Meet the St Helens man’s hunt for gold

Author and journalist Steve Boggan, formerly of the St Helens Reporter
Author and journalist Steve Boggan, formerly of the St Helens Reporter
  • Author Steve Boggan followed modern day pan handlers for new book
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St Helens journalist and author Steve Boggan, who previously worked for the St Helens Reporter, has written new book in which he follows modern day gold seekers.

Gold Fever is travelogue in which Steve meets a selection of colourful characters who left their desk jobs behind to work by the river in scorching heat and fresh mountain air in the hope of striking it rich.

You’re probably not going to strike it rich. But you just might

Steve Boggan

What is Gold Fever? Is it possible to prospect for gold without contracting Gold Fever?

The dictionary definition of “gold fever” is “a mania for seeking gold.” I didn’t think I had it while I was looking for gold, but in retrospect I think I probably did: I left my regular work and fiancé behind, flew half way around the world and prospected in temperatures as high as almost 50 degrees Celsius & somehow thought that was perfectly normal behaviour.

You say that some geologists believe that 80 percent of California’s gold has yet to be found. Is that true?

Most accounts of gold-seeking in the US cite figures of 80 or 90 per cent of Californian gold that has yet to be discovered, but that has to be an estimate taking into account the known length and width of the Mother Lode — an underground network of gold-bearing quartz that stretches for 120 miles through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Bearing in mind how hard it is to access this gold underground, I’d say, yes, the vast majority of it is still there. And if, like me, you believe it is, then it’s hard to say you wouldn’t like a piece of it.

As recently as July 2014 a man with a metal detector found a 5lb gold nugget in Butte County, California. It fetched $400,000 at auction.

The book also explores a good deal of the history of the Gold Rush in California and Oregon. With which historical figure did you identify most? Whose story was the most compelling to you?

I think Sarah Royce was the most amazing character – travelling from Iowa across plains, deserts and mountains with a two year old child was hazardous in the extreme, and she and her child almost died during the six-month journey. Yet she never complained, demonstrating resilience and bravery that we could only imagine today. Then, once in the gold fields, she was an oddity – there were hardly any women there in 1849 – yet, again, she rose above the harsh circumstances she encountered with cheerfulness and a determination to make life as normal as possible for her husband and baby daughter. She was the closest thing to true grit I think I’ve ever come across.

You met several larger-than-life figures who have found enormous success as modern day gold miners. Dave Mack is one of them. Can you tell us a little bit about him and the lessons he taught you about mining?

Dave Mack is a former Navy SEAL who has put the skills he’s learned, including endurance and mastery of water, into searching for gold all over the world. He calls what he does “Extreme Prospecting” because it involves diving into fast-flowing white water to access rocks on riverbeds where gold would have become trapped. He breathes through an air line and in order not to be swept away by the wild water, he wears hundreds of pounds of lead weights that pin him to the river bed – which means he risks drowning should anything go wrong. The most important lesson Dave Mack taught me was that gold fever can ruin friendships. He’d seen partners – brothers, even – fall out over gold and how it is shared out; he’d even seen people killed.

In your travels you also met many people who, while they have not found extreme wealth, they’ve received the arguably greater benefit of health and happiness. Can you talk about the curative powers of gold?

I met quite a few people who had found that looking for gold helped them recover from depression, heart attacks, paralysis and cancer. There was no magic about this – simply a realization that travelling to beautiful locations, working hard in clear water, breathing clean air, and meeting like-minded people helped in their recoveries, both mental and physical. Their spirits, previously in a sorry state, tended to soar when they headed for the hills to look for gold.

What was the most surprising thing about researching and writing GOLD FEVER?

The kindness of the people I met surprised me most. Before flying to the gold fields, I had assumed prospecting would be a solitary occupation conducted in secrecy by individuals who jealously guarded their knowledge, experience and all the information they had accumulated about good gold-bearing locations. In fact, the opposite was true. I arrived as the greenest of greenhorns, yet everyone I encountered took the time to help me in any way they could. I believe it’s because they know how hard it is to find gold and they remember the kindness of others who helped them to uncover it for the first time.

Who is “the guy?” Did you ever find him?

Wherever I met miners, someone would always have a story about “the guy.” Usually it would be along the lines of: “Did you hear about the guy on the Bear/American/Yuba/Klamath River? Only last week/yesterday/this morning he found a nugget this big!” and they would arrange their fingers into the shape of a plum or a walnut. Whenever I chased down these stories, it seemed “the guy” didn’t actually exist. However, towards the end of my travels I believe I met him, a miner whose finds were legendary, and I went out prospecting with him. He was the luckiest, or perhaps most skilful miner I met.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to anyone who wants to go gold mining for the first time?

You’re probably not going to strike it rich. But you just might.

n Gold Fever: One Man’s Adventures on the Trail of the Gold Rush by Steve Boggan is published by Oneworld