Panning for gold makes a comeback in bad economy

Ashley Michalak and Nate Neitz are dipping pans of dirt into a long wooden trough on a hot summer day. But these aren't ordinary pans, and it's not ordinary dirt. They're gold pans, and the dirt — they hope — is pay dirt. The two cousins are panning for gold at the Cotton Patch Gold Mine in the heart of the nation's oldest gold-mining country. "It's cool. You never know what you're going to find," says Nate, 12.

Ashley, 11, has found two small pieces of gold, about the size of a pencil tip. By the end of the day, the two will bring home 10 small flakes of gold in tiny plastic bottles.

Bob Michalak, their grandfather, brought them to the gold fields just to have fun hunting treasure on a hot summer day. But the nation's shaky economy has sent gold rocketing to $950 an ounce, as investors spurn greenbacks for the yellow metal — which, they figure, will always be worth something. High gold prices, combined with increasing economic uncertainty, means that more families are including gold panning in their vacation plans. And, because a little bit of gold can become a lot of money, gold panning for some people is more than a hobby: It's a source of much-needed income.

Down the road from the Cotton Patch Gold Mine, in Midland, N.C., is the Reed Gold Mine, site of the nation's first fit of gold fever. In 1799, Conrad Reed, 12-year-old son of farmer John Reed, discovered an unusually heavy 17-pound rock, which his father used as a doorstop until selling it for the rock-bottom price of $3.50 a few years later. (It was worth $3,600 then, or about $193,000 at today's gold prices.)

Today, John Reed's gold mine is a state park and, after more than 200 years of mining, it still yields some gold. That brings 300 to 500 people a day to look at the underground galleries and pan for gold. Workers bring the gold-bearing dirt from the nearby creek, and the park charges $2 a pan.

"You get a piece of gold in every six or seven pans," says park interpreter Michael Scott. "Nobody's getting rich."

But Cathryn Struck, 8, struck gold at the park's panning site. "I found one tiny little thing of it, a little fleck," Cathryn says. "That was awesome."

It's not just kids panning for gold in North Carolina gold country. John Burns, 64, comes to the Cotton Patch mine nearly every weekend, when he's not searching for gold elsewhere. A Vietnam veteran and retired plumber, Burns wanted something to do — and the money wasn't such a bad thing, either. "There aren't many hobbies that pay you back," Burns says.

$12 for a chance at minor riches

North Carolina gold tends to be small flakes. The largest found at the Cotton Patch since owner Jeff Pickett took over two years ago was 8 grams — about the size of your pinky nail. At current prices, that would be worth about $240. "Anything larger than that is a heart attack," Burns says.

Pickett charges prospectors by the amount of dirt they sift. The dirt is partly crushed rock — gold is often found in the presence of quartz, which has to be pulverized to extract the gold. The rest is dirt from the lode on Pickett's property.

For $12, you get five 2-gallon buckets of dirt, a pan and a small bottle for keeping your gold. Panning takes patience, dipping the pan into the water to wash away the lighter dirt, tossing aside the bigger stones, and watching for tiny flecks of gold in the fine black sand that's left. It's not easy. "I'm getting a strong right arm," Burns says.

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