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Gold Panner's Manual Leads to Fun

by Darrell Hookey

    There they were, 12 specks of glorious light shining from the bottom of the gold pan. If I were Yosemite Sam, I would have drawn a six shooter from each hip, fired them off into the air and whooped and hollered, "Gold, gold!"

    But even Yosemite Sam couldn't fire off his pistols within Whitehorse city limits and we were only seven minutes from downtown, on McIntyre Creek, just spitting distance from the Alaska Highway. And that was a disappointment.

    You see, when I learned I was to review a book - To Seek For Eldorado: How to Hunt For Gold In The Yukon - and that I was to go gold panning with its author, Sam Holloway, I figured I was in for an all-expenses-paid trip to Dawson City. But, apparently, there's gold in them thar creeks and rivers of Whitehorse.

    "How much is it worth, Sam?" I asked breathlessly, gold fever constricting my chest and fogging my mind. "Not even a dime." Thoughts of quitting my job were temporarily shelved as my brain tried to wrap around the idea: this gold could be practically worthless.

    Holloway explained that panning is a technique used to find a deposit of placer gold. If you find a nugget in a creek, you try again further upstream until the nuggets get larger and more plentiful or until you find nothing at all. You then pan your way back downstream until you pick up the beginning of the "trail" of nuggets again. Then you stake your claim and start digging down to bedrock in search of the placer deposit.

    So if we panned further up McIntyre Creek, we might find a bonanza? "Nope."

    Holloway is a Yukoner's Yukoner. Seen-it-all eyes look straight at you from his weathered face and you instinctively know that when he says "nope" he means "nope."

    He patiently explained that what we had found was called "flour gold." It had been battered down to specks by a journey so long it would be impossible to find the vein from which it escaped. Back in his Dodge van, we went hunting for another promising spot.

    We mentally did the calculations and figured that with 12 "colors" in each pan it would take 1,000 hours to earn $500.

    I looked at his book again. It's pocket-sized and has useful tables of information on the inside covers. If you skip over the introduction, table of contents and the Edgar Allan Poe poem, Eldorado, you only have to read the next seven pages and you are well on your way to panning for gold. But nowhere does it say you can get rich panning for the stuff.

    I get at least two e-mails a day telling me I can get rich with one scheme or another; you would think a book about hunting for gold would make the same claim. Holloway isn't like that.

    He said tourists are buying his book from Mac's Fireweed and Canadian Tire just for the fun and experience of panning for gold in the Yukon. Many people go catch-and-release fishing. Why not try panning? It is just as exciting.

    We found another likely spot. Holloway expertly sized up the river. The water hadn't risen so high there that we couldn't get at the gravel bottom. We chose a spot on the inside of a bend where the water slows down, dropping its precious load. If we had hip waders, we would have tried going out to the upstream end of a sand bar.

    Some years back, two teenagers earned enough from a sand bar to buy a car by the end of the summer. That sand bar was just off the old Kwanlin Dun village on the Yukon River.

    Just 100 kilometres north of Whitehorse, miners find three-ounce nuggets regularly. The Stewart River downstream from Mayo is another rich stretch.

    I dug out my supplies: Rubber gloves, rubber boots and film canisters to put my gold in. I read that Skookum Jim filled a shotgun shell with nuggets from Rabbit Creek - so I brought two film canisters just in case.

    "Why did you buy that?" asked Holloway, glaring at my traditional steel gold pan, purchased at Canadian Tire. He's a good-natured fellow, but I felt chastised.

    "It's what the old timers used," I replied in defence, not mentioning I was afraid he would laugh at me if I had bought one of those modern plastic jobs with the riffles his book recommends for beginners. But that is the kind he uses.

    At least I baked it first to get rid of the oil film they are shipped in - just like it says on Page 10. But I hadn't baked it enough, said Holloway, adding I should drop some ashes from his corn cob pipe into the water to break up the surface tension. Biodegradable soap is good, too.

    Holloway explained that gold was the densest thing in the gravel were shovelling into our pans. If we were to shake the gold down to the bottom of the pan and gently allow the water to sweep away the rest, we would be left with black sand (iron) and gold.

    As we squatted on the bank and swished and swooshed away with our pans, Holloway casually mentioned we are breaking the law. By picking up the gravel and washing it back into the river, we are in contravention of the Yukon Waters Act and the federal Fisheries Act and could be fined up to $100,000.

    But Dave Latoski said recreational gold panners don't have much to worry about. He is the regional manager of the mining inspection division of the mineral resources directorate for Indian and Northern Affair's Yukon region, and his mining inspectors use their discretion when enforcing the act.

    It's confusing because unlike BC and Alaska (and every other jurisdiction in North America Holloway can think of) the Yukon doesn't have a recreational gold-mining policy for our tourists to enjoy.

    Holloway has seen many other strange things done in the midnight sun in his 22 years of prospecting on and off in the Yukon.

    He first caught gold fever when he took over a lapsed claim from a hermit. The hermit brought an ounce of gold into Mayo once a week until he died. Holloway got to the mining recorder's office before anyone else and found five nuggets in his first dig on his new claim - then nothing more.

    Too late. He had been bitten by the bug and had quit his job.

    At that time, there were a lot of older prospectors who wanted to pass along all they knew about gold. The characters he met along the way contributed stories to The Yukoner Magazine that he edits and prints from his Marsh Lake home. His partner, Dianne Green, is the publisher.

    He collected his prospecting experience and techniques into a small photocopied booklet. That item sold so well, he made a full-scale book out of it and published that himself, selling 5,000 copies. He then sold the rights to a "real" publisher and it withered on the bookshelves after insensitive editing and poor promotion.

    Holloway has just recently recovered the rights to the book, put the best information up front and reprinted it himself. It's published by The Yukoner Magazine, which sells copies through its website, www.yukoner.com.

    Are people surprised to learn there is gold in Whitehorse?

    Holloway said tourists aren't. They expect to find gold as soon as they cross the border. But most Whitehorse residents would be surprised.

    In the old days, everyone knew the gravel for the roads came from river bottoms. If they would check their vehicle's air filters, they would likely find some gold.

    Today, we buy Holloway's book at $7.95 and a gold pan for $10. In the Whitehorse area, it will only take you 36 hours to recoup your costs - but what fun you'll have!