MENTION THE word "gold," and eyes light up. Who doesn't imagine herself striking it rich, stumbling across a nugget at a site where gold was once mined?
Such a site is a lot closer than you think. A gold-pyrite belt runs down the state of Virginia, from Fairfax County southwest to Appomattox County. From 1830 to 1849, Virginia was the third-largest gold-producing state in the country. (In '49, the miners lit out for California.) This history of gold lured my family to Lake Anna State Park earlier this month to try our luck at panning and take a tour of the Goodwin Gold Mine. Inside the visitor center, our interpreter, Katie Sandage, showed us vials containing gold flakes and dust found the day before. We examined them closely. She also held up a larger, sparkling nugget that looked impressively golden.
"It's pyrite," Sandage said. "Fool's gold." Pyrite, we learned, is lighter and more brittle than gold. It's deceptively shiny, but falls apart under your fingernail.
Each of us took a round plastic pan with ridges called "riffles" to an outside deck. Buckets of sandy dirt -- "pay dirt," or dirt that might contain gold -- awaited us. We eagerly scooped handfuls into our pans. The dirt was taken from the banks of Pigeon Run, the stream where the Goodwin family and other panners used to prospect.
We followed Sandage to the banks of a nearby pond and crouched low. She showed us how to swirl the water and tilt our pans so the water carried all the lighter detritus away. Gold is heavier than rocks and should stay put. Everyone was soon staring fixedly into his or her pan.
"You've got gold fever in your blood already," Sandage joked.
I swished and tilted and spotted a golden bit in my pan. With a press of my fingernail, however, it flaked and spread like gold-leaf paint. Rats. Fool's gold. Several other prospectors found a few genuine bits of gold to put into a vial. (The state retains the rights to all natural resources found in the park. The visitor center keeps the vials -- and the names of the lucky prospectors -- to display.) When we'd had our fill of panning, we loaded into a park van and headed down a gravel road to the ruins of the Goodwin Gold Mine. The mine takes its name from the family who owned the property before it became a mine and prospected in their spare time. The mine operated from 1881 to 1887 but was closed because miners didn't find quite enough gold to support the expense.
Above the mine, Sandage unlocked a shed, where we could examine replicas of mining equipment, including two sluices, which are inclined troughs with riffles to catch the gold. Called "rocker boxes" and "long toms," these sluices were more efficient than panning but also required more workers. An imposing iron machine, a "stomp mill," used weight and gravity to pulverize large rocks to see if they contained gold. A fern-lined, wooded path runs from the shed to the mine site and around the ruins. Much of the site is off-limits for safety concerns, but from an overlook we could see where the shaft, originally 200 feet deep, had been dug and several caved-in tunnels where miners may have pursued a rich vein. Overgrown piles of bricks and stones mark the location of other structures. An artist's rendition of the original site helped us imagine the area, also referred to as Gold Hill, in its heyday. One strike was rich enough to inspire an attempted robbery.
Once your gold fever has abated, you can hike some of the 13 miles of trails or head back to the sandy beach to swim. To find out more about the history of the lake -- it was created in 1971 as a coolant for the nuclear power plant (which is still operating) -- or look for native critters, take an interpreted pontoon boat tour before you pan for gold. Or rent your own boat or water bike to cruise the 8.3 miles of state park shoreline. The visitor center also offers a seining (fishing with a large vertical net) program near the beach. Participants can guide the net and examine some slithery, silver inhabitants of the lake formed long after the miners disappeared.
LAKE ANNA STATE PARK -- 6800 Lawyers Rd., in Spotsylvania County, Va. 540-854-5503. www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/lakeanna.htm. The park is open daily from 8 to dusk. Parking is $4 per car on weekends, $3 on weekdays. The visitor center is open weekends and holidays from 11 to 5 (closed weekdays). Admission to a beach with lifeguards on duty is $4 for ages 13 and older, $3 for ages 3 to 12.
Through Labor Day, the following activities are available on Saturdays and Sundays: pontoon boat tours at noon and 1, $3 per adult, $2 per child age 3-12 ; gold panning at 2, free; gold mine tour at 3, $2 per person, $6 per family; "Going In-Seine" at 4, free. Go to www.vaboatrentals.com to rent anything from an aqua cycle to a party boat.