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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.

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"Has anybody hit the mother lode yet?" calls out a woman from across the river.

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"Do you expect us to tell?" answers a man on the other side.

The banter, the lounge chairs in the river, the outdoor setting, it all feels like an Albert Bierstadt painting – a tableau and a time fading from American life. "I get to play in the water and the mud and not get yelled at," says Gary Risbrudt, a genial man with a graying ponytail, explaining his reason for being here. "Most anybody who does it recreationally will tell you, it's not the finding, it's the looking."

Hardly anyone in the club sells their gold. Mr. Risbrudt took one of his nuggets and had it fashioned into an earring.

Plata walks down the shoreline away from the others, kneels down, and neatly spreads a small towel on the bank. One by one, he pulls dozens of vials from a satchel, each looking like small jars of nutmeg.

He holds one up. This gold, he says, came from 24 hours of work on claims he controls in Arizona. Using a special scale, he's determined there are 1,048 grains. "That's about $2,000," he says, turning the vial in his hand. "That's about as good as it gets."

Like most Californians these days, Plata isn't a descendent of any of the forty-niners, nor the creek dwellers of the Great Depression who plied these same waters. His grandfather came from Colombia with the Spanish surname Plata, which, ironically, means "silver." It is perhaps a fitting moniker for a man torn between hobby and the hope for something more.

"My mother would say that I'm crazy, that they found all the gold in 1849," he says. "Well, I was up on our claims, and I was hitting a quarter ounce a day. It makes you think two, three times about quitting your day job. That's a couple hundred dollars a day you could be making there."

•••

Plata is clearly more serious than the casual hobbyist. He's sunk more than $20,000 into equipment, including dredges, air drills, jackhammers, shaker tables, and mineral-classification "jigs." "I sort of need it all for what I'm aiming to do," he says.

At his home in Fresno, a bookcase in his living room brims with mining books and neatly rolled geological maps. Plata pores over the charts for signs of old mining sites and places with names that include the word "gulch." He delves into records to see where his competitors have staked claims. Knowing his rivals do the same, he registers his in another name.

Such tactics may not rise to the level of gunfights at the Poker Flat saloon, but the intrigue surrounding modern panning has a whiff of the Wild West about it. "They say back in the Gold Rush days, 1 in a hundred people, or even 1 in a thousand, were actually making money at this," says Plata. "And that's exactly what the story is nowadays. The odds are against me, I realize that. But I actually do think I can do it."

Rick Mahoney does, too. Mr. Mahoney, a local mining supplier, has watched a lot of newbies come into his shop lately beguiled by the price of gold. One man dropped $10,000 on equipment in one day.

Many of them may just be fools chasing gold. But Mahoney believes that Plata, because of the claims he controls and his savvy, could make a living at it. Commodity prices do help, too.

"You could probably find enough gold to live and support yourself," says Mahoney. "Before, you couldn't."

Still, everyone in the river today knows the hypnotic pull of prospecting. "Gold fever, it's incurable," says Risbrudt. "Unless you find a two-ton rock, solid, it's incurable." Plata laughs, then muses: "Even that might make it worse."

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