Gold Fever Has Families Panning

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PRESCOTT NATIONAL FOREST

Patricia Triggs dips a pan into Lynx Creek and lifts it rapidly, swirling the water around. No gold this time.

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Nathaniel Bustamante, 8, (left) and James Triggs, 12, examine their gold pan to see if they captured any nuggets near Lynx Lake in the Prescott National Forest. With gold prices topping $900 an ounce, many ordinary Arizonans have gold fever.

The only sounds are the creek flowing, the birds chirping and Triggs' 12-year-old son James and 8-year-old grandson Nathaniel Bustamante laughing and leaping from rock to rock.

For Triggs, gold panning near Lynx Lake, which is about eight miles southeast of Prescott, is a way to enjoy a day in the wilderness away from her home in Phoenix. But with gold prices topping $900 an ounce, she admitted getting at least a mild case of gold fever when James found gold pans in her garage.

"He was looking up gold prices the other day, so he thought it might be a good idea," Triggs said.

Not far from Triggs, retirees Albert and Stephanie Welke from Minneapolis were giving gold panning a try. After two hours, however, they had found nothing more interesting than buckshot.

"It's a start," Albert Welke said. "What I got to figure out is how to read the hillsides and the mountains and the rocks."

While the profile of a gold prospector is a male retiree, these days more and more amateurs like Triggs and the Welkes are heading out, pans and metal detectors in hand. Several stores selling prospecting equipment say sales have nearly doubled in the past year.

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Patricia Triggs of Phoenix pans for gold near Lynx Lake in the Prescott National Forest.

"I think people are starting to realize maybe gold is an investment, and they want to go out there and get rich," said Jack Tucker, owner of Miner's Creek in Wickenburg.

"It's not just an old man's game anymore," said Chris Gholson, owner of Arizona Outback in Prescott Valley.

Basic gold panning requires only a shovel and pan, but it can get expensive. Metal detectors range from about $500 to almost $5,000, Gholson said.

Diane Bain, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mines and Mineral Resources, said prospectors must get permits to dig for gold in Arizona, with two exceptions: Lynx Creek and Lake Pleasant.

On those two sites, prospectors are prohibited from using mechanical or motorized equipment. Only pans, metal detectors and hand tools are allowed.

Bain said regulations vary throughout Arizona, depending on whether it's state, federal or private land.

Prospectors should do some research before heading out to avoid stepping on someone else's mining claim, she said.

At Prescott National Forest, recreational gold prospectors are asked to fill out a form to let the Forest Service know who they are, but not everyone complies, said spokeswoman Debbie Maneely. Rangers also regularly patrol Lynx Lake to make sure that visitors aren't using machinery to pan for gold.

While there are no active gold mines in Arizona, prospectors can still find gold in the Bradshaw Mountains, close to the U.S.-Mexico border and along the Colorado River, Bain said.

Although panning is simple, it's hard to actually find gold, said Fred Siekmann, claims committee state director for the Arizona chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America.

He said most gold close to the surface has been removed from decades of prospecting and mining.

"You can still find nuggets, but it takes a lot more work and a lot more effort," Siekmann said.

Back at Lynx Creek, Albert Welke said he'd love to make gold prospecting a full-time hobby, but he's got a lot of practicing to do first.

"I wish I'd had done this when I was 19 years old," said Welke. "I'm clawing on the ground and really spinning my wheels trying to catch up."

Even if she comes away with no gold, Triggs said gold panning is still fun for her family.

"It's just different for them to get out of the city," she said. "I'm sure they'll want to come back and do it again."

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