched it behind him. It smashed like a cannonball into the wall of the pool, sounding like a rifle shot, then bounced back into the hole, spewing spray in all directions and just missing AJ’s leg.
After evicting the boulders and half a dozen other heavy rocks, AJ grabbed his shovelhead and, using both hands, repeatedly scooped material toward him from deep into the mound of gravel covering the crevice. The lighter sand and pebbles were lifted into the current and swept downstream; the heavier material began to build up around his knees. In minutes, he had uncovered two feet of the crevice and stirred up a layer of clay and silt in the process. After the smoke cleared, he defogged his mask again and ducked back underwater to get a good look.
The newly exposed middle section of the crevice was tightly packed with small rocks and pebbles. A heavy, reddish-brown scale, a sign of oxidating iron, coated the tightly-packed contents. Based on AJ’s experience, that was a welcome sign, because when he found iron and other heavy objects, often remnants from the Gold Rush days, lodged in a crevice–gold was also apt to be present!
AJ smacked the contents in the crevice repeatedly with the curved, pointed end of his rock hammer, fracturing the stubborn layer of crust and breaking apart the impacted gravel. Next, he grabbed his scratcher and scrapped deep into the crack, back and forth, further loosening the materials. With a cupped hand, he fanned powerful pulses of water into the crevice while watching expectantly. Solids, mixed in a milky cloud of bubbles, swirled up and settled on the downstream side of the crevice.
He carefully examined the ejected contents, now clearly visible against the dark, slate bedrock. Among the scattered rocks, pebbles, and coarse grains of sand were four rusted square nails, a lead, Civil War Era Minie ball , and a worn, copper coin with a square hole punched into its center and raised oriental symbols showing on its front and back. Also forced out of the crevice were a couple dozen tiny specks of gold, seven shimmering flakes, and three little nuggets, all stark and glittering against the contrasting background of the blackish bedrock.
The coin, he immediately recognized as one lost or left in the crevice by a Chinese miner during the Gold Rush Era. The coins were often left behind by the Orientals in catches (crevices and the like) where gold was found; they were meant as a show of appreciation for the gold and to encourage continued good luck. They are commonly found throughout the California gold fields; most are purported to have very little value in today’s collectors’ market and are worth next to nothing for their copper alloy.
AJ sucked the gold into his sniping gun and dropped the coin into his bottle stored underneath his suit. He didn’t collect the Minie Ball or nails.
Returning his attention to the crack, he examined the scattering of pebbles, black sand, and specks and flakes of gold, along with the five hefty, little nuggets still lying on what appeared to be the crevice bottom. Gently, this time, he fanned the pebbles and most of the black sand aside and sucked the remainder of the sand, gold flakes, and fine gold up into his sniping gun. The nuggets, he retrieved with his fingers and dropped into his bottle.
With amplified enthusiasm, AJ beat the crevice again with the sharp point of his hammer, and suspecting, based on past experience, that there was more to the crevice, he raked its bottom several more times with his scratcher. A thin, inky-white cloud of silt rose from the crevice and quickly swirled away in the current. After fanning one last time, several gnarly nuggets (jewelry quality) and a train of yellow flakes mixed with a sprinkling of tiny specks of fine gold flashed brilliantly from the crevice’s true bottom. The nuggets went into the bottle, the rest, his sniping gun.
He went on to clean the full workable length of the crevice, chasing it until it pinched out, recovering more flakes and fine gold, a few small nuggets, too. During the process, he spotted an eight-inch-wide vug hole in the slate bedrock of the pool, eighteen inches upstream from the crevice. A profusion of opposing, tiny, sharply-pointed quartz crystals lined the shallow cavity’s pinched mouth like a set of Parana teeth. The crystals were thinly coated with an orange-colored silt. A.J. probed into the cavity with his screwdriver but was unable to see or eject any contents. With his sniping gun, he blasted a jet of water into the hole and flushed out a thick, pale-orange soup.
After the water cleared, he saw that six pieces of gold, looking like little melon seeds, and one gnarly nugget had been ejected from the vug hole; they had settled onto bedrock around the vug’s outer edge. He sucked the melon seeds into the gun; the nugget, looking to be a quarter ouncer, he dropped into his bottle with the others he had found. Then, with powerful strokes, he smashed the quartz crystals to pieces with his rock hammer, gaining width to the hole. Now able to see into it, he scraped the hole again with his screwdriver and jetted into it several times with powerful water blasts from his sniping gun. He kept at it until he was confident he had cleaned the hole of its last grain of gold–including an amorphous, ugly slug he estimated to weigh ¾ of an ounce.
AJ went on to strip the gold from all the remaining catches above the pool, getting, he guessed, another 1/2 ounce.
It was midafternoon and getting hot. Out in the open, the sun was beating down like a sledgehammer, the air so hot, it pained the lungs to breathe. It wasn’t near so unbearable in the stream or under the trees, but still plenty hot enough to slow a body way down. To refresh himself, he dunked his head in the cool stream, then broke for a sandwich and a smoke.
Afterward, he moved below the run of slate into the serpentine channel, where he resumed sniping. He worked on into the late afternoon, three more hours, and, because of so much overburden and so little visible bedrock in the section, he ate up a lot of creek, while recovering less than a half pennyweight of fines and flakes in the process–no nuggets.
He was just getting back into a good run of bedrock, and he figured there was an hour of sniping time left, but he decided to quit and head for home anyway. He had a camp to tear down, move, and set up again one hour’s hike downstream from where finished sniping today; and he had to get it all done tomorrow before dark. So, as soon as he arrived back at camp, he intended to get a start on packing for tomorrow’s move, as well as inspect and weigh his gold.
Following his normal routine, he hung his jacket up in a tree and dropped his tools where he quit; he was confident all his equipment would be there after he set up his new camp and was ready to go back to sniping the day after tomorrow.
Making his way to camp, AJ was thinking that if he could just put together another day or two like today, he would be able to replace the bald tires on his truck with brand new ones, get an oil change, grease job, air filter and spark plugs too–might even be able to afford a new wetsuit–his being so far gone. And he had a bad tooth–hurtin’ like hell. The wad of fresh garlic he kept pressed against his gum, between his cheek and tooth, was beginning to lose its pain masking ability. Maybe he could even see a dentist, but he’d have to wait and see how much money was left over after deductions were made for essentials. There’d be beer to drink, jukeboxes to feed, arms to wrestle, bets to place and dice to roll, jokes to hear and jokes to tell, and merry songs to bark in every saloon in town (costly!). Finally, at closing time, sloshed, hand in hand with a happy, saucy gal (hopefully), he’d stumble and sway down the street to his truck, laughing. And he’d find his way safely back to his cabin (with luck).
The spree would take a dinosaur bite out of his assets, always did, doubly so if he lingered in town too long before heading back into the bush. He’d be alright though, as long as he could pay his rent, resupply, and, by all means, stay out of trouble and the hospitable Graybar Hotel.
No need to bend his mind over such worries now though. He’d figure it all out while settled into a cushy booth at Burger King, after the gold was turned to cash and he was feasting on two steaming double whoppers with cheese, fortified with sliced jalapenos, and two supersized fries (heavy on the salt), while washing it all down with an extra-large strawberry shake (no straw), and a small Pepsi in a cup (no limit on refills).
Now, dreaming of town, food, drink, and frolicsome, good-time women, he merrily scurried back to camp over slippery rocks and boulders in the creek bed when he had to, sailed along the flat tops of banks and sand bars when he could–singing a little snippet of a song that had stuck fast in his head years ago.
He didn’t know the meaning of the three little words he so often sang; he didn’t care; it didn’t matter. To him just barking out the tune was gladdening to the soul–pure, sweet candy. And especially on the occasion when he narrowly dodged the gloom and darkness of defeat, just to climb that one step higher into the sunshine, regardless of where he was, he would let the enchanting little string–in baritone, fly.
That day, on his way back to camp, many times, loud and clear, the canyon echoed his joyful, cathartic mantra, “O Sole Mio!”