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After 150 years, Leechtown still lures gold miners

With B.C. Placer Miners Association President Bruce Chaytor, Donna Dewaard shows off her pink breathing regulator she uses when seeking gold in the Sooke Hills

By Edward Hill - Goldstream News Gazette
Published: September 24, 2010 10:00 AM
Updated: September 24, 2010 2:34 PM

Langford placer miners revel in 'redneck recreation'

Donna Chaytor doesn’t mind doing the vacuuming, as long as it’s underwater, in a river.

About 150 years ago, the lure of gold drew thousands of prospectors to Leechtown and that’s still happening, albeit on a much smaller scale. Up old logging roads deep inside the Sooke hills, gold miners are still seeking their fortunes.

Dewaard and her partner Bruce Chaytor, president of the Vancouver Island Placer Miners Association, based in Langford, say in some respects not much as changed – gold panning in a river works just as well now as it did in 1860. But with the modern era comes modern equipment such as backhoes and dredging vacuums.

“I like water, I like rocks and I like finding gold,” says Dewaard, a seven-year placer miner, who relishes diving fearlessly to the bottom of a river on a hookah breathing apparatus, and sucking silt into a gold-separating sluice box.

“Some people like to go out camping for the weekend and others appreciate being in the water and finding shiny yellow gold.”

Chaytor says he likes being in the outdoors, but finds fishing boring. “Gold mining got us camping and gave me something to do,” Chaytor laughs. “It’s redneck recreation. Us rednecks like to get into nature and roll around in it.”

Between them, Chaytor and Dewaard have four personal mining claims and VIPMA has three for use by its 70-plus members, all in the Leechtown area. Claims lie on private timberland and Chaytor says the association allows people to collectively pay for the liability insurance.

Chaytor, the owner of Old Style Repair in Langford, caught gold fever 20 years ago but admits he didn’t exactly strike it rich. He dug holes and panned for two years in his first claim, and “found nothing.”

“I had finally had enough. I was heading back over a gravel bar and came up to sand on a trail,” he says. “Sure enough there was gold. Like water, I was travelling the path of least resistance down an old water channel.”

Chaytor learned a key lesson: pay attention to the geology and geography. “You have to read the river,” he says. “Water is your best friend to find gold.”

Chaytor, also the president of the B.C. Placer Miners Association, is trying to establish a provincial best practices code, but he stresses that placer miners are vigilant about how they mine. Digging with a backhoe or working in-stream takes provincial permits and “a lot of jumping through hoops,” he says

“Anything of a significant disturbance must have a permit,” Chaytor says, noting that people have been ejected from the association for leaving trash or violating environmental rules. “Anyone found in violation is kicked out. There is no second chance, no warnings.

“Placer miners are diligent about what we do. We are cognizant of the wildlife, the river and the environment.”

The pair won’t say how much gold they’ve found over the years, although they’ve ”found enough to keep the interest going” and “to pay for groceries,” Chaytor says. They love being on the hunt in the wilderness, but she admits there little to match the thrill of finding a pinky-sized nugget.

“I’m pleased just to get ‘flour’ gold or nothing and just have a great day out,” Chaytor says. “But the most exciting thing is to see a nugget where nature dropped it. It’s even better to see four or five.”

Chaytor says VIPMA placer miners come from all walks of life and professions, but their common denominator is a rugged, obsessive, individualist bent.

“They’ve all got stories about reaching into a hole and finding treasure. They don’t remember the thousands of holes where they found only mud,” Chaytor says laughing.

“Placer mining is one of the only ways an individual can go out and create wealth with their own ingenuity and sweat. Theoretically you could earn a living. All you need is a pan and a shovel.”

For more on the Vancouver Island Placer Miners Association, see www.vipma.ca.



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