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Panning for Gold - in Iowa!

Here's how to pan for gold in Iowa | Iowa Outdoors MagazineBy Mariah Griffith
From the March-April 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine

Dan Weber parks his car in a sunny glade of Cold Springs State Park, next to a scuffed brown park sign that reads “Rock Cut.”

“Most people don’t think of there being gold in Iowa, but there’s some in every county,” he says, putting on sturdy shoes and some bug spray.

To the right of the sign, a gated path veers off into forest. To the left, a stream peeks through the grass and trees. Except for the occasional passing car and bird trills, the glade is quiet.

Weber is a young environmental specialist who started working in conservation before he graduated college, and joined the DNR in 2014. He likes his office, but like most DNR employees, Weber says he joined to get outside. Recently, he started gold panning in his free time as another reason to go explore the outdoors.

Weber knows what he’s doing, even though he’s just getting started. He picked up an interest in gold panning as a kid from hearing about the bustle and short-lived glory of gold rushes, and he grins while remembering his first time trying it.

“When I was a Cub Scout we did all sorts of things, but I particularly remember going to a rock and mineral show, which I thought was neat,” Weber says. “There was a man who brought all the equipment for a booth where we could try panning in a basin full of water, rocks and sand, and I was just fascinated.”

He added that now he knows gold panning is about the fun, not the money.

“If you came out here and put in eight hard hours of work, you might find one or two dollars’ worth of gold,” he says. “I just look for the heck of it. It’s peaceful.”

A boyish excitement lights up his eyes while walking through the woods, despite being followed by a cloud of mosquitoes. Weber says not all the places where he looks for gold are pretty, but for today he’s scoped out a scenic spot to try along the shore of the East Nishnabotna River.

The little sandbar is littered with walnut-sized rocks and tiny shards of old shells. In the background, the stream gurgles happily over a few couch-sized boulders, and a monarch butterfly flits around the bill of Weber’s baseball cap.

This part of the river is also a state-designated water trail, where paddlers come for the infrequent, fun bits of whitewater Iowa has to offer. Strolling along, Weber explains natural whitewater spots are excellent places to look for gold.

“When the glaciers came down, they pushed down all this gravel from Canada. That’s where the gold came from,” Weber says.

Places where the glaciers deposited large, heavy materials, like the boulders that make for whitewater, are likely to be relatively rich in tiny—very tiny—particles of gold as well. Over time, long-standing boulders help slow down and divert the current of the river, which helps heavy gold particles settle and accumulate nearby.
On the edge of the sandbar, Weber takes a black plastic pan and a green army surplus trowel out of his backpack, using the little shovel end to gesture toward the rocks at his feet.

“When you go panning you’re looking for different colored rocks and certain things like granite and quartz, as opposed to Iowa limestone and sandstone,” he says. “If it’s colorful, it’s not from here, at least not originally.”

Looking closely, the rocks at the edge of the river are mixed together in an almost fruity bouquet of reds, blues and oranges. Weber slips into a pair of green knee-high rain boots and strolls into the water, ladling three thick scoops of sand into his pan. It’s approximately the size of a frying pan, with a series of three parallel ridges, called riffles, running halfway around the side.

Weber scoops up a splash of water and swishes the pan contents in a circle as he talks, carefully dumping some out over the riffled side every so often.

“A couple years ago, I went on a trip with some friends to Colorado. I knew I wanted to try gold panning while we were there because the gold is a lot more abundant, and looking for it is pretty common,” Weber says with a grin. “I actually bought my pan in a hardware store out there for something like 10 bucks. When I went to use it I ran into a couple other gold panning tourists from New York who taught me how to do it well.”

He tilts the pan forward toward the riffles, letting a generous number of rocks and some light-colored sand tumble out over the ridges with the water. Taking another cup or so of water from the river, he swishes the pan a few times and dumps off another handful of sand.

“The hardest part is getting the motion and the technique down, but that comes with practice,” he says, carefully picking up and tossing out a couple of the largest remaining rocks by hand. “You’re trying to get the rocks and sand particles to rub against each other and settle into layers, not do a fancy chef’s flip.”
It’s harder than it looks. Keeping the pan level, Weber swirls the sand right, then left, then shakes it back and forth like he’s loosening an omelet from a sticky pan. After 30 seconds or so, he drains a little more sand and most of the water over the riffles and holds out the pan.

What’s left inside is about a quarter cup of fine black sand, interspersed with tiny red and pink rocks the size of a pencil point. Weber says these are pieces of garnet and other gemstones. He swirls the nearly-empty pan gently, spreading the little rocks and sparkles out over the black plastic. The sand is dark because it’s rich in iron, which also makes it heavy and harder to pour out of the pan.

“I do try to save the sand for someday, just in case, but I’m not particularly possessive or protective of ‘my gold,’” Weber says with a shrug. “If I don’t find much or I just go out for a little while, I sometimes just dump it back into the river anyway. I’ve never gotten near enough to try and measure it out.”

That’s because Iowa has what’s known as “flour gold” as opposed to the iconic nuggets of gold rushes. These tiny particles can still be profitable for commercial producers, but only if they process large amounts of sand and soil using large, more intensive equipment like dredges, sluice boxes, screens and vacuum hoses. Weber said he prefers a small pan because he’s a hobbyist and doesn’t want to leave extensive impacts on the sites he visits.

“It’s not something that a small-timer is ever going to make money at in Iowa, but it’s a good time,” Weber says. “It’s more about getting outdoors and exploring than finding anything of monetary value.”

He says panning is a great secondary sort of hobby, something to bring along on assorted fishing, paddling and hunting trips with old friends.

“My buddies and I feel like a bunch of old guys, just ambling around and having adventures,” he laughs. “But the gold panning is always neat—it’s good for jokes and a little competition, but it’s also a nice little thing to do while you’re catching up on what everybody’s up to.”

For more unique Iowa experiences, check out our Take It Outside, Iowa Outdoors Magazine and We Love Iowa's Outdoors boards on Pinterest.

Yes, you really can pan for gold in Iowa! | Iowa Outdoors Magazine

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