DORRIS, Calif. — Some years Tamara Mitchel’s phone doesn’t ring much. But this year, living in a region where an unprecedented drought has already resulted in water cutoffs to irrigators, the phone has been jingling.
“I’ve been getting more calls from people asking me to find water because of the drought,” Mitchel said between chores at her family’s Rising Sun Ranch, a fourth-generation family cattle and sheep ranch outside the Siskiyou County town of Dorris.
Callers are inquiring if she might be able to help them find a valuable commodity, water, something that’s in short supply.
For the last 44 years, the 56-year-old Mitchel has been helping people find underground water. The most commonly used term for what she does is water witching, but Mitchel prefers water dowsing because, she insists, no witchcraft is involved.
“I can always find some,” Mitchel says of locating water by using her tiny diameter brass brazing rods. When searching, she holds the rods in the palms of her hands, both aimed straight ahead. When she passes over flowing underground water the rods involuntarily, and sometimes abruptly, cross. Based on the intensity of the rod’s tug she can determine whether it’s enough water to supply the needs of a farm, ranch or home. “Is it going to be 50 feet wide or 2 feet wide?” she asks.
Once located, she uses other brazing rods, one with a coil at the tip and another shaped like an egg dipper, to estimate the direction of the water flow and the depth of the water. Each time the egg dipper-shaped rod bobs downward represents the number of feet the water is below the ground — 257 bobs, for example, equal about 257 feet.
While dowsing for a rancher, Mitchel predicted water at a depth of 436 feet. Drillers reached water at 432 feet, she said.
Many people who have used Mitchel’s services prefer to remain unnamed, although they’ve been willing to talk off-the-record. Why? Usually it’s because many people believe dowsing is witchcraft. As Mitchel notes, there is no scientific explanation of dowsing. Because it seemingly defies logic, and because of the term “water witch,” dowsing is controversial and doubted by skeptics.
Mitchel was a 12-year-old skeptic when her father’s cousin used a traditional forked willow branch while searching for water.
“I thought he’d flipped his lid,” she remembers thinking. “I was laughing — there can’t be no water.
“I’m shooting him a thousand questions when he gave me the thing,” the forked branch. As she walked along, “It was pointing down so hard the bark was squeaking. From that point I was hooked and I’ve been addicted ever since.”
Mitchel believes dowsing, like other unexplained phenomena, is discouraged because of the unknowns.
“We have these abilities that get shamed out of us. I think if they are cultivated when you’re a young child you don’t lose them. I’ve had people say, ‘That’s the work of the devil. You’re into satanism.’ Basically, I say it’s a God-given talent. I’m certainly am not into black arts. There’s things we can’t explain.”
She’s used her skills, which she says require concentrating and focusing on whatever task she’s undertaking, to find more than water. At a wedding reception at a ranch near the Southern Oregon community of Bonanza, she noticed the groom anxiously looking for something in a barn filled with straw. He’d lost his wedding ring.
Mitchel said she “totally tuned everyone out,” focused on the ring and, as the anxious groom, bride and others watched, found where the ring had fallen, on the floor amid some loose straw.
Other times she’s predicted the sex of unhatched chicks and, using her outstretched hands in place of any rods, located missing horses.
Some dowsers use bailing wire, coat hangers, dip sticks, fishing poles and forked tree branches, but Mitchel prefers brazing rods because they do more than only find water and because, “Whatever works good for me, I keep using that technique.”
With water in short supply, she expects her phone will continue ringing.
“I don’t say I know everything about dowsing because I don’t,” Mitchel says. “There’s a lot of things about it I can’t explain.”