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Click to enlargeIntroduction Gold Panning - Prospecting

Introduction To Gold Prospecting

Copyright © 1997 Mark R. Roberts (ROBERTM@mail.firn.edu)

Mark Roberts is a Middle School Technology teacher who has taught in Maine, Vermont and is currently living in the Tampa , Florida area. Mark Spent a summer travelling around the country and learned about gold panning first hand.

"To John, whomever you are. Thank you for showing me how to find gold at Kirkham Hot Springs, Idaho, July, 1985."

How fascinating the pursuit of gold is! It can be found in most mountainous areas in our country. Finding gold can be an enjoyable experience, not so much for the monetary value of the metal itself, but more for the opportunity to stop and experience the beauty of nature or sharing in a family activity, perhaps where the kids can enjoy a little time to swim and explore can be very rewarding.

Many of us travel too fast in our lives. Panning for gold is an activity that can really pay dividends other than the procurement of the precious metal. But as anyone interested in the sport of fishing knows, the fisherman can never predict whether the next cast will bring him a trophy or no fish at all. So to the prospector does not know what his pan will yield with each successive panning. Perhaps nothing, perhaps a few lead sinkers from those fisherman who have also plied the stream for rewards, or just maybe a small nugget of..... Good hunting!

Test your panning with one of our gold concentrate bags. Loaded with gold it will allow you to practice at home before going out on the river. Great for hand panning practice too!

Interesting facts about gold:

When it is found in nature it can be pure, 24 karat. Since gold does not oxidize, its color makes it easily identified. The high density of gold allows its deposition in unique places in a stream. A bar of pure gold measuring 2" X 3" X 10" would weigh approximately 43 pounds. Although it is rare, many areas of the United States contain enough gold to readily find it. Among metals it has the highest degree of malleability, that is, bendability. Gold Leaf can be pounded out to a thickness of 15 atoms wide. 1000 sheets of gold leaf equal the thickness of a human hair.

Where is the Gold?

Gold can be found in many areas. The techniques discussed in this article can be employed to find gold in many areas, therefore, the finding of the gold will be approached from a general point of view.

Streams are commonly associated with the finding of gold. This gold is known as placer gold. This means that the gold has been weathered away from its mother lode, literally the mother of the smaller fragments. It is the finding of placer gold that can create a trail to the mother lode. The method most commonly employed is panning. The process of panning is when the prospector uses a specially designed gold panning pan to locate his treasure. Streams are an excellent place to look because of several factors:

1. A stream passes through many miles of possibly gold laden minerals.
2. The density of gold (10 times as much as common sand) allows it to be deposited in special places in or adjacent to the stream area. These places are commonly known as "pay streaks".
3. Spring floods will redeposit gold to provide a new supply annually.
4. It is a cool place to spend a summer afternoon.
5. The kids will love a frolic in the water while you can prospect for gold.
6. There is a variety of other natural things to enjoy while you unwind.
7. Roads commonly pass along streams and river paths creating ample opportunity to prospect.
8. The placer gold that is located will sometimes form a trail to the location of higher quantities of gold and its source, the mother lode.

Which Streams contain gold?

Generally speaking, streams that are most likely to contain gold must have four characteristics.

1. They should be unregulated (not dammed).
2. They should be in a mineral rich area
3. They should fall through enough elevation to cause sufficient churning in the spring flood
4. Stream path and rock formations facilitate the deposition of the dense materials (gold, lead, iron, mercury etc.)

Unregulated streams: This factor is important because this technique is based on the spring flood churning up the minerals found in the stream bed. When this is done during the Spring flood, the gold and other dense materials fall to the bottom of certain areas first. This concentrates these materials which allows prospectors find them.

Mineral Rich Area: A good indication as to whether you are in a mineral rich area is to look at the rocks exposed by the stream erosion and highway cuts used in road construction. Virtually any place that the rocks show a non sedimentary layering will probably be an excellent place to look. This mineral layering is very infrequently level. Many times the rock layers appear to bend and incline. Quartz is commonly found in parts of the layering along with feldspar or other identifiable minerals. Consult field identification manuals for a more specific description of these minerals. They are common and can be easily identified with a little research. Another indication of a mineral rich area is the presence of black sand. Placer gold is usually found with black sand but the presence of black sand does not necessarily indicate the presence of gold.

Elevation drop: As discussed earlier, gold is extremely dense. If the stream in which you are looking is slow moving and flat, the dense material will have settled out far upstream. As the meandering stream makes its way, it travels in a lazy, snake-like manner, twisting one way then the next. These rivers will provide you with little success. Rapids and waterfalls and white water are indications of quick elevation drops. The spring flood will churn up everything in the river's expanded boundaries.

Stream path and rock formations: As mentioned before, placer gold settles in specific areas of a stream bed called pay streaks. These pay streaks are most often found where the water flow slows down significantly. They may also form along a path which follows the shortest, straightest path down the stream bed at high water. As the Spring flood recedes, the deposits can be left some distance above a low, common Summer water level. When looking for a good place to search, imagine what the river would have looked liked during the flood (better yet, go take a look if you can get there). Most streams do not travel in a straight line for very long either horizontally or vertically. The inside of the bends and where the stream levels out after a steeper run are good places for pay streaks to form. Another good spot to look can be found on the down stream sides of large boulders and other obstacles. These create an area where the flowing water slows down for just a short time. The highly dense materials can be concentrated here. Other obstacles include bed rock ridges and large fallen trees. The obstacles can be even more productive if they are in that shortest, straightest path down the stream bed. Pay streaks may take several years to form so the best obstacles to investigate are those which appear to have been there for a long time. The best rock formations that help the prospector are those that trap dense materials that are flowing by during the flood. These formations can be best described as exposed bedrock with small, near vertical fissures. Smooth, well worn bedrock is almost never productive.

Where to look for gold
  • Gravel bars usually found on the inside of the river bends. Although the gold here is mostly small flakes to very fine, there sometimes is a lot of it.
  • Where the stream levels out after a steeper part such as downstream of rapids or waterfalls.
  • Newly formed gravel bars.
  • Small streaks of gravel laying on the bed rock but you will need some sort of sucker to retrieve it if it is underwater.
  • Down stream sides of large boulders and other obstacles which because of size or other factors appear to have been there for a long time.
  • Pot holes in the bed rock.
  • Cracks in the bed rock. In popular prospecting areas, the large, obvious cracks have most likely been cleaned out many times. Look for lines of moss running along the bed rock. There is almost always a small crack under the moss and these cracks can contain a surprising amount of gold.
  • Moss and grass roots near the river.
  • The high benches. As a stream cuts deeper into a canyon, it can leave patches of gravel high on the canyon wall. These are called benches. Look for round or rounded rocks well above the present high water level. Round or rounded rocks have lived in a river at some time in their lives.
Always keep in mind that these are the most likely places to find gold. There is an old saying: "Gold is where you find it". What this really means is, you may find a spot that looks perfect and not find any gold at all or you may find a spot that looks like it would be barren but you find a "bonanza". Just try to keep your mind open to all possibilities.

What equipment is needed to pan for gold?

Unlike many activities that require a sizable investment, gold panning is inexpensive. Most of the tools needed are commonly found around the home. The minimum equipment needed is:

1. A gold Panning pan 2. Slotted Screwdriver 3. Paint brushes 4. Tablespoon 5. Garden shovel 6. Utility bucket 7. Small bottle.
Optional items include a classifier, sniffer bottle, ice pick, garden trowel and commercial crevice tools.

Gold panning pan: Gold panning pans are available in some commercial locations or through mail order. The pans themselves come in at least two materials, black plastic and unpainted steel. Several pan diameters are also available. These pans are designed for the specific purpose of panning and it is highly recommended that they be purchased. The strength of the prospector should be the determining factor as to which diameter to choose. The larger the pan, the more material can be searched but it will be heavier. This disadvantage in weight is an advantage in the chance of success. The larger the amount of material searched, the greater the chance of success.

As to the pan material itself, each have their pros and cons. Steel is most often associated with the old time prospector. The prospector also could heat up food and water in his pan. If panning and heating water and food seems to make sense to you, then steel could be the better choice. Since many streams contain mercury either naturally or from previous mining operations, using a gold pan for cooking can be very dangerous. Both pan materials have their advantages and disadvantages and with a little thought the prospector will choose the style which best suits his needs.

Steel pans will sink while plastic pans usually float. If a steel pan is dropped in deep water, it will quickly sink to the bottom but it will stay put in shallow water and will not float away. If a plastic pan is dropped in fast water, it must be retrieved immediately or it may have to be chased for some distance.
Steel pans must be protected from corrosion or they will rust although some prospectors believe a thin layer of rust creates a rougher surface which helps retain fine gold. The best way to prevent rust is to allow the pan to dry out when not in use. Leaving damp concentrates in a steel pan will cause it to rust rapidly. New pans usually have a thin coating of oil to prevent corrosion. This oil can cause the loss of fine gold by adhering to the small particles making them float out of the pan. The oil can be removed by heating the pan at least until it turns blue and stops smoking. Paint thinner or other solvent may also be used. Steel pans may also be used to heat up concentrates to dry them.

The plastic pans are generally black, green or blue in color. Small gold flakes and black sand are more easily identified against the contrasting colored background. They do not corrode and are generally less expensive than the steel pans. A magnet may be used to remove magnetic black sand in a plastic pan. They come in two basic shapes: the regular flat bottom and the drop center bottom (see illustration). The drop center bottom retains the heavy material at the bottom and helps prevent it from moving up the side of the pan but it will make it more difficult to remove this material and pan down to just gold. The drop center pan is probably the best choice for beginners. Various types of gold traps called riffles are often molded into the side of plastic pans. These traps usually cover about one third of the side to help keep the heavier material in the pan. They can look like stair steps or ridges. The stair step type will allow faster panning initially but at some point they will get in the way and the smooth side of the pan will have to be used to finish up. There will be less material left in the pan with the ridge type of riffle when this point is reached.

All the different varieties of gold pans have their advocates and those who find fault. It probably all comes down to which pan one starts with. Since they don't cost very much, it may be best to purchase two or three types and determine which pan is best for you. The extras may be used by family members and friends or as a "safety pan". A safety pan is placed under the pan being used especially when panning concentrates to catch any gold that may inadvertently slide over the lip of the pan. It may also be used to check panning technique by repanning the safety pan.

The screw drivers, shovel, spoons and brushes etc. are tools that help clean out the crevasses to get out all of the material contained within. Remember, the gold is very dense so it will settle to the bottom of the space. This is why it is necessary to have these tools.

The bucket is handy for carrying and organizing your collection of tools. It also can be used to transport the materials to be panned. Five gallon buckets are very inexpensive or even free.

Sniffer bottles (also called snuffer bottles or sucker bottles) are very handy for removing the gold from your pan. They may usually be purchased wherever gold pans are sold.

The small bottle is for storing the located gold. Almost any small bottle will do so long as it can close tightly and is water tight. A good example of this is a baby food container however, be careful not to drop it! 35 mm film containers work well and don't break.

Glass gold vials are available at prospecting stores and come in a variety of sizes from 2 DWT (pennyweight) to several ounces. They work well for estimating how much gold you have accumulated and for showing off your gold.

Lets review so far:

You have: your tools, time to prospect, you are traveling along a stream which looks unregulated, curves and has what appears to be a good amount of elevation drop, there appears to be a good selection of mineral diversity in the surrounding rocks and you are ready to find gold!

Find a spot in the waterway earlier discussed and imagine how the area looked in the spring flood. Go to an area above the mid-summer waterline and estimate the height of the winter flood level above present water level. Look for rock formations (bedrock) with various sized crevasses or large obstacles that created eddies where the heavy materials fell out of the turbulence of the spring flood.

NOTE- Keep track of the general height above present water level where you are looking. The heavy material may be concentrated at a particular level or a different one. By doing this, the prospector will begin to develop a "feel" for the future location of gold in that area. Now comes the fun, the panning commences! Remove all material from the spot you have chosen and sweep it clean. This includes the live organic material on top (grass, weeds,moss etc.), the material in the area all the way to the bottom. The material on the bedrock and in the cracks are most likely to contain gold. Be very careful to save the dirt attached to the moss and roots. Remember, gold has a much higher density than the normal river material and will seek the lowest level of the area in which you are looking.

Load this material into your pan. Fill it to about 2/3 capacity or to a physically comfortable level. The next step is to perform the panning. This can be better described as separating the materials into layers based on their densities, removing the less dense materials at the top and then extracting the gold. Locate an area in the water where it will be comfortable to do the panning. The water should be flowing but not at the full force of the waterway. A flat rock in slow moving water about a foot deep is ideal. Sitting on the rock is much easier on the knees and back. Summer temperatures may offer a wading technique that will be both easy to perform and refreshing. Fill the remaining space in the pan with water and locate the rim about the level of the water.

Remember, what you are about to perform is a separation of material based on the different material densities, then the removal of the common materials (less dense, on the top) leaving the most dense (on the bottom ).

Hold the pan level and agitate it sufficiently to create a homogeneous mixture where all the material seems to be suspended. The key here is all the material must be moving. I stick my finger in the mix as I agitate it to feel if everything is suspended. Almost immediately the organic material will rise to the top surface. As this is being performed, slow or stop the agitation and in a level position, gently lower the entire pan into the water, 1 or 2 inches below the surface. A gentle circular motion will cause the least dense materials to be carried away by the water. Continue the agitating procedure until all the muddy silt and organic materials are removed. It also is a good idea to sift the entire pan with your fingers to remove large stones and other non-gold items. Be sure to break up and dissolve all clay lumps if any. Not only can they hold gold, they may be sticky and pick up some free gold in your pan. Also, break up any moss clumps and thoroughly clean any grass roots as they sometimes hold a surprising amount of gold. It is easy to know when the low density organic material and silts have been removed. The water is no longer muddy while you are agitating the pan . Continue to perform this technique for a period of time stopping to sift through the mixture and removing the largest stones. As the panning proceeds, the size of the removed stones will become smaller and smaller. How long should this part of the panning last? This is a very difficult question to answer as there are many variables to take into account. If the prospector remembers that the function of the agitation is to separate the materials into their respective densities, the heaviest on the bottom and so on, the time needed to do this will be easier to estimate. A good rule to first start out is to agitate no longer than one minute. Now comes the time to start removing the less dense materials and hopefully, the gold. Lift the pan out of the water just about one to two inches in a level fashion. Start agitating the pan as before and tip the pan to an angle that will allow the most dense materials to collect in the lowest corner of the pan. When you are satisfied that the most dense material is collected there, it is time to remove all the rest of the less dense materials. While the pan is still tipped on the angle, dip it into the water and lift slowly upward. This action will create a small wave. If done correctly, the wave will take with it an amount of the undesired, low density materials on the top. The key here is only the top layer of material is moving. Repeat the wave, taking away the low density material several times. Alternate between the horizontal agitating motion and the tip and wave removal process until roughly 2-5 tablespoons of material remains. Since small gold particles can float on the surface tension if exposed to air for any length of time, it is important to keep the material submerged as much as possible. If you see any black sand or gold during the tip and wave removal process, it is definitely time to go back to the horizontal agitating motion. The black sand or gold will appear along the line between the bottom of the pan and the material.

Do not hesitate to continue to remove the stones which are now large pebbles (at this point, I have always referred to the pebbles as boulders). The process is now almost complete! There should be a small amount of fine material resting in the lower corner of the pan. This material is called concentrates because you have concentrated all the material in your pan down to this small amount. You may notice the presence of a high concentration of a black sand. This is probably magnetite which is a form of iron and other heavy material. The presence of this indicates that you have performed the technique properly as iron is 3 times as dense as the common sand and rocks that make up the majority of the river bed material. Some other things you may notice are old fish hooks, lead sinkers and perhaps mercury. These are all indications that your search is being performed properly. You have successfully separated a small amount of highly dense materials from the stream. It is obvious at this point the importance in the size of the pan. The large pans will allow a significant amount of total material to be panned and the effort may cause your arms to want to fall off. The smaller pans are easier to use but yield a smaller amount of dense materials.

Lets review the panning procedure up to now.

1. Fill pan about 2/3 full with all debris from a small area from the stream side. In the case of cracks or under large items, remember - dense materials filter out first (deepest). 2. Fill the remainder of the pan with water and agitate the mixture to separate the mixture into the materials' respective densities. Any motion will work as long as the mixture of the material and water is homogeneous (moving). Remember to include weeds and grass in the initial material to be panned, the roots commonly pull up material from the very bottom of the crack. 3. Tip the pan to remove the least dense materials and small stones. The most dense materials will collect in the lowest corner of the pan. 4. Locate and remove the gold. This is explained next. Now comes the time to see if the time has paid off with some gold! In your pan you should have about the same amount of water as material (2-5 tablespoons). Remember that any gold will be in the bottom of this small amount of material and at this point will still be hidden. Hold the pan in a horizontally and tip it slowly to make the water run around the bottom outside corner of the pan in a circular motion. As the wave passes over the material left in the bottom of the pan, the force of the water will push a small amount of the material with it when the small wave strikes the amount of dense material. This will expose new material at the very bottom of the sand with each successive pass of the water. The amount of water relative to the amount of material is fairly critical but easy to determine. Too much water will cause all the material to move and too little will not move the material at all. Look closely for when you have reached the bottom most part of that small pile, you should be able to see any gold that you have searched for. This last operation may be performed several times to make sure that you have searched the most dense materials thoroughly. If you see any small bright yellow pieces of material, it is most likely to be gold. Do not be concerned about Fool's Gold, the color of gold is known to most people. When you see these small fragments, look carefully at the color. The color of gold is very distinctive and is easily identified. Fool's gold, also known as iron pyrite, breaks down and oxidizes quickly in a stream. Gold will remain in its identifiable form forever as gold does not oxidize. The particles get smaller in size however, through time and being washed down stream.

Removal of small particles of gold

This step can be slow and tedious and is best done at home since your time in the field is usually limited. After you have verified the presence of gold in the previous step, you can put the concentrates in a container for later processing in a tub or a large cat litter box. A few drops of a surfactant such as Jet-Dry® (dishwasher additive) will help keep small gold particles from floating.

The removal of larger sized pieces of gold is easily done simply by picking them up. Many times, the size of the gold is so small that this is impossible. When this happens, wet the bottom of your finger and press it against the gold fragment. Lift the finger carefully and dip it in the small bottle filled with water. All small particles can be transported into storage this way. You will be surprised at how the small fragments of gold are easily seen, removed and stored.

Another good method to remove the gold is with the use of a sniffer bottle. It is a plastic bottle with a cone shaped cap. There is a tube protruding out of the cap and extending down into the bottle. The bottle is squeezed and released with the tube under water and near the gold. The gold is sucked into the bottle and because the tube extends into the bottle, squeezing the bottle again will squirt the water but not the gold back into the pan. By the way, when squeezing the bottle, ALWAYS point the tip of the bottle into your pan. Sometimes gold flakes get stuck in the tube and will come out with the water. Once filled with water, the sniffer bottle may be used to move the black sand away from the gold by squeezing it very gently - just enough to move the sand but not move the gold. A third use of the sniffer bottle is to put the gold into a small vial. With gold and water in the bottle, remove the cap, remove the tube and gasket from the cap and replace the cap on the bottle. With the bottle upright, put the vial over the tip, invert the bottle and shake. The gold will drop into the vial. The gold will appear magnified if the vial is full of water. Placing the cap on the vial while both are under water will eliminate air bubbles.

A few parting words

Our nation's waterways are used for a variety of recreational purposes such as fishing, swimming and kyacking as well as prospecting. Please respect others by leaving the area as good or better than you found it. Leave as little evidence of your prospecting as possible by filling in your holes and packing out your (and others) trash.

Respect private property and mining claims by not prospecting in these areas unless invited. Some claim owners don't mind if you pan on their claims - It never hurts to ask. A claim is only a right to the minerals on them so you may cross a claim to get to another area.

Most prospectors are friendly and helpful but since their time in the field is usually limited, they may not appreciate long conversations or answering many questions. Try not to set up your operations right next to someone else. At least ask if it is alright. Let common sense be your guide.

Well, that's about it. Hope to see you out in the digs.

Good Hunting!!!!

Copyright © 1997 Mark R. Roberts (ROBERTM@mail.firn.edu)

Courtesy of MininGold


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