Denver owes its very existence to fortune hunters swirling metal pans in cold mountain streams. It's a bygone era, to be sure, but I'd always wanted to relive those pioneer days by trying my own hand at panning for gold. My first attempt, however, was inauspicious. I had dragged my wife and two friends to the Phoenix Gold Mine, about two miles southwest of Idaho Springs. Nearby veins of gold have been worked since 1871, but these days the Phoenix mostly digs silver out of tourists' pockets.
On the day we visited, an old miner named Harry gave cursory panning lessons. Harry looked like a prospector straight out of central casting, with tangled gray hair and beard, greasy parka, and a broad-brimmed felt hat. He stood by a waist-high tank of rusty water with a pan in his gnarled hands. "Dig three or four inches deep in the gravel," he said, "and then pick out the big rocks. Add some water to the pan, and get 'er to movin.' " But what were we looking for? "Oh, you'll know it when you see it," Harry assured us. "It's yellow, canary yellow." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a radish-size pebble pocked with yellow encrustations. "I found that just up the road," he said.
We walked up the road to shallow Trail Creek with borrowed metal pans and plastic baggies we hoped to fill with golden nuggets. Squatting on a rock midstream, I dug and swirled, dug and swirled, but nothing yellow emerged in my pan. I had sort of expected the Phoenix might salt the creek with a few bucks worth of flakes, but after 45 minutes none of us had discovered gold.
"I think I'm more of an instant gratification sort of girl," said my wife with a sigh.
"That looks like biotite," said the guy at the Phoenix ticket counter when we showed off our best sparkly samples. Weathered biotite is a form of fool's gold. We'd also bagged a lump of decomposed silver and shiny flakes of mica schist. But not one piece of the good stuff.
Over beers at Beau Jo's in Idaho Springs, we decided that, as quaint and friendly as the Phoenix mine had been, we would need better panning skills if we were going to strike it rich. "I'll get the tab," my friend Steve said as we stood to leave, adding sarcastically, "I've got a bag of biotite burning a hole in my pocket."
A few days later, I discovered the mother lode of panning info at the Gold-n-Detectors shop in Golden. Prospector Bill Chapman has been running this shop for 14 years, and it's the sort of place where men wander the aisles pretending they need to buy something, when they really just want to hang out and listen to treasure-hunting tales.
Chapman said panning had never been the best tool for amassing piles of gold. "That may be what Hollywood would want you to think, but it was never intended to be a way to make your fortune," he said.
Instead, Chapman continued, the gold pan is a prospecting tool, used to sample sand and gravel deposits and identify likely spots for more aggressive mining techniques. Even today, he said, the pan remains "the alpha and omega of prospecting. People who don't learn that are doomed to failure."
Chapman demonstrated the proper technique at a waist-high tub inside his shop ("Bill's Creek: Claim jumpers will be shot"); the tub was filled with sand, gravel, and clear water. His tools and six-step method were definitely more high-tech than those at the Phoenix. For one thing, the best pans now are made from plastic, not steel, and they come in many shapes, including rectangular models that look like paint-roller pans. Plastic pans are molded with curved grooves called riffle traps to help sort gold from sand. Serious panners employ a range of other tools, including a mesh screen called a classifier to sort out gravel, a plunger magnet to pull black sand away from gold, and a snuffer bottle to suck up gold dust and flakes.
Chapman tossed BBs into the tub for practice. "If you're throwing BBs away, you're throwing gold away," he explained as he swirled his pan. It took him about 15 minutes to explain the full six-step method, but when he wasn't talking he could sort gold flakes and BBs from a full pan of gravel in under 30 seconds. "Yesterday's miners would give their right arm for today's tools," Chapman said. "That's why we're still finding gold today that they didn't find."
The whole panning kit costs only about $50, but it might take a long time to earn back even that modest entry fee. Although gold currently sells for more than $910 an ounce, the average panned flake is worth only a nickel to a dime. To make real money, serious prospectors graduate to table-size sluice boxes or gas-powered suction dredges. (Chapman and other treasure hunters find more gold with metal detectors, in the form of old coins and jewelry, than they ever see glinting in a pan.) Nor can prospectors just pan for gold wherever they want; panning is illegal in some Front Range towns, and active mining claims tie up many Colorado stream banks. However, panners are free to try their luck in Clear Creek anywhere between downtown Golden and west of the Jefferson County line.
"It's virtually impossible to pan sand and gravel from Clear Creek and not find some pieces of gold in every pan," Chapman said.
I'll be the judge of that, I thought. I bought a 14-inch "professional" pan and drove into the canyon.
I parked about eight miles up Highway 6 from Golden, near a sign that explained how house-size mining dredges had once operated in the middle of Clear Creek. The dredges spit out the huge mounds of gravel and river rock that still line the banks.
At first I was self-conscious as I squatted by the river, but after a while I ignored the busy road and settled into a rhythm. Dig and swirl the sand in my pan; throw a stick for my dog, Enzo. Dig and swirl; throw the stick. With Chapman's pointers in mind, my technique improved, and before long I'd learned to reduce the contents of my pan to a thin layer of black sand. Amid the sand were a few golden flakes, though they were too small to collect without a snuffer bottle.
Then I spotted a pebble with a few yellow bumps that seemed to match the color of my wedding band. I plucked the stone from the pan, pocketed it, and squatted again by the river. Enzo splashed happily in the water, the creek burbled its soothing song, and warm sunlight slanted through the brilliant yellow leaves on the nearby trees. Forget the gold, I thought sleepily, I might just take a nap on the bank. By the time I'd returned to my car, the gold-colored rock in my pocket had mysteriously vanished. But Clear Creek had delivered its riches all the same.
Dougald MacDonald is a contributing editor for 5280. E-mail him at email@example.com.