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Originally published Monday, June 22, 2009 at 10:49 AM

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Gold to be found in Cascade rivers

Flakes of the precious metal wash down from high peaks during annual floods, settling in local river beds. When waters recede from creeks and river banks, that gold waits behind to be claimed.

Skagit Valley Herald

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. —

Flakes of the precious metal wash down from high peaks during annual floods, settling in local river beds. When waters recede from creeks and river banks, that gold waits behind to be claimed.

Thanks to new rules from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, panning for gold is now legal year-round. For the most part, only lakes, saltwater, private property and areas with mineral claims are off-limits.

"Basically any river coming out of the Cascades, going east or going west, has gold in it," said Bill Thomas, a Mount Vernon prospector, during a recent trek along the South Fork Nooksack River just south of Acme.

Thomas is the coordinator for the local chapter of the Washington Mining Prospectors Association, and the vice president of the statewide organization. After five heart attacks, Thomas' doctor told him he had to stop working and go prospecting.

During a trip to the South Fork Nooksack earlier this month, the water level was so high only a thin strip of the sandbar remained at Thomas' chosen panning spot. Thomas feared that any good gold pockets probably rested too far out of reach under feet of rushing water.

Still, he struck gold or at least a few flakes of it.

"Gold, gold, gold, gold, gold," said Thomas.

The technique, tools and exclamations of gold prospectors today are much the same as those of the braggarts who touched off rushes in California and Alaska 160 years ago.

Like Thomas, the 19th century newspaper publisher Sam Brennan found it equally hard to describe the sparkling mineral with any other word but "gold" as he took a walk through San Francisco holding a vial of it.

"Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" he said, helping to touch off the California gold rush in 1848.

Prospecting never died after the gold rush, though most who still pan know they won't make much, if any, money, said Steven O'Neil, a longtime Sedro-Woolley prospector.

O'Neil opened The Roost - a coffee, used bookstore and prospecting supply shop - in Sedro-Woolley about a year ago.

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"Over time there has always been a few people interested," he said. "Now there is a bigger upsurge in it. One, due to the new rules, and two, due to the economy."

Beginning in April, prospectors no longer needed a special permit to pan year-round in the South Fork Nooksack River and other waters across the state, said Pat Chapman, state Fish and Wildlife Regulatory Services coordinator. They must still abide by rules about where they can shovel out material and what equipment they use, he said.

Prior to that, prospectors faced seasonal limits on when they could pan and needed additional permits, Thomas said.

Those regulations, and others still in effect for other gold techniques, are meant to protect fish, Chapman said.

Thomas and O'Neil insist that prospectors are kind to river habitats.

About 30 prospectors, including O'Neil and Thomas, celebrated the new year-round panning season April 3 by looking for gold and drinking sparkling cider at the South Fork Nooksack.

O'Neil said he panned $10 worth of gold flakes that day.

"To get rich doing this, you would have to go camp on the land, be a hermit for the summer months that you could actually run a suction dredge (a power tool) and mine and mine and mine," Thomas said. "If you are lucky, you pay for your summer."

Even during the gold rush, when miners headed to Alaska and California, few made money, he said.

"Half of them guys died, and the rest of them came home broke," said Thomas.

Mercury poisoning was among the many hazards they faced. To separate the gold from worthless sand, miners dumped mercury in their pans, which usually doubled as their dinner plates.

Today, plastic pans can be purchased for less than $10. Other tools, called rocker boxes, high bankers, sluices and suction dredges, are available for those looking to speed up the gold-seeking process, though there are state restrictions on some of those devices.

Thomas' tools aren't much more sophisticated than those used during the gold rush.

During the recent trip, Thomas began digging down less than a foot into the sandbar with a shovel. He scooped sandy gravel and rocks into a half-inch mesh screen, called a classifier, layered over a 1/4-inch classifier and then a bucket. Alternating shovels of mud and water, he gradually got what he called "concentrates" in the bucket.

The rocks caught in the classifiers were sorted through for a gold nugget or semiprecious stones - a hunk of jade was found - and then chucked back in the river. Then the panning began.

Thomas scooped the sandy concentrates a handful at a time into his plastic pan. He dunked an edge of the pan underwater and shook it to sift the light stuff to the top and the heavy gold to the bottom.

Sands soon began to float out of the pan. Gravel and rocks, the next lightest material, followed.

The water sparkled in the sun, as did the remaining rock and sediments.

To tell what was really gold, Thomas blocked out the sun with a hand. A few specks sparkled yellow.

Gold.

---

Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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