There is ordinarily a stillness on the granite promontories above the Salmon River, a quiet that shrouds the towering cedars and reaches up to where hawks soar in the clear, silver light of daybreak. But on this crystal morning, a nattering covey of mountain quail suddenly freezes, motionless, at the sounds of man—the groan of nails being pried from wood and the creak of boards being wrenched one from another. Today, along with the rushing of the river, there are sounds of leave-taking in the forest.

Don DeRoma, a young gold prospector, long-haired and sad-eyed, is tearing down a tiny, rough-hewn cabin on Plummer Creek, one he built with his own hands using planks of hand-milled pine and cedar. The government has told him that the land he lives on is to be absorbed into a wilderness preserve and he must vacate it. And so DeRoma is dismantling, board by board, the place that for nine years has been his home. After packing their few belongings and selling a battered Jeep, he and his girlfriend, Sidney Replogle, will abandon the life they have made in this river wilderness. "This is our last day," DeRoma says quietly, standing beside her in their weed-infested vegetable patch. "She woke up crying this morning."

Don DeRoma and Sid Replogle are two of a small number of mavericks who earn a meager living mining gold on little plots within the boundaries of the 1.7-million-acre Klamath National Forest, 120 miles northeast of Eureka in the Salmon and Marble mountains of Northern California. On the Salmon and Klamath rivers, where Yurok Indians hunted elk and deer, these prospectors dredge the black sand of the river bottom for nuggets and flecks of the metal that once brought fortune hunters west by the thousands.

Prospecting is no longer the pick-and-shovel operation that it was during the Gold Rush; today's miners are outfitted with suction pumps, air compressors and wet suits. But the miner's lifestyle is still a Spartan one, and his motives are as fundamental as those of the forty-niners. Clustered around the five tiny towns of Sawyers Bar, Forks of Salmon, Oak Knoll, Somes Bar and Cecilville, the Klamath Forest prospectors have found their haven in a place beyond society's mainstream. Some are newcomers like DeRoma, who left a construction job in San Francisco almost a decade ago for a prospector's life on Plummer Creek. Others, like Dan Sagaser, 75, and his roommate, Daisy Matthews, 92, have been mining in this forest since before World War II. Their right to work these claims, and live on them, was established by Congress more than a century ago, when, to spur westward homesteading, Uncle Sam struck a bargain: Anyone willing to start a mining operation on federal land could, after proving the claim was productive, live on it rent-free.

At least until recently. The U.S. Forest Service, official guardian of federal park lands, decided that the policy was being abused and it was time for a crackdown. Last January stern warning letters were sent to all 237 Klamath claim holders: Give good reason that you must live on your claim—or face eviction from your home and then have it torn down. "To remain on their claims," says Klamath district ranger Mike Lee, "these folks have to derive their living from mining alone at least eight or nine months of the year. And they have to prove that in order to mine the land, they must live on it." To most of the miners, the ultimatum had the ring of a death sentence: Even if they could show that mining was their basic income, proving that they "must" live on the claim seemed impossible—and the nearest other place they could live was at least a couple of hours away. "We came because of our deep love of the wilderness," says Rex Richardson, 36, who works Indian Creek with his wife and son. "If we can't live on our claim, we can't work it. They expect us to tear our house down and commute four or five hours a day. All this has never been required before. It's a new threat. We want to live on this wild river and continue our lives in seclusion."

City dwellers might be hard-pressed to understand the lure of the Klamath. The claims begin at the end of two rutted roads that wind 20 tortuous miles into the backwoods. Sixty-ton logging trucks career around hairpin turns on their way to sawmills, and in winter the passes are sometimes buried under snowdrifts. Klamath homesteaders have strung rickety suspension bridges and pedal-powered cable cars to traverse the river, and the miners make their own electricity with small river-powered turbines. The nearest gas pump is an hour away, and phone calls—for the few miners who have phones—must be routed through operators. CB radios are the link between miners. The tiny Forks of Salmon Store carries canned goods, beer and ice, but most people make the monthly excursion for supplies to two towns four or five hours away.

There are risks involved in living here; doctors and the sheriff are an hour's drive away. Still, for the hardy souls who choose it, this seems the best of all possible worlds. Esther Schwartz's husband, Phil, came here in 1931 and set his homesite near a pond that was icy cold and pure enough to drink. Hauling logs from the hills and rocks from the river, he built the house. For 50 years, Phil punched out a small claim on the Salmon's north fork and provided for his wife and two daughters. "We lived here and always made it from mining," says Esther. "Never got rich—but always got by. Never had to go on relief or welfare. If we could put food on the table, we were happy." Phil died in 1979, but Esther continued to tend her vegetable garden and to rent out her claim. Then, one crisp day last winter, she learned she would have to demonstrate to the government that she has a right to live where she does. She must also post a $4,200 performance bond, the amount the government says it will need to bulldoze her homestead and return it to a "pristine state."

"Seems like anyone who's lived here as long as I have should be able to live here a little while more," Esther, now 80, said a few weeks ago, her pale eyes showing anger. "I've got a good garden and a little home, and I've been paying my taxes for a long time. They'll have to carry me screaming across the bridge, and I'll kick the lot of 'em in the shins." Now, she won't have to: The government has just offered her life tenure, although her children cannot inherit or be paid for the land.

At the end of the gravel road to Black Bear Creek, Judy Beaver, 32, hand-cranks her clothes washer with the help of her son Silas, 11. While her husband, Bob, 44, dredges six to 10 hours a day in the cold creek, Judy home-schools her brood of four boys. "This place is our home," she says, surveying the stand of sugar pine outside her book-filled log cabin. "If we were forced to leave it, I'd feel anger, sadness. Our roots are deep. I feel like I'm planted here." Her husband is bitter—and suspicious. "There are some extremely strategic minerals in these rivers, and the government wants them," says Bob, who came here 10 years ago. "I think they're trying to get rid of the small miners to make room for the big operations. These letters we got are treating us like criminals."

Downriver from the Forks of Salmon grocery, across a swaying, 200-foot suspension bridge, Melissa Shockey, 30, lives with her 2-year-old son, Rio, on the claim she has mined for the past three years. "There's a strong tie for us here," says Shockey, who stayed on after her husband, Richard, left last year. "Little by little I learned about mining. Now I know quite a bit, and there's no reason why I can't go on living here. Even if the government burns down the cabin, I'm staying. I'll live in a tepee if I have to. I don't know where else I could go."

According to the Forest Service, its crackdown is simply smart management—getting rid of squatters, marijuana growers and other social exiles living on public land without proper authorization. "People have been living here for nothing and getting away with it," says district ranger Lee. "If someone's living on a claim without mining it, that's not fair to anyone." The service, however, has already taken action against such people: It has evicted 400 squatters from the area in the past few years and is now expanding its mission. "For years we just weren't enforcing the regulations," Lee says. "We're trying to make up for lost time, and we're down to the tough ones now—the ones who have been here a long time, and their cases are not black and white."

To the miners, "making up for lost time" means harassment. "The requests are unreasonable," says David Jacques, 41, a member of the Salmon River Mining Council. "They say you can't have visitors for more than 48 hours without a permit. The miners have been told they can't have a vegetable garden, a TV antenna, a radio or even a horse. And the real corker was an old guy told by the Forest Service that he could only mine under his house." Responds Lee: "That stuff happened in the past. I don't think you'll see anything like it now."

"The Forest Service was in favor of cabins in the woods 20 years ago," says John Moon, an authority on mining law who sides with the miners. "Now they don't want people in the woods at all. People are messy, and it's a lot easier not to have to manage them. If the miners go away, the problem goes away." Environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, are supporting the miners. "Their small gold-mining operations have a pretty benign environmental impact," says local Sierra Club spokeswoman Susie Van Kirk. "The amount of damage caused by the small miners is nothing compared to Forest Service timber-management practices and road building. Forest Service priorities are really mixed up."

Beneath the miners' desire to stay on the land is a motivation more powerful even than gold. "I feel a spiritual tie to the land and this peaceful community," says DeRoma. Adds Rex Richardson: "The miners are asking, 'Is this America we're living in?' There's something morally unsettling about the whole event. If it goes down like the government wants it to, this will be a black mark in this country's history." Some miners have filed a U.S. district court suit to fight the evictions, but few are optimistic about the outcome. "The Forest Service will wear the miners down," says John Moon. "Burn all their cabins, no doubt. The American Mining Congress isn't going to take up the cause. They'd rather not see the blood of the small miner—just close their ears to the cries."

Once they are gone from Plummer Creek, Don DeRoma and Sid Replogle will have only memories of the richness of their lives in these woods. They may recall the 300-lb. black bear that woke from hibernation and stumbled into their cabin, the mountain lion that took up residence on their roof or the simple pleasure of a sunrise over the mist-shrouded hills. "This is a peaceful place where people pull together and help each other," says DeRoma, standing with his arm around Sid as shards of late afternoon light glint on an old box of canning jars. "I loved it here. I had the right to be a miner here. Even in the lean times, I always felt rich. I believed in the government and followed their rules. And still I lost." Soon after he and Sid leave this place for the last time, there will be no sign they were ever here. The deep forest will close in on itself, and there will be only silence again on the twisting river, a silence as swift and empty as wind through the Klamath pines.

—By Susan Schindehette, with Joe Cempa on the Salmon River