Gold-dust man

Seth Walker Pereira

Photo by Bobby Mull

Like most other small towns, there wasn't a lot for its younger residents like Seth Walker Pereira to do in Kelsey, which is nestled in the Northern California foothills, just a yellow stone's throw away from Coloma, the birthplace of the gold rush. And so in his teens, he took up panning for gold. Now in his 30s, he—who is part-Paiute Native American—continues his forays to creeks in seek of the precious metal, but more for fun rather than income. Along the way, he has encountered the remnants miners and panners left behind and been caught with his pants down by a mountain lion (not figuratively, mind you).

Where do you pan for gold?

I've done it pretty much everywhere on the Divide. “The Divide” is what they call the Georgetown Divide, which is Kelsey, Georgetown, Placerville. … And then I have permission from another landowner for another spot that's on a creek that I get to go to that's really cool. …

I read this in a gold-panning journal, that if you were supposedly a successful gold panner or gold-miner guy, you could make like $68 a day. I don't know if that's completely correct, but that's like minimum wage if you're going at it hard-core, full time. Unless you get really lucky.

My brother, with a metal detector, found a $15,000 chunk of gold.

What have you found panning?

I always find gold, not very much, but usually every time I go, I'll find gold. Kind of an interesting thing about it is every little creek up here has mercury in it—and especially in the river. … It's like a gray sludge. It's mercury from the gold rush, because they used so much mercury to process gold, so you'll find it in the creek. … It's kind of gross how much there is up here.

They mined mercury somewhere else and brought it here?

They get it out of a stone called cinnabar, and … they had a lot of different ways to use the mercury [to process gold], but … mercury's really nasty stuff, so you figure a lot of these gold miners probably had a pretty high level of mercury poisoning. … And a lot of those chemicals are still left over from a hundred years ago.

How much gold do you find on outings?

I always find a flake or two. Sometimes I get a good little haul, 40 bucks worth, maybe. I found a pretty big piece of quartz with gold in it with a metal detector that I crushed up and then … [took] an oxygen-settling torch and melted the gold with borax in a crucible, and I sold that one of to those kind of [swindler] gold-dealer people. I got $680 total.

Do you always sell the gold?

I've always kept it, but I sold the stuff I processed out of rocks, because I needed money at the time.

What other weird stuff do you find out here?

Bullets. We found the round, black-powder type, where you put the wadding, powder and bullet down into the gun, pack it down and shoot—a black-powder rifle. Lots of square nails, like, they're in places you wouldn't think. … And lots of old cabin sites where you'll find the square nails are actually in a roughly big square shape, so they had something built there.

There's lots and lots of mines, because, you know, it's gold-rush country. I'll just come across a mine that I never knew existed.

How often do you pan?

A lot in the spring when the creeks start running. And I usually go six or seven times a year with my dad to look for arrowheads.

Have you run into anything frightening?

There's a really nice trail off of [Highway] 49 … when you leave Coloma and head toward Placerville. … I was with my half-brother—we were going to go pan in little spots along the river. We got to the bottom, and there's this old ditch line that used to run [during] the gold rush to carry all the water they needed, but you can walk on it now. I had to use the bathroom very bad, so he went ahead, and … when I finished, I looked up, and there was a mountain lion on the path staring at me. It was pretty big, and I freaked out. I know you're not supposed to run from them, so I'm pulling my pants up and breaking branches and shaking them around and yelling like a maniac. And the mountain lion just kind of casually looks at me, and jumped onto the cliffside and went into the brush. … My brother, I see him running toward me, saying, “Where did you get bit?” He thought I got bit from a rattlesnake when I was going to the bathroom.

When you tell people you do this, does that make them want to do it?

Yes, that's usually how I trick people into going with me. I went with a few people, and they're kind of into it at first, and the diminishing returns kind of turned them off, but I still think it's fun.

A long time ago, I worked on a fourth-grade gold-rush history program, and we [would] teach kids about the gold rush, and partway through the day, they had gold-panning demonstration. … The kids would be well-behaved, and then we'd do the gold panning, and it was amazing, because they would turn into … these capitalist psychopaths all of a sudden. We would have this lesson afterward about how devastating the gold rush was to the whole area to try and bring them back to earth. … I can see when people say they have gold fever, it's actually a real psychological thing that happens.

Do you have it?

I definitely get it. But … I try to leave the area looking nice before I leave. But there's a lot of people who are obviously full-bore, they don't care about the environment: They're just gold-seeking psychopaths.