When Howard Carter broke through the wall of King Tut’s tomb in 1923, he saw “wonderful things”, which would prove that man had been chasing the glitter of gold for thousands of years. It’s not quite as hard a hobby as it used to be, and the chances of a find like Carter’s in North America are pretty much non-existent, but it is still a fun hobby enjoyed by thousands of enthusiastic weekend miners.
Before you grab a shovel and head out to the hills, it helps to understand some of the basics about what you’re looking for. Gold is a mineral, 58th on the table of 92 elements, in terms of abundance. Normally yellow in colour, it ranges through silvery-yellow and orange-red, due to impurities in it, such as copper. To find a purely gold nugget is extremely rare. You are more likely to find it in flakes, or as part of a vein of quartz rock, or part of a conglomeration of rock and other materials formed thousands of years ago.
Pure gold, is one of the most easily molded metals on earth, capable of being beaten into onion skin thick sheets of metal, or stretched into nearly invisible wires that don’t break in the making. However, it’s most valuable property to the prospector, is its weight. The only minerals heavier than gold are iridium, osmium and platinum. Gold’s weight makes it ideal for panning, and brought about the invention of the sluice box in the early 1800s, a long trough-like construction in which gold-laden crushed ore was dumped, then washed with high pressure jets of water, forcing the lighter particles down to the end of an elevated trough, and dropping the heavier bits of gold into the ladder device which ran down its middle.
For the amateur prospector, panning for gold is not only the simplest method, to start out with, but it also holds the romance of the first gold rush. You can even start where they did. While most gold mines and fields were generally considered to be “empty” and abandoned many years ago, as long as they are on public property, you have the freedom to stick your pan in and try your luck. Some geologists estimate that as little as 10% of the world’s gold has been uncovered to date, and that those areas which appear to be “tapped out”, may actually have underground reserves that emerge over time and with shifts in the earth and water courses.
If you are in an area known to have had gold strikes or deposits, choose a promising stream. Don’t forget that you have to get right into the water to scoop up dirt from the bottom. Panning/washing can be done from the bank, but you have to get to the dirt, first. Make sure you bring high rubber boots or hip waders, and thick socks. Avoid the most common mistake of scooping the surface dirt off the stream bed. Remember, this is moving water. The gold hasn’t been lying there waiting for you. And…remember the weight. Gold has a specific gravity of 19.2. This is the comparison between what a material weighs, when compared to the same volume of water. Most materials gold is found with have specific gravity of 7 or less. That means any gold in that creek has sunk down into the mud. But years of fast moving water shifts the mud and the gold. So find a slower part of the waterway to make your first retrieval of dirt. It’s far more likely that small nuggets or flakes have fetched up against something solid such as rocks, natural dams, or other obstructions.
The pan you bring can be as simple as a metal cake pan, as long as it has a “lip” or raised edge. If you browse the mining supply sites, you’ll find a bewildering array of pan sizes and styles, although most shapes follow a roughly conical design, with a smaller flat bottom, and the sides extending out to a wider top, the better to swirl your pan contents without losing them. You might prefer a dark colored pan, to help you find any potential sparkles.
Once you have your pan half full of dirt, lower it under the surface of the water, in a stiller area of the stream, and start moving it in a circular pattern, so that the water and dirt swirl around the pan. You’ll see that the lighter elements rise up and float out on the surrounding water. Be sure not to raise the pan out of the water while swirling, or you chance losing some of the heavier elements, which should be sinking to the bottom of the pan. After some dedicated swirling, you’ll find that you’re down to a few essentials. Now you can take the pan out of the water, remove any rocks or pebbles, possibly pick out some promising bits to store in small containers or bottles, and you can try your luck again. A handy item to bring, is something to pick up flakes of gold with, such as a turkey baster, or other small suction device, which can transfer the flakes from the pan to a container.
If you’re getting a little cold in the water, take a look at the bank along the stream. Is it deep? Is there quite a section showing above the water? Don’t pass up the opportunity to look where the water once flowed. Dig into the bank, fill a bucket with dirt, and go back down to the water’s edge, and swirl a few panfuls without having to wade.
You never know when you’re going to strike it lucky!