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Harder Than It Looks: Panning for Gold in Alaska

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After the Riverboat Discovery tour, we headed to the El Dorado Gold Mine in Fairbanks, Alaska, to try to strike it rich at gold panning. I’ve wanted to go gold panning since the third grade — after I learned about the great Gold Rush I heard that in some parts of the West you can still pan for gold just like they did in the 1800s. So it was too bad that when I actually tried it, I realized it was quite difficult, requiring much patience and precision — not my strong suits.


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At first, my visit to El Dorado felt like it was straight out of Disney World. We boarded a little train, modeled after the Tanana Valley Railroad, which serviced many of the original gold fields in Alaska. The train paused along the way so we could observe some men pretending to be miners during the Gold Rush heyday. We stopped for a little while longer in a cold and very dark permafrost tunnel, where we saw some minerals and prehistoric bones. Then, a few minutes later we disembarked for the main attraction: gold panning.

But it wasn’t time us to pan for gold just yet — we saw a demonstration of the more modern gold mining technique of using a sluice box, or in this case, a whole sluice system that lets water and wooden slats separate the gold for you. After that, it time to learn how to find the gold the old-fashioned way with a pan.

“Yukon Yonda” Clark (pictured left) gave both demo and she was awesome. As a fifth-generation gold miner, she’s entitled to make corny jokes like: “What’s my favorite kind of gold? More!” She was proudly showed off her huge gold-nugget necklace — one that size is rarer than a five-carat diamond, according to Yukon Yonda.

She also made panning for gold look incredibly easy. Just fill the pan with a gravel, dip into a water a few times and then admire all of the gold pieces that remain. As you can see in the photo above, she found a ton, and it took her like three minutes.

Finally, it was our turn. We sat down on benches and dipped our gravel-filled pans into troughs of water. About 20 minutes later, I still had lots of gravel in my pan with no signs of gold. I was being careful not to dump all of the contents into the water, and I couldn’t really master the technique of washing away the lighter rocks to reveal the heavier gold pieces underneath. Someone who worked there was trying to show me the proper angles and techniques, but I wasn’t really getting it. So she just sort of finished it off for me, revealing the gold pieces you see in the top picture.

After you’ve extracted your gold, they weigh it for you and tell you how much it’s worth. They said that mine was worth $10, but they won’t buy it back from you or anything like that. You can put your little gold flakes into a clear pendant or earrings, but I opted against it. (Maybe if I had found more gold I would have.) Oh well, no gold nuggets or gold fever for me!

Comped but never compromised: I’m on an Alaska Twitter Press Trip with Princess Cruises, but I’m free to write whatever I want.

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