Panning for gold makes a comeback in bad economy

Some prospectors use a Gold Magic wheel, a kind of motorized pan that can process dirt about five times faster than panning. More-eager gold-diggers use a sluice, a long, metal tray with riffles on the bottom to catch the gold. You put it in a creek bed and sift the pay dirt into it, letting the stream wash away the dirt.

The truly ambitious miners prefer a highbanker, a sort of motorized sluice. A highbanker can go through a front-end loader of dirt — $140 at the Cotton Patch — in a day. Prospectors can sell their gold at the camp's general store.

Pickett has far more serious mining equipment, complete with rock-crushing machinery and an industrial-sized sluice that can pull out gold pieces down to tiny dust particles mixed with sand, which he sends to New England to get processed into ingots. Last year, he says, high gas prices kept campers and panners away, and the economy this year hasn't helped, either: He's open for gold panners just on weekends now.

On the other side of the country, in Jamestown, Calif., business is booming. People are coming to Gold Prospecting Adventures to learn how to supplement their income with a bit of gold.

Jamestown, in Tuolumne County, is near the heart of the California mother lode that stretches from El Dorado County down to Mariposa County. (You can still pan for gold at Sutter's Mill, in nearby El Dorado County, where gold was discovered in 1848, sparking the Gold Rush of 1849.)

The Forty-Niners are long gone, but there's plenty of gold left. Old mining techniques were crude, and lots of gold fell into the creeks or simply got overlooked. People come to Gold Prospecting Adventures for day trips and for serious gold-mining advice and equipment. "The type of people coming now are those wanting to get into it; they want to learn how to stake claims," says Bryant Shock, part owner of the company.

Because times are tough and gold prices are high, Bryant is seeing a lot of people in their 20s start prospecting — as well as a lot of people in their 50s. "People can make more money in a few days prospecting than they can working five days a week at McDonald's or Wendy's."

Prospecting equipment sales have tripled since last year, Shock says. "That tells me right there that there are a lot of people looking for gold, and not just here." Indeed, prospectors have staked 54 gold mining claims in Tuolumne County this year, vs. 47 all last year and 32 in '07. A claim lasts one year.

Amateur gold mining isn't without its problems. Sluices have been banned in California because of the amount of debris they can put into local creeks, fouling the streams and killing fish.

And, because mercury and cyanide are useful in removing gold dust from sand, amateurs run the risk of poisoning themselves. Several Internet sites give instructions on using a potato to remove mercury from a gold/mercury amalgam. Others recommend heating the mercury, which can release dangerous fumes. During the California gold rush, some 26 million pounds of mercury were used to extract gold from the ore, and much of it remains in the Sacramento River bed today.

Getting gold ore from the ground remains backbreaking work — perhaps even more so now. "When I first started, in 1980, you could go down to the hardware store and order a case of dynamite," Shock says. No longer. "Since 9/11, everything has changed."

Growing more popular all the time

Yet the difficulties in getting gold haven't stopped the soaring popularity of prospecting. The Gold Prospectors Association of America reports a 20% increase in membership from last year, to about 50,000. "I was in Nome, Alaska, where you used to see five or six people using dredges on the beach," says Brandon Johnson, director of operations for the GPAA. "Now you're seeing 18, 19 of them — people are selling the gold they find and using it to pay the bills."

Back at the Cotton Patch, however, John Burns talks about what interests him in prospecting. "My primary interest was getting outside, and getting away from crowds," he says. "But finding the gold is the real excitement."

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