Pan Fans Join a 21st-Century Gold Rush

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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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