If gold fever has struck and you're headed for a country stream to try your luck, keep in mind that the easiest way to find gold is the way the '49ers did it: with a pan.
The most important thing to remember about panning was offered by a less passionate observer: "If you've got a strong back and a weak mind, you'll make a good panner."
The gold pan is the most versatile and effective tool that can be used for finding gold in nearby Virginia streams, creeks and headwaters.
The principle behind the use of the pan is that heavier materials settle before lighter ones. The object of panning is to get the heavier gold flakes and particles separated from the lighter gravel, clay and sand holding it -- and to let flowing stream water assist, say gold bugs John D'Agostino and Jesse Whitlow.
"There's no two panners (who will) pan the same. One fella, his tail had to point upstream, or it just wasn't right, and some do it Hollywood style," says Sterling resident Whitlow, a semiretired geologist who has panned for gold and other minerals in Virginia and North Carolina since 1951.
Since success is the best teacher, what follows is the description of the technique used by Whitlow.
Whitlow rarely failed to turn up gold flakes and "colors" on a recent excursion to a Jauquier County stream.
The tools needed are simple and inexpensive:
A pan 16 to 18 inches across at the lip, three to four inches deep and with a bottom roughly 12 inches across. The pan can be of almost any material, but Whitlow suggests stainless steel, since it is less apt to rust or corrode. Such pans often can be bought in hardware stores or from retail mining equipment outlets for approximately $3.
A shovel with a rounded, rather than squared, digging blade. A rounded shovel is more easily worked through gravel and around stones in stream beds.
Rubber boots and gloves.
Sheets of water-resistant paper for collecting gold from the pan, and a low-power magnifying glass for spotting the finer gold particles.
Other experts suggest bringing a small hand broom, a dental pick and a crowbar.
Picking a spot on a stream near an abandoned mine, Whitlow begins by digging deeply in the stream bed, preferably down to bed rock. Since gold is heavier than surrounding material, most gold will be found at the lowest level of the material deposited by a stream.
Clay at the bottom of a stream bed also is a good holder of gold. This gold is more difficult to separate out, however.
Whitlow then fills his pan until it is overflowing with the gravel, sand, clay and even large stones.
Working rapidly at first, Whitlow turns and stirs the pan in the swiftest part of the stream, removing the larger rocks and gravel.
As the contents of the pan become smaller and finer, Whitlow's movements become more gentle, until he eliminates worthless sand simply by dipping the pan in the stream and moving it a few inches against the current.
At this point, Whitlow has only a few ounces of material in his pan. This consists of fine, light-colored sand and heavier "black sands" that hold the gold.
Whitlow gently works the black sands in the stream until nearly all the lighter-colored sand has been washed away. The black sand then is held to the light and inspected for gold flakes or colors.
"All that glitters is not gold," cautions D'Agostino, who is Whitlow's fellow geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. Deposits of minerals such as pyrite and mica also have a glittering appearance.
A good way to test the material is to see if it holds its intense color in sunlight and shade. If it's gold, says D'Agostino, it will keep its yellow-gold appearance in either light.
Whitlow then splashes the black sand and gold particles into a cup he forms by folding a sheet of the water-resistant paper. The water is drained out of the cup and the black sand is stored in the folded paper until it is dry.
Gold particles then can be picked out of the dried sand with tweezers. A magnifying glass is helpful in this step.
Some of the best places to hunt for gold are natural riffles formed by rocks in stream beds, Whitlow noted, because gold falls into the botton of the riffles and becomes trapped there. Whitlow digs material out of riffles with his shovel; others prefer a small hand broom or a dental pick. A crowbar often comes in handy for getting to the bottom of riffles.
Other good places to look are inside bends in a stream, the outer edges of whirlpools and at the base of large rocks.
Panning takes practice and patience, but if done carefully in the right places, gold will be found.