Once upon a time, a universe full of supernovae expelled their heavenly contents into the vast cosmos. This intense energy radiated new elements to distant worlds, including our own. One element in particular has driven man to abandon comfort in search of destiny.
Originating from the hearts of stars, this element is thought not to have formed on our Earth. Aeons of cosmic chemistry seeded our planet with this wonder. It has caused great strife to our human condition, unlocking the Pandora’s Box of our greed. Its shiny metallic structure is highly malleable, conductive, and non-reactive, often occurring in nature in its most basic form. It has served as a universal currency for thousands of years.
The pursuit of gold can be dangerous to man and the environment, both creative and destructive. Responsible prospectors enjoy the hobby by loving the outdoors, getting exercise, and enjoying what nature has to offer by closely examining geology. I have a new-found appreciation for rocks, an obvious consequence of staring at them up close, looking for gold.
We can discuss the impacts of large-scale industrial mining in a different space; this guide aims to educate in the area of hobbyist gold placer prospecting. Let’s get some basic information out in the open:
- Gold is 19 times heavier than water. During the sluicing and panning process, the weight is advantageous to concentrate heavier material, and wash away dirt.
- Recreational gold prospecting has very limited impact on rivers and streams. Responsible prospectors try to emulate nature’s process and leave no trace. Gold collects where the river current slows, like in bends in the river, roots, boulder eddies, and at the bottom of waterfalls.
- Placer gold (small flakes and nuggets found in streams) are eroded remnants of a hard rock “source,” which typically is found in quartz veins upstream.
- Hard rock mines gather ore from quartz veins. Ore is then processed at a stamp mill (crushes ore into finer material) and is sluiced. Gold also appears with different minerals across the world, but on the West Coast of the United States, it is primarily found in quartz and surrounding layers.
- Ancient and active river beds can be sources of placer gold.
List of Tools In Order of Expense:
Sniffer Bottle to catch gold flakes
Shovels + Trowel
Classifier Screen (separates larger rocks)
If you have ever carried a 5 gallon bucket full of dirt, or have bent over beside a river for a long time, then you know that gold prospecting can be back-breaking work.
Dredging automates part of this process, but is still quite taxing with maintaining, hauling, and working with the equipment. A motor draws suction through a tube, which sends dirt over a floating sluice box. Dredging is a very powerful and effective way to recover gold, but it is now heavily restricted on public lands due to concerns from environmentalists. They point to the impact that dredging has on stream beds and they wish to protect sensitive aquatic species.
It is the author’s opinion to personally forego the use of a dredge in leu of sensitive aquatic species. The role of these species in the ecosystem and the untapped knowledge we can learn from their study, is far greater in value than gold. Not all will agree, but that is my opinion. I’ve read some opposing views, and most of them cite that this practice is time-honored, these are hardworking people, and it’s an invasion of liberty for the Fed to deem it unlawful. I understand all of these points, and I deeply respect them, but I feel differently. I side with Mother Nature.
The practice of hydraulic mining is far worse in terms of impact, and it has been outlawed in California after many rivers and streams were heavily scarred. Hydraulic mining involves high pressure hoses which blast canyon gravel deposits into a massive array of sluice boxes in the river below. This method is not particularly efficient, but recovers large amounts of gold because of sheer volume. Prospectors can still find gold in the tailings of former hydraulic sites.
Owning a sluice box and a gold pan is a different topic. While the basic principles are the same, the lack of motor and suction reduces the amount of processed material, and is a more sustainable practice. Manually digging and feeding a sluice is far slower. My conclusion is that the impact is much more limited.
First, paydirt is classified by removing larger rocks. This is achieved by a screen that fits over a 5 gallon bucket, I use size 12. Dirt falls through, and larger rocks are washed with water into the bucket. This material is then fed into the sluice box.
A sluice box creates artificial rapids over riffles that sit on a grate and a wool-like piece of material called miners moss. The gold falls out of the rapid and into the grate and miners moss. After several buckets of material have been processed, the sluice box is raised out of the river and the contents are emptied into a pan. Gold is then panned from the remaining material. It all comes down to panning (video).
The process of panning can be practiced with small lead pellets (be sure to recover all of your lead), which is close to the weight of gold. It’s best to imagine the heavies falling to the bottom of your pan, and you need to think about what motion would cause this to happen. The motion can be an oval rotation, a back and forth shake, or any combination to allow the gold to sift to the bottom. In the beginning, mixing the dirt with your hands in the pan allows for even distribution. After you have sifted, mimic the waves of the ocean at a slight tilt to wash away lighter material. It’s OK to let dirt go. Gold is heavy. Repeat your sifting technique. Waves of the ocean. Sift. Waves.
Eventually, you should turn up a concentration of black sands in the bottom crease of your pan. The object is to sift your heaviest material into the bottom crease. Sift until you have several grams of heavy concentrate, and begin to swirl layers away in the pan with water. If gold is present, it will be in the bottom of the crease after you erode what’s on top of it. A sniffer bottle is used to collect small flakes that would be difficult to grasp with your fingers, or if many flakes are present. I have indeed found a whole 5 flakes of gold in San Gabriel Canyon.
Be aware of local regulations and do research before setting off for a stream. Here are some Southern California favorites:
View and collaborate on Southern California Mines (in progress) in a larger map