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New Gold Rush : Panning Enthusiasts See Bright Prospects for Hobby


When it comes to gold panning, you have your recreational speed panners and you have your unvarnished, dirt-chewing prospectors.

Speed panners practice in the comfort of their backyards. Prospectors scrabble through the wilderness, scuffing knuckles and fingernails in gravelly stream beds.

"Us old miners who have been in the field a long time tend to pooh-pooh the speed panners," says George Massie, president of the Gold Prospectors Assn. of America.

But Jack Roberts, a retired mechanical engineer and confirmed suburbanite from Claremont, is different. Not only is he the current world champion in speed panning, he can also get down and dig through muddy gravel with the best of them.

"They say a cowboy ain't a cowboy till you've seen him ride," says Massie. "Well, I saw Roberts pan once, and he's one heck of a gold panner."

Roberts won the 28th World Championship Gold Panning contest last month in Dahlonega, Ga., extracting eight gold nuggets from a panful of sand in 11.54 seconds.

Competitive panning is an oddball skill, with only a distant resemblance to stream-side panning, most competitors acknowledge.

You're handed a pan brimming with fine sand, in which gold nuggets have been secreted, explains Roberts, who has done his share of both back-yard panning and prospecting. The idea is to plunge the pan into a barrel of water and, using a distinctive swirling motion, quickly lose the sand while retaining the nuggets.

"If you're lucky, you won't lose a nugget (into the barrel)," he says.

Roberts, 64, a brusque man with an ivory-colored mustache that, after 17 years' growth, corkscrews across his cheeks, demonstrates the technique in his own back yard.

"The gold should stay in the bottom, because it's seven times heavier than sand," he says, pushing eight small gold nuggets into sand heaped in a pan.

He smoothes the surface, pauses like a runner waiting for the starter's gun, and thrusts the pan into the barrel. Much of the sand forms a cloud in the water. The rest, under pressure from Roberts' side-to-side motion, quickly slides out of the pan, revealing the gold nuggets nestled at the bottom.

It's easy, he says. "You've got as much chance as anybody of becoming a champion. It's 80% luck."

Roberts is one of a growing number of amateur panners and prospectors who, equipped with pans, sluice boxes and shovels, head for the nation's streams and forests on weekends to search for gold and silver. "It's the fastest-growing hobby in America today," says Massie, whose Northern California-based organization has almost doubled its membership in three years to 76,000.

California, site of the gold rush of 1849, is Mecca for weekend prospectors. Though there is no reliable count of those who participate, the state Department of Fish and Game expects to issue about 1,000 suction-dredging permits this year to people struck with gold fever, at $27.50 apiece. About 900 permits were issued last year.

"The dredgers are only about 10% of the people (prospecting)," says Massie.

The East Fork of the San Gabriel River, in the Angeles National Forest, has always been one of the most popular gathering spots for gold panners. U.S. Forest Service officers say that on a busy weekend, there may be as many as 300 panners between Follows Camp and Cattle Canyon Bridge, single-mindedly shoveling gravel and sticking their faces close to their pans to search for telltale glints.

"At the moment, there are no restrictions," says Charles McDonald, environmental coordinator for the Angeles National Forest. "Unless they're bothering an archeological site or they're digging holes in an embankment that could fall in on somebody, we don't bother them."

Roberts, who is a member of the Gold Panning Hall of Fame in Dahlonega, Ga., says he got the gold bug 23 years ago. A 29-year employee of Aerojet, he took his family on a company camping trip to Arizona, where the gold panning championship was being held.

"I got into the contest myself and I didn't win," he says. "But I saw I had a chance to be a world champion. I told myself I'd do it in 10 years. It took me eight."

Roberts' son, Don, the current world record holder in the sport (he did it in 7.55 seconds last year in Arizona), says his father, who was born in Iowa, was drawn implacably into the active outdoor life in his adopted state.

"Being from back East--at least, in our terms--Dad came out here and, I guess, decided to try all of the California type of things," says Don Roberts, a Diamond Bar computer programmer. "He wanted to do everything that he imagined that people did in California."

That included surfing, hiking, camping out and prospecting.

Not satisfied to sift sand, Jack Roberts got out into Mother Lode country, dipped into streams and rivers in Idaho and Montana, haunted the East Fork. He found some nuggets, accumulated little jars of gold dust.

"There's gold in every stream in California," Jack Roberts says. "Ninety percent of it is still up there. There's always the hope you'll hit something nice."

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