Despite the shock of standing thigh deep into a swiftly running, numbingly cold river, I managed to keep my balance. Although my bones and teeth were chattering loudly, I could hear our leader shouting encouragement from the rocky bank where he was sitting, as we dug rocks and sand out of the watercourse bottom.
After collecting about a gallon of sand and rocks, each of us dumped our own cache on the bank. Then we placed a few handfuls of the material in a genuine gold miner’s pan. After filling the pan with water, the mixture was swirled around and around, spilling water and lighter stones until we came to the very bottom of the sand. The purpose of spilling out the lighter materials is to leave only the heaviest behind.
Iron is a heavy material, but gold is heavier. Lead is heavier than iron, and, in fact, gold is two and a half times as heavy as lead. Lead and gold are sometimes found together, but iron and gold are commonly formed in underground veins throughout the world. After all the other materials are swirled out, a magnet removes the iron, and a fine pair of tweezers removes the gold.
After the first hour of fruitless searching, I had nothing to show for my torturous experience. My cache was gone. I wanted to go home and have a cup of hot cocoa in the cabin’s living room.
“C’mon Liz!” shouted Mitch. “Keep up the good work! Dig up some more sand. Do be patient, girlie.”
Patient? I was cold and shivering. “My clothes are soaked. This is ridiculous. I will become a patient when they carry my frozen body into the ER.” I grumbled.
None of the half dozen people in my party had any luck either. So, with Mitch shouting encouragement, we good sports kept trying.
After two hours, shivering violently, I wearily climbed onto the bank with my loot: real gold consisting of two tiny nuggets of real gold the size of a rice grain, a half dozen pieces smaller than a quarter grain of rice, and a teaspoonful of what is called “gold dust.”
“I am finished. F I N I S H E D. My patience froze to death in that water. How much is this gold worth, Mitch?”
He looked carefully at my loot as he transferred it to a small glass vial. “Hmmmm – I would say about two cents.”
Later on, I would make up a saying about that two cents deal.
I didn’t say a word. Clutching my vial, I walked back to the jeep-bus high on the bank of the stream, had him turn on the motor and the heat, and slumped down in disgust.
The other participants looked at me, then at each other, and finally, marched out shivering violently.
“Hey, guys,” Mitch snickered, “you have no patience at all. It takes time to get rich.”
We laughed ruefully, then we silently stared at him until he got behind the wheel and took us back to our cabins at our camp in the middle of McKinley National Park. The director of the camp greeted us.
“Another batch of impatient souls,” said Mitch.
No one mentioned gold the rest of the trip.
Nearly thirteen years later, I moved to Arizona and began working at the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum. Arizona is famous for its high gold yield. My young grandchildren wanted to go gold panning, so during the winter months, when it was a delightful 75 degrees during the day, I went out into desert areas to look at the streams where we could placer for gold. It’s pronounced “plass-er” by the way.
There were no water filled streams. Hundreds of thousands of acres, and the stream beds were there, but they were dry.
“The streams fill to overflowing during the summer-early fall monsoon season,” I was told by fellow employees. “During other times of the year, nearly every single small to medium watercourse in the desert areas of the state is bone dry. Only the largest rivers continue to flow then.”
“But you can’t go out in the summer,” I exclaimed. “It’s between 110 and 130 out in the desert! Nor can I take the grandkids to the tunneled gold mines. They are all under claim.”
“You’d get shot at by the owners, too. Claims are taken seriously here in Arizona. You have to be patient, Liz” answered my friend, Doug. “Let me show you how you can go placering without using a natural water source.”
The following Sunday afternoon, I joined him and his wife and several friends for a trip to the desert. I had been given a shopping list and had dutifully purchased a spade, a long-handled shovel, a heavy duty magnet, and a heavy duty rock pick. There were also two metal buckets with snap-on covers, ten gallons of bottled water, and several pieces of 12” x 12” heavy window screens. The spaces between the screens ranged from one inch, half an inch, quarter inch, and down to eighth inch. Our gift shop sold glass vials with screw on covers, and I purchased several of those, too. . I must not to forget to mention the three sizes of tweezers. All my equipment was put into an open back pack made of heavy canvas, which also had to be purchased.
We arrived at our destination about an hour’s drive northwest of the city. The two jeeps drove right into the dry, deeply pitted gullies where water had once flowed, and headed in an upstream direction toward distant mountains, about fifteen miles away.
“This is a good placer bed,” explained Doug. “We could walk, but we want to get to a relatively flat area about three miles in. Be patient, it’s a rough ride.”
Doug, as I had found out while working with him, was the master of understatement.
Forty-five jarring minutes later, dodging deep ruts and huge boulders scattered in the stream bed, we arrived at our destination, which was marked by a green metal stake pounded into a palo verde tree on the bank.
We got out, shouldered our packs, and walked another half mile in.
Then we began our task. I wanted to go home. I really wanted to go home!
The system is simple. One finds large boulders stuck in the deep sand of the stream bed and goes to the upstream side one of the large rocks. The distant mountains showed us the upstream side.
Using our magnets tied to a string, we began dragging them through the sand. Soon, pieces of iron ore the size of sand grains began to appear by some of the boulders. “See,” said one of the women, “iron is almost as heavy as gold, so where iron gathers, you should find gold beneath it. The gold and iron are heavy, and as they carried downstream by running water, the boulders act like dams and slow the water down. That’s when the heavy metals drop down. Then sand is dumped at the upper side of the boulder and covers the ores.”
Everyone picked a likely boulder and began to dig a hole that eventually was large enough to stand in. After going down through two to three feet of sand, we stepped into the hole. The next procedure was brutal. Like the others, I started shoveling out sand with the spade and threw it into one of the buckets. It was hot, tiring work.
“Be patient, girl,” Doug commented.
I was getting tired of hearing that word!
“You can only drink two gallons of water. You save another gallon for washing yourself off when we leave. The rest is for placering. Don’t worry about bathrooms. You’ll sweat out all the water you take in. “Or,” and he grinned, “you can take the buckets home and use the water there.”
The first bucket was soon full of rocky sand. I placed the inch wide mesh over the second bucket and carefully shoveled the contents of the first bucket into it. Pieces larger than an inch were caught in the mesh and discarded. I repeated the process, using the smaller mesh screens over and over until an almost half full bucket of fine sand remained.
Time flies, they say, when you’re having fun. Noon came, and we had lunch. I asked about the rock pick. Everyone giggled. Someone said, “You use it to smash rocks that have gold imbedded in them.”
I stared with disbelief, but they laboriously demonstrated the technique and recovered a few flakes of gold from the fragments.
“Think I’ll stick to placering, “ I muttered.
Everyone roared with laughter.
Then I returned to my search for gold by putting two handfuls of the strained sand into the placer pan. Carefully husbanding my precious water, I poured in enough of the liquid to cover the sand. Swirling the water and pouring out the sand and lighter rocks, I had about half left. Patiently, I kept repeating the process until only a square inch of iron ore and possible gold were left at the bottom of the pan. The magnet pulled out the iron, which was discarded.
Success! About five gold nuggets the size of rice grains were left. I transferred them to the glass vial and poured in water.
Doug mentioned I should submerge the vial with the gold in a pot full of water and then screw the cap on under water. “That way,” he grinned, “if someone opens the vial, the water will spill on them, and they’ll gasp. It protects your investment. It’s an old miner trick.” He winked at me. “See, it pays to be patient.”
We spent five more hours repeating our labor. At the end of the day, I had half a vial full of nuggets, worth about five dollars.
I was exhausted and covered with dirt and mud, blisters, and had sore buttocks. My clothes had rips from thorns and rocks and thorny trees.
“Two hours. Two cents. Too hard,” I would tell visitors to the museum when they asked why I didn’t go gold prospecting.
I still have the vial, but have never been patient enough to pan again.