My first gold panning trip was downtown Denver to try out my gold panning for the first time. I didn't have the advantage of being a member of the Gold Prospectors of the Rockies, it wasn't in existence then. I went in the Platte River under a bridge near Speer Blvd. It sounds stupid, but it wasn't very far from the spot that gold was discovered in 1858. I hadn't done any panning anywhere before, but had watched a lot about it on the Outdoor Channel on satellite. It's the home of the Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA) and has a lot of programming on gold prospecting. Between that and reading about a hundred books, I figured I was ready to make an idiot of myself. I panned about 10 pans and got what looked like some gold flecks about the size of grains of sugar. I wasn't sure if they were real gold or fool's gold.
A few weeks later, I went about 80 miles into the mountains to a spot where I had backpacked with my son Scott back in 1989, and had seen a stream with what I thought looked like gold in it. I took my backpack with about 25 pounds of stuff in it and set off up a trail into what really was a wilderness area! Not having done any backpacking for a few years, I could notice right away that I wasn't as young as I used to be! I packed about three miles and went up to 2,000 feet in elevation. It felt like I was on top of Mt. Everest! I crossed a small stream that had millions of flecks in it, so I stopped and whipped out the ole pan, filled it with sand and gravel, swished it once, and all the flecks washed right out of the pan--fool's gold! Anyway, I knew then that the stuff had I panned in Denver was probably the real stuff. Were I to go back to Denver and pan out another 10,000 pans full of material, I might have enough gold to buy a cup of coffee. I decided to go to a pay panning place the following weekend to get a little expert help as the gravel they pan was supposed to be good and I had known that a lady tourist had found a one-troy-ounce nugget in her pan. I thought I'd see what the real thing looked like.
By now, the gold bug had bitten both my son Steve and me, and I knew I had a terminal case of golditis. Steve (with a little arm twisting) and I loaded up a truck on a Saturday and headed to gold country. Armed with little other than having read those hundred books and having wached hours of gold prospecting shows on TV, we drove to one of the gambling towns of Colorado to dig in the dirt and play in the water to search for that elusive gold, while thousands of other people were plugging money into slot machines and gambling. We stopped at a casino long enough to make a visit to see a man about a white horse, and then got back on the road to a tourist pay panning place on the creek.
This is a real textbook case of prospecting: go where gold has been found before. This was right in the heart of Colorado gold country. We stopped, paid our $7.00 each, were given 10-inch gold pans, and were pointed in the direction of the stream. There we were given a 10-minute panning lesson and turned loose. The sign at the creek said "panning instructor works for tips only." I guess we got what we paid for. There were some pretty good gravels as every pan turned up at least two specks of gold big enough to pick out with your fingers. It takes a special technique to to that, though. For this small stuff, you don't just reach down and pick it up between your finger nails. The best technique is to dry one finger off, then touch the top of the speck and it will stick to your finger. You then transfer the speck to a small bottle filled with water. When you touch the top of the water in the bottle, the gold speck falls in. The fewest specks that I found in any pan was two, and the most was around twelve. We panned for about four hours and probably found about 50-cents worth of gold each, but it was enough to see fairly well. We both got a little sunburned, but had a great time.
At work the next week, I bored everyone who would politely listen, or at least stand still and not run in the opposite direction faster than I could with all of the gold stories and showing all 50-cents worth of my gold. After showing my gold to one friend, he said, "That's nothing! When I was a teenager, I had a gold claim and I and three other guys got $8,500.00 in gold in a summer." The maps came out and X marked the spot. Now I was really set up! I was an "expert" because I had four hours experience and now had a "secret place" to go. The next step to do this properly was to get topographic maps so I could spot the "secret place" exactly and find my fortune. I'd also need a BLM mineral management map so I could find out if the "secret place" was on private or public land.
The topographical maps I could obtain around Denver and the mineral maanagement maps were avialable at the local BLM office. I picked up the topos at my local prospector's store along with a real gold sluice box and a new gold pan for Steve. Now I had some real mining equipment! All I had to do was find a couple of hundred dollars in gold and I might break even. No problem at $380 per troy ounce. While at the BLM office, a quick check of the mineral management map showed that the "secret place" might be on private land. It was the only private property in the whole area. In fact, it looked like it might be a patented claim, judging from its long, skinny shape. A check of the microfiche showed that there were no current mining claims in the section of land we were headed for, however.
Now that all the research had been done (if you have ever dealt with land, you will remember the gold old range, township, and section stuff), all that was left was to go out and pick up the big gold nuggets off the ground when we tripped over them! The next Saturday, I headed out with the tent trailer toward Steve's place in Denver, ready for us to make our fortunes. I got to Steve's about 7:00 a.m. and had to get him out of bed--so much for his great excitement. While he showered and got ready, I went to the store and got some groceries. I was going to cook for the two days we were to be prospecting. One of the things I had to get was some beans becaus, of course, "real" gold prospectors always eat beans. Based on the amount of gold we had found so far, I can see why--that's all they could afford to eat! After getting the groceries, the only thing left was to get some sluice-box fuel (beer!).
The problem was the liquor store was still closed. Oh well, Steve was going to pay for it an there would be a liquor store in the mountains. It would be a little more expensive, but like I said, "No big deal, Steve was paying for it!" We stopped at one of the small mountain towns on the way and got the rest of the prospecting supplies (beer!).
We were headed for our "secret place" about 50 miles from Denver. A lot of Colorado's gold was found not far from Denver. We found the dirt road and turned off into the wilderness. Much to our surprise, there seemed to be as many as 100 people per square mile, it being a weekend. Definitely not like 1860. It seemed like our "secret place" was now a popular destination for a lot of campers.
We went up the road, stopping every mile or so to find our location on our maps. As we closed in on our "secret place," our excitement rose to a fever pitch. "Just around the next corner," I told Steve. Turning the corner, we ran right into a Dude Ranch. it seemed that our "secret place" was now all fenced in with houses everywhere. Well, I have always been flexible, so we decided we would have to find another "secret place." Turning around, we headed back downstream and started to look for a camping spot. Every pullout was full and there were people everywhere. As we passed a good spot, I told Steve, "Those people didn't have as much stuff set up as they did last time we went by." We stopped and asked the people at the pullout whether they were leaving, they said they were and we waited until they were gone and took their old spot. It was right next to the stream. Enduring Steve's jokes and snide remarks about it at the same time would have been hard to take, but we were finally ready to hit the stream.
We panned out a few pans and weren't finding anything but looking across the stream, I saw a big bank of river gravel about 20 feet high. Steve took a five-gallon bucket, my small pick, and a folding shovel, and waded across the stream. He climbed the bank and filled the bucket with gravel. Coming back across the stream was difficult as it was a little over knee deep with really swift current. We panned a couple more pans of material and still didn't find any gold.
When you pan away the light sands and rocks leaving only the black sands, you should find the gold because black sand is five to ten times heavier than the water and gold is 19 times heavier. The gold should be hiding just under the black sand. It was hiding all right, but where? I didn't see any gold, but there were small nugget-like grey things. My books all said to watch out for platinum, as it weighed about the same as gold and was found in many of the same places. Grabbing the book, we looked up the description. Our stuff looked just like the book described it. Maybe we had struck it rich after all!
We moved across the stream, set up the sluice box, and proceeded to dig sand and gravel out of the bank. We carried it down the bank and ran it through the sluice box. After about two hours and more than a few beers, we took the sluice out of the stream to do our clean-up. We flushed all of the black sand out of it into a gold pan, then panned it out. We were left with a whole handful of grey nuggets. Some of them were pretty big! Some of them had a round back, with lots of parallel serrations on them. The bubble burst--we had ouselves a handful of lead bullets that someone had shot into the bank. Time to drink some more beer!
It wasn't a total loss because the books say practice with lead as it is lighter than gold. If you can save the lead, you won't have any problem keeping the gold. By this time, it was late afternoon--time for supper!
I cooked our prospector's beans and we went to bed for the night. There was a thunder storm that night and my sleeping bag was right under a small hole in the canvas. After more jokes from Steve, I broke out the universal canvas repair kit, a roll of duct tape. Normally, you can repair anything with duct tape but the canvas was already wet and the tape wouldn't stick. So, I took a broom and propped it up so the hole wasn't the low spot in the canvas. This fixed the problem, but brought on some more jokes from Steve.
The next day, we continued to explore the area around the camp and then returned home. We had no luck finding gold that weekend, but it still was a great trip. Remember, the joy is really in the hunt. The gold is out there . . . it calls to you and then hides. The search for the treasure is often greater than the find.