Panned out

Part hobby, part tourist attraction, gold panning has lost its luster but still manages to survive

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2007

It's deceptively simple. Just scoop up a panful of gravel, and slosh it around in the water. The more you slosh, the better, as the heaviest material in the pan - gold, if you're lucky - will settle to the bottom.

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After a hard day, squatting in icy water, hunched over a swirling gold pan, you might have a quarter of an ounce. It could be worth a few hundred dollars, depending on purity.

Juneau's prospectors once extracted tons of gold from the hills and streams along Gastineau Channel. Now, the gold is in the tourists, and most of the gold panning is for show. Today's professional panners earn a salary doing it for delighted visitors off the cruise ships.

"They absolutely love it," said Shawn Woods with Alaska Travel Adventures in Juneau.

Bill Young, who buys gold for The Jewel Box in Juneau, found another way to profit from the practice. He has sold gold to companies to "salt" the dirt for the tourists. A clue: If the tour company guarantees "gold in every pan," then it's been salted, experts say.

For a few hardy prospector-types, this is the time of year to pan for the precious metal. Gold is just about the heaviest metal around, and when it moves down creeks it settles into the deepest, most inaccessible parts of the stream bed.

"This is the time of the year, if you can handle the cold, when the creeks are low enough, to find color," said Ron Klein, a Juneau photographer who dabbles in gold. He uses it in his photography, and first started looking for it in the wild in the 1960s.

Woods also has done some recreational panning on his own.

"Almost every creek around here has gold in it. I've found gold all over the place," he said.

Juneau's old mines were inefficient by modern standards, and probably only extracted about 70 percent of the available gold. Their waste rock, on which much of the town was built, still contains tiny amounts of gold, local gold bugs say.

It's not clear how much actual prospecting still goes on. Some say not much.

Today, gold panning in Alaska has all but disappeared, according to the Alaska Office of Economic Development. But it's hard to tell because of the hidden nature of the activity.

"There's always been mystery and secrecy," Klein said.

"The people who are going to do it to make money, they're not going to tell you about it," he said.

The secret nature of gold probably makes outsiders think there's more prospecting going on than there really is, he said.

"That magnifies what really is going on, and most of the time there isn't really anything going on," he said.

"They don't want to talk about where they get their gold," Young agreed. "And when they do, it might not be the truth."

A few of the skilled, old-time prospectors used to sell gold to the Jewel Box, but they could barely make a living.

Now, Young has to go north to find what he needs. Prospectors working sluiceboxes in old mining centers such as Chicken, Alaska, and Dawson in Canada produce respectable quantities out of one- and two-man operations.

What Young seeks is nuggets for jewelry, but he has to pay a premium over the market price of gold to get them.

"Gold nuggets can be three or four times the price of spot gold," he said.

"You see a one-ounce nugget now, they're very rare. A lot of miners won't even part with them," Young said.

Around Juneau most of the gold came from hard-rock mines, huge operations that crushed ore to extract minute quantities of gold.

Most of today's gold panning is for tourists, but Klein said that even in Juneau's gold-producing heyday there wasn't much panning.

"Gold panning was never a way to make money. It was a way to find the mother lode, find the vein," he said.

A prospector would pan for gold in the creek and then move up stream and keep panning. If he stopped finding gold, he'd move back downstream and look along the banks and side channels, tracing where the gold came from. That was where the real money was to be made.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at

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