Saturday, December 13, 2014

Our Gold Claim by Joan Donaldson-Yarmey

                                                              Our Gold Claim

       In the late 1930s my father, Oliver Donaldson, and his brothers, Gib and Albert, made their living by panning for gold on two gold claims on the Salmon River, now called the Salmo River, in southern British Columbia. In 1980, Dad, my Mom, my husband Mike, our five children, and I went on a holiday to the Salmo River and the site of the former claims. We found the bottom two rows of logs, all that was left of one of the cabins they had lived in and the second cabin, which was still standing, on the other side of the river.
       Under Dad’s direction we all panned the river. The children were quite excited at finding gold to take home. We toured the area seeing where Dad and his brothers had walked into town to sell their gold and buy some staples and where they had hunted for deer and picked apples to live on. After the trip, Mike and I vowed that someday we would return.
       In the spring of 1992, Mike, and I found ourselves preparing for a death and a wedding in our family. At the beginning of that year, Mike’s oldest sister Sallian had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and one of our sons and his fiancĂ© had set a wedding date. For almost five months we visited Sallian, first at home and then in the hospital. I cannot describe the anger, sorrow, and frustration I felt as I watched what the disease was doing to her. She lost weight and the ability to look after herself. During her final month she was hardly more than a skeleton.
       For those same five months I experienced a mother’s delight and happiness as I helped with the marriage plans. I made the cake, watched my son pick out his tuxedo, found my dress, arranged for my hairdo, and planned a mixed shower of friends and family.
       Balancing my life while dealing with the opposing emotions was truly hard.
       Sallian died on May 25 at age 54. On June 27 over 300 people attended my son's wedding and partied well into the night.
       Like most people it took the death of someone close to me to make me realize how important really living is. I knew Mike and I had to do something adventurous with our lives, something out of the ordinary.
       That summer of 1992 we decided to leave life as we knew it and get a gold claim. Mike found books on gold panning and spent many hours talking from my Dad. He bought new rectangle-shaped, plastic gold pans, vials, and snuffer bottles. I phoned the Minerals Branch of the B.C. government. They sent us a map showing the separate gold claim regions of southern B.C. We set our sights on the Salmo River area.
      For our home we found a used twenty-four foot holiday trailer that had a large bathroom with tub and shower and a floor plan we liked. Coincidently, the people we bought it from had two gold claims in the Yukon. We sold out house, quit our jobs and on September 1, we began our journey west. Mike was pulling the holiday trailer with our half-ton truck, which had our all-terrain vehicle in the back. I was in our smaller four-wheel drive pulling a utility trailer with our prospecting equipment and other paraphernalia we thought we might need.
       It took two days of slow travel to reach the Selkirk Motel and Campsite on the side of the highway at Erie, about three kilometres west of the town of Salmo. We set up camp, hooking up to the water and power. We had until freeze-up to find a claim.
       Next morning we were up early and off to the Gold Commissioner’s Office in Nelson. There were no changes in the maps we had been sent. Since there was no need for both of us to get a Gold Miner’s Certificate, Mike bought one, two red metal tags, and a topographical map, and was given his recording form. We were hopeful as we headed to the Salmo River.
       Although the open spots we were looking for were on a different section of the river from my fathers, we didn’t mind. Getting a claim on the Salmo was what mattered. As we neared one location we slowed down and began watching the bush for a post with a tag on it that would show the boundary of the neighbouring claim. When we found it we checked the number on the tag with the number on the map and it matched. We went down the steep bank, holding onto small trees and bushes to keep from sliding. Mike ran a few pans from the downstream side of a large rock, one of the places Dad had told us that gold collects. Others were on the inside of curve on rivers and in the roots of trees beside the water. However, at this part of the river there wasn’t any gold to be found.
       We drove to another site further downstream. The bank was a sheer drop to the river. Discouraged, we returned to the campsite.
       The next day we went to find Dad’s former claim. We drove down to the border crossing at Nelway and turned right just before the Custom’s office. We travelled beside ranches and alongside the Pend D’Oreille River. After we crossed the bridge over the mouth of the Salmo River we turned right onto a narrow, gravel road. It was steep in places and there were many sharp curves just as we remembered. We drove over Wallach Creek but after that we couldn’t find anything else that looked familiar. It had only been twelve years since we had been there. When we went in 1980, it had been forty years since Dad had lived there, but he found it. Our memories were not quite as good as his.
       With a growing sense of urgency we spent days checking Rest Creek, Erie River, Limpid Creek and many others with little success.
       The Salmo River kept calling us and we returned to the bridge and mouth of the river. Mike tried for gold. No luck. We drove along the south side of the river where we found the second cabin Dad had shown us. There was a truck and camper in the yard. We stopped to talk to the man there and learned that four people, three men and a woman, now had my Dad’s and my uncle’s claims. He told us they were the two best claims on the river.
       I explained where the cabin had been on the north side and he told us how to reach it. This time we found the trail to the river and came upon the remains of the log cabin. Just past it we stood on the bluff looking down on the river as we had done twelve years earlier with my parents and our children. The memories came flooding back: the walk to the river with each child carrying a pie plate to use as a gold pan, finding gold only to discover that we had nothing to put it in, one daughter coming up with the idea of sticking it to bandages, camping near the river.
       But we didn’t have time to linger. We were working against the weather. Mike went over our maps of the Salmo River again and this time noticed that there is a small portion on the curve of the river near the old cabin that was open. Because the claims on either side formed rectangles it was missed by both of them. We found the posts of those claims then hurried to Nelson to confirm that the piece was available. It was.
       There wasn’t time to stake it that night so we had to wait until morning. We rose early, went out to the river and put one of Mike’s red tag on the post of the claim to the east of ours. Mike took a compass and orange flagging and we began to mark off the distance, tying the flagging to trees as we went. At the end of five hundred yards Mike cut a tree, leaving a stump about three feet high. He squared off the top and I nailed up our final tag with the information scratched by knife point onto it. The claim was five hundred yards by five hundred yards and was called the Donaldson.
       We hurried back to Nelson and handed in the recording form. We were ecstatic. Not only had we located an area on the same river as my father, but we actually had part of his old claim. We went to the river and found a clearing for us to set up camp the next spring. Mike took his gold pan and headed down to the water’s edge.
       I followed and sat on a large rock. As I watched the water flow sedately by, a deep sense of relaxation settled over me, the first I had felt since the beginning of the year. It helped me begin to deal with the fact that I had witnessed Death at work.
       Sallian was the first one in either of our immediate families to die. I had seen the tragedy of death strike my friends but didn’t understand how devastating it could be until it happened to me.
       We spent the winter in our holiday trailer in a campground in Vancouver and returned to the claim in the spring. Our campsite was in the middle of tall pine, birch, spruce, and cedar and I could just barely see the mountain tops to the south. The mountains to the north were higher and made a lovely backdrop to the trees. Each morning I walked through the bush to the river. I sat on a large triangle-shaped rock and watched the water drift by. A partridge sometimes drummed in the distance. Birds sang in the trees. I would take a deep breath of the cool, fresh air and feel that it was a good place to be.
       We panned for gold, explored the area, and generally enjoyed our freedom. But soon our adventure was over and in the fall we returned to the real world. We never did find much gold but then, for me, it really wasn’t about the gold. It was about learning how to live my best life. There have been times over the years when I have forgotten that lesson but all I have to do is remember that Sallian was only 54 when she died. She missed out on so much that I still have a chance to experience. 

       My latest mystery/romance ebook, Gold Fever, is loosely based on my gold claim experience.

Gold Fever


 Books of The Travelling Detective Series boxed set:
Illegally Dead
The Only Shadow In The House
Whistler's Murder