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Panning for gold in California streams

Hundreds of modern-day forty-niners take to streambeds across the West as the price of the precious metal hovers near $900 an ounce.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2008

Dredging dreams: Roger Plata works a section of the San Joaquin River in California's Central Valley. Though Mr. Plata has long been a hobbyist, he's now thinking of prospecting full time.

ben arnoldy

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Friant, Calif.

Roger Plata sits in a camp chair on a shallow sand bar in the San Joaquin River. He scoops some silt from the frothy river bottom and drops it into a sluice – a boxlike device that sifts sediment using a screen and running water. Pebbles clatter across the metal grate like marbles in a glass jar. Mr. Plata takes the filtered material and swishes it in a pan. He peers at the result: a bed of black sand with a few conspicuous flecks.

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Gold.

"I'm not a professional miner yet by any stretch of the imagination," says Plata. "But it's just around the corner as far as I'm concerned. I could just about quit my day job right now."

Plata and his friends picking through this river in the hogback hills of the Sierra Nevada are quixotic evidence of the reawakening of America's forty-niner spirit.

With gold hovering around $900 an ounce, the lure of striking it rich that brought pioneers to California 160 years ago and still draws the world to Las Vegas is beckoning people once again to streambeds across the American West.

Prospector clubs are flourishing, claims are getting staked like fence posts, and some sourdoughs are flirting with turning a hobby into a career. Indeed, membership in the Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA) has tripled in just the past few years – and is adding as many as 250 people a day so far in 2008. The circulation of once obscure mining journals is booming, and panners and prospectors have filed more than 1,500 new mineral claims in California in just the past three months.

"For a lot of people, the economy is tight and this gives them a chance to make a little extra money," says Ken Rucker, general manager of the GPAA.

•••

Plata is wearing rubber boots up to his knees, a flannel shirt, and a straw hat in the shape of a pith helmet. He looks like Rudyard Kipling after a trip to L.L. Bean.

Plata has been a hobby prospector for decades. But today he's out with fellow members of the Central Valley Prospectors Club to help introduce newcomers to the world of gold panning. Gingerly, he picks his way across the river to Bill and Evangelina Phillips.

He shows them the basics, scooping up river water and sand in his green plastic pan and swirling the mixture. The motion sinks heavier materials like gold to the bottom, while the lighter sands slosh over the edge. Eventually he's left with a patch of black sand strewn with beguiling specks.

"We're hooked," says Mr. Phillips, pointing at the flakes. "You can find gold right here 100 yards from the parking lot."

Plata "counts the colors" and guesses that the flecks total about $2. At that rate, the Phillipses may finish the day with sore arms and enough to buy burgers and fries in town. That's just fine with Bill, who says he and his wife are simply looking for some exercise and company. "This is not for financial gain," he says. Then he happens to mention the current price of gold, down to the last penny.

Like the Phillipses‚ Plata joined the prospectors club years ago searching not so much for nuggets but for companionship. He had just relocated to Fresno to take a job driving a bee-keeper's truck. "All these people here, they're my friends," says Plata. He surveys three dozen people standing at different points in the river, whirling pans and shoveling buckets of sand.

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