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, south of Nelson, 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 the route Dad and his brothers had taken into town to sell their gold and to buy some staples and where they had hunted for deer and picked apples to live on. After the trip, Mike and I had 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 fiancé 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 the 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 in Spruce Grove, Alberta, and get a gold claim in southern British Columbia, preferably in the Nelson area. We sold our house and quit our jobs. For our new home we bought a used twenty-four foot holiday trailer. 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 picked out three regions, Salmo being one, and I called back requesting more detailed maps of the staked claims in those areas.
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 where Mike bought a Gold Miner’s Certificate and received two red metal tags, and a topographical map, and was given his recording form. We were hopeful as we headed back to the campsite.
According to the maps the Salmo River was all staked so over the next two weeks we checked rivers and creeks in the area with little success. But the Salmo River kept calling us and we returned to Dad’s former claim and the remains of his old 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.
It was possible to lay one claim over part of another but the first one had priority for that section enclosed in it. 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 trailer in Vancouver visiting with my sister, my aunt, and some cousins.
Near the end of March we drove out of Vancouver eager to get back to our claim. We pulled our trailer in and set up a campsite was in the middle of tall pine, birch, spruce, and cedar. We 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. In the 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 drummed in the distance. Birds sang in the trees. I took a deep breath of the cool, fresh air. It was a good place to be.
It rained just about every day for the next couple of weeks. We sat under the trailer awning and listened to the drops hitting the canvas. Sometimes the awning sagged with the weight of the water and we had to empty it. Sometimes we let it overflow, creating a waterfall.
Rain or shine it became my morning ritual to go to the river before breakfast. I loved to sit on my rock and stare at the water. Because of the rains and the snowmelt in the mountains the river level was rising each day. Soon I was watching logs and other debris rush past in the torrent. The water dipped over some boulders, and created a backwash when it hit others. The force of the water was mesmerizing.
One rare sunny day we went for a walk down the road past our camp. I carried my camera. A short distance from camp we saw spring water seeping out of a hole under a large rock in the embankment beside the road. Mike reached in the hole to feel how big it was and found a bottle of wine. It had been opened at one time and then put in there to keep cool. Mike set it back.
We followed the long, hilly road as it wound its way through trees and past cow pastures. On our way back we encountered a herd of deer. They did some scrambling to get into the bush while I did some scrambling to take pictures. They were faster than me. We reached the spring and Mike decided to set up a water system. He went for a pail and a hose. When he returned he put one end of the green hose into the hole and soon water began to trickle out of the other end. He let it run for a while to clean the hose then filled the pail. Mike carried the pail back to camp. We had fresh water for our camp.
There was always activity around us. We heard rustling and cracking in the bush and it wasn’t unusual for a deer to trot through the clearing at any time of the day. Birds sang, a woodpecker occasionally tapped on a tree, partridge thumped, and trees scratched and rubbed against each another in the wind. All day and night there was the thundering of the boulders as the whirling river water rolled and bumped them against each other.
As the days warmed the air became filled with the scents of pine and cedar, sweet wild flowers, and the intertwined fragrances of the bush. Colours sprang up, from pink roses, white dogwood and hazelnuts, and purple and yellow flowers, to the bright green of the ferns. Butterflies flitted throughout the clearing and there was the buzz of flies and mosquitoes and the drone of bees. The few rainy days were humid and the clouds never stayed long. Sometimes the moon at night lit up the clearing and we sat by the camp fire in the soft light.
With the rains and spring run-off over, the river level began dropping. I sat on my favourite rock and watched the slower, shallower water flow by. The roar was gone. In the peace and tranquillity I was able to think about death. As best I could, I acknowledged that many of the people I loved would probably die before me, though I found it harder to actually accept the fact.
Mike and I spent time digging dirt from around rocks in the water and working it in the pan. We found enough small flakes to keep us trying.
But soon our adventure was over and by summer’s end we were back in the real world. We never did find much gold but then, for me, it really wasn’t about the gold.
I based one of my mystery novels, Gold Fever, on this experience. My historical novel, Romancing the Klondike, published by Books We Love, Ltd, is also based on the search for gold in the Yukon.