KERN RIVER CANYON, Calif. – David Fiori, waist-deep in the chilly Kern River, braced against the current, stabbed a shovel into the ancient silt between his feet and tossed the muck downstream. His eyes, though, wandered to a potential prize – a spot on the opposite bank of the river.
To the uninitiated, it looked like just another leafy bend in the 165-mile-long Kern, which carries the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada toward the sea. But prospectors have had a different sort of perspective in this stretch of California for a long time.
On the other side of the river, Fiori noted, the crystalline water roiled and turned white because it splashed over a cluster of underwater boulders. It’s the sort of geological quirk that abruptly slows the current, causing heavier elements to settle into the muck of the riverbed – namely, gold.
The spot couldn’t be accessed. Not on this day – too deep, too much current – but soon, in a state that seems to be withering like a raisin. Across California, the drought has reduced the flow of rivers and creeks to the point that a new wave of gold prospectors is gaining access to spots that haven’t been reached in decades.
The prospectors are well aware of the pain the drought has brought their state. No one is happy about that, but they are gleeful and unrepentant about their new quest, to find a silver lining in flecks of gold.
“That’s where I’m going next, as soon as I can,” Fiori said, nodding toward the whitewater on the other side of the river. “Another couple months, this thing will be down to a trickle. It’s going to be amazing.”
California is in the third year of severe drought, and 2013 was the driest on record – the driest since the 1500s, according to one study. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency earlier this year. Relief will not come soon; the summer will be hot, officials predict, and most of the state’s primary reservoirs are already far below historical averages.
The state’s snowpack – the sort that creates the Kern River, dripping from the Mount Whitney area and flowing through the San Joaquin Valley, past Bakersfield – typically provides about a third of the water used on farms and by cities. But the snowpack is at 18 percent of its average.
Researchers said last week that the drought has meant a loss of $1.7 billion. The toll becomes clearer each day, as water vanishes, and long-submerged highways are revealed; as farmland sits fallow and thousands of jobs are erased; as salmon eggs are left exposed to the air and the harsh sun, killing them; as sheep ranchers cull their herds early because they can’t make hay to feed them.
But for one small, proud, iconoclastic community – gold prospectors – the drought has been a boon.
Recent prospectors are famously secretive about their activities, declining to reveal either their precious spots or their take, for fear that others will splash in behind them.
But the signs are everywhere, and in many places where prospectors feel a deep connection to California’s rich history – in Lytle Creek near San Bernardino, named for a Mormon settler in the 1850s; in the San Gabriel River, named after a mission founded by Junipero Serra in 1771; in the Bear River of the Sierra Nevada, where prospectors first arrived during the fabled Gold Rush of 1849.
It’s more than a hobby and less than a rush – more like a fever.
“It’s not the normal, that’s for sure,” said Farris Farnsworth, a 66-year-old, retired fix-it man, as he swirled a handful of river sand and water in a mining pan on a recent weekend morning. “If somebody was to walk up and see us down here, they’d probably think we were a little nuts.”
He stood in a remote access point to the Kern River northeast of Bakersfield. Most days, you wouldn’t find a soul around here. But on this morning, nine people stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the river, all prospecting for gold. The shore was littered with buckets, mining pans and shovels.
The opening to the river was matted with footprints and reduced to a mud bath; prospectors climbed back to land by grabbing onto overhead branches, sometimes holding their backs after several hours of stooping over the river.
On this morning, most of the prospectors had positioned sluices, large metal trays made to filter soil, in the rolling water of the Kern.
Shoveling muck from the bottom of the river through the sluices gave the prospectors the material they were really after – “black sand,” the sort closer to the bedrock. Gold is heavy, eight times heavier than the quartz it often originates from, 19 times heavier than water. So when it falls, it tends to settle into the deeper reaches of the soil.
“It wants to go to the bottom,” said Adolph Lostaunau, 46, an equipment mechanic and the president of the Golden Valley Prospectors Assn. “The gold just sits there and waits for somebody to get it – like me.”
Black sand was then taken in buckets to the banks of the river, where it was sifted, handful by handful, in timeless mining pans, swirled with water and angled against the sun until a prospector could “see color” – tiny flakes of gold.
That’s easy enough; most of these prospectors see color virtually every time out. But nuggets are almost never found. Typically, the luckiest of the group score a “picker,” a flake heavy enough to make a tiny ping when it lands in a mining pan, even if you have to listen very closely.
This was a collection of prospectors from two local mining clubs; Farnsworth said not a single one of them has ever sold any gold. But the romance and the link to California’s storied, gleaming past is right below the surface of the water. Farnsworth delicately splashed a bit of water across a pile of black sand in his pan, and then showed it gleaming in the sun.
“There it is,” he said. “Fine California gold. This river, there’s a little bit of gold in every pan.”