Gold in them hills isn’t just in the pan

| March 10, 2020 1:00 AM

To learn the agitated art of gold panning we went north, but we needn’t have gone so far.

It was common for people camping to have a gold pan in their backpacks with a floppy hat.

The two went hand in hand.

Whiskers completed the package that called for denim pants and rolled-up sleeves, a trowel, perhaps, maybe the kind of smokeless tobacco that left a ring in a shirt pocket.

Nupic and Faye were gone two weeks looking for gold and came back heavily laden with gear, a rubber raft, sluice boxes, pumps and pans and a few vials of the powdery kind of precious metal called dust in the movies. They had some nuggets too, the size of bead head nymphs and if their find did not pay the cost of the trip, it imbued them with a certain fever that kept them planning, traveling, panning, sluicing and dredging for many birthdays.

In winter they unfurled forest maps on kitchen tables accompanied by home-made schnapps fermented in a ceramic pot on top of the refrigerator.

Their plans took on a certain animation.

A man in St. Maries told of gold claims on Soldier Creek where the old road climbed the hill then dropped into Santa along the St. Maries River.

He remembered the men who worked the claims from his boyhood, but he was in his 80s when he died almost a decade ago.

A kid who was much younger than me showed me how to pan for the glittery stuff after he had spent months developing, then satiating an appetite for finding gold.

He owned a pump and stainless steel sluice box, but the pump’s impeller kept clogging, so he regularly turned to the pan. Either way he would point out gold particles in the mesh of his sluice or in the rusty pores of his metal pans. He used his small finger to point them out before sucking the particles up with a snuffer or picking them out of the mesh with a tweezer.

I expected something more meaty, more golf-ball like. Something that could weigh down a pant pocket, but we didn’t find that.

On our way to get rich real fast, Boggsy and I found a shaft that went straight back into a hill.

We learned of the abandoned claim from an old document at the county courthouse along with many other forgotten claims left to Mother Nature’s mitigation.

The shaft was big enough for two people to stand up in side by side if they didn’t mind being close and a little crouched. It had stalactites or mites, I forget which ones. Water dripped from the gouged rock overhead as we worked our way carefully to the end with a flashlight. It was winter. The sky outside was gray and the world was wet.

We didn’t spot gold veins or seams and likely whoever cut the tunnel just gave up.

Gold is where you find it someone might say.

And they might be right.

But for many rockhounds and amateur geologists, gold seekers, or get-rich-quickers like Boggsy and me, finding gold is less random.

It takes skill to consider synclines and anticlines, outcrops and the indicators that narrow the odds and then get to the place on the map where the witching stick of preparation has them believe in the likelihood of finding gold.

It’s more than magic.

Not long ago the boy and me stuck a pan into a stream we know.

We dug the muck and dirt from a flume of submerged gravel in a bend where heavy rock, carried by spring runoff, would drop out of the current.

We swished and swirled and picked and added water, and did it again.

For a while.

It was a moderate winter day.

The only sound was the stream. Every now and again the shadow of a bird crossed the ground.

The sun was warm in a blue and timeless sky.

We didn’t find any gold.

Not a speck that we could tell.

But being out there with shovels and pans, and a smiling dog and one’s own thoughts on a stream in the woods was its own kind of gold.

And magic nonetheless.

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at