A lot has changed since 1849. For one: California has been admitted to the Union. Dust has settled from the scurry to settle and the frontier has, more or less, been tamed.
But out in the Golden State, as photographer Sarina Finkelstein recently discovered, living relics of 1849 have slipped through the cracks of society: "They are the new wave of gold prospectors," she writes, "150 years since the original Gold Rush, united by a passionate and desperate search for gold to support them until the job market improves."
Prospector Rick Skow at his campsite in Angeles National Forest, Calif.
The Klamath River that cuts through California was a Gold Rush destination. Today, it is still a site for prospectors.
Kevin Brown pans material at "Nugget Alley" in Angeles National Forest, Calif.
Avery Rathburn shows some gold found in Scott River, Klamath National Forest, Calif.
Bernie McGrath is the unofficial "Mayor" of Nugget Alley, a home to many prospectors. His title was given about 10 years ago by other prospectors as a sign of respect.
A prospector sluices and pans at Nugget Alley, Angeles National Forest, Calif.
Prospectors around the campfire at the Lost Dutchman's Mining Association camp at Scotts Bar in Klamath National Forest, Calif. The Lost Dutchmen is a subgroup of the Gold Prospectors Association of America.
A chalkboard lists the price of gold on November 20, 2009: $1145/ounce – as compared with the 1852 price of gold: $12-16/ounce. Updated daily, this chalkboard is located inside the Columbia History Museum in Columbia, Calif.
Prospector Avery Rathburn at his digging site along Scott River, Klamath National Forest, Calif.
Prospectors Rich and Elizabeth Rang sluice materials on the Stanislaus River, Columbia, Calif.
Miner's Motel sits along Historic Highway 49, Jamestown, Calif.
Avery Rathburn uses his "highbanker" along Scott River, Klamath National Forest, Calif.
"Sparky" walks along Nugget Alley.
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"Something clicked," she wrote in an email — not referring to her shutter. In general, the New York-based photographer is drawn to subcultures on the fringes of society; so after reading a newspaper article about modern-day prospectors, Finkelstein knew she had found a story.
In the midst of a nation-wide recession, her series, "The New '49ers," captures one way of coping with tough times. "These gold prospectors," Finkelstein writes, "have fled a global economy based largely on abstract forces in order to develop a measure of self-reliance, as modern-day pioneers on a search for something concrete."
The largest Crystalline Gold Leaf specimen in the world is located at the Ironstone Heritage Museum. Weighing 44 pounds, this hunk of gold was discovered on Christmas Day, in 1992. Crystalline Gold is one of the most rare and precious natural gold formations. The "Gold Pocket," as it has come to be known, is 98 percent pure.
Over the past year or so, she has traveled to three isolated communities across California, and recently pitched the story to the London Telegraph's Sunday Magazine, Seven. But she continues to work on the project. "One could say I came down with my own case of gold fever," she admits.
For Finkelstein and prospectors alike, the obsession is not necessarily with getting rich on gold — although there would be no objections to that; the obsession is with self-reliance, with pioneering, with off-the-grid adventure. The prospectors, she explains, "are not media-addicted Smartphone-carrying Bluetooth-wearing need-to-be-in-constant-contact types." It sounds idyllic, but that makes them hard to find.
I often have to pass my messages from person to person until I get connected to who I want to photograph. Or I get a rough idea of someone's location and just have to go hunting (i.e. "He's around mile marker 24, climb over where the guardrail is a little less shiny, follow the creek...").
It's an odd juxtaposition: the very real existence of modern-day miners next to California's kitschy souvenir shops that celebrate gold rush history — as if it's just that: history. While the rush for gold may be over, prospecting is, apparently, still one means of survival for a small subculture in a struggling economy. Is it a sustainable way of living? "I don't think I'll be giving up my camera anytime soon," Finkelstein concluded.