July 13, 2012
It was a cool summer morning when a couple of men in a jeep arrived at the Cleghorn Bar campground in Plumas County. Their jeep was loaded to the brim with supplies: camping gear, food, fishing poles, and gold mining equipment.
"What's the weather been like?" a tall fat man asks me while getting out of his jeep.
"Weather has been beautiful." I say while sitting on one of the tables in the remote campground. "A little warm but nothing a good swim in the creek can't help."
They began unpacking their supplies in the campground next to mine overlooking the bar which is a part of the Feather River middle fork. The campground and the bar are extremely isolated. First you can't even get into this campground with out a 4-wheel drive vehicle (truck, 4-wheeler, jeep) because the road is very steep, rocky, and long. 13 miles to be exact from the "main road." I put "main road" in quotations because the main road itself is isolated. The Quincy-LaPorte road is a 30 mile piece of winding, narrow road that cuts through the Sierra Nevada's between Quincy and LaPorte. You only take this road only if you're in desperation or looking for a good joy ride.
The Feather River middle fork is really a creek that flows to a drainage basin with other river forks to form the much larger Feather River that eventually flows into the Sacramento River a few miles north of Sacramento. Cleghorn Bar is where the middle fork becomes a little bit bigger than a creek, but not much in a gorge in the Plumas National Forest. The campground has no running water and the restroom only gets cleaned once a year. There a few camp sites but they're not much bigger than most people's living rooms and they come with broken down tables.
"Ah a great day to go mining," said the other much skinnier man.
After returning home from Big Bear I worked the winter at the bank my dad runs. I wanted to save money for I could spend another summer in the woods but this time not as a camp host. Not that I didn't enjoy cleaning toilets and meeting strange people that just wasn't for me. Besides I wanted to explore the California northern half of the Sierra Nevada's.
When I wasn't working at the bank counter, I was at the library going through books on California geography. While looking at locations in Plumas county I came across Cleghorn Bar which is a part of the middle fork of the Feather River. I called the park service in Quincy inquiring when it would be a good time to travel to Cleghorn.
"Well son," the park service ranger said over the phone. "Cleghorn is quite isolated. The paved road is snowed in all winter and doesn't get plowed until the county can be sure there won't be anymore snow at the beginning of the year usually around Memorial weekend. And then there's the road getting down to Cleghorn. It's very narrow and isn't plowed so you'll need plenty of supplies and a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Be very careful down there because it's very isolated and cell phones don't work in that area."
"Cleghorn is in the Onion valley, righ," I ask.
"That's correct," the park ranger said. "The road to Cleghorn coming from the Quincy side is right before you reach the warming shack in Onion valley. From the LaPorte side the Cleghorn road is on the left side of the road just past the Onion valley and the warming shack. Good luck if you go down there."
I laid out my plan for the trip. My truck is 4-wheel drive so I was set there. I would travel from my home in southern California up I-5 and cut across on I-80 to Truckee. From Truckee I would take Highway 89 through Graeagle to Highway 70 and then 30 miles north to Quincy where I would stay for a few days gathering supplies and more information on Cleghorn.
Working at the bank turned me stir crazy and I realized during that time isolation is what I'm looking for. Just the trees, creek, and me.
When I arrived in Quincy it was a few days after Memorial weekend. I spent the day in Graeagle on Memorial day watching a civil war reenactment in a big field. I have no idea what battle they were reenacting but I assumed it was the Battle of Antietam because they were pretend fighting near a creek and I saw a man in a gray uniform who looked like Robert E. Lee.
After my day in Graeagle I drove the 30 miles up Highway 70 to Quincy to stay a couple of days. I met with the park ranger service to go over the details of the Cleghorn campground.
"What's your name son," the park ranger who I talked to over the phone asked. "I want to know in case you go missing and for we can let your next of kin know what happened."
"My name is John "Ziggy" Cobb," I say.
"Does your parents know where you are?"
"Yes. I told them I was heading up to Cleghorn outside of Quincy."
"How long you plan on staying in Cleghorn?" I felt like I was being interrogated. Was it a crime to stay in Cleghorn? Is it that isolated that they don't want someone going missing on their hands?
"Well the entire summer," I say. "I'm going to buy food and supplies tomorrow and head up there. When I start running low I'll come back here and resupply."
"Son I don't believe you realize how isolated this place is. The unpaved road down into that gorge is 14 miles from the paved road which itself is very isolated. I've seen city slickers like yourself come up here before and go to Cleghorn only to come right back because of the isolation." Sounds like a wet dream to me.
"Sir I want isolation," I say. "I've spent most of my life in a crowded city surrounded by people I hate. And I have experience in the mountains. I worked for a summer as a camp host in Big Bear."
"Well this isn't Big Bear kid," he said. "I wish you luck though. I might drive up there sometime this summer to check in on you."
I shook the park rangers hand and went back to my motel. The next morning I went to a grocery store to buy supplies: couple cartons of milk, bottles of water, lighters, meat, trail mix, beef jerky, fruits, and vegetables. I figured this would be a test run. Get down there and see what I will need in my next supply run.
After paying for grocery's I headed up the narrow Quincy-LaPorte road. It's a beautiful road that criss-crosses the middle fork of the Feather river. The Cleghorn road is exactly in the middle of the Quincy-Laporte road between the two towns. As the park ranger said the road down to the bar is very narrow and rough. My only fear was that someone else would come up that road and there would be no place to turn off.
Luckily for me no one was coming up that road and much to my surprise there were people at the campground when I arrived. I unpacked my belongings and set up my camp which overlooks the Cleghorn bar. After I was finished I went to the swimming hole to talk to the other people at the campground.
"Howdy," I said to the man and woman who were swimming. "I'll be camping at the site next to yours. I won't cause much trouble."
"Don't worry about it," said the man. "We're leaving after today."
"Okay," I say feeling like an idiot for bothering these people."Enjoy yourselves."
As they said they left later that day and I was by myself. I spent my days taking a hike by the middle fork enjoying the warm but not too warm weather. To the east of the bar you can see where gold miners from the past used high pressure water hoses to wash away a side of a mountain to pan for gold.
To the west of the bar the gorge opens up into a valley between two mountains. You can see old trails that lead down to the middle fork that were also used for gold mining but the mountains haven't been washed away.
Around the 4th of July the park ranger from Quincy did indeed visit Cleghorn and me. He was a welcomed sight because there hadn't been no visitors to Cleghorn since I first arrived and I enjoy the park rangers company.
"Enjoy yourself, son?" He said getting out of his jeep.
"Very much so sir," I say. "The fly fishing has been spectacular during dusk."
During the winter I took a few lessons on how to fly fish. It's more difficult that I imagined but with practice I should master this craft. I've already caught a few little rainbow trout so far in Cleghorn east of the bar.
"Well that's good," he said. "How's your supplies?"
"I drove up to Quincy last week and bought about a month's worth of grocery's." I said. "I should be fine the rest of this month. Catching fish has certainly helped with the meals."
"Well have fun," he said. The park ranger would leave Cleghorn that afternoon before I went fishing.
When August approached is when the men in the jeep arrived. I'm not sure if they were brothers but they looked almost identical except for their bodies. One was fat and then other looked like he hadn't eaten in months.
They told me they liked to travel within the northern California Sierra Nevada's gold mining and that this was their first time at Cleghorn or anywhere else on the Feather river middle fork. Gold panning had never really interested me. It seemed boring to go up and down a creek panning for gold. And there was gold at Cleghorn. I saw flecks of gold in the sand and silt all around the Cleghorn bar. I wasn't sure though if these two men would find any nuggets.
"What's that equipment you're using?" I ask pointing to what looked like a vacuum cleaner.
"We're dredging," the fat man said.
"Isn't that illegal?" I ask.
"Yes," said the skinny one. "You're not going to tell the park ranger what we're doing are you?"
"I don't plan on it."
Gold dredging in California has been illegal for sometime. Dredging is a environmental concern because the tailings or leach residue left behind. Tailings are a environmental concern because they may alter an ecosystem. Their dredge could be carried by hand though and didn't appear to be large enough to leave behind any large amount of tailings.
They went to a gravel bar that's past the swimming hole to dredge for gold. I don't know how both of them were able to carry a large dredge, pans, and water jugs but they managed. After eating an early lunch I took a stroll to the gravel bar to see if they found anything.
When I arrived to the bar the fat man was the one who had the dredge and the skinny one was on the shore panning. The dredge the fat man was using was placed on his back like a leafblower. He held the suction tube on the bottom of the gravel bar sucking up the bottom of the gravel bar, separating everything in the pack and taking what's left on a short conveyor belt to the skinny man on shore. There were trailings from the dredge but it didn't contain a lot of silt which worries environmentalists.
I watched them dredge for a couple of hours, there wasn't anything else going on that day, before I went fishing. I've been coming to the mountains for a long time and have now spent two summers in different mountain spots. I just don't understand the appeal of gold mining. Sure it's worth it if you find something, but it looked awfully boring. These two men were only finding little flakes of gold that I'm sure were worth something, but not worth a whole lot of time.
"This is a big one!" the skinny one shouted right before I was about to leave to eat dinner.
"How big is it?" the fat one asked taking off the dredge to take a look.
"The size of a rock," the skinny one said.
I walked across the creek to take a look for myself. And sure enough the gold nugget they found was about the size of a small rock. Big enough not to be considered a pebble, but small enough that it fits in the palm of your hand. I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the gold. The color glistened in the sunlight.
"How much can you guys get for this?" I ask them.
"Probably a couple hundred of bucks," the fat one said. It still wasn't worth for me. This was probably the biggest piece of gold they would find and they would only get a couple hundred of dollars for it. I had to know why these guys were so passionate about gold mining.
"When we were little our father wasn't around much. He was a Willy Loman type who was hardly around," the fat one explained. "So our uncle would take us camping with him. He had a lease on a piece of land near Lake Shasta where he mined for gold and he would invite us to the camp. We fell in love with gold mining because we were together as brothers searching for the same objective: gold. So that's why we continue to mine for gold, to be together."
The brothers would leave a couple of days later with their little gold nugget and the happy conclusion they found it together.
I would eventually leave the Cleghorn bar when the weather started to become cool. I drove back to Quincy to say goodbye to the park ranger.
"Where you going next?" he asked.
"It's time for me to get a real job," I said. "I've had fun for two summers now, but it's time to get serious. I want to become a fireman for the CDF so I'm going to look at where they train and see if I can get into their program."
"Well one of their training sites is right here in Quincy," the park ranger said.
"Yep. Right down the road you drove on at the Feather River community college," the ranger said. "I think you can still sign up for classes right now."
Fate is a funny thing.