Pack Rat Gold

After a few months of temperatures well above 105 degrees in the desert it was nice to see it begin to cool down into the low 90s for a high signaling the begin of my quest for the packrat placer. Oh yeah you probably have never heard of this placer so I will lay out a brief bit of history.

It was back in the early 1900s when a lone prospector (Tucker) set up camp at Willow Creek in Southwestern Arizona looking for enough placer gold to keep him in beans, bacon, coffee, and tobacco. After panning some color from the few pools left in the creek in mid June Tucker managed to get a very nice half ounce nugget from a pool below a feeder gulch coming from the small hills to the West of Willow Creek. Following this gulch up and working the gravels in the pools below gradually filled several bean cans with nuggets and fine gold. Tucker was a smart fellow and made a series of small dams with covered pools cut into the bedrock to help him retain enough water to drink and work well past when all surface water would normally be gone. It was now late into July and there was not enough water to pan even in his covered pools so Tucker was fixing to head back into Yuma for the rest of the summer to wait out the heat.

The night before he planned to leave Tucker packed up his gear and laid it out with his saddle and mule packs putting the gold in his saddle bags in buckskin pouches. About halfway through the night Tucker awoke to the sound of a critter going through his gear and fearing his remaining grub was in danger grabbed a stick from the firewood pile poked at his saddlebags startling a large packrat that bolted toward the brush, but a fast and accurate swing of that long stick had disastrous results for the poor rat killing him instantly. Feeling smug Tucker stuffed his messed gear back into the bags and went to sleep.

That morning as the horse and mule were loaded Tucker noticed a hole in his saddlebag with gold dust spilling from it and cussing that rat for chewing into the bag he began unpacking to save his precious gold, but it was gone…Only the fine gold that hadn’t spilled from the pouch into the saddlebag after being chewed apart by the packrat remained. All of the nuggets were gone as well as his pocket watch, and other objects small enough for the critter to haul off.

Now it would reason that a feller could just dig up that packrat’s nest to get his gold back and go to Yuma right? Well there were several nests in the area that Tucker could find and over the following week digging all of them up he was not able to locate his stolen gold nuggets. It was now just too hot to bear and with very little water left Tucker was forced to leave for Yuma without most of his gold. He still had several ounces of fines to get him through the summer in Yuma and he figured to return in the fall to work his gulch and look for that rats nest with almost 20 ounces of stolen nuggets in it.

Two weeks after arriving in Yuma Tucker was thrown from his horse in a freak accident and took a nasty hit on his head cracking his skull badly. After 3 days he died, but he told his story of the gold placer and thieving packrat to the town doctor before he died. The doctor and his two sons searched for tuckers gulch at Willow Creek, but were unable to find it or the packrat nest full of nuggets and eventually gave up the search. You see there was never a claim filed and Tucker was very careful to cover his work going as far as to even cover his man made pools and small dams figuring to re-build them in the Fall. Not knowing what to look for and figuring Tucker was delirious after his injury they simply quit and never said much to anyone. Not being miners these fellows never attempted to work the placer gravels.

Several years later one of the Sons relayed the story to a friend who tried in vain to find this lost placer and the story made it into a newspaper in the form of a short article that I found on the internet way at the end of a search engine results page using key words while searching for such articles. This article got my attention and I began searching for the area and more information about Willow Creek. There was surprisingly little to go on, but I did gather enough info to make a search, but it was late in the spring with temps in the desert well into the danger zone so I waited for fall to begin.

Now there are several Willow Creeks in Arizona and not knowing if it was even named creek really slowed down locating an area to start except for a mention in the article about the area being in a area 30 miles Easterly of Yuma. Not much to go on and with no Willow Creek mentioned on maps it looked like this may be a long search. I began by looking for creeks or gulches that may be able to hold water for most of the year and as luck would have it there were very few with one below an area named Black Willow Springs. This is not on today’s maps, but was listed on an old survey map of the area. This was the best clue I had so I followed up on it.

Getting into the area was not at all easy with no man made roads to the drainage below Black Willow Springs so after setting up a base camp I had to hike about 2 miles over and through some very rough terrain. I made this hike each day for 4 days not finding any gold with my metal detector, but there was visible gold in the dry creek if you cleared an area on bedrock and blew out the cracks with a straw. Was I on the right track? I’ll tell you one thing there was no water at the spring or any moisture in the creek, but you could see that it did carry water throughout part of the year by the dried algae on the boulders and in the dried pools where water had once been. It was one of these pools that got my attention… It looked man made.

I moved the gravels off the area in and around my discovery to find a chain of 5 hand cut basins in the granite bedrock and connecting each was a groove cut into the bedrock to channel the water to the next pool. The last catch basin was cut up under the bedrock where there was a large crack making a sort of natural covered basin ant it had been hollowed out into the decomposed granite into a large covered tank of sorts now filled with gravel. I did not have to wonder if this was what I was searching for, I was here at Tuckers “Willow Creek” There was no real evidence of the area being worked so I began detecting the benches and edges of the drainages entering the creek above and below the water system Tucker had cut into the bedrock. In the second drainage I found my first nugget.

As I worked this drainage as time would allow me to return I managed several ounces of both smooth and somewhat coarse placer nuggets some of which were well over three quarters of an ounce, but the nuggets stopped about a quarter mile from the head of the gulch in the hills above. I then got out of the wash itself and began working the slopes of the small surrounding rises in the dissected pediment. Again I began finding nuggets scattered throughout the area mixed with fragmented quartz and ironstone. With a pattern emerging I branched out into the surrounding area over the next few seasons looking for similar terrain and placer gravels and have been rewarded with many small patches of nuggets making it a nugget shooter’s dream.

Nope haven’t gotten rich in the area, but I sure have dug a lot of nuggets and still can scrape up more there if I work hard enough. Over the 10 years since finding the spot I have hit it pretty hard and have never taken a soul in there and so far there is no sign anyone has discovered my secret, but it is getting real hard to score as most of the good spots have been gone over several times with me always hoping a newer model detector will eek out a deeper prize missed by it’s predecessor. But what happened in April made the game more interesting….

While working an area of the first gulch I found gold in above the basins, on a stretch of well hunted bedrock I got a booming signal in shallow gravels recently deposited by winter flash flooding. Now like I said this wash has been picked clean of all trash of which there was very little in the first place and cleaned out as well were any sizable nuggets. Hoping a nice nugget had fallen in from the banks made up of in some places deep gravels of the same materials the gold was coming from above, I carefully dug the target. I still scraped it with my pick, but what I found made me stop to catch my breath…

packratwatch.jpg
I had just dug up a back plate from an old pocket watch!

I had all but forgotten the story of the gold nuggets stolen by a pack rat so long ago along with a watch and other goodies, but now it all cam rushing back to me. Does this mean that somewhere above this spot along this very drainage there is a long abandoned rat nest filled with gold nuggets? So as I write this I am once again dreaming of finding that lost treasure soon as I feel that if the watch back was in the wash all of a sudden that perhaps a recent gully washer caved in a section of bank where a certain pack rat made a home so long ago.

Which also means that perhaps this rats hidden stash is now within reach of my detector. What if…..

Good hunting…..

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