​​ Students Catch "gold fever" at BLM's Fresno River Site Near Oakhurst, CA

On May 7, 90 students from Sierra Unified’s Foothill Elementary School braved stormy weather and visited BLM Bakersfield’s Fresno River site to experience life in the historic 1880s Grub Gulch Mining District.

The field trip was nearly cancelled due to the bad weather, according to Tracy Rowland, BLM park manager. “The safety of our visitors is our highest priority,” said Rowland as she handed out garbage bags to be used as raincoats for the parents and students who had forgotten them.

Students  oberve how a sluice box works (Photos by Jim Pickering, BLM)

BLM drew upon the expertise and assistance from the Central Valley Prospectors’ Club (CVPC), which holds the mining claim on the parcel. Approximately 15 club members participated in the event, teaching students about a miner’s life in the 1880s era. Club members brought replica working equipment which included rocker boxes, sluice boxes and a Long Tom, which students used at the station. At the panning station on the river, students learned the fine art of panning, including digging and classifying sediments to get to the gold-bearing “black sand”. The teaching must have been good and the conditions right, as two students found gold! 

Dr. Gregg Wilkerson, BLM geologist explains geologic history of the area.
(Photo by Jim Pickering, BLM)

Students also learned about stream dynamics at the working stream model built by club member Dave Kerber. The model is shaped in a meandering stream pattern and water is cycled through it. Then real gold flakes are added to the water and students see how the meander pattern affects water flow and speed, causing the heavier gold flakes to be deposited in the bends of the river. This gave students a good visual on where to look for gold in the actual river.

Dan Blocker, Central Valley Prospectors' Club member waits for students at panning station.
(Photo by Jim Pickering, BLM)

Club members taught students about ground water at the Dowsing station. Students used wood and metal dowsing rods to search for water. Student field journals were created by BLM to give background information on the area, the mining history, mining techniques used in the era, groundwater, stream dynamics and erosion and included station information and student activities.

At BLM’s hard rock mining station, BLM Geologist Dr. Gregg Wilkerson gave a brief history of geology and mining in the area. Members of the High Sierra Ranger District Off-Highway Vehicle crew from the Sierra National Forest then explained how their “boulder-buster” works, and gave safety instructions for the demonstration. The boulder buster uses small explosive cartridges and water to break rocks and is a valuable tool in trail construction.

Students viewed the target boulder and its setting then retreated to a safety zone uphill away from the boulder area.  After a couple of disappointing “duds”, on the third try students were rewarded with a loud “BOOM!” and saw the boulder break into several pieces. After the all-clear, students were allowed to view the broken rock and compare it to the boulder they saw at the beginning of the station. This demonstration was done twice for students and once for the mining club volunteers after the students had gone.

Dave Kerber, CVPC explains stream dynamics with his stream model (Photo by Jim Pickering, BLM)

Candace Corn, Foothill fourth-grade teacher, said that “the day was an adventure, both due to the weather and the wonderful, hands-on stations”. “Students now have a good visual of the different mining techniques used in the area and this will come in handy as we begin our Gold Rush unit next week.” Tery Messer, Foothill fourth-grade teacher, said that “We look forward to this field trip all year. What better way to learn than by doing!”   Participants didn’t seem to mind the rain and as word of two students finding gold at the panning station spread. Gold Fever seemed to catch on!

BLM thanks the members of the Central Valley Prospectors club and employees of the Sierra National Forest for their valuable assistance in making this trip possible.