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Gold fever — discovering golden opportunites

By Robert O. Wilson

Last updated on Thursday, January 09, 2003

Placer gold prospector Judy Van Cleve pans for gold. Photo by Bob Wilson
Placer gold prospector Judy Van Cleve pans for gold.
It it is my feeling that everyone should have a chance to experience "Gold Fever." So when I bought my computer and word processing software late in 1989, my intention was to write on paper what I had recorded mentally for many years. I wanted a universal book of accurate directions and maps with actual old mine sites to explore while 'kicking over rocks.' I have now reached this goal with, Gold Panning in New Mexico, a book started seven years ago and completed this year.

My intent in locating the old placer gold sites of New Mexico was to give for beginning prospectors a sense of history and a place to start. Old prospectors say gold is where you find it. It is also true that gold is found where gold is known to be. Thus, your chances of success are increased manyfold when prospecting in known areas. Prospecting for gold is part of Western America and is as wholesome as motherhood and apple pie.

The excitement of finding the first 'color' in your gold pan is an indescribable experience. Even though I had never seen it in its native state before, when I looked down and saw gold in my pan for the first time, I knew instantly what it was. There was no doubt! I exclaimed, "I'll be darn, so that's gold!" A newspaper reporter asked me, "How did you know, did you have it analyzed?" I said, "No, I just knew!" I remembered all those disappointing times I had found only fool's gold (iron pyrite). How could I have missed the real thing! The excitement of finding my first gold was more earth shaking than finding my first love. I truly had 'Gold Fever.'

Actually, some of the characteristics of gold are readily identifiable. Gold varies in color, depending on what element has mixed with it, from a light-olive brown to a dark yellow. For example, the color of a yellow gold wedding band (14 karats) is about 58 percent gold and would be in the middle of the color scale. Gold is heavy - heavier than anything else you will find in your pan. Gold has a dull brassy look, a metallic look and feel. Gold can be scratched with a knife and it is the most malleable and ductile metal. When flecks or flour gold is found it will be below the black sand (pyrrhotite or magnetite) in your pan. Silicates and the pretty stuff will float off long before the gold.

I will find that 'big' strike again! You too can find that 'big' strike even if it's just getting out into the fresh air and having an adventure. Gold panning has no age restrictions, no sexual barriers, and it is an equal opportunity recreation with the freedom to perceive gold fever. Simple placer gold mining equipment is inexpensive and the methods are easy and fun. Of course, the most important piece of equipment is the gold pan. I prefer the 14 inch green plastic pan ($10 to $20); the gold shows distinctly in the sunlight against the green background. Also, plastic pans don't get as cold to the touch as the steel pans do, and they are not as heavy! This is appreciated after working in cold water all day.

When panning gold flecks and smaller a sieve of 3/8 inch or less is placed above the pan and shaken to separate the fines. This method saves a lot of time and effort picking out the larger material while panning. When more production is desired then a sluice of the type pictured or a platform rocker ($50-$75) will work to move more dirt. A small sluice with two people working can move about two cubic yards a day. A small mining operation with the right 'dirt' could make from $75 to $100 per day depending on the karats (A unit of measure for the fineness of gold; pure gold is 24 karats) and price of gold. Gold is often mixed with copper or silver, thus decreasing its value.

Plastic green gold pan with gold flakes and black sand Photo by Bob Wilson
Plastic green gold pan with gold flakes and black sand
Maps of the area where you will be prospecting are very important, especially to locate and find your way back to your 'glory hole.' A 7.5 minute topographic map runs $4.00 and can be found at surveyor offices, bookstores, or backpacking-hiking outlets such as REI stores. Other miscellaneous equipment will include a sniffer (it sucks the gold flakes from the pan into a collector jar), magnifying glass, vial to view the gold, shovels, and buckets. If you are into electronic detecting to locate where to start panning or to find larger nuggets then a good gold detector ($500) would make your hobby a bit more expensive. These items can be obtained at most rock and mineral stores.

Personal comfort and safety items require gloves, leather and rubber boots, bee sting and snake bite kits, first aid kit, sunscreen, hat, and clothing appropriate for any adverse weather conditions. The safety equipment for your vehicle should include a good spare tire, chains, bumper jack, oil, water, tow rope, jumper cables, flares, extra rations, and blankets.

Use caution around areas where there may be bee hives or bee activity. The Africanized honey bees have arrived in parts of the Southwest and are spreading at a rapid rate. DO NOT anger these bees; they are very aggressive and are sensitive to loud noises and aggressive actions. When a bee hive is discovered, quietly and immediately leave the area. If you are attacked by angry bees, seek shelter if available, otherwise leave the area as fast as possible and seek immediate medical attention.

The environment is an important factor of placer prospecting and mining, even though in most cases it is done on a much smaller scale than lode mines. We must practice standard environmental recommendations to assure continued water quality and when we are done leave only our foot prints. The New Mexico Mining Act of 1994 came about because of the need for environmental standards and reclamation of mining activities. The standards set forth are to mitigate environmental disturbance not only from the large operators, but the hobbyist as well.

The state has adopted a permit system based on the amount of disturbance created. If you dry wash only 2 cubic yards a year and do not use motorized equipment then no permit is required. A general permit is required if you move 2 cubic yards per day, but no more than 100 cubic yards per year in or near water. There is also a list of 10 compliances while operating. If you are dry washing away from water the limit is 200 cubic yards a year with two acres of unreclaimed area at a time. The cost of the general permit is $50.00 per year.

An application for the placer mining general permit must be submitted to the New Mexico Environmental Department, Harold Runnels Building, 1190 St. Francis Drive, P.O. Box 26110, Santa Fe, NM 87502. Call them at 505-827-0187 for an application. If you plan to use mechanized dredging or sluicing you must submit a notice to the Division of Mining and Minerals, Mining Act Review Bureau, 2040 S. Pacheco, Santa Fe, NM 87505 or call them at 505-827-5970 and ask for John McKay.

You must notify the Bureau about specific dates and locations of your activities at least seven days before starting work with mechanized placer mining operations. Contact Cecilia Brown at 505-827-0106.

Some common sense rules for reclamation when placer prospecting are: fill in your holes, take a break when the water gets muddy (recommendation is work 15 minutes, break 15 minutes), pick up your trash and pack it out, do not uproot trees or dig into the streambank, do not move large boulders, no digging within ten feet of any road, and do nothing to permanently alter the stream flow.

Gold prospecting can be as therapeutic as meditation. To enjoy it thoroughly and avoid any hassles, don't prospect in unauthorized areas. Don't trespass on another person's marked claim; claim jumping is not good for your health! Always obtain permission in writing before entering or exploring on private land. Never enter closed areas which include military and Native American Reservations, National Parks and National Monuments, along with Federal and State Wildlife Refuges, and all other areas so designated as closed to mining activities. Always check before prospecting by contacting the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Post Office and Federal Building, P.O. Box 1449, Santa Fe, NM 87501.

Happy Prospecting and may you always have gold in your pan!

Gold Panning in New Mexico, and other books of a southwest interest may be ordered through the Filter Press, P.O. Box 95, Palmer Lake, CO 80133 or call them at 719-481-2420.

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