Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Journey to the Center of the Earth

I am not writing fiction yet (not Jules Vernes' caliber anyway) but I did spend a big part of last weekend underground. It was fascinating and beautiful, eerie, nerve-racking, slippery and dark. I am determined to share it.

On Friday, we drove 100 or so miles north to Sacramento, a city established by John Sutter, a pioneer famous for his association with the California Gold Rush.

Old Sacramento Historic District
It was fun to walk on cobblestones and wooden planks.

Notice the old sign punctuated by a period
Sacramento is the capital of California, and here is a glimpse of the state Capitol.

And a glimpse of Tower Bridge, designed in 1935 and so unappealing that I did my best to hide it behind some trees.

Below is a picture I took as we were walking along the Sacramento River. I would like to draw your attention to the tree between the buildings. It is a deciduous tree (but I can't make an identification across the river) heavily infected with mistletoe, a parasitic evergreen plant that grows attached to the branches of a tree. One can see it best in winter when the host tree loses its leaves. The neighboring trees show various degrees of infestation too. In this particular area, mistletoe is associated with Modesto Ash, and we saw lots of infected trees by the roadside.

And now for the underground part. From Sacramento we drove to the Black Chasm Cavern, a national natural landmark near the town of Volcano. 

While we were waiting for a scheduled tour (no one is allowed in the cave alone), the kids got an introduction to panning, the simplest mining technique usually applied to extracting gold, but in this case, we were looking for crystals some of which we would later see inside the cave. We received our bags of sediment (with some crystals mixed in), emptied them into a pan...

...and shook the pan in running water  in the mining flumes.

And here is the treasure!

By the time my boys collected their amethyst, pyrite and rose crystal in a little bag, it was time to go inside the cave for our hour-long tour.

The stairs leading from the entrance go almost straight down, but I didn't have time to get scared because the crystal formations inside the cave were incredible.

 Even though these stalactites are not living things, they are changing and growing all the time due to water leaving small calcium deposits as it drips from the ceiling.

Here we are inside the "Landmark Room".

The Landmark Room is called so because of a profusion of helictite crystals on the cave's walls and ceiling (picture below). Helictites are the most fragile of cave formations and this agglomeration of them is one of the largest in the US.

Do you see a helictite that looks like a dragon in the picture below?

After this fascinating tour, we spent barely half and hour out in the sunshine before it was time to go down again, this time in Sutter's Gold Mine. Sutter's Gold Mine is still operational, and tours are run only on weekends.

We were driven down this tunnel at a gentle downward slope for about 10 minutes. Watching the sunlight gradually disappear at the end of it as we were going farther and farther down the mine made me really nervous, but I was determined not to lose my cool.

Here is our guide, Charlie the miner, who has the knowledge (and language) of a university professor despite his looks. In the picture below he was showing us one of the early drills used in the mine. These drills used to create lots of silica dust, which when breathed in, caused silicosis, a terminal condition. He told us the average lifespan  of a miner operating this drill was 3 years.

Below is a picture of a gold vein, amazing to me because I have not seen one before. This particular vein, we were told, is too thin to mine. We saw also some small nuggets of pure gold sticking out of the ceiling. Now I understood why they thought it necessary to tell us that trying to pry out a rock might result in an avalanche. I don't know if that was a genuine warning or an attempt to deter tourists from plundering the mine, but we kept our hands to ourselves, just in case.

In the picture below, the wall on the left has been polished naturally by rocks rubbing against each other. Our guide said that if one sees smooth chunks of rock like this, it means the rock sits over a fault line. This particular fault line has apparently been inactive for thousands of years, so there was no need to run and hide after all....

Finally, it is easy to connect this mining and caving post with roses. In fact, I spent the whole weekend thinking of one particular Hybrid Tea I grow, called Sutter's Gold. 


  1. Wow, what an adventure! The photos inside the cave are amazing! But I dare I would have courage to go down there myself ;-)
    By the way, I used to live in Sacramento, so I recognize all the places in your pictures. I love Old Sacramento.

  2. Thank you, Olga. I didn't know you used to live so close. I liked Old Sacramento too, we found a Russian restaurant there, a caviar and champagne house, and we had great sturgeon sandwiches for lunch. It was a fun weekend.

  3. Fascinating to see a real working mine and to hear a real miner's tales. And a good lesson to all of us who think our lot is hard.

  4. Yes, good observation, thibaud....

  5. What a great post, and I love the rose Sutter's Gold, what a beauty! Thank you for sharing this adventure with us, I was feeling nervous and claustrophobic and I wasn't even there, and was so glad to come out to sunshine and roses.


  6. This was very interesting. And I love how you connected that experience to your roses. :) I love caves. Once we went into one in Georgia and they said they could tell the difference in the cave water after Mt. St. Helens erupted. Amazing to think of water flowing underground all across the continent. Great post.

  7. Thank you, FlowerLady, for such a nice comment, and I am sorry you were feeling claustrophobic:-).

  8. Thank you, HolleyGarden, and I am really happy to hear from you! I never thought of underground water flowing such great distances. You are a very interesting person.

  9. I love it ~ Sutter's Gold Mine and the rose Sutter's Gold. Sutter's Gold is a beautiful rose.

    The cave is amazing, but I wouldn't have wanted to be a miner there. Three years is not very long! I hope the men handling the drills were paid well.

  10. Yes, Sweetbay, I agree, three years is not long, no matter how well-paid they were!

    Sutter's Gold is indeed a beautiful rose, and extremely fragrant. It was great to finally go to an area where so much was associated with John Sutter.

  11. Thanks for the visit !
    PS / I love your guide ;)

  12. Thank you, Isabelle, for making me laugh!

  13. This was a wonderful tour! Thanks! What a great adventure for your boys, too. What a good mom you are to brave the deep dark, but it looks like it was worth it.

  14. Yes, thank you, Sandra, it was quite an adventure for me too:-).

  15. Masha, you might be interested in an article in today's New York Times about the re-opening of the gold mines in the Grass Valley area


  16. Thank you so much, Susan! I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Thanks again for taking the trouble to point me to it.


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