Mike's Astro Photos
May.13 2012

Sutters Mill Meteorite Hunt – Coloma CA

by , under Comets & Meteors

Sutter's Mill & Moon - May 4th, 2012

On April 22nd, 2012 a large daytime fireball raced across the California and Nevada skies at the early morning hour of 7:50 PST. Thousands of eye witnesses saw the fireball and about 100 reported it to the American Meteor Society. Two lucky folks captured the meteor on film. Lisa Warren from Reno Nevada was walking her dog, had her camera with her and was able to photograph the fireball as it came down. A few weeks later, a video of the fireball surfaced that was serendipitously captured by a film-maker that morning.

Using just the termination azimuth from Lisa Warren’s photo, meteor-radar experts Marc Fries and Rob Matson scanned the doppler radar looking for something odd. They found it, just over Coloma CA, a large abnormal doppler radar return over 8 miles long and 2 miles wide. This was in fact a cloud of meteorites falling to the ground.

Within less than 48 hours of the fall, meteorite hunter Robert Ward was under the radar return and found the first fragment at the Lotus Henningsen park in Lotus CA. As the hours and days went on, dozens of more fragments were recovered from the park and surrounding areas.

A meteorite fall like this happens in the USA only once every 1-2 years and this one in particular is very special because this specific type of meteorite is extremely rare. In fact, it is possible this is a new type that has never been classified. The rarity of this stone  not only puts a high scientific value on the fall, but also a high financial value. While I’m not in it for the money, I could not pass up an opportunity to find a meteorite and right now there is no better place on the planet to find a fresh meteorite than Coloma CA.

Cronan Ranch, Pilot Hill, CA - April 30th, 2012

I flew out with a friend on April 29th, exactly one week after the fall and stayed in a great cabin in Coloma along the American River right in the middle of the strewnfield. Before leaving I analyzed the witness reports and picture and determined a trajectory path that cut just south of the radar returns on a heading of 280º WNW. I studied the land and found Cronan National Park on the upper end of the strewnfield — this would be a perfect location to search and I knew stones had to be there. We searched this park the first day and the last day we were there.

By the second day I had connected with my meteorite hunting friend Larry Atkins and he invited me to join his group of meteorite hunters, which included Scott Johnson and Keith and Dana Jenkerson of KDMeteorites.com. We had a lot of fun hunting together and Dana had communicated with most of the landowners in the area and gotten permission to hunt 1000s of acres of private property. Getting search permission is one of the more time consuming and tedious aspects of meteorite hunting and it was great to have a pro taking care of this for us.  The group agreed targeting properties adjacent to areas where meteorites were already found was the best strategy. This made perfect sense to me and finds were being reported all around us, but try as we might we couldn’t make a find the entire week and most of the other guys had been there for 5 days before me.

One of the problems with this fall, is the fragments are very spread out. Only one meteorite is being found for every fifty acres searched. Dozens, possibly hundreds of meteorite hunters were scouring the entire area and making very few finds. The first three weeks most of the finds were coming from locals who have found the meteorites on their driveways and yards and meteorite hunters are having a very difficult time as brute force gridding and zombie hunting are simply not working. The hunting is very difficult because most of the ground is either 4 foot tall grass or woods. There is lots of poison oak and also briar patches, rattle snakes and mountain lions, oh my.

Team Coloma - Keith Jenkerson, Larry Atkins, Scott Johnson, Mike Hankey

On a typical day, we would wake up at dawn and usually be in the field searching between 8-9 and then work solid until 7 PM. I lost seven pounds while I was there.   At the end of each day we would head to a local tavern in Coloma called the Sierra Nevada House where the restaurant and bar was a meteorite party every night. Locals and hunters would show off and sell their finds, scientists, hunters and local finders would eat dinner together at big tables taking up the entire dining room. Local kids would come up to the meteorite tables asking, ‘can we see the meteorite’, their parents just as or more interested than them to examine and study the stones. The entire town of Coloma, known for the first discovery of gold in CA and responsible for the subsequent gold rush, was now experiencing a new kind of rush, a meteorite rush.

By the last day I was really tired physically and fatigued mentally. Long hours of draining work with no finds had taken their toll. I was also getting irritable and wanted to break away from everyone and go out on my own. Its not smart to hunt alone so I asked Larry Atkins to go with me and we would head back to the Cronan Ranch because I knew meteorites were there. As the week progressed and more finds were reported a line started to develop and this line went right through the ranch. I was more confident than ever meteorites were there and I was a little mad at myself for not just going with my gut originally. Here it was my last day, and I had only searched in the spot I favored once.

Keith Jenkerson and Larry Atkins Hunting Meteorites in Coloma CA, May 2012

While there are lots of benefits to hunting with a group and everyone in our group was smart, cool and easy to get along with, I was having some anxiety dealing with the group and overtime it was getting worse. One of the things bothering me (and others) was the split. The way this group worked was everything would be split evenly among all group members even if you made a find hunting away from the group. While there were some good reasons and logic backing this up, I found the concept to be socialistic. Having too many people in the group also diluted the shares to the point of it not being worthwhile. Many of the other groups out there work on the finders keep rule, which is of course the default meteorite hunting code of law. Without overriding finders keepers, with a split agreement, problems can occur within groups. Its unfortunate that selfishness and self gain are the primary motivators for most meteorite hunters and I must admit it was nice to not have to worry about this while hunting with this group. However, once personal gain is removed from any work equation motivation will be hit and things will breakdown. Personally I think there’s a middle ground in-between the finders-keepers and socialistic splits and this is how I will try to work in the future.

As the week progressed I started to feel like it was harder for me to find my mojo while hunting with the group. All people and living things emit energy that draws from, fuels and impacts our own energy. For me to get in the zone with meteorite hunting, I need to meditate , concentrate and focus and sometimes this can be difficult with lots of people around. With competing interests of where to hunt and what to do I was getting distracted and it was hard for me to concentrate. I had to break away from the group the last day and just do my own thing.

So Larry and I agreed to set out on our own and were in the field by early morning. We had a pre-determined path that would start on the north eastern end of the field at Magnolia Ranch, and then hug the river south until we got to the meteor trajectory line. As a meteoroid enters the atmosphere and fragments, the lighter stones fall first and get blown by the wind. The heavier stones continue on the trajectory farther and are blown less by the wind. By cutting across the strewnfield in a North to South manner all the way to the trajectory line we would greatly improve our chances of crossing paths with a meteorite.

Mike Hankey, Keith Mueller and Larry Atkins - May 5th, 2012

We first made our way down to the river and ended up running into a local named Keith Mueller. Keith had actually witnessed the fireball while fishing on 4/22. He described it as two fast moving fireballs that followed each other one after the other. The second was slightly lower in the sky than the first. Curiosity and amazement of the fireball led Keith  to the Cronan Ranch and it was his first day ever hunting meteorites. Larry and I talked to Keith for a while and explained to him what to look for and how to hunt. We also explained why this meteorite is so important to science. We parted ways Keith was heading north and we were heading south. About ten minutes later Keith ran back and caught up with us. He said, we ‘blew his mind’ and he had more questions. We talked for a bit and then I invited him to hunt with us.

We set out, and made our way to the up-down trail. This is a pretty tough trail and I was moving a little slow so I let Keith walk in front of me. I remember him saying, ‘Are you sure’, and I was like ya go ahead. Not five minutes later, when we got to the top of the hill, we were all clustered together and Larry cut left into a grassy field. Keith and I followed, not a foot apart and a second later, he says, ‘woa, is this one.’ At the time I was looking at the ground where the meteorite was, but Keith was blocking my view. As soon as he stepped away the meteorite was clear as day and amazingly obvious and remarkable. While I was disappointed I had given up this find to a complete stranger, the happiness that I had just to be part of a find and see a meteorite in situ for the first time in my life overwhelmed  any negative feelings or jealousy I had for Keith. Knowing that we had worked together to achieve success was more important than the individual accomplishment. We agreed that it was a group find and credit would be shared by all three of us, but because we had no prior agreement in place, both Larry and I had to accept that the rock was Keith’s property. As such, I had to buy the rock from Keith.

17.7g Sutters Mill Meteorite In Situ - May 5th, 2012

I believe that things happen for a reason and the Universe and coincidences and random events have meaning that can be interpreted and used to improve and guide our lives. I may have made a mistake, by not making a ‘deal’ with Keith before we started hunting together and thus failed over to the finders-keepers rule. I do regret not working out the business end of things before we stumbled on the stone, not because it cost me more money, but because the other members of our team who I worked with earlier in the week missed out on what would have been their cut. It was not intentional on my part, and while they understood, they were still disappointed.  For me financially, it didn’t make much difference. Had I done things right, Keith would have been the 7th member of the group and I would have still had to buy out 6/7ths of the group. I dont doubt or second guess myself or the  way this went down. I believe this experience was a test of my character and a learning experience but most importantly a way to get me back to California. They say the finder’s name of every meteorite is written on the stone before it falls to Earth. Keith’s name was on that stone, but my name is on another.


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