Grit Blogs > At Home in Ohio

Panning for Gold

Connie MooreBag of Yuba River Dirt

I hit pay dirt this week. My son gifted me a pound of river dirt. It was the best surprise an old lady like me could ask for. I mean, it’s not like I’ll ever get to California, the Gold Rush state. Somehow my son found out one item on my imaginary bucket list was shoveling away in a river bed, pretending to be of the Gold Rush era.

So through modern day technology of “anything can be had on Amazon,” the postman handed me a box with a pound of the Yuba River in it and tucked in the corners were all sorts of possibilities.

Actually the Yuba River is a tributary of the Feather River. There is a North Yuba, Middle Yuba and South Yuba. Not knowing which direction my dirt came from in the flow of water doesn’t bother me in the least. As long as it is possible to find any speck of shiny gold, I’ll happily pan away.

assembled small equipment on table

The prospector son has the real deal equipment for his experiments. But for me, a small, homemade kit was assembled easily from kitchen items. A teaspoon was my shovel. A tea leaf-strainer was my screen. Two other holed caps were the initial screens. A small aluminum pan was my prospector’s pan and tweezers picked up the hair-thin fine flakes hidden within the miniscule particles of black sand. (A real prospector is always sure there’s gold in them there hills.)

During the 19th century, Yuba Goldfields became an established section of the river valley as dredged sediments washed down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains where hydraulic mining took place. Before that, gold miners used hand methods of panning and sluicing. And it was that hands-on experience that I wanted to understand. Men spent their entire lives on the river and the hills above, digging, panning, straining through pounds of rock and sand every day in search of the nuggets that would make them rich. What was it that kept them going? How did they come to have gold fever? Why did some succumb to “claim jumping”?

With the pound of dirt in my pan, it only took about five minutes and a flash of light on gold to answer that first question. What kept them going was that flash of light, the picking up of a piece of gold, however small it might be. Of course, it was a primitive mindset of getting rich quick that drove them on, day after day. I didn’t feel the need to sift and resift for days though. I know there are no get-rich-quick bags of dirt being shipped anywhere. However, the flash of light, even on such a small scale as my claim, was quite drawing.

sifting dirt into small strainer

  Using a sugar-shaker cap, I panned out the larger pebbles. Next came the medium screen to remove the tinier pebbles. Spoonful by spoonful I worked my claim. In the sunlight from a window ever-so-tiny spots of flour or fine gold could be seen. But reaching for them jiggled them back down into the sand. So, the next step was to add water.

Now I had a small panful of wet, muddy Yuba River. I could immediately see the sense of having the larger screen, pan and tub of water that was part of the real equipment. So, as did a lot of prospectors who were faced with old age and bad eye sight, I enlisted the help of a much younger, stronger prospector. My son was more than happy to join my claim and help mine out the mother lode.

large green screens with dirt

pan with water and hand

black sand with gold flakes

In the end, I learned a few things. First and most important is that not all that glitters is gold. Literally and philosophically. A number of small tidbits of sand were a bright yellow, sparkling in the sunlight. The magnetite itself (black sand) glitters too. So if the prospector’s eyes were tired or aged, he could literally have seen sparks of “gold” everywhere.

On the mind’s reaction to it all, I got a better understanding of what thoughts swirled around in their minds, much like the water swirled in the pan until it tugged away the bigger pebbles. Searching as the prospectors did, for years on end, washed away the bigger picture of life. Days were filtered through the graduated wire meshes until only, and I emphasize only, gold was the beginning of the day and the end.

I have my son to thank for this experience. It might seem a small thing-a bag of Yuba River dirt. But to me it was a gold nugget in the bigger picture of this old lady’s life.