By Mike “Mac” McNaney
On my last prospecting and fishing trip to the Feather River Canyon in Northern California, my son and I arrived a bit before opening day for trout to explore the surroundings and maybe come up with a few areas that were promising to uncover our favorite metal — gold!
I got a hold of Gordon Burton, owner of the Golden Caribou Mining Association, a local family-oriented small-scale mining group that has over 20 mining claims in the Feather River area.
We discussed the claims and the types of gold on each as well as the local laws, such as California’s suction dredging ban and the new rules that seem to be trying to keep us out of the woods. As we sat around fuming about the restrictions, Gordon mentioned that there were locals that go out regularly and come back with gold using a technique called sniping.
Now, Gordon has been around awhile. He’s been in the canyon for many years and if anyone knows what’s going on here, it’s him. He introduced me to Ronnie Cavenaugh, who everyone around agrees is one of the best gold snipers in the area. I sidled right up next to him, eager to learn a new mining technique.
Cavenaugh has scoffed at dredgers, even before the ban. Like all miners in the area, he has dredged, but finds it cheaper, more fun and profitable to find gold the old-fashioned way — with his wits.
Most of the locals agree that dredging is good after a high-water or flood year, but is not the bonanza that it once was. These waters have been heavily dredged since the 1950s and a good year depends on spring high water to drag more of the river banks into the channel, thus replenishing the gold in the rivers. Prospectors like Cavenaugh depend on gold recovery as part of their livelihood, so the sniping techniques that he uses work. The best part is that he finds mostly pickers and nuggets.
There are several definitions for sniping, but the one we are concerned with is of the feathered variety. A snipe is a type of bird similar to a piper. It has a long bill that it prods the ground with for bugs. Snipes blend into their environment and when in trouble fly away erratically so as not to get caught. This is the origin of the
military manhunter term, sniper.
There is the derogatory term sniper — a person who picks around the edges. This definition I’ve found in early prospecting history books as describing prospectors without their own claim — claim jumpers who scratch around the edges of others’ claims. There is also an old jest in which greenhorns would be sent on a snipe hunt, which is the same as a wild goose chase.
In prospecting today, I know of two types of sniping. One is the process of taking small samples from different areas to determine a hot area. I’ve used this method in the desert with a drywasher. The second is the uncovering of gold in likely areas left behind by dredgers underwater or that has never been touched, but is tucked away or stuck around the edges.
For sniping in water, some of the stuff stored away for dredging such as diving equipment can still be used. This method includes underwater bedrock excavation and is the type of sniping my son and I recently learned about — and did.
This underwater process is nothing more than looking for gold where it is likely to be, but you have done some footwork beforehand and have found an area of the river or stream where the bedrock is exposed or is close to the surface.
This is easy to do in the Feather River Canyon because all the rivers and tributaries run primarily over bedrock. In these areas, large rocks, cobbles and boulders are moved away from the exposed bedrock by hand, shovel or with levers such as long Collins axes or a winch cable hoist (Come-A-Long). Sometimes, under the bigger boulders you find pieces of gold stuck underneath. These pieces weren’t sucked up by previous dredges because they were wedged and gold was being sucked up so easy that the boulders were never moved, just vacuumed around and left there. A handy technique is to roll a large rock or boulder backwards into its dredge ditch then get under where it was with a shovel and sluice by hand or with a hand-operated suction tube.
You should stay well clear of a boulder when moving it. A chain basket being yanked by a vehicle or winch is best used with people far away. I have pulled rocks only to find that it was acting as a cork to a hole that rapidly fell in and gave way once the rock was removed. When this happens, a lot of things move and shift, including any people standing there. Cables and chains can snap under tension with deadly results. While prospecting, moving rocks and trudging through likely wooded slopes, you may come across or uncover an occasional varmint, such as a rattlesnake. No one wants to be attacked by any kind of critter, so pay attention! Safety first!
The best scenario for finding gold is when these large rocks and boulders are sitting on bedrock. I’ve heard and seen the results of yanking a one-ton boulder to find a quarter inch of fine gold with pickers and nuggets underneath. The rock is just as convoluted on bottom as it is on top and a dredge can’t get there.
In any stream or river, cracks in bedrock underwater can be a literal gold mine. Some are full of gold to the bottom of the crack which may extend for several feet down. Most have been dredged at one time or another, but a swing or scrape of a long-handle crack pick to the bottoms will almost always be successful. Herein lies the secret of sniping for gold in water.Many areas in northern California have been dredged and bedrock crevices have generally been sucked out. What little gold may remain is usually fine gold brought down the river during the last high-water or flood year. Bigger chunks are all gone — or at least harder to find. These cracks and crevices have been there for perhaps 10,000 years or more, full of debris and packed in tight; the bottoms of the cracks no longer get wet and these areas dry up to form a concrete-like substance called caliche.
A dredge can’t suck it up and at first glance it looks like part of the crevice. Caliche can be scraped and broken apart semi-easily to be extracted and it contains what turns out to be a lot of gold. A big crevice will have a wide caliche pack at the bottom and in this will be gold sometimes as big as the crack. Ounce-size nuggets and larger are not uncommon when sniping these canyon tributaries.
In truth, most of the work involved in sniping is uncovering the crevices and removing what has filled them up since they were last dredged — none of which is gold; it’s mostly rock and flow sand.
Some of the tools we used were an underwater flashlight, diving and snorkeling equipment, a couple different lengths of hooked crack picks, large prybars, rock hammers and a metal detector. The most useful tools though are the crack pick and a sucker bulb. The sucker bulb, similar to a snuffer bottle, is a rubber bulb with a long tube to get down into the cracks after you’ve broken apart the caliche.
For this trip — and for safety’s sake — we also had an experienced large-breed dog and everyone carried a large-caliber weapon in case we needed to defend ourselves against the reality of bears and cougars.
Cavenaugh showed us how it all works deep in the northern California woods in an area seldom seen by man. He has been cleaning out bedrock crevices in certain areas for several years and maintains that common-sense successful mining means getting back in the woods, where people have been too lazy or afraid to go. Yes, afraid.
He generally snipes alone and because of this has his best friend Yetti, the bear dog, by his side at all times. Yetti is a formidable Alaskan Akita breed and not only warns Cavenaugh of the presence of bears and mountain lions, but will chase them or lead them away. Pushing 100 pounds of solid muscle, Yetti is as gentle as a breeze, but as mean as any critter the woods when necessary. We got to see him in action and can tell you, he’s a good dog and earns his keep.
At night, the deep woods become thick, black walls surrounding a campfire’s edge. Not only can the forest make you feel small and alone, it harkens back to the time of the California Gold Rush when life meant two things — the call of gold and the call of the wilderness.
True stories of sniping adventures are told around the campfire and plans are made or amended for the next day. The food always tastes better — no matter what it is.
In the northern California, it isn’t unusual for an experienced local sniper go hunting for a few days at a time once or twice a month — and bag an impressive amount of gold each time. These aren’t fish stories. It’s real ... and it’s waiting.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Ronnie Cavenaugh and Gordon Burton of the Golden Caribou Mining Association for their extensive help and patience.
I’ll be back soon.
Mike “Mac” McNaney is a GPAA member, part-time resident of southern Utah and a full-time adventurer, outdoorsman and prospector. He can be reached at macztuff @gmail.com.