From Greenhorns to Sourdoughs

Last week I joined almost 90 fourth graders on a pilgrimage to the place that changed the state of California forever: Coloma.

In January 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River. There is much dispute about these facts but the effects can not be disputed. The discover of gold in Coloma set off the largest migration in human history. People from across the globe flocked to this quiet valley, displacing the native people and altering the landscape. Now, in the Spring of 2015, the town of Coloma is flooded with nine and ten year olds, with their makeshift gold pans and their unquenchable desire to see the glint of gold in their pans.

For my school, this is the highlight of their fourth grade year. An adventure that lingers long in the mind and also creates students that are stronger, more independent, and resilient by the time they recross the American River on the 1915 Coloma Bridge for the final time. The true gold that they find are not the tiny flecks of gold, swishing in the bottom of their gold pans but the transformational journey they have taken over the course of three days. The journey from Greenhorn to Sourdough.

This is the field trip where I really see my students shine. They have been on a journey of joy, scrapped knees, and tears. Along the way, they have lived the life of a gold miner, felt a connection with the earth, danced the Virginia Reel, and conquered many of their fears. A journey that has all the highs and lows of a tide chart and they somehow come out the other end changed in some way.  This metamorphosis is symbolized and celebrated in a ceremony on the banks of the South Fork of the American River. In the ceremony, they dip their gold pouches in the waters of the famed American River, just upstream from the site of Sutter’s Mill, and when they put their pouches back around their necks, they have become experienced Sourdoughs.

While the Greenhorns were dipping their pouches in the waters, I walked out to a rock that faced downstream, filled a cup with American River water and made a quick sketch of the scene to capture the mood and moment.


Corvidsketcher dipping his own gold pouch into the waters of the South Fork of the American River on his first journey to Coloma in May of 2014, almost 166 years after gold was discovered just downstream.



The American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis. It seems that you can’t spit in the Everglades without hitting an alligator. This reptile is the barometer of the Glades and one of the poster children for its conservation.

Visiting the Everglades today, it’s hard to imagine man’s assault on Mother Nature at the turn of the 20th century. For decades the Everglades was seen as a paradise on earth, the only problem was that it was and is, covered in water. In man’s hubris to control and conquer nature, many attempts were made to drain the swamp but Mother Nature always wins. Her most decisive victory was in 1928 with a hurricane that claimed 2,500 lives.

For years men had used guile, hyperbole, backroom politics, and downright lies to convince others that the Everglades could be conquered and her rich soil could be reclaimed but it took a handful of women to try and save it. It was the women of Florida that helped create Florida’s first State Park in November of 1916. The 4,000 acres of Royal Palm State Park was just one-tenth of one percent of the Everglades ecosystem but it was a start. This 4,000 acres is now the epicenter of Everglades National Park and features the Anhinga Trail, the Gumbo-Limbo Trail and Royal Palms Visitors Center. This is the core of the Everglades that draws a million visitors a year. And the Anihinga Trail is the location where many visitors see their first wild alligator as well as bring an inspiration for the spread above.


The alligators of the Everglades were not the first time I had seen this famed reptile in the wild. That honor goes to South Padre Island in Texas on a birding trip in 2013. Unlike like birds, rodents, and humans, alligators have the capacity to hold still for hours, making them an ideal subject for the sketchbook. The above sketch was done in one sitting.