Gold Panning Days
As appearing in The Gold Nugget, June 1998
by Leonard Leeper, "The Golden Optimist"
(See Leonard's website at

As I signaled a left turn at the Buena Vista-Salida junction on highway 287, I was exploring new territory. Before, I had always turned right into Buena Vista and either on to Vista Mining's claims or through Leadville and over the pass back to Denver. It was Saturday morning, May 2nd, and I was heading to the Gold Prospectors of Colorado (GPOC) "Gold Panning Days."

Normally, I would have been in the correct place a day or two early but this time I had work commitments that I couldn't get rid of. The directions said to "look at your map, there is a town called Wellsville, about 7 miles south of Salida." That wasn't a problem. I could find that okay. Well, maybe, kind of, that is. First, I took a wrong turn and ended up taking the scenic route through beautiful, downtown Salida. That wasn't all bad, as I had never been there before. It also gave me an opportunity to stop at the 7-11 and pick up a few last minutes supplies. The clerk looked out the window and saw my dredge in the back of the truck and that started a 10-minute conversation on gold panning. (I can never pass up an opportunity to recruit new people to gold fever.)

Finally, off I went again. The directions then said, "Turn off of highway 50 at Wellsville and you can only do that by crossing the bridge." The day was beautiful and the weather great. I'm tooling along at 60 miles-per-hour looking for a town called Wellsville. All of a sudden, I turned a corner and saw a line of big yellow hands with fingers pointed to the left and saying, "--- Gold --- Panning --- Days ---." As I locked up all four tires and slid to a stop (almost causing three car wrecks), I glanced around wondering, 'Where's the town?' Well, at that point there was no town. It was down the road a little farther. It's a good thing that the signs were there.

"Follow the road, which curves right, then crosses the railroad track. Shortly after you cross the tracks, the road forks. Go to the right." These directions caused no problem. Now, I'm on a dirt road and not too many choices of turns to make. "The road will fork again, just stay to the right along the tracks," the directions continued. As I drove along, I could look over toward the river. Parked in a field were about twenty trailers and motor homes. 'That must be the place,' I thought.

"When the road goes under the railroad (of course, there's a bridge), go to the right. The road goes just a few hundred yards, and you will be where we are." Boy, what a turn under the tracks. I don't know how the larger recreational vehicles made the turn under the tracks. The road to the left kind of petered out into a couple of small tracks that my small truck could just about drive through with the bank caving off into the river about thirty feet below. I'm glad that wasn't the direction I had to go.

As I drove into the parking area, I was amazed at the number of large vehicles there. It was a miniature city. I later found that 100 prospectors had signed up and there must have been many more who didn't register. I drove on through the parking area looking for a familiar face. On the far end, I found Steve Cychosz and several other Gold Prospectors of the Rockies (GPR) members who had arrived the night before. How they found the place in the dark I'll never know. Finding an empty spot in the cactus, sand, small trees, and sagebrush, I parked and set up my camp.

After the work of setting up my tent and unloading all of the camping supplies, the fun began. The water was about 100 yards away and down a fairly steep hill. (Isn't it always?) Unloading the dredge, I began the work of hauling it down to the water. This wasn't too bad a job, as there was plenty of help. We helped each other get the big equipment into the water.

At the water's edge, I whipped out my latest equipment purchase: a brand new digital thermometer. I like to be able to measure the water temperature, not because there is a temperature that, if it gets below I won't get in it, but mainly for bragging rights. When someone says they were out dredging in 40-degree water, I can say, "That's nothing; I was in 30-degree water last week." Watching the temperature steadily lowering, I couldn't believe my eyes--it was 50 degrees! It was the 2nd of May and only about 20 miles from the snow line and the water was almost as warm as it would get all summer! Life was good. Life was great.

After getting the dredge set up and the wetsuit on, I laid flat out into the water. Looking around in the clear water, I thought, 'What a great hobby!'

While we were there, the Mayflies or Caddis Flies hatched out. What a pain they were. The only good thing I can say is at least they didn't bite. They were thick and everywhere. You couldn't breathe with your mouth open or you would inhale them. One time, I looked at the dredge float and there must have been several hundred of then on it. A bit of sage dredging advice from Steve Cychosz, "When you set your regulator down, set it in the water." He hadn't and when he stuck it into his mouth and inhaled deeply, he inhaled several flies.

One other noteworthy event occurred. Sunday was another beautiful day and everything was going great. I had managed to get the wetsuit, weight belt, hooka setup, hood, and swimming mask on smoothly all by myself. I looked like a professional--someone who really know what he was doing to the spectators standing on the road on the other side of the river watching. I had noticed them watching me as I put on the weight belt. Carefully, I walked across the slick rocks and stood on the edge of my dredge hole. I glanced over at the people watching, carefully spit into my mask and wiped the spittle around as they always did on the Gold Fever TV show, pulled my mask over my face, and launched myself gracefully into the water--just like a professional. Now that was show for the spectators. One problem though ... I had forgottten to stick my regulator in my mouth and I almost drowned. So much for looking cool.

Now what you would all like to hear after reading all of this is about all of the gold that we found. Me too! To say the trip wasn't productive, though, wouldn't be true. It was great--just not in the amount of gold found. Not what I saw, anyway. I heard about a small pea-sized nugget being found, but I didn't see it. I found very little color, even though I spent about eight hours dredging. What a great time, though! It was the first big camping trip of the year. Lots of pleasant companions, both prospecting and around the campfire in the evening. Will I go back? You bet! I'll just prospect out a better place to dredge. I had a great time!

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