Pan Fans Join a 21st-Century Gold Rush

By Marc Silver
for National Geographic News
January 9, 2009
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.

Finders Keepers

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."

A lot of newcomers are disappointed by the slim pickings. Yet Lawrence and others have found that the very act of panning can be its own reward.

"To go out for a day on the river, listen to the birds and the river babbling as it goes over the rocks," he muses. "There's nothing like it."

Beyond the Pan

Some gold seekers go a bit further in their pursuit. Gloria Marie's tools include a crowbar (which doubles as a walking stick), a four-pound (1.8-kilogram) sledgehammer, a chisel, and a hand-suction device.

If she finds a crevice in the bedrock that seems to be in the right place for gold to have settled in its waterborne journey, she'll work an hour or so to widen that crack, then suck up the debris inside and pan it for nuggets.

There are no guarantees. "I tell you, I've done a lot of panning at an optimum location, and there's nothing there but black sand."

On a lucky day, she'll swirl the debris in her pan and uncover nuggets that range in size from "a pea to a pumpkin seed." She hasn't sold any but has turned a few into jewelry.

Diehard panners invest a little more in equipment. A motorized dredging machine, for example, costs around $1,000 to $5,000. Floating on pontoons, the device has a nozzle that suctions up vast quantities of material from the creekbed or riverbed.

Or maybe they'll try a metal detector, costing a few hundred dollars to $4,000. Prospectors with a detector might find a pencil eraser-sized nugget in the one-pound (.45 kilogram) range or "pounds of quartz riddled with gold," says Jim Hutchings, president of the Sacramento chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America.

"They've come up with [quartz] chunks the size of bowling balls with two, three, four, five ounces of gold running through the rock."

A hydrochloric acid bath eats away the quartz, leaving an unusual gold specimen that could fetch several thousand dollars from an interested collector.

Pseudo-Precious Souvenirs

At the very least, in tourist areas, gold panners sell their chunks of gold to souvenir shops, who mark up the finds and re-sell them to visitors happy to pay $5 for a jar of gold that's only worth about two bucks.

Then again, says Ken Rucker, general manager of the American Gold Prospectors Association, a very lucky panner "might go out for the first time and find a $10,000 nugget."

As for panners who are in it for the fun, they've learned a trick to amplify what they've found.

"Most guys I know keep the gold in water," Lawrence says.

"It's an ego booster—the water tends to magnify the gold so it looks like you've got a lot more than you really do."

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