Going for Gold
Story by Jeremy Schwartz | Photos by Rhys Logan View Additional Multimedia
The destination: a rock-strewn bank on the south fork of the Nooksack River. The prey: gold.
For centuries, countries and civilizations have fought over it. Fortunes have been won and lost in the pursuit of this malleable, yellow material. But, for the members of the Washington Prospectors Mining Association (WPMA), the allure of hunting gold is not the green of a dollar bill, but the sense of community found in this old-fashioned way of connecting with the outdoors.
Bill Thomas pauses on the trail and looks out from under his aged baseball cap, which bears a patch displaying the WPMA logo. A group of a dozen amateur gold hunters formed the club a little more than 18 years ago and Thomas became president of the now 650-member group last December. He says prospecting has been a serious hobby of his since 1998.
"You have to know how to read the river," Thomas says as he gazes at the river from the path. "The gold is only going to move when the river is really moving."
The hunt continues approximately 24 miles southeast of Bellingham. Thomas says the key to a successful gold hunt is knowing near which rocks on a riverbank to start looking for gold. The best rock is about the size of a bowling ball and halfway sunk into the gravelly sand of the bank, he says.
Gold is approximately 19 times heavier than water. Therefore, the large rocks on the bank are the best places to look because of the suction created behind the rocks when the river flows over them, Thomas says. Gold that eroded from deposits in the Cascades naturally sinks to the bottom of the river, and flowing water traps the gold in small pockets on the downstream side of the rock.
The mining association maintains leases on 35 claims, locations specifically set aside for mineral prospecting, in Washington, Oregon and California. The majority of these claims are leased from the Federal Bureau of Land Management.
All of the association's claims are unpatented, which means the association owns the rights to the minerals found on the land, but not the land itself, Thomas says. The owner of a patented claim is able to live on the claim, in addition to pan it for gold. The specific bank of the Nooksack Thomas is panning is not owned by the Whatcom Land Trust and is open to the public, he says.
The muddy trail ends. Thomas exits the shade of the surrounding trees and heads for the riverbank, navigating his way among the rocks strewn along the way. Three fellow prospectors, two of whom are also WPMA members, greet Thomas at his destination.
"This spiral wheel is the best thing since sliced bread!" Brian Salmon, a member of the miners association, says as he waves to Thomas while crouched over the device in ankle-deep water.
Salmon's spiral wheel is a battery-operated version of the classic prospecting miner's pan. The pan sits at approximately a 45-degree angle in the water and slowly spins under the power of an electric motor.
The spinning of the pan more easily separates a pile of wet sand and gravel into larger pebbles and "concentrate," the black sand in which gold flakes are most often found. After a few minutes, Salmon gives his ex-wife Debbie Lueder a turn at the machine. She pulls a small, metal stool closer to the device and begins to slowly pour a handful of sand and pebbles onto the wheel.
The spinning motion separates the heavier, black sand, called "concentrate" from the lighter, tan material and works out most of the pebbles, she says. The concentrate eventually finds its way to the center of the wheel, where Lueder collects it and sets it aside for further panning.
No matter what sort of device is used to separate concentrate from everything else, referred to as the "aggregate," Thomas says the concentrate must eventually be panned by hand to separate black sand from any gold that may be stuck. Anyone who has an interest in prospecting for gold needs to learn the technique by hand first.
"Oftentimes, people will just go out with a pan," Thomas says. "They don't know the rules or what they're getting into."
The process takes time to learn, but pans area easily accessible. Thomas says a sturdy, plastic prospecting pan costs about $8. More advanced equipment, such as the "high-banker," which allows the miner to pump water over large amounts of gravel, can run upward of $400.
Before Thomas starts panning, he selects a digging site near a large rock on the bank and jams his foot against the rock to make sure it is securely stuck in the sand. He plunges the shovel's entire blade into the bank about an inch away from the downstream side of the rock and removes a heap of sand and gravel.
Here, Thomas begins his search for gold.
Thomas says he first heard about prospecting as a hobby while in the Navy. When he was discharged, he joined the Gold Prospectors Association of America after reading numerous books about panning for gold. He says he took prospecting trips nearly every weekend while he worked as a camp ground manager on San Juan Island and it did not take long until he was hooked.
Thomas dumps the heap of aggregate off the shovel into a bucket fitted with a "classifier," a round grate about the size of a dinner plate that separates out larger rocks and pebbles from the sand. Shaking the bucket with a harsh, rotating motion to sift the sand through the larger rocks, he is pleased with the amount of quartz pebbles he finds. Where he finds quartz, he often finds gold, he says.
After classifying, Thomas removes a plastic pan from the green duffel bag that contains his prospecting equipment. His pan has molded ridges to catch and hold the heavier black sand and gold flakes. He takes a handful of the classified aggregate from the bucket, puts it in the pan, and submerges it halfway in the river.
"Shake, shake, shake; wash, wash, wash," Thomas repeats as he alternately shakes the aggregate to the bottom of the pan and washes the lightest material into the river with a back-and-forth motion. The process requires patience, but eventually only pebbles and black sand remain in the pan, which Thomas tips back to remove the pebbles by hand with a single finger.
Then he sees them: a half-dozen sparkling flakes glinting in the sunlight, each about the size of the head of a pin.
Despite the current price of gold, approximately $1,100 per ounce, Thomas says most prospecting enthusiasts he knows are not after the money. The majority of the mining association members are at or near retirement age and are looking for a hobby that takes them outdoors. Four to five flakes is about an average take for a few hours of prospecting, he says.
"If you're lucky, the gold you find can pay for the gas for your trip," Thomas says.
Lueder says she and Salmon have been prospecting for 30 years. They became interested in prospecting when they lived in central Arizona, an area with a rich mining history. She says she and Salmon will take their camper to a spot such as this bank of the Nooksack and spend an entire weekend panning for gold and enjoying the outdoors.
Salmon understands the allure of gold that brought prospectors to California in the mid-1800s. Although profit is not a driving factor, Salmon says something about sifting through seemingly worthless sand for treasure is difficult to resist.
"You never know what you're going to get in that next pan," he says.
While gold is not as prevalent in Washington as it is in other parts of the West Coast, it is not unusual to see gold in the streams flowing down from the Cascades, says George Mustoe, a research technologist with the geology department at Western.
Only one successful commercial placer mining operation has existed in Washington's history, Mustoe says. Placer mining includes the type of prospecting WPMA members practice. With the exception of the Blewett Pass mine southwest of Wenatchee, every mine in the state has been underground, Mustoe says. The last underground commercial gold mining operation in Washington was in East Wenatchee, and it closed in the 1980s, he says.
The tumultuous geological history of Washington has made gold difficult to find consistently, Mustoe says. Historically, panning for gold and placer mining have helped test areas for their gold content and identify the best place for an underground mine. Large scale placer mining operations are rarely economically feasible. Today, Mustoe says he sees panning for gold as a recreational activity, not one that will make anyone rich.
"If I wanted to make money with a shovel, I'd get a job with the highway department," he jokes.
After a few hours on the Nooksack, Thomas gathers up his gear for the trip home. He delicately presses his index finger to each gold flake he found and touches it to the top of a small, plastic vial he has filled with water.
The surface tension of the water sucks the gold flake into the container; each piece sinks to the bottom and lands with a soft clink.
Thomas says the gold found in this expedition is worth approximately $20. The master prospector seems pleased. It is clearly not about the money.
After the hike back, mud and sand tenaciously cling to Thomas' shoes as he climbs into his truck.
The hunt is over. The take is modest. It is time to go home.