Bear River Panning for GOLD!

Trip Start Nov 22, 2007
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Trip End Dec 01, 2008


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Flag of United States  , California
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bear River
After Yosemite, we decided to spend some time in Gold Country, along Route 49 in California. The area is beautiful-mountains, foothills, forests, and rivers. A string of tiny towns that once bustled with strangers seeking their fortune in the gold rush. Most of those towns still invite strangers; enticing the tourists with folklore, shopping, and the promise of finding GOLD!!! And you can find gold-we did! You won't get rich and you will work pretty hard for it, but it is there for sure.
We both were keen to try panning for gold and had done a little research on the internet to see what places looked promising. We decided on a county park campground in Colfax, CA called Bear River. What a great place to camp-very secluded, and the campsites are all about 20 feet from the river (dry camp only).
We spent about 10 days in Bear River Campground; quite a few of them panning for gold. We took a 2-hour orientation from a local establishment in Jamestown to learn how to pan and to hear the endless stories of the gold that has been found. Why, just a few years ago, there was a mini gold rush, and some prospectors found large nuggets worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars! And then there is the "common knowledge" that, based on geologic estimates, the gold rush of '49 only unearthed 20 - 30 percent of the Mother Lode! That's right, multiply the amount of gold found back in the 1850s by 3 - 5, and that's what's actually left! By George, we should be finding gold everywhere! It's just sitting there waiting to be discovered by people like us! The real clincher was the story of the ten-year-old kid who didn't really know what he was doing, but discovers a 2-ounce nugget. Just saw a glint in the water and dug it up. Wouldn't that be exciting! Obviously, after hearing that, we were both disappointed that we did not uncover a nugget or two during our "training" session, but Bob did find a flake, so we were encouraged. (Little did we understand that the one flake that Bob did find at that time was among the larger flakes!) We purchased some pans and trowels and off we went the next day down to the river near the campground.
Gold panning is hard work. First you have to find a spot that looks promising for gold discovery. Gold is among the heaviest of elements, and the idea is that gold will settle in places where it gets stuck because the water can't push it along. So you look in the bend of a river, behind downstream rocks in the riverbed, in submerged tree roots along the riverbed, etc. The other detail is that, because it is so heavy, it generally sinks deep into the riverbed, so you have to dig deep to find it.
Once you find a spot, you take your shovel or trowel and dig a bucket-load of dirt, rocks, mud, and sand. You take the bucket and you begin to sort it (they call it "classify"-I say, it's glorified rock cleaning). First, you go through all the big rocks , clean them off, and toss the ones that aren't gold (i.e., all of them), then you break up the larger dirt clumps. Once you have the bucket stuff down to pebbles and dirt, you take a shovelful of dirt and pebbles, put it in your pan, put your pan in the river, and wash all the dirt away-as if you were cleaning the pebbles-all the while, swirling the pan so as to cause any gold to drop to the bottom of the pan. (Once fully submerged and freed from the soil, the gold presumably will sink because it is heavier by volume than anything else in the pan). Once you have washed all the dirt away, you go through the pebbles and throw out the ones that are not gold (i.e., all of them). Now your pan will have sand in it. You are still swirling the pan. Your forearms are tired, but there is more work to be done. Now, separate the sand-get rid of the brown-gray sand until the black sand emerges. You have effectively reduced the shovelful of contents of your pan at this point to a few tablespoonfuls. Once you get the sand down to the black sand, you may be lucky enough to see a flash of gold-yes, real gold! Work the black sand out of the pan as best you can to separate it from the gold. If you are lucky your pan will have produced a flake or two-if you are even luckier, the flakes are larger then the size of a pinhead. With a dry fingertip, pick up the gold and put it in a vial.
Bob and I completed that process many times over quite a few days. You will see spoils in the pictures-that's right, that tiny vial with the flakes of gold in it is a few days worth of work. Yes it was a chore, but we really had a lot of fun! We were outside by the river everyday, and we met a lot of different people out there doing the same thing. We met a new friend, Matt Steitz, with whom we spent a couple days panning and socializing. Matt has been traveling for a few months, doing the gemstone and precious metals tour-digging for fire agates, panning for gold, looking for diamonds and garnets and such. A really neat way to spend some time seeing the country. We really enjoyed his company and sense of humor! (Hey Matt-bet your glad to be back visiting the land of civilized pizza??!!)
By the way, on our way to Colfax, we stopped for something to eat in the town of Sonora at a place called Doc's Texas BBQ and Burgers, just off Route 49. We have to mention this place because the food was phenomenal. If you like burgers and barbecue, this was among the best we've had.
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