It was that balmy time of summer in a pensive time of my life shortly after my son was born when I got the call. “Whatduya say we head into the mountains to the south and seek out some placer gold” came the persuasive proposal from my cousin Dave, who had been bitten by the gold bug of late. Since Dave had been my stalwart childhood companion through outdoor adventures and mischief, it was an easy answer that landed us deep in the wilderness by the week’s end.
When the gravel road ended we began back packing down a wild river trail, following along the cliff edge above the aqua blue waters that cascaded through the rugged canyon. Panning some of the promising feeder creeks to this remote river was our plan, and we had enough provisions to camp along the way.
Despite the intense summer heat the thrill of adventure took hold, until close to my ear I heard what sounded like an angry bee buzzing in the shoulder high brush lining the trail. Instinctively, I dodged away from the brush and the assumed location of the buzzing and found myself a step away from a rattlesnake beginning to coil in the middle of the trail. The all encompassing sound became louder as an adrenaline rush pushed me backwards and into Dave.
After the near miss of a rattlesnake strike, we scrutinized the hot dusty trail ahead with its formidable rock cliffs, and looking at each other, decided on plan B. Driving high up to the cooler ridge tops and accessing the same feeder creeks well above the main river sounded like a better plan, so early afternoon found us winding down an old logging road in remote forests thousands of feet above the river canyon.
As we descended along what was called Silver Creek, an old mine shack appeared, and as I stopped the vehicle, two guys of our generation approached from the cabin. After some friendly discourse on life in the hills and gold mining, they informed us that most of Silver Creek was staked with claims. “Why don’t you guys work part of our stretch of Silver Creek for some nuggets, you’ll be doing us a favor by clearing off the over burden” offered one of the claim holders named Moses. He further explained that more gold would wash down with each winter run off, and the cleared section of creek bed would trap the mineral for them.
We readily agreed to the task, and as the late afternoon heat lazily subsided. we set up camp stream side and Moses lined us out on the next day’s goals. Starting at first dawn, my cousin and I removed all the over burden down to bed rock, working the gravel in a sluice box as we went, and were rewarded with one fine yellow nugget the size of a man’s smaller finger nail.
Moses congratulated the find and clarified that “the Silver Creek gold has been assayed and is found to be extra pure with less impurities normally found in gold, thus the rich yellow hue.”
Holding the yellow mineral up in the sunlight, I was mesmerized by its shape as the unmistakable image of a howling wolf’s head appeared. Although supposedly absent from these mountains for many years, I could still imagine the cry of the lone wolf resonating in the tree tops.
The following morning found us further afield as a noteworthy waterfall which aided Silver Creek on its journey to the sea beckoned from a few miles downstream. Access to the falls required edging along a sheer, sliding gravel drop off of hundreds of feet on a trail cut no more than a foot wide.
What seemed like an extreme canyon of a lost world opened up beneath this trail . Huge old growth Port Orford White Cedar trees, a rare and monumentally beautiful species, crowded the valley floor while mountains formed of single rocks towered above. After winding down to this floor we worked our way back up Silver Creek until the rock walls closed in on three sides and the creek poured over the top precipice in a thundering fall of about 200 feet. We ambled over, under, around and through the maze of huge boulders and tunnels in the final approach to the showering blast of the waterfall.
In the deepest pools of the cold, foaming over flow of the waterfall, shadows of trout appeared, and having a small fishing pole along, I went about providing a fish fry dinner. I surmised that the red, unripened black berries resembled fish eggs, so I used them for bait. Although wild, hungry fish are known to strike anything hitting the water, it was to my pleasant surprise that the tactic worked, and in no time I had half a dozen nice trout.
While hiking back to our gold panning camp that late afternoon, a large great horned owl glided silently through the fir trees, deftly dodging their open trunks as the bright sunlight filtered through the shadows. It was a fitting last chapter to a fulfilling adventure, and before long we were leaving this sparkling wilderness behind.
Our hard earned booty consisted of a small vial of gold flakes and specks, and the one magical nugget in the image of a howling wolf. My fair minded cousin suggested that we flip a coin to divide up the spoils. I won the toss, and with a chain attached, the nugget found a place with my wife and mother of our new born son, daughter and daughter to be.
Where on Earth?! Illinois River Wilderness, Oregon, USA