Where we went pro; Mining Obsidian at the Middle Fork, Davis Creek, CA

For every commercial miner, there are thousands of rockhounds who dream of going "pro." Davis Creek, in the Modoc National Forest, is where we went pro.

In late 2010, I was blessed with the greatest gift any rockhound can get; a great digging partner. Al Fries joined the Fresno Gem & Mineral Society with the express aim of relieving his boredom. We met in the Annex workshop, and became fast friends. After a few great field trips, we began to discuss the possibility of turning our shared passion into a money making reality. Hand-2-Mouth Mining was born!

We were already surface collecting and mining in the Panoche Hills and other sites around Central California, and Al had access to family properties, so we soon had a base of operations and a large inventory of good cutting material. Then, in early May 2011, we went to the CFMS show, and Davis Creek, CA.

When we arrived in Davis Creek after an 2-day, 11 hour drive, we stopped in at the famed Davis Creek Mercantile Store. Upon announcing our intention to dig rainbow obsidian to the friendly owners, we were told that we were too early; the digging season hadn't opened yet! Being persistent fellows, we talked at length with the owners, who confessed that we could probably get to the Rainbow Mine, at the Lassen Creek Campground.

So, we were on the road again! A short time later, we left Hwy 395 and headed east into the still snowy mountains toward Lassen Creek. After a few stops along the way to examine the terrain and obsidian, we made it to the Rainbow.

The Rainbow, one of four areas where digging of obsidian is allowed in the Modoc National Forest, consists of several large pits. Unfortunately, those pits were still filled with water. Never say die, we contented ourselves with digging around the rim of the pits and on the mounds of dump material.

What we found astounded us! Small to fist size chunks of lovely rainbow, sheen & mahogany obsidian. Great silver sheen was everywhere, too. We filled several buckets before heading back to civilization and a great burger in Alturas, CA.

We knew that we had to return to Davis Creek and get more obsidian, lots more! We made plans, and returned over the 4th of July weekend, intending to do a survey of the four digging areas. However, after arriving at the Middle Fork site and doing extensive surveys and investigations, we parked the truck and exclaimed " Lets dig there ... It's close to the truck!"

We began digging in a small hole that had been started by past rockhounds, and soon began to excavate good material. Attracted by our noisome and gleeful shouts at every great find, the nearby commercial miners came by to see what was up. They were friendly, but somewhat skeptical about our persistence. But, after several hours of digging had passed, and several hundred pounds of good obsidian were loaded into the truck bed, they warmed to us. By the end of our stay, we'd established the "Black Hole" pit and had become members of their casual fraternity: we were commercial miners!

The miners at the Middle Fork range from teenage to more than 70 years of age. It's a family sort of business, and we watch out for each other. We'd posted our pit with signs, marking it as a commercial site, per Forest Service instructions. In addition, the miners of the area promised to keep an eye out and keep casual diggers out of our pit, so we collapsed the hanging walls to make any "poachers" work hard for material. Our fellow miners were true to their word, and when we returned in October, our signs were still posted and our pit untouched.

Mining obsidian at Davis Creek is a careful process. At the Middle Fork Davis Creek site, obsidian occurs in vein-like flows. It is glass, which is both brittle and  liquid, and in constant motion downhill. That motion, in addition to tectonic forces, has shattered each flow, leaving a puzzle for us to dissect.

Mining the flow is like taking apart a puzzle. After removing the overburden of clay-like soil and smaller pieces and (if you're lucky) revealing a vein, you work into the shattered material. It's like taking apart a tightly packed puzzle, carefully removing each piece. Large pieces are usually surrounded by smaller pieces, which we remove to reveal the large chunk.

If you're not lucky enough to hit a vein, you'll usually find an alluvial concentration. This is easier to work, since it's been carried by erosive forces into a jumbled pile and isn't as tightly wedged together. However, the quality may vary more from this type of emplacement. The material from our pit is both vein & alluvial, with the vein becoming more predominate as we move into the hillside. As far as we can ascertain, we're mining into the base of a high quality flow of considerable size, extending far to the pit above us.

For chunks of the size for spheres, you'll have to dig. We'd suggest that you team up with other rockhounds and work on opening a new hole or expanding an old one, as Nancy & Dave Terwilliger did last October. After helping us to clear overburden from our pit and observing our methods, they sought out a likely place to dig their own pit. By examining the surface material in several small pits, they found a good place and dug. Their yield was several hundred pounds of top quality sheen & rainbow obsidian.

So, if you're not afraid to dig, or have a willing crew of rockhounds to dig with, you can get the size of material you desire. The quality will astound you, as this area is producing world class sheen obsidian, exceeded only by Glass Buttes fire obsidian. Our pit is producing a large percentage of mixed sheen, with Aurora Borelis, Gold Mahogany, Green Moss and Silver Lace often found mixed together, even in the smallest chunks. Be sure to check out our Photo galleries: your mind will be blown!

Oh, by the way, we never made it too the other 3 digging areas ... Maybe this year!

We hope to see you there this season!

Suggested tool list -

  • Geologists hammer
  • Square spade for clearing overburden
  • Round nose shovel for digging out pit
  • Trenching shovel for digging chunks from pit floor or wall
  • Sturdy wheelbarrow or large tired hand truck, for moving buckets of overburden and dirt.
  • Folding pack shovel, army style - for moving dirt while you're sitting in the pit.
  • Small, backpack size "miners" pick - for speedy wall work
  • Medium size "Miners pick" for removing wall material
  • Pick mattock - heavy, but great for collapsing hanging walls
  • 3 & 5 gallon buckets - to sit on in pit, move dirt and transport material home.
  • Sturdy gloves- We like the natrile garden gloves with blue palms, from Lowe's garden dept. They're VERY resistant to puncture, and allow good tactile "feel."
  • 3 lb sledge hammer.
  • A selection of crow & gad bars - I prefer a medium (24") crowbar for close in, and a larger bar for quick material removal
  • A "pocket robber" bar
  • A "bully" bar - This is a 4 - 6 foot gad bar, with a sliding hammer collar, used for prying out large chunks.
  • Garden hand tools - a "three piece assortment" is just right.
  • Whisk broom or brush - great for clearing loose dirt from the working area, and defining chunk size.
  • First-aid kit - The hazards are many, and the obsidian is razor sharp!

Be sure to bring along ample food and drinking water. There are several great campgrounds, and camping is allowed in many areas, in accordance with Forest Service rules. Be absolutely sure to obtain a collecting permit at the Davis Creek Mercantile, Forest Service station or District HQ on Hwy 299 in Alturas, CA. Hobby diggers are allowed 500 lb annually for personal use. Commercial miners post a reclamation bond and prepay for their tonnage. All are required to maintain proper mining practices, and avoid digging in close proximity to trees. Removal of trees must be approved by the Forest Service staff.

The mining season generally runs from June 1st to the first snowfall of winter. Be aware that there is no winter road maintenance, and that a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle is recommended for the Middle Fork site. You might make it to the digs with your 2 wheel drive vehicle, but the hike from the main road isn't too bad and a tow would be very expensive.

And, in closing, please remember that you must treat all posted diggings as private claims; that is, if unattended, you have the right to pass through, but don't dig on their dumps without permission. There's really no need, as it takes little time to dig good material from your own pit, or simply surface collect all you need from open areas.

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Comment by Nancy Terwilliger on May 9, 2012 at 12:26am

Great write-up Kris.  The only thing I might add to the equipment list is a garden kneeling bench (available at most larger stores that carry gardening supplies). We have two and find them very helpful.  One way you can kneel on them.  Turn them upside down and they make a great bench for sitting.  Originally we bought ours for gold panning.   We are looking forward to this years trip to Davis Creek.  I think (depending on the weather at the end of May) that we are going to try camping at the Plumb Creek campground.  Anyone who would like to join us is certainly welcome.  We have a tent trailer so weather will certainly be a factor when making our final decision.  I also want to check that area out  since I've been told there are ample amounts of mahogany obsidian in the vicinity.  Of course, we also want to see if we can find more of the blue obsidian that we found on the last trip.  Anyone who wants to help expand our little pit is certainly welcome to join the party.  There is more than enough good material to go around.  Just for info Harold's Frosty Freeze was closed last week when we went through Alturas on our way up to Oregon.  There was a sign in the window that was a building permit for a new roof so hopefully it will be open by the time we make the trip.  I sure hope so because they make an awsome burger and fries!

Comment by kevin nowell on March 24, 2013 at 10:27pm

awesome story. inspires me to get out there and dig... I just wish i knew where to start and techniques for digging and finding pockets. and apparently i need to learn some about how veins form and how I can dig and find them.


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