In 1848 a Mormon pioneer, Samuel Brannan, ran down the streets of San Francisco with a vial of gold dust yelling, “Gold! Gold on the American river!” This single action is affectionately pointed to as the springboard of the great American gold rush of the late 1800s.
As a result, San Francisco, a small town of a thousand residents, ballooned into a modest city of twenty-five thousand obstreperous miners, prostitutes and shills. Yee-Haw. Samuel Brannan went from a modestly well-to-do Mormon to a fabulously wealthy ex-Mormon. An American epoch was birthed in the tin pans of hopeful ‘49ers and immigrants.
Though the rush is over, gold has held its sway to the present. People still get rich from gold prospecting. (Most of those getting rich are CEOs of large industrial mining firms, but hey – it happens.) You don’t need a sluicing machine to sift through tons of material to find gold. One simple piece of equipment will do.
If you have a yen for new hobbies or just a twinkle in the eye for long-shot chances at striking it rich, then we may have a new activity for you. Wait for it… Gold. Panning. The real beauty of panning for gold is that it is so simple and so low maintenance that you can start almost immediately.
Gold pans range from about 5–10 dollars and resemble wide, shallow bowls. Most of them, these days, are made of rubber or hard plastic. Gold pans have prominent striations on their insides. These grooves are called riffles and are what catch the gold as you sift and strain your way to the bottom of a panful of mud. The movement of water as you slosh it around and out of the pan mimics the natural settling of sediment while the riffles create little eddies, or still spots, that allow heavy materials such as gold to be trapped on the bottom of the pan.
There are more than a few techniques to gold panning, but basically, you fill your pan up about three-quarters of the way with sediment from a riverbank or streambed and start getting rid of the mud by allowing the pan to fill with water and rocking it side to side. The rocking motion will suspend lighter elements, which can be dumped out with a tilt of the pan back into the water.
The goal is to continue until you are left with a heavy, dark colored silt called black sand. Black sand is heavier, magnetic sediment that contains among other things, gold. Carefully sift in a more deliberate manner until only a little material is left. Then you can fan the material out along the bottom of the pan and look for tiny flecks of color. Pretty straightforward.
It’s worth noting that not all rivers are gold rich. Hell, not all states are gold rich. Nevada is by far the most productive of gold states yielding hundreds of thousands of pounds every year. Your experience panning for gold in Nevada would likely be similar to spending a few hours playing Hold ‘Em at the Bellagio. If you know what you’re doing, you’ll probably come away with a little somethin’. If not, you’ll probably have a good time anyways.
Prospecting for gold is a great excuse to get out into nature, crack open a few beers and do a relatively mindless and satisfyingly repetitive activity. It can be fun to do as a family or it could be an enjoyable and novel activity to add to your next camping or hiking getaway with the guys. Keep in mind – the largest gold nugget ever found, called the Welcome Stranger, was found in Australia in 1869 and weighed in at 173 pounds. That’s 2,848 ounces and at today’s price of $1300 an ounce that’s about $3.7 million. In 2014 an amateur prospector found a 6 pound nugget in the California mountains and sold it for $400,000. So who knows, you could strike it rich.
By: Liam Stewart