Walking down the trail, which starts at the end of a long and poorly kept dirt road in the middle of a mostly forgotten mountain range, I point out the remains of long abandoned mining communities from the glory days of the gold rush, small signs of former lives only noticeable because they were once pointed out to me. A few miles down the trail, I see the cabin’s roof between the trees and give a yell to announce our arrival. It’s a good thing to announce your arrival early when the miners still have a tradition of keeping wolf-dogs.
The cabin sits about 50 feet from the small river that is eerily quiet at the end of a drought summer, mostly a series of pools in a dry creek bed at this point. Usually the sound is constant, a miner’s comfort, and its absence is a little unnerving to me. But the cabin is still there, old and strong and straight, built to last out of cedar logged and milled in that same valley in a Norwegian settlement long ago abandoned by man and reclaimed by the forest. Things have a way of disappearing quickly when left unattended in the mountains.
But like I said, this cabin is still here, unlike so many things that have vanished. With it is a work shed and a double seater outhouse affectionately named “The Dance Hall”. And although this cabin was clearly built well from the beginning, the reason it’s standing after over a hundred years is because a few people still choose to live a hard life, simple and without excess, digging gold out of a river under a roadless set of mountains where the gold rush long since faded away.
As the first ones to the cabin, I begin to set up for our stay before taking Anna on a walk down the river to show her the area. We walk past the horseshoe pit and mule run, along the river bed and through venom valley without seeing any of the rattlesnakes it’s named after until we make it down to Jonny’s hole, a large pool at the beginning of the canyon named after my stepdad’s father who always used to fish there.
As we walk, old stories start to find their way out. Stories I forgot I knew, from long before my time, about old miners and family at the cabin I’d never met. Like the time a bear got into the Cabin, sat down on the old stove and broke it. How they had to bring in a new stove, huge and cast iron and fully built, on the back of the largest mule they could find. And how other people never let the family play on the same horseshoe team since it wouldn’t be fair. Or all the times Jonny came back from the canyon with fish so big they’d feed the whole family. I didn’t realize all these old miner’s stories had been embedded in me, but I suppose old storytelling isn’t the only tradition still alive, if only barely, in these old corners of the world forgotten by so many.
When Ken and Debbie get down to the Cabin, we start a little mining. Ken and Debbie are around 60 but you’d never guess it. For an awful lot of years, Ken has carried the bulk of the supplies, including lumber and cement for repairs, down to the cabin on his back. They’re the most active miners on the claim, and they use the gold they mine to make unique jewelry with raw, unaltered gold nuggets. There aren’t that many small scale miners out there anymore, and he’s about the best there is, so when he tells me to grab a pan and says “I’ll show you where some gold is”, Anna and I come along without any hesitation.
Ken and Debbie follow the old tradition on this mine of keeping wolf dogs, and the two beautiful creatures follow us along to the river. They both have bells on their necks and Ken tells us that’s to give the deer at least a chance to get away. One of the two is older and sweet as can be, but the other one is pure white and 90% wolf and keeps a good 20 yards away, since she doesn’t know us at all. They tell us she isn’t mean or vicious, she just doesn’t quite like being around people. I feel like I can understand the sentiment sometimes. Debbie walks over to the white wolf and hugs her and then gets them both started howling. They are, after all, mostly wolf, so none of these things should be too surprising.
Ken points to a spot and we start digging as he tells us about the type of dirt we’re looking for and why the gold is in there, then we all start panning while he gives us pointers and advice. Sure enough, after a few minutes of shaking down the pebbles and sand and gravel, down at the bottom in a trail of heavy black sand are a few tiny specks of color, as he calls it, little pieces of yellow rock that so many people have hunted and dug and lived and died for. Gold.
“You know what you do with that much gold” he says, pointing to the little flecks of yellow at the bottom of the pan. He pauses, looks at us, and then throws all the pans contents back into the stream and grins. “Throw it back and let it grow.”
We cook dinner over the fire and settle into our beds underneath the stars. If it’s too cold or rainy, we can always sleep inside, but if given the option, why would you sleep inside when you can watch the milky way drift across the sky while searching for shooting stars and waiting for sleep to take you away, cozied up next to someone lovely amidst the sounds of the forest at night.
Since it’s Anna’s first time at the mine and we only have a few days, one day has to be reserved for making our way up into the high mountains, the white granite heart of the range. It’s a long hard day trip, and a big section of it is a steep and grueling scramble off-trail up the loose sediment and rocks of the recently burned forest slopes above the cabin. But I’ve never heard anyone complain about the struggle after they reach those jagged granite ridges and the clear mountain lakes set beneath them.
Eating our lunch on the smooth white slopes and jumping into the frigid alpine water, some of the old stories find their way out of me again. She loved the wolves, so I tell her about the time one of them disappeared for a few days until they found her rearing cubs in the hollowed out trunk of a tree upstream. We had seen some dynamite holes in the rocks and I remember the story of how they used to hear, miles and miles away at the cabin, the sound of the dynamite blowing a trail through these solid stone mountains above them.
But amidst these old stories of hard gold miners long passed, a few of my own stories find their way in. Like the time my brother and I, returning from this same hike, got a little lost and had to shimmy down a cliff on a fallen log to make it back to the cabin for dinner. And the time I brought a friend who had to sleep inside the cabin because he mistook every noise in the forest for a hungry bear. Or the first time I saw a rattlesnake, rather heard it, right beneath the foot I was about to set down before I leapt out of the way and how when I gutted the seemingly lifeless snake hours later, its headless body still writhed and wrapped itself around my hand. I still have that snakeskin somewhere.
Somehow, in these little ways, however small and insignificant, amidst the stories of miners and treasures found and lost and found again, I was becoming part of this place. Part of the history of a region, barely hanging on in the stories of the few people who still bother to find their way down to a miner’s cabin in the middle of the old gold country of California.