Gold panning for fun and profit on Vancouver Island

A view of the skyline of downtown Vancouver with False Creek in the foreground and the Coast mountains in the background with the sports venue BC Place on the right side. (Photo by Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images)

Before heading upstream to look for telltale traces of gold Bob said, “Keep panning the stream bed until I get back. I’ll leave you the shotgun to chase off the claim jumpers.”

With his shaggy white beard and wild hair, Bob was exactly as I imagined a gold prospector should look.

He was only joking about the claim jumpers, but there were black bears in the area, and if they got too close firing the gun would hopefully scare them away.

We were gold panning in Copper Canyon along the Chemainus River in the mountainous rain forest of central Vancouver Island. Our pans were showing respectable amounts of gold, or color as the prospectors say.

Gold panning is a great way to interact with the natural environment, to experience a piece of history, and possibly have the thrill of extracting something valuable from the land.

You can use an ordinary cooking pan, if you clean off ALL the oil. You can do this by burning it off, then immersing in water. Hardware and sporting goods stores sometimes sell specially made gold pans, sieves and other equipment.

The process is simple. Find a shallow flowing spot on a creek. Fill the pan three-quarters with gravel then shake from side to side, then around in circles to wash out the lighter material. The gold will settle at the bottom of the pan in the form of “black sand”. A magnet can help to separate the black magnetic iron sand from the gold. Gold is usually recovered in the form of sandy powder, but you could get lucky and find actual nuggets.

A few good areas to try on Vancouver Island are Leechtown west of Sooke along the Galloping Goose Trail, San Juan River valley near Port Renfrew, Nanaimo River watershed, and Gold River. Your chances of finding gold depend largely on your knowledge of indicators, like the presence of quartz.

Other mineral treasures available to rock hounds on Vancouver Island are fossils (in riverbeds on the central east coast of the Island, particularly around Courtenay), and rhodonite around the south shores of Lake Cowichan. Chrysanthenum rock and quartz crystals are also found in watersheds on the east coast. Chert, jasper, agate, quartz, amethyst and other semi-precious stones are also found on Vancouver Island.

Back in Copper Canyon, my prospector friend, Bob came back from his walk upstream without finding the mother lode. On the positive side, I didn’t get eaten by bears and we did pan up a little bit of “color” as payment for our day of gold prospecting.

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