Standing at the Sluice Box

sluicebox from 1850s

"Andy at Sluice box" (Bancroft Library)

Standing at the sluice box
time seemed insignificant
repetitive movements
shoveling gravel into the narrow chasm
water flowing past, pushing light minerals ahead
leaving gold behind riffle blocks
like the narrow Fraser Canyon: a giant sluicebox
an ocean of ice sat on top of the mountains
grinding the rock beneath,
then retreated
exposing the gold stringers
tumbled forward in winter storms and melting summer snow,
prodded down painted cliffs and streams
held back by bars of gravel

men move forward
like ants carrying loads bigger than they are
resolute and determined
never looking down to the chasm below
men walking with scurvy, eating beans and flour
too weak to pull themselves from the frothing water
“drink this,
boil the branches from the spruce tree and
you’ll be better”
strips of salmon drying in the sun
smell the berries in woven baskets

everyone wanted to know how much gold the other had found
swishing and shaking the gold pan
back and forth
men lay on the ground in shallow comfort like salmon
with some life left in them
full of purpose but
people speculate and await
ready to catch the gullible ones
a man named Billy Ballou
said he was making more money delivering
letters from families to their loved ones
wondering if they had hit pay dirt
a dollar per letter

he had never heard that word before
c a shhh! with a finger to one’s lips
hidden for a future use
hidden from sight
up a tree in a place so obvious
but no one was looking

standing by a sluice box
shoulders sore
one more shovel full of dirt
the sun setting
the brim of a hat pushed back
eyes squeezed shut
judging the reflection of light
is it gold?


A sluice box could have been called a tray as it was open on both ends to allow for water to travel its length at a constant rate. Riffles acted as barriers to the water flow, creating eddies that allowed heavier minerals such as gold to drift to the bottom. Riffles were spaced evenly along the length of the sluice, usually every few inches, perpendicular to the length of the sluice.

Note regarding the photograph: this photo was taken in California in the 1850s but it would have been the same type of sluice box used here in British Columbia.