A 12-year-old boy splashes through Piru Creek, spreading the news.
"We found a nugget the size of my thumbnail!" Sean Starkey announces to startled onlookers.
About a quarter-mile downstream, Starkey's stepfather, Jon Reimers, is panning for gold with two friends. Secured to his waist is a plastic snuffer bottle containing the aforementioned nugget--actually a sliver-size flake too tiny to fill a molar.
Lured by the prospect of finding gold, hundreds of recreational panners are rushing to northern Ventura County these days, but the bonanza lies only in a child's rich imagination.
"The only ones getting rich off prospecting are the guys who sold us this equipment," chirps Reimers. "We don't even make enough to cover our gas money."
Although nobody ever confused mistook Ventura County for El Dorado, the county does have a long and storied gold-mining history. According to a Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly, "It is said that gold in California was first discovered" as early as 1819 in the Piru Creek area of what is now the Los Padres National Forest just west of the Grapevine.
Significant lode deposits were found in the granite mountains--which are perfect geological hosts for the precious metal. Spaniards mined Frazier Mountain and vicinity. So did missionaries, Mexicans and Native Americans.
Lode mining is brutal, pick-and-shovel work. The 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, where nuggets could literally be picked off the ground, sent prospectors to northern California. Afterward, Ventura mines were worked sporadically until World War II but weren't productive enough to be profitable.
No gold-mining history would be complete with-out a local version of the Lost Dutchman Mine. Meet the Los Padres Mine. Since the mid-1800's, the probably mythical mine has pulled its share of prospectors into the northern reaches of Ventura's back-country, tantalizing them with tales of hidden caches of gold bars. Or is it silver bars?
Hundred-year old newspaper reports said the mine belonged to missionaries who used Chumash Indians for labor. When the missionaries supposedly got into a tiff with the King of Spain over his cut, they closed the mine out of spite and put a curse of death on any Chumash revealing its whereabouts.
In the 1880's, a Lockwood Valley developer sold housing lots after rekindling interest in the Los Padres Mine.
Today's prospectors aren't that gullible, and they know the chances of becoming rich are slim, these days. But, deep within, they hold out hope of turning over the right rock.
"It's like walking around in a dump," Reimers says. "In the back of your mind, you're hoping to find something valuable."
The vast majority of today's prospectors aren't miners but panners. Mining requires a commitment of time, effort and money along with hard-to-obtain government permits. Panning is weekend recreation, fusing camping and hiking with an activity not unlike fishing.
"You try different spots in the river and hope for the best," Reimers says.
In lieu of finding the mother lode, the best reason to pan is to spend a day in the forest. Reimers, a 44-year-old business-man, and his longtime buddies from Bakersfield let their kids roam the wooded watershed while they stood in a cool creek surrounded by the gray walls of 50-foot cliffs.
"This is just a kick," Reimers says. "A bunch of old farts out having fun."
But panning is hard work. Jon Reimers, John Reynolds and Johnny Van Horn--the "three Johns"--labor for hours while stooped over, tediously swishing gravel in the base of a pan.
"You try to slough off each layer of gravel until you're down to the black sand," Reynolds says. "Where you find black sand, you generally find gold."
Panning has become popular thanks to the Gold Prospectors Assn. of America, a 25-year- old organization that boasts 125,000 members worldwide and 30,000 in California, including 500 to 1,000 in Ventura County, says Jake Hartwick, the group's claims coordinator.
Membership mushroomed in the last few years, Hartwick says, when the association began running a weekly 60-minute infomercial (in Ventura, the program airs Saturday morning on KADY).
"Prospecting is probably the fastest-growing recreation in the country," Hartwick says. "It provides a family atmosphere and gets in people's blood. Americans have a romantic feeling about the past. It may be unfeasible to be a cowboy today, but you can be a prospector."
Membership in the Temeculah-based organization costs $67.50 a year and--you guessed it--includes a 14-inch pan, official field cap and shoulder patch, one-year subscription to Gold Prospector magazine, an hourlong how-to video and a thick mining guide, which gives driving directions to workable claims. Whether you're buying your ticket to riches, recreation, or just more clutter for the garage is, well, part of every panner's gamble.
The association's number is (909) 699-4749.