for National Geographic News
With pan in hand, Phil Lawrence is looking for gold.
He's new to the pursuit, but he's read books on the art of panning and joined a local group that provided an instructional tape. So off he goes to streams and creeks near Nevada City, California, where he lives, trying to find bits of the sparkly stuff.
"You don't just stick your pan in the water and instantly see nuggets," says the 53-year-old semi-retiree, who works as a night custodian at a local school.
"You gotta do a little research to figure out where the gold flows as it washes down from the mountains"—say, an area in the creekbed with little shelves or where the current slows and swirls.
He picks up a batch of gravel in his pan and begins the "panning action"—a shake and dump technique. Since gold is heavier than just about anything else in the stream, its nuggets should settle on the pan bottom as lighter minerals rise.
Lawrence is one of tens of thousands of Americans taking part in a mini-gold rush in the 21st century.
The high price of gold was a motivating factor for many. The economic meltdown has been as well—no matter what the dollar does, gold will always be worth something.
A year ago, the Gold Prospectors Association of America would sign up about a hundred new dues-paying members a week. During peak times this year, about a hundred people a day were paying the $67.50 annual fee, which gives them the right to pan on mining claims staked by other association members.
On a good day, Lawrence will have a "eureka" moment: "You find a few specks, it's a big thrill. You know you're the only one in millions of years to set eyes on that particular bit of gold."
So how rich has he become? Not very. A few hours of panning might yield about an ounce of gold, in the $800 neighborhood these days, down from its more than $1,000 figure over the summer. In his year or so of panning, he guesses that he's found the equivalent of about $100 worth of nuggets.
"If I wanted to increase my income," he jokes, "I'd be a whole lot better off to get a job at McDonald's."
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