By Chris Collins
For The Observer
As the sweat drips from his face, Forrest Noland eagerly loads rock and dirt scraped from a hillside near Salmon Creek into his "high-banker" mining machine.
The 69-year-old is cheerful as he works. And so is his wife, Shirley, 65, and their 13-year-old grandson, Kenny Worthington, who is visiting from Portland.
In fact, they'll tell you this is not work. It's what they do for fun: take to the mountains to dig with a pick and shovel in near-100-degree weather while swatting away biting deer flies.
"People spend a lot of money to join a gym," Shirley said. "For $50 for a family we're getting all the exercise anyone could want out in the fresh air God has provided for us."
The Nolands are members of the Eastern Oregon Miners & Prospectors Inc., a nonprofit recreational mining organization. Forrest is the group's vice president and one of its biggest promoters.
The Noland family demonstrated pick-and-shovel mining at a claim on Forest Service property up Salmon Creek earlier this summer along with Paul Ercolin, EOMP president.
"They try to call it recreational mining, but when you look at what they're doing it's hard to call it recreation," Ercolin said while watching Forrest, Shirley and Kenny shovel dirt into buckets that they hauled to their high-banker machine to be washed and sorted with water pumped from Salmon Creek.
But the anticipation of finding gold lightens their load as they work.
"You get real tired, but when you look in your bucket at the end of the day and see little speckles in it you're no longer so tired," Ercolin said.
EOMP is an offshoot of the Eastern Oregon Mining Association and has as its goals "to educate people about mining in a group atmosphere, to have fun and hopefully to find gold," Ercolin said.
For an annual $50 fee, member families gain access to seven sites in Baker County. Paperwork and other requirements of filing a claim are handled through the club.
"Members can go to claims any time and mine all they want and keep all they find," Forrest Noland said.
In addition to the Salmon Creek claim, donated to the club by the Coombes family, there is one claim in the Auburn area, one at California Gulch, just south of Auburn, one on Camp Creek, along Highway 7 near Whitney, one at the north fork of the Burnt River and two near Granite, one to the north of the ghost town and one to the south. The club also has a high-banker of its own available for members to rent.
There are more than 100 dues-paying families, accounting for about 150 members from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and even New York and British Columbia, Ercolin said.
Members are of all ages and interests with a common love of the outdoors and the lure of gold. A retired Lake Oswego School District media specialist, the 64-year-old Ercolin has been interested in mining since a military stint in Alaska about 35 years ago. But it's not just the gold he seeks. He's interested in rocks of all kinds. He and his wife, Patty, 53, have hunted for sapphires in North Carolina and diamonds in Arkansas.
Forrest Noland returned to his hometown of Baker City after retiring from the conveyor business in Washington. He and Shirley also had lived in Alaska for a time before they were married and each developed an interest in mining, which they enjoy pursuing together.
EOMP also sponsors special events throughout the year. Educational meetings provide instruction in where and how to mine, including the importance of reclamation.
Public welcome at rendezvous
Most events are for members only, but two annual miners' rendezvous are open to the public. Everyone works together during the rendezvous. When it's over, the gold accumulated is divided evenly and distributed to the participants through a drawing.
Last fall, the miners found a nugget "between the size of a pea and a marble," Forrest said. "A gal from Pilot Rock got the big nugget. She cried when she got it; it was a beautiful piece."
He called it priceless.
"It's a keepsake," he said. "I don't know of anybody selling other than the professionals. Most of us just keep it to brag about."
Although welcomed on one outing as a guest, those returning a second time are required to pay the $50 membership to join the group, Noland said. They then receive maps of the claims and a copy of the work plan that lists prohibited activities such as digging in creek banks.
"We really do abide by the rules and we teach everyone about restoration," he said.
"It's really important to us that the environment stays as natural as it can be while we're mining," Shirley added. "We want to leave it for future generations. It is a privilege."
The organization also plans work parties such as a cleanup of the Salmon Creek mining claim, to help the Coombes family accomplish its reclamation requirements, Ercolin said.
And during the off season, the members get together for a "porch panning party." They brought buckets of dirt and rocks to the Nolands' home in January to pan for gold. And when they were finished, they returned the leftovers to the mine site.