Friday, November 1, 2019

Up Close and Personal with the Motherlode: Gold Mine Touring in Placerville, California

When you're in a wheelchair, there are certain features of geography that are usually off-limits for you...beaches, water sports, when you do find something that goes against the grain, you jump on it with a vengeance.

We'll do what it takes to make it work if it's even just hinting at being accessible like the time we went zip lining down a Costa Rican volcano with Tim, hiked to the top of the tallest mountain in Tennessee, trekked through an alligator infested swamp in South Carolina, went on an air boat adventure in the Everglades...but this time, it required no effort at all other than an easy 40 minute drive from home.

Here in California's Gold Country, there are hundreds of mines. Most of them long closed and pretty dangerous to explore for anybody. When they were active, none were ever thinking about becoming tourist attractions. Some are open for surface tours the Kennedy Mine in Jackson...and extremely few allow visitors to actually tour the shafts and tunnels. Those that do stress that it is not an adventure for those who are not physically up to going up and down shafts, hiking in the dark over rough and rocky terrain, or having to climb stairs or ladders.

You can imagine my surprise when I found a mine tour, fairly close to home, that welcomed people of all abilities. It's only a 40 minute drive, so we'll give it a shot. If it doesn't work, we're still in a very nice area of the state where we can at least have a picnic and browse the downtown shops of one of the state's great Gold Rush towns.

We'll go up to Placerville and have a little picnic at the park before starting. Our local police chief owns a peach farm down in the central valley town of Linden. He sells them at local farmers markets and also at our town's grocery store. I pick up a couple, plus some string cheese and prosciutto. This will make for a nutritious but not too filling snack to hold us over until we get a big meal when we're done here.

We arrive at Gold Bug Mine and Park, just about a mile north of Highway 50 in Placerville. Handicap parking is easy and right by a large, shaded picnic pavilion so we head in there to have our light meal.

At the gift shop, the lady at the counter points me up a staircase to buy tickets for the mine tour. At the top...especially since I just climbed a flight of stairs...I share my concern with the lady selling tickets that maybe it might not be so accessible.

"Oh no, it's completely accessible. There's a ramp out the back door of the gift shop that will lead you up here and to the mine entrance."

I go back down and the three of us go up that ramp, being careful to stay on the path to avoid the poison oak growing just beyond the handrail. At the top, we go into the ticket office and get fitted with hard hats. It's a requirement for Letty and I, optional for Tim. I'll find out why later.

We pay for our tickets ($9 each today) and the lady guides us into installing an app on our phone. This will be the audio tour when we're in the mine. We connect to the park's wifi and are shown what to do. In the mine, there are numbers on the wall. You tap the corresponding number on the app and a narrator explains that stop on the tour.

The floor has been boarded over or paved and it's a flat journey that's easy on wheelchairs all the way to the far reaches of the shaft. At the very deepest point, there's about 20 feet with ore car rails embedded into the ground but it poses no real challenge to Tim's chair.

Along the way, we're treated to large holes in the ceiling (called stopes) where miners would follow the gold bearing quartz. There are small holes drilled into the walls where dynamite was packed in to blow the rocks apart.

Letty and I also keep banging our heads on the low roof...hence the reason for the hard hats. Tim's OK down in his chair, though.

Here and there, water seeps through and you can see the beginnings of stalactites forming on the ceiling.

At the end of the shaft, a couple of ore cars sit on the tracks while representation of explosive fuses hang from the walls. An air shaft reaches up 110 feet to allow fresh air in. You can feel the slight breeze.

On the way back, we learn about the wooden bracing to prevent cave ins and closely inspect the white quartz veins, looking for the sparkle of gold.

In the warm Placerville sun outside, we turn in our helmets and head to the gift shop. Two bucks gets us a pan for an hour and we head outside.

Water troughs filled with dirt have been salted with pieces of gemstones that you can mine with your pan until you've had your fill.

After about 15 minutes, we fill a couple of small vials with small pieces of colorful, broken rocks.

It's been a fun and interesting day, and another notch on our list of things we didn't think we'd be able to do with Tim's wheelchair. Now, time to head back down the gold rush highway (highway 49) to home....stopping just to get some delicious barbecue at Poor Reds in El Dorado along the way.

Darryl Musick
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