So, how do you go about this panning business? Well, first you need, uh, a pan. Gold pans basically look something like a Chinese wok. They are made of steel, plastic or copper. The plastic pans work pretty well, for several reasons:
- They're inexpensive;
- They're lightweight;
- They're dark-colored, making it easier to see gold; and
- They usually have ridges, called riffles, on the side of the pan, which helps trap the gold.
OK, now that you have your pan, it's time to go panning. Where do you go?
First, you need to find a place where there is some running water, unless you want to fill some pails with dirt and cart it back to your house and pan there. If you find a spot along a creek, make sure there aren't any active claim markers. Serious gold prospectors may not appreciate finding you on their claim. Make sure you are comfortable -- find a nice boulder to sit on, or even bring a folding chair.
OK, you've got water and a comfortable spot, now what?
Look for a likely spot where heavier gold may have dropped out of the stream current. These include the down-stream side of boulders; the inside curve of the stream; near tree roots along the stream bank; in small holes in the streamed; and downstream of natural dams (like logjams).
Take a trough and scoop some material into your pan. Inspect and discard larger rocks, unless they have gold in them - they probably don't. Fill your pan with water and gently slosh the pan around in a circular fashion, tilting it slightly away from yourself (unless you enjoy getting wet). This sloshing action will help separate lighter sediments from the heavier ones, commonly called black or red sands.
Now, inspect the black sands for any gold color. You can accelerate this inspection by separating magnetic iron-bearing sediments from the rest of the sand. You accomplish this by putting a magnet in a plastic bag and running the magnet over the sands, then peeling off the fine sediments and discarding them. It may take several runs with the magnet to get most of the sediment winnowed out. Resume your inspection. Sometimes it's helpful to use a magnifying glass or jewelers loupe.
What's that! There is some color! GOLD -- EUREKA -- I'M RICH!
Easy, Fido. If you see some color, make sure it's really gold. There are other materials that can trick you, most notably pyrite or fool's gold (ever wonder how it got it's name?). Inspect the particle carefully. Does it have a blocky look to it? Does it look really flashy? If so, it's probably pyrite. You can also try to see if it breaks under a sharp point, but you'll most likely fling it off into the sunset. Or, you can put it into your gold vial and check it later to see if it reacts with muriatic acid (found in your local hardware store). If it breaks under pressure or reacts with acid, it's probably pyrite.
Other materials can fool you too. For example, we've had a number of people show up at the shop with vials full of mica. The Pinos Altos area has a LOT of copper rich mica. One fellow didn't believe me when I told him he had mica, because he said he used the "match test". I never understood what he meant, and he wasn't in the mood to explain it further.
OK, you've found some color and you're pretty sure it's gold. How do you collect it?
Most prospectors carry a small vial to store their gold. It generally has a little bit of water in it. If you take a small artist's paintbrush and wet it, dab your piece, then stir it into the vial, the gold should drop into your vial. Some prospectors carry around Chap Stick and use it to dab the gold, then they cut the small sliver containing the gold fleck into the vial. Later, they separate the gold from the waxy Chap Stick by melting the wax and drawing off the liquid. I like the water method, myself.
Well, at the end of the day, if you're lucky, you'll have a vial with some small pieces of gold in it and will be thinking something like those "Car Talk" guys on National Public Radio: "Now I've wasted another perfectly good day…". But it was fun.
I can't let you go without telling you my favorite gold story. No, I wasn't prospecting. I was in my shop several years ago, when a fellow walked in. "The folks at the Chamber of Commerce told me that you might know where I could find some gold." I gave him a rundown on some areas, such as Pinos Altos, Gold Gulch and Gold Hill, and talked a little bit about panning for gold. I closed my explanation with, "If you're lucky, you'll end up with some gold flour or dust." His response was, "Dust? Flour!?" I said, "Yes, what were you expecting?" He responded, "I thought you were going to tell me about a vein or pocket of gold that I could chip out!"
I didn't have the heart to tell him that if I knew about a vein like that, I wouldn't be working in the store!
Enjoy your weekend.