Gold panning is making a comeback as a hobby
Article courtesy of: John Stanley/Associated Press
Monday, November 19, 2007
There may be no ailment as intense or contagious - or fun - as the primordial craving for the lustrous, malleable metal.
"People have been interested in gold for thousands of years," says Loye Blackburn, who sells prospecting equipment next to his RV in Stanton, a former boomtown southwest of Prescott that is now a privately owned campsite about a dozen miles north of Wickenburg. "There's just something about it. You get out there and find a few flakes of gold and it gets pretty exciting."
Blackburn admits he has had gold fever for decades. Over the years, he has parlayed his affliction into a business, Back Country Prospectors.
"I'm not getting rich," he says, "but it helps pay some of my gas bills."
The fever claims new victims daily.
Thousands of recreational prospectors roam the mountains and creek beds of Arizona, trying their luck here and there. Most, though, don't take it too seriously.
"Don't quit your day job. That's the first thing I tell people," says Bob Truppa, host at the Hilltop Campground at Lynx Lake, southeast of Prescott. Truppa regularly gives panning demonstrations and lessons when the campground is open, from April through October.
"I try to stress that this is a hobby. Some of the shows on TV make it look easy. It's not that easy. You just don't run down to the creek and find the mother lode. I've got 28 ounces of gold in 28 years."
The price of gold fluctuates considerably; it flirted with $800 an ounce a few weeks ago.
But the dream of striking it rich is always there. Truppa tells of friends who have found nuggets they've sold for $10,000. And he notes that the Bradshaw Mountains, the heart of Arizona's gold country, are about 40 miles long and nearly 25 miles wide.
"That's a lot of real estate. Gold is out there; it's not all gone," he says.
Truppa, a full-time RVer, spends his winters in Stanton, another hot spot for Arizona prospectors.
Stanton is owned by the Lost Dutchman's Mining Association, which operates more than a dozen similar gold-bearing sites across the country.
"We get lots of snowbird prospectors here," says Linda Walton, who has worked as the camp's manager for nearly eight years.
For most of the residents, prospecting is a hobby. But Walton has seen a few who got carried away.
"We've had people come out here, and they've quit their jobs and think they're going to make it (as a prospector)," she says. "That's not a very good plan. You can find a lot of gold out here, but you have to be lucky. It's just common sense. You don't quit your job and think you're going to win the lottery."
Still, some people do manage to make a living at it, says Steve Robertson, who has worked at A&B Prospecting Supplies in Mesa for about three years. But he doesn't recommend it.
"I've been (prospecting) since I was 10 years old," he says. "I'm 62 now and I think I could make a living at it, but I don't want to work that hard."
A lot of people go out on weekends when they're hunting or camping or fishing and prospect a little, just to do something different, he says. But some are more dedicated. Robertson says a couple of his customers bring gold worth $1,000 or more into the store on a regular basis.
"They've got a good spot they found, and they keep working it," he says. "They have regular jobs and just go out on weekends."
Other people, Robertson says, might go out and work all weekend for 10 cents' worth of gold.
"Just panning, you're not going to get rich, but you are going to find color," he says.
The best plan for beginners, Robertson says, is to join a club.
"It's inexpensive, and you get a list of places to go to that have gold," he says. "You don't have to worry about claim jumping, and you can go out anytime you want to."
Despite their former reputation for secrecy, solitude and eccentricity, modern-day prospectors are a sociable lot.
"Prospectors I've known are more than happy to share information and tips," Robertson says. "True, they won't mark an X on your map showing where they like to go, but they're happy to show newcomers various techniques and equipment and tricks of the trade."
And you can pan just about anywhere in the national forests or on Bureau of Land Management land, unless that land has been specifically withdrawn from "mineral entry," says Michael Smith, a geologist with the Prescott National Forest.
"That means land that is no longer open to mining claims," he says.
Examples would be wilderness areas, wild and scenic river corridors (such as some portions of the Verde River), campsites and so on.
"We view gold panning as a low-impact activity. But if people want to come in and bring dredges and big sluices, we need to talk," Smith says. "Our general rule of thumb is that you can go onto creeks and streams that are not closed to mineral entry."
Prospectors who plan to go beyond simple panning should contact the appropriate land-management agency for regulations and restrictions.
Bob Truppa, the Hilltop Campground host, emphasizes that prospecting is hard work.
A lot of times you recover only a few flecks of gold in a shovelful of dirt, he says. And it can take 300,000 or 400,000 of those flecks to make 1 ounce of pure gold.
Prospecting has been a big part of his life.
"It gets you out to see these beautiful areas. And it gives you exercise - you work your tail off, digging in the dirt. Every time you do it is different. The gold color is different from area to area. It just gets you out enjoying nature; it gets you off the couch. I'm 66, and I love it," he says.
Aficionados say it's the process and camaraderie that make prospecting worthwhile.
"Prospecting is better than going down and sitting in a bar," says Blackburn, the prospecting equipment seller. "It's just a darn good hobby."
Penny Greer, who with her husband, Don, serves as a host at Lynx Campground, agrees.
"(Panning) is therapeutic," she says. "You get a handful of dirt and see the gold in there. It's like playing the slot machines. You never know what you're going to get."