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