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Dreams of riches last, but gold panning in Colorado has different meaning long after boom days

June 4, 2018 Updated: June 4, 2018 at 2:47 pm
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The Yankee Girl Mine, found in the San Juan Mountains outside Ouray, was one of the historical sites Garret Romaine visited in Colorado while researching for his new guidebook, "Gold Panning Colorado." Photo credit: Garret Romaine

Garret Romaine's favorite Colorado moments have been those during harrowing drives in the high, steep wild, those moments of surprise that come long after the road turns rough under his Jeep.

"It's good gravel, then it's bad gravel, then it's really bad," he says. "Then you turn that corner, and there's this magnificent old structure. To me, that's about as exciting as finding gold in the bottom of my pan."

But it was prospecting - the act of it, not the wooden skeletons of its past - that most recently brought the Oregon man to the Centennial State. FalconGuides's "Gold Panning Colorado" is a region-by-region breakdown of the streams still teeming with the shiny promise that men yearned for more than 150 years ago.

"If you have never experienced the thrill of recovering an elusive piece of gold, you have a major emotion in front of you," Romaine writes in the book's introduction. "There are very few things that quicken the pulse like seeing actual gold gleaming in your pan."

But, he cautions against succumbing to the fever that once gripped the territory.

"This is not a get-rich-quick scheme," he says.

A gold pan "is a wonderful prospecting tool," says Ed Raines, the expert at the Colorado School of Mines. It's a tool that was used by the ancient Greeks and Chinese and continues to be used in the same way by people still obsessed with the mineral. They simply swish the pan above water, hoping to see a glimmer through the other sediment, the glimmer of the weightiest piece that settles at the bottom.

Members of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America spend a Memorial Day weekend panning for gold in Lake Creek in Lake County. Photo credit: Alton Oakes 

But the pan in all of its history has never drawn gold of substantial worth. The pan was and is only a sourcing mechanism. "You used the gold pan to find it," Raines says. "Then you used more efficient ways to extract it on a larger scale."

Romaine spent 10 years dredging at a private claim, a weekend tradition he kept up since the thrill of his first nugget. It took a mere flake for a passion to stir in him as a toddler. His dad always kept a pan under the car seat, and Romaine's grandfather, a mining attorney, tested vehicles constantly on the rugged way to treasure-filled quadrants.

On those weekends with his machinery, Romaine says, he sometimes came away with a stash worth a couple of hundred bucks. "Not enough for my wife to let me quit my day job," he says with a chuckle.

Now, at 62, he's stepped away from the tough labor with sparse rewards. Plus, he says, federal land restrictions and privatization of the hills make prospecting increasingly stressful, as he addresses in the preface of "Gold Panning Colorado."

"If we had some property locally available, we would certainly have more interest," says Alton Oakes, with the Colorado Springs chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America. For field trips, the group goes to Chafee County's Cache Creek and other gold-panning sites set aside around Denver.

A TV show piqued Oakes' interest. He's since scouted for gold all around Colorado and beyond, though he's never joined the chapter's most serious members who embark to Alaska, driven by the allure of unclaimed bonanzas. They might score enough to pay off the travel.

"If you were walking down the street and saw a $5 bill on the ground, would you pick it up? Would you look around to see if there was any more laying around?" Oakes says in making a comparison. "That's the same feeling when you go out and find some gold in your pan. You're finding free money."

But it's never much.

Ask Wayne "Nugget Brain" Peterson why he's been prospecting since 1986, and he says it's because he's "a total idiot." Yet every summer, he dreams of what can be won at the claims he keeps in the mountains above his home in Durango.

When he was 9, he found a gold ring with a metal detector, and that residual feeling is too good to abandon.

Specks of gold settle at the bottom of a pan. In his new guidebook, "Gold Panning Colorado," Garret Romaine writes that gold is often found with black sand. Photo credit: Alton Oakes 

"The whole thing about gold prospecting is, you're not gonna get rich, and it's gonna cost you thousands and thousands of dollars if you're not careful," Peterson says. "So just get out and enjoy it."

That's the point Romaine makes in his book. Gold panning, he says, takes you to some of the most scenic places, and the goal should be the views. Let the fever stay with history, left in those unlikely places with their frames and shafts.

"Sometimes you can close your eyes and just listen," he says. "You can almost imagine 1,000 miners in some of those places."

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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