Joe Gault, Placer Miner
"Do you remember the first time you kissed a girl? Of course you do. And I remember the first gold I got, too. And did I yell Yippy Skippy at age 48? You’re darn right I did, and jumped up and did a dance!"
Joe Gault is a full-time prospector in the fabled Boise Basin, near Idaho City. We met up with Joe in the summer of 2008 and figured he would represent well the perspective of the solitary miner, the kind who helped settle the Idaho Territory in the 1860's.
Most people who have watched miners panning for gold assume that the gold is still in the creek. After all, that's how the early prospectors discovered gold in the Boise Basin in August of 1862, not far from where Gault has his claim.
But things have changed. "In the 1860’s you might be able to walk right down to that creek and make $300 a day," says Gault. "But that creek has been, shall we say, combed. I’m a professional miner, and I can’t find a speck around the creek."
The last glacier flooded the Boise Basin about 13,500 years ago, says Gault. "And gold is twice as heavy as the sinkers that we use for fishing. It’s heavier than anything else traveling in that water flow. Consequently, it’s all the way to the bottom. And all the way to the bottom is bedrock."
Joe's tool for getting to bedrock is a shovel. He also uses a gas powered pump to bring the water to his diggings, which, when we visited him, were located about 200 feet above a small creek.
And then, of course, every prospector has a sluice box. "This machine will take two dump truck loads of gravel and convert it to that much in a five gallon bucket. That’s when you get your gold pan out."
Gault looks for rust colored gravel when he's digging. "What that is, is black sand, which is ground up iron, rusting. That’s why we get the rust color. Black sand indicates the bottom of the barrel, and that’s where the gold is. And when you see rusty stains like that, a guy like me would pay serious attention. As long as the rust stain keeps going, I keep digging."
Gault realizes he's not the first to work his claim. Back in the 1860's, thousands of miners combed the Basin, searching for gold. In fact, miners actually diverted water down the very gulch he's working. "When they got it down to bedrock, they moved the stream to the other side of this small valley here. But each time they threw their debris into the middle. That’s what this hump is right here. Every time that I’ve found this, and this spot included, the spot under the hump has never been touched."
And that's where Gault digs, even if it means going down 8 or 10 feet. The material he brings to the surface is the material he runs through his sluice box.
Gault spent two weeks preparing his site, before he began mining. Only after building two settling ponds to catch the debris from his work, did he pursue the gold.
"No dirty water in the creek. That’s the key note of keeping the mining inspector as a friend," he says. "And this is a pure guarantee. If that dam there should break, I’m far enough back from the creek that it would dissipate before it got there. That’s my way of guaranteeing, no muddy water in the creek."
In that respect, Gault is very different from those first prospectors to the Boise Basin. They thought nothing of diverting creeks and upending river beds, sometimes leveling entire hillsides. And there was no law to stop them.
When he's not digging holes in the ground, Gault makes jewelry out of the large nuggets he finds. He sells the jewelry in Arizona in the winter. "I'm not artsy, but I have excellent gold," he claims.
Gault says he's happy to invite other would-be prospectors to his claim, just to show them the ropes. He's convinced there aren't too many folks who are willing to work as hard as he does to find gold. After all, digging holes in the ground -- sometimes to depths of 15 feet or more -- is not exactly fun.
"The activity of mining and enjoying the outdoors, it’s on the upswing. Now, whether or not those people are going to dig holes and do the research I have and have the recovery I do remains to be seen."
"But as far as a pure miner who doesn’t do anything else and basically lives on the proceeds of his digging, yeah, I’m a dying breed."