Gold rush: California's weekend warriors discover prospecting

High gold prices have made prospecting the hottest new hobby for California’s weekend warriors.

With the precious metal still selling for more than $1,600 an ounce even after a mild correction, amateurs and even a few pros are hiking mountain trails and panning streams in the Golden State, enjoying nature and, with any luck, turning a profit in the process.

“People are looking for fun that doesn’t cost a whole lot of money,” said Nancy Roberts, president of Central Valley Prospectors. “But maybe you can make some money.”

Roberts has been a gold hunter for more than a quarter of a century, and she’s found plenty of the yellow stuff. She carries a 1 ounce nugget in her purse and, in a pinch, she’s sold gold she found to make ends meet.

“I’ve paid bills, I’ve paid rent. I’ve bought tires for my truck, I’ve fixed my vehicle,” Roberts said. “I didn’t find gold in order to pay for stuff or to sell it. I really found gold because I really had a great interest in it and I still do.”

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But Roberts is no Fred C. Dobbs, the Humphrey Bogart character in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” who jealously guarded his prospecting secrets. She shares her tips and techniques with members of the Central Valley Prospectors, taking them to the San Joaquin River in the Friant area of Fresno where they pan tributaries for flecks of gold washed down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

“We’re just out in the beautiful country, it’s the way God wanted it,” said Betty Beggs, who at age 86 is a 14-year veteran of weekend prospecting. “I love it.”

Beggs goes out with her daughter, Robin, and son-in-law, Allen Volpa.

“You get that same feeling every time you find gold,” said Volpa. “If it’s a big flake or a little flake, it’s like a treasure hunt. It’s awesome.”

In addition to panning, a common small-scale prospecting technique is using a sluice box to sift through sediment and turn up flecks. The sluice box serves as a water channel and has a riffled bottom that captures gold because it weighs more than other sediment. The prospector simply scoops a load of sand and gravel onto the sluice box and gathers the shiny yellow particles that collect in the riffles after everything else washes through. It’s faster and more efficient than panning and is a small-scale version of the way big mining operations separate valuable gold from useless rocks and mud.


Roberts also turns up gold by ‘hard rock gold mining,’ or using a metal detector to find chunks of quartz with veins of gold embedded in them. She then breaks up the rock and separates the gold from the pulverized quartz. Roberts said the metal detecting technique has led to her best discoveries, including the omnipresent nugget. A metal detector also turned up what may be the state’s luckiest find ever, when a Nevada County man used one to find an 8.2-pound gold nugget in his own yard in 2011. He auctioned off his amazing discovery for $400,000.

The gold boom has brought people flocking to California’s old mining ghost towns, according to the Department of Conservation Office of Mine Reclamation. But not all of the state’s new wave of gold hunters are innocent amateurs. Authorities say professionals with heavy equipment and industrial tools are going after gold, sometimes illegally. The State Mining and Geology Board has fined Joseph Hardesty more than $1 million for operating what it says is an illegal operation at Big Cut Mine, in Northern California. Hardesty insists he merely runs a legitimate sand and gravel extraction business, but the state claims he’s after gold and is doing damage to the land.

"This is a blatant disregard for state law,” said Stephen Testa, executive director of the State Mining and Geology Board. “It’s individual’s mining without a permit. The adverse effect, of course, is environmental.”

But for most folks who simply love the outdoors and don’t mind living an age-old American Dream while doing it, Roberts recommends doing it her way. And while you may never get rich hunting gold, her nugget is a constant reminder that you can do all right.

“I’m never broke if I have this in my pocket,” she said, holding it up to admire.