Arizona interest in gold panning as a hobby took a leap this spring when some retired Nebraska snowbirds wintering in Lake Havasu City found a 47-ounce nugget containing an estimated 29 ounces of gold. While value of the precious metal varies, at the time of its discovery the nugget's appraised worth was $20,000.
"We were speechless," said finders Don and Marlene Doran. "We never dreamed a nugget of that size could be found in millions of square miles of desert."
Neither did the locals who routinely kick much of the same dirt. "A piece of gold that big is unheard of," confirms longtime prospector Sue Sallee, a member of the Havasu Gold Seekers Club.
Tales of riches like this inspire members of Southern Arizona prospecting clubs to keep digging and, in the process, to discover that the actual pursuit of the prized metal is often its own greatest reward.
"Most of us take a pick and pan along every time we visit the outdoors," says David Steimle, three-time president of the 250-member Tucson chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America. "I have no get-rich-quick fantasies. There are days when some flakes show up, and others when the pan keeps coming up empty. It's the chase that is most exciting, knowing the next shovel load or upturned rock could produce flakes or even a small nugget. Not that finding something doesn't make your heart beat faster, but I enjoy the hunt as much as I enjoy any discovery."
Steimle says the largest nugget pulled out of this neck of the woods was a 37-ounce lump of luminescence taken near Greaterville in the late 1880s. Lots of pennyweight finds and an occasional small nugget are still discovered nowadays in and around the Santa Rita Mountains. Just last month club member "Big John" Duhanich panned up a nugget a bit heavier than one-quarter ounce. "I've sniffed a lot of flakes in 22 years of weekend prospecting, but this is the biggest lump I've ever found," he said.
Although an estimated 80 percent of the world's gold deposits remain undiscovered, "you're not going to get rich this way," says Dave Salars. He uses gold panning as an excuse to be outside in fresh air and sunshine. "It's kind of like going fishing without feeling a need to bait your hook," says the geologist, who has been hooked since he found buried treasure in New Mexico's Pinos Altos Mountains. "I found a chuck of pyrite with a rice-grain-sized piece of gold inside. That got the aortic pump ticking and gave me the gold bug really bad."
Some folks find the solitary nature of wandering washes on the weekend to their liking, while others crave the camaraderie of crowds and a sharing of similar interests. GPAA member (and current Sierra Vista club president) Judy Miller has walked the wadis between Tucson and Nogales for about four years. "I've had success, but based on what I take home after each trip, I'm not yet ready to retire," she says.
At one outing on the Freedom Claim in Gardner Canyon at the foot of the Santa Ritas, club member Mike Rebholz chewed happily on an unlit cigar while he swished water in his green plastic pan. "It's not the Mother Lode," he said with a grin, "but for this spot, it ain't bad. There's color in the pan, and if we could do that with every pan full, by the end of the day it would be worthwhile. We'd have a pile big enough to see without a magnifying glass. It's fun, though, and that's the main thing."
Fun and family is what it's all about for most participants. "We have lots of members who bring their kids, their neighbors' kids and sometimes their grandkids," says Steimle. "Digging side by side with youngsters is like going fishing or hiking or working on a car together; it's a great bonding experience. When you see the glint of gold as they pan out their first flakes, watch their eyes grow bigger and hear the excitement in their voices, you know you've created a shared experience. Being able to camp out on a claim adds even more to the camaraderie and bonding."
Gold panning is also a classroom learning experience, says Duhanich, who has talked to more than a thousand Tucson-area third- and fourth-grade schoolchildren this year. "Right up front I encourage a thorough study of Old West history and stress reading in all my class presentations," says Big John. "All my adventures in the outdoors start in an easy chair with a lot of reading research, and I encourage young gold seekers to approach their interest in the same way."
ALTHOUGH FUN AND A FEW shiny flakes for bragging rights are what it's all about to most contemporary hobbyists, finding gold was once a serious business.
The first official record of area gold discovery was in the Catalina foothills some 300 years ago by Spaniards who conducted primitive off-and-on mining efforts for more than 150 years in the Cañada del Oro (Valley of Gold) area. Placer (fine particle) gold was verified and mined from the washes of the Old Hat Mining District on the backside of the Santa Catalinas between Oracle and San Manuel. And prospectors filed several claims for exploration of the flashy mineral near the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon in Sabino Canyon. Some impressive finds were made--like a six-and-a-half-pound nugget discovered in the higher elevations of Southern Belle Wash.
Gold was first reported about 125 years ago near the spot where the Gold Prospectors club frequently holds an open-invitation common dig. In fact, the Freedom Claim site is situated in what was once the largest and richest placer deposit in the southeastern corner of the state.
Arizona's placer gold mining industry had its official beginning with a gold discovery along the flanks of the nearby Quijotoa Mountains. Beginning in 1875, several hundred miners and their companion burros worked from the top of Old Baldy Peak to lower elevation claims. The hardest-working miners took in about an ounce of gold each day, then worth about $17. Gold prices fluctuate depending on a standard supply-and-demand relationship, with current prices in the $300-per-ounce range.
LATE SUMMER IS ONE of the best times of the year to visit placer gold areas surrounding the Old Pueblo because monsoon rainfall has often helped prospectors. "All major streams and their tributaries that flow across gold-bearing areas are likely to carry traces of the metal," says Diane Bain of the state Mines and Mineral Resources department. "Placer deposits can run for miles along a stream, and where gold has been found in the past is the best place to look for it today."
"Gold is not going to go too far from its source unless water washes it downhill," says Steimle. "Flood waters over thousands of years wash nuggets down Arizona mountains through arroyos and deposit the flakes we look for today. Prospectors who have worked these gullies know they don't produce a lot of sizable chunks, but they do give up some fine gold dust. Some spots get scratched and discovered, but others are still undetected after all these years."
Mining industry veterans and experienced prospectors say the actual process of seeking gold is relatively simple: Pan along streambeds, bars, gulches and arroyos. Because it's heavy, gold tends to settle and sink into bedrock fissures and riffles. Reworking old placer sites for overlooked bonanzas, patiently cleaning out tiny crevices and potholes, has been known to yield lucrative finds. "I took my recent nugget on the last shovelful of the evening, right before dark, when I used a whisk broom to sweep up fine grains of sand in the bedrock," says Duhanich.
The panning process is simplicity itself because there is no single "right" way to do it. A wet method is used where nature has been kind enough to provide standing or slowly moving shallow water. Lacking such convenience, prospectors can carry their own liquid, which will soon bring to mind an old fact from science class--a gallon of water weighs eight pounds.
To pan for gold, put some gravel in the pan (a green or blue pan is preferred to reflect the glint of any elusive gold flakes). Swish the water around, tilting the pan slightly (10-degree angle, riffle end down) to remove dirt and gravel and allow heavier materials to settle to the bottom. When gold does appear (notice the optimistic use of "when," not "if"), use tweezers or a sniffer bottle to remove the flakes.
Weekend prospectors don't need lots of expensive equipment. "Some folks go out and buy a bunch of tools like metal detectors thinking, 'I'm going to get rich this weekend,'" says Salars. "Two years later, they've used the equipment twice, and it's up for sale--sort of like the high-fangled exercise machines bought with good intentions that end up as expensive clothes hangers."
Salars likes placer mining because of its nickname, "Poor Man's Mining," which implies that supplies are minimal. "You don't need much to get started," he says. A basic kit consists of an inexpensive 14-inch plastic pan with molded washboard-type riffle insets. Optional, but very helpful, items include a small hand shovel, a rock hammer, a sturdy pry bar, a whisk broom, tweezers and a sniffer bottle to suction small flakes from the pan. Those seeking instant gratification have permission to pick out the larger nuggets by hand.
The usual caveats about Arizona outings apply for prospectors. "Wear a wide-brimmed hat, apply plenty of sunscreen and drink lots of water," says Salars. "Keep an eye out for critters--two-legged, four-legged or eight-legged. Tell someone where you plan to be and when you expect to return. And bring some friends. The buddy system isn't just for swimming."
Enjoy the event itself and keep expectations to a minimum. One manual for novice gold seekers notes, "There is no reward greater than that of fresh air and exercise and, if nothing else, amateur prospectors are sure to find plenty of both."