When photographer Sarina Finkelsteinsaw a blurb in a newspaper mentioning a new gold rush in Southern California, she had to check it out.
What she found was an odd assortment of characters, including a former farmer from Missouri, an out-of-work Hollywood lighting technician, and a retired construction worker.
While all were united by the belief that they could change their fortunes with an ounce of gold (approximately the size of a half-dollar coin and currently worth around $US1,245), Finkelstein found that the lifestyle was as much about self-reliance as anything else.
Finkelstein has collected the photos from four years following the miners in a book, “The New Forty-Niners.” She’s shared some of the photos with us here, but check out the rest in the book.
The majority of the miners that Finkelstein met mined in the Angeles National Forest and lived in tents and campers along the San Gabriel River canyon, also known as 'Nugget Alley.' After the Forest Service outlawed mining in the area in 2012, many moved to private claims. Some stayed.
The prospectors work primarily near streams and rivers, since that's the most productive area for panning and sluicing. Sluicing is a method of sifting soil or deposits using water through a box filter, capturing gold and heavy metals that are denser than other material. Panning works the same way, only using a pan instead.
The first prospectors that Finkelstein met were a 'desperate bunch,' she says. Many had lost jobs or were freelancers, veterans, or ex-convicts that couldn't find work.
While there have been miners in Angeles for years, the lack of jobs during the Great Recession led many to try their luck at mining. The price of gold more than quadrupled from 2005 to 2010. It has since dropped from a high of $US1,825/ounce in 2011 to $US1,245/ounce.
The lack of jobs during the Recession and the increased payouts made the back-breaking work more appealing for newcomers. People have been mining the area for decades, however, because they love the independent lifestyle and the ability to completely support oneself through his or her own labour.
The prospectors rarely find gold in mass quantities, but they do find enough to live off of. Most put the money they earn into more mining supplies or camping gear.
One of the main reasons they have trouble find large amounts of gold is because of California's ban on 'suction dredging,' the most productive method of obtaining gold. Instead, the prospectors must use older methods such as digging, sluicing, and panning. Prospectors must dig and carry buckets of soil and water out by hand to sift for gold through their sluices.
Some search for gold by diving to the bottom of the San Gabriel River. Because the bottom of the riverbed may contain some of the last untouched parts of the area, the potential for large pieces of gold is higher there.
It's not clear what effect the prospecting has on the environment. Some argue that their digging and sluicing interrupts the spawning of fish in the river. The prospectors maintain that their methods actually clean old mercury and trash from the river. While Finkelstein is not sure either way, she says that the prospectors she witnessed tried to be as respectful of the environment as possible.
Olan, a retired building technician with a pension, was originally sceptical of Finkelstein's intentions because, in his words, 'All journalists want to do is turn this into a story about desperate homeless people living in the woods. I'm not homeless. I don't need to do this, I want to do it.'
Most of the miners simply love the search. Martin, a former farmer from Missouri, is so obsessed with mining that he frequently stays in the mountains for months at a time, sending friends to sell his gold for supplies.
Some of the miners get lucky and strike it big. Duane was able to pan nearly 11 ounces in 2012. With the money from it, he was able to buy a Jeep for $US7,000, put an additional $US7,000 into it, and live in an apartment in Oregon for a year.
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