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The Greenhorn Goes Prospecting

The Greenhorn goes Prospecting

by James C. McNeill
copyright © 1993

There are tinhorns, pronghorns, long horns, short horns, and powder horns. Me? I'm a greenhorn.

Now I want you to understand right up front that it's not my fault. My wife is to blame. I would have been perfectly happy spending my spare time watching TV, doing the occasional chore in the garden, playing with the grandkids or drowning worms in a nearby stream.

It all started one evening last January. I worked the swing shift and when I got home, my wife told me about this show she had been watching on TV that told all about prospecting for gold. She said, "Next week I want you to watch it with me. It was really interesting and looks like a lot of fun."

"I'll bet," I thought to myself. "There's nothing like tramping all over the country, carrying a pick and shovel and who knows what else. The only gold within a hundred miles is in the back of your mouth."

"Oh, really," I said to her, "it sounds interesting." Mistake number one. I should have told her, "I'd rather go in for a root canal, and while I'm at it, I'll make an appointment for you, too."

The next week came by, as they have a habit of doing. We sat there and watched some guy who called himself "Buzzard" show us how to operate some contraption called a highbanker. During a break in the show, he extorted us to join the Gold Prospectors Association of America. For a modest fee, he would send us the "Buzzard Special" which included everything we would need to get started, including a book which would tell us where to go (to prospect for gold, that is).

The wife was ecstatic. "Call them up and get us one," she told me.

"Do you want a membership or the Buzzard Special?" I asked.

"The Buzzard Special. I'm ready to go right now."

Well, what the heck. I've spent money on sillier things, got less to show for it and still enjoyed myself, having been to Las Vegas and all. I called the toll free number, gave the gal my name, address and VISA card number and went back to watch the rest of the show.

I'll say this for the GPAA, they're fast. In less than a week we received a box in the mail. I sorted through the contents and the wife pointed out that they hadn't included a 'snuffer' bottle that Ol' Buzzard had promised. I called the toll free number again, and the errant bottle was on its way.

Even my wife was not keen on prospecting in the snow, so we waited for the weather to warm up. Each week we tuned in the TV show and learned about dredges, sluices, rocker boxes and all sorts of mining paraphernalia.

As we watched, I began to get the bug myself. I used to be the Cub Master in our neighborhood, and one summer we took all the boys to a day camp. One of the activities they had for us to try was gold panning.

We all went down to a creek, and the boys were trying their luck with some pie pans. One of them asked me to help him, he wasn't doing well at all. I had seen panning done and at least understood the basics of what to do, so I got some of the riverbank sand and began to swirl it around.

"You need to hold the pan at an angle so a little of the mud goes out each time you swirl it," I told him. He tried, but couldn't quite produce the right motion.

"You do it," he asked, offering me the pie dish.

"OK, anything to help out," I told him.

I kept swirling it around and started staring at the pie dish, all the while knowing there was no gold around, and anyway, we had the wrong type of pan. Suddenly, a tiny speck, no bigger than a grain of sand caught the sunlight, and it shone up in my face like a searchlight.

My heart rate instantly doubled, my eyes bugged out and my jaw dropped open I caught the tiny speck on the blade of my pocketknife and handed it to the boy. He was as thrilled as if it had been the size of a brick and so was I.

I was soon swamped with boys, each clamoring to me to "find me some, please!" I helped as many as I could until the time ran out and we had to leave. Later I found out that Alta, Utah was once a gold mining town, and it was only a few miles south of where we had been.

I had forgotten about this experience, but it all came back to me while we watched each week. Had it really been gold or something else we'd found. And, was it there naturally, or had someone dumped a load of old tailings there? Either way, the thrill had been real.

March came, and with it the promise of a gold show to be held at the Weber County Fairgrounds in Ogden, Utah. Well, shoot! That was just a bit north of us. I wrote the date on the calendar and in my planning book. We were going to go.

The big day finally arrived. We jumped in the car and headed out. I had hopes of finding a bargain in the way of a metal detector. I had used a Garrett Deep Seeker, which belonged to a friend of mine, to find a buried pipe years before and had been impressed by it.

Se walked around the hall, looking at all the demonstrations and displays. Most of it was out of my price range, but a lot of others were buying sluice boxes and metal detectors, jewelry and geologist's hammers. We ran into a neighbor who related a tale about a springtime picnic that ended with them panning the stream with their paper plates when he spotted something shiny on the bottom.

We saw "Buzzard Massie," and he looked just like he did on TV. I had hoped to chew the fat with him, but so did a lot of others. I decided that I needed to know a lot more about metal detectors than I did before I put my money down on the counter, and we finally left. I know I missed out on some bargains by so doing, but at the time, it looked like all the gold was being vacuumed our of some poor guys wallet.

During the following weeks, I watched the newspaper ads and found a nice small pick on sale, which I bought. We had a couple of large plastic buckets that laundry detergent came in, and I stashed them aside. I found a gold pan that my brother-in-law had given me and added it to my collection. I bought a classifier at a local hobby shop.

Watching Ol' Buzzard standing around in various streams told me that I needed a pair of knee-high rubber boots. They went on sale one weekend, and I snapped up a pair.

I talked about prospecting with the people I work with. I watched the video tape that came in the "Buzzard Special" that showed how to pan for gold. I watched the TV show. I shopped. I dreamed.

Finally one day in April I had enough. The yard needed to be cleaned, bushes trimmed, trash hauled. I told my wife, "I've watched TV shows about panning for gold, I've bought equipment to pan for gold, I've done everything except pan for gold, and I want to go this afternoon."

"OK, but first we need to get the old raspberry canes out and get the bushes in front trimmed and all the trash collected."

I balked. "Why does all that have to be done today?" I asked.

"Because the garbage service will pick it up free if we put it out today," she informed me.

"I'll get right on it," I replied. I know when I'm well off.

While she went to her exercise class, I ripped out all the dead canes, sprayed the fruit tree and had started attacking the bushes in front with an electric trimmer when she returned home.

She must have wanted to go took as she changed clothes and the two of us had everything done by noon. We had lunch, and I began collecting all my gold hunting equipment in the trunk of the car.

"Where are we going to find all this gold?" she asked.

"Up Mueller Canyon," I informed her.

"I didn't know there was any gold up there," she replied, looking at me rather doubtfully.

"Neither does anybody else, including me, but it's close and I'm itching to try anyplace. Let's go, before I start digging in the garden looking for color."

She must have valued the garden, because she got in the car and in less than fifteen minutes we were standing next to the stream that gurgles out of Mueller Canyon. The Forest Service had not yet opened the gate that leads to a nice picnic area that they maintain, but no matter. I started carting my stuff down to the water, set up shop under a small foot bridge where I'd be out of the sun, and started searching for likely looking deposits of sand.

I dug up a promising shovelful and dumped it into the classifier, looking like I'd done it a hundred times and found gold every time. I started sloshing it around like I remembered seeing on the video tape. Nothing much seemed to be happening. "It's supposed to wash down to just big rocks," I told my wife. Finally I started pawing the pile around to see what was wrong.

On the video, the material in the classifier looked like clean washed sand with a few rocks in it to make it interesting. But what I had looked like greasy brown glop with some sticks and rotting leaves mixed in to make a real mess.

"Yuck," I said to myself. "What's this crud? How do I get rid of this without risking infection? You don't know where it's been, or what's in it."

I considered dumping the whole mess back in the water and heading for home, but greed overruled me. I sloshed it up and down and poured some water on it. Later on, while reviewing the video, I saw that I was supposed to have it right down in the water.

I kept at it until the greasy clay that composed most of the disagreeable part was washed away. Then all I had to do was pick out all the dead leaves, sticks and roots. I gave thanks for not finding the remains of some poor unfortunate rodent.

Finally I got to where my material looked something like the video had shown, and I commenced panning. That didn't work either. I had all this pea gravel swirling around, and not much of it seemed inclined to leave the pan. Like I said, I was supposed to have the pan in the water. Eventually I figured out that I needed more water, so I dipped some in and went at it again.

Now, this was more like it. I finally hot rid of the dirt, rocks and sand and whatever, and, lo and behold, there was some black sand. There was also some suspicious looking gold colored flakes.

"Hot dang! I thought, "gold at last!" I could see I needed a lot more concentrate, as I had heard it called on the show, so I poured what I had into a bucket, and went back after another load.

My wife, meanwhile, was doing much the same thing with the pan she had, and we kept at it for an hour or so. Then she went back to the car to rest her back. I began panning the concentrates. Once again, it wasn't working. I sloshed the black sand around, but the little gold colored flakes didn't want to go to the rim where the black sand went ( and where the gold had gone in the video). They kept going to the center of the pan, almost as if the sand repelled them. I began to suspect it wasn't gold.

Some people walking over the bridge saw me at work. "Are you finding anything?" they called.

"Not yet," I answered. "I've got some black sand, but that's all so far."

"Something is not right," I kept thinking to myself. "The gold should be the heaviest thing in the pan, and it's acting like it's the lightest." Even so, I dutifully got out my snuffer bottle and proceeded to suck up all the flakes I saw. "Well, it doesn't amount to much, but at least I've got something to show the troops at work," I thought as I finished.

Another watcher came by and stood on the bank. "Having any luck?" he asked.

"Not really," I told him. "I've got some black sand, but that's about all."

He looked into the pan. "I'll be darned," he said. "You've got some, all right. I've never tried up here, all there is is iron pyrite and some mica flakes, but I'm surprised you even have any black sand."

I knew the truth when I heard it. Mica... that's why the flakes kept going to the center of the pan. And iron pyrite. Fool's gold. I guess that made me a fool. I'm not the first, and I won't be the last. I had even seen the mica deposit while picnicking in the area before.

He told me of a canyon where he'd had some luck in the past.

"Thanks, maybe I'll try there next weekend."

We gathered up our stuff and headed for home. I considered keeping the phony flakes I'd found to impress the boys at work, but finally dumped them out. I'll wait and show them what I find next weekend instead. I'll be an Ol' sourdough by then.


That's why I call myself "The Greenhorn". This is the first thing I ever wrote and sent in for publication. I was a greenhorn prospector and a greenhorn writer. I'll always be grateful to The Gold Prospector magazine for publishing it. When I recieved the accecptance letter, my feet didn't touch the floor for about a week.


Copyright © 1998 by Greenhorn Publications



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