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Going for the gold a labor of love for W.Va. prospectors

Rick Steelhammer
Prospectors pan and sluice in the shade of a bridge crossing during a GPAA outing in Patrick County, Va.
Rick Steelhammer Hungry prospectors line up for a potluck meal featuring homemade barbecue and baked beans.
Rick Steelhammer Bill Humble, president of the Hillsville/Southwest Virginia Chapter of the GPAA, points to a small flake of gold that turned up in the bottom of his pan.
Rick Steelhammer Bill Humble pans out concentrates that had been trapped in a water-powered sluice box.
Rick Steelhammer Nitro GPAA chapter president Dave Kessler deposits a scoop of streambed gravel into his power sluice during a recent prospecting outing in western Virginia.
Rick Steelhammer Hayden Smoot and Christian Kessler feed a power sluice with shovels full of creek gravel.
Rick Steelhammer An array of prospecting gear awaits being stowed away for another gold-seeking trip by a West Virginia prospector.
Rick Steelhammer Dave Kessler's power sluice was a center of activity during a recent prospecting trip to western Virginia.
Rick Steelhammer A West Virginia vehicle displays the GPAA sticker, indicating the owner is one of more than 1,000 club members in the Mountain State.

HILLSVILLE, Va. -- In a state far better known for coal mining than gold mining, more than 1,000 West Virginians still feel the urge to try their hand at finding the elusive yellow metal in the bottoms of their gold pans.

Two years ago, West Virginia lacked a single chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America, the nation's largest recreational gold-seeking organization. Today, there are four West Virginia GPAA chapters, with a total of at least 1,040 members statewide.

"I think the television shows had a lot to do with it," said Dave Kessler, president of the Nitro chapter of the GPAA, referring to a recent bumper crop of "reality" prospecting shows on basic cable, including the Discovery's Channel's "Gold Rush Alaska" and "Jungle Gold," the History Channel's "Bamazon," the Animal Planet's "Ice Cold Gold," and the Outdoor Channel's "Gold Fever."

The price of gold, which peaked at $1,920 an ounce in 2011 and remains above $1,300, may also have been a factor, Kessler said.

"Once people get out and give it a try, they realize how fun it can be," Kessler said. "It's a great way to get outside and have fun digging in the creek with your kids. If you find a little gold, that's icing on the cake."

On a recent Saturday, members of the Nitro and newly formed Smithville, Ritchie County, chapters of the GPAA took part in a prospecting outing hosted by the Hillsville/Southwest Virginia chapter on private land bisected by a small creek in Patrick County, Va.

 The event took place about 170 miles south of Charleston, making it a slightly shorter drive than is needed to reach two of the GPAA's three nearest leased prospecting properties, all located along rivers in Ohio. The nearest GPAA property encompasses a stretch of the Scioto River just north of Portsmouth, Ohio, about 100 miles northwest of Charleston.

At the Ohio GPAA sites, prospectors pan, sluice and dredge for small quantities of fine flour gold, believed to have been carried into the Buckeye State from igneous rocks shoved southward from Canada during periods of Ice Age glaciation. At the Virginia site, the GPAA prospectors were looking for deposits of stream-borne, or "placer" gold washed into the creek from native gold deposits.

"There's gold here -- you've just got to look for it," said Hillsville/ Southwest Virginia Chapter President Bill Humble, as he watched 20 or so recreational prospectors operate pans, sluice boxes and power sluices in their search for gold.

Sluice boxes are rectangular, open-topped devices, usually three- to four-feet long that use stream current to wash gravel through a series of gold-trapping riffles and plastic ribs. Power sluices, or high-bankers, use a small motor to pump a larger volume of water through a sluice, increasing the amount of material that can be processed and the amount of gold that can be trapped.

On larger streams, like the rivers that flow through the Ohio GPAA "claims,' some prospectors use suction dredges, or power sluices mounted on floats that use vacuum-like hoses operated by prospectors to bring river gravel to the sluice intake. Larger and lighter rocks return immediately to the river, while heavier iron sands, stray fishing sinkers and shotgun pellets, and occasional pieces of gold, remain trapped in the sluice's riffles and ribs until they can be panned out.

"The more material you move, the more your odds of finding gold improve," said Kessler.

During Saturday's Virginia outing, gold recovery was limited to only specks of flour gold, but that didn't seem to disappoint the West Virginia prospectors, most of whom had camped overnight and shared meals, campfire conversations and companionship before the prospecting began.

"With the permission of the landowner, we've been using this creek for our outings for the past few months," said Humble. "We haven't found any good-sized nuggets so far, but we're hopeful that we will."

"I get enjoyment out of being outside, making new friends and having a good time," said Joe Smoot of St. Albans, the GPAA's state director for West Virginia and Virginia. "If I find a little color, that makes it all a little better."

Although the state Geological and Economic Survey's Website states that "there has been no native gold or silver recognized to date in West Virginia," several of the West Virginia prospectors said they have found small quantities of gold in their home state.

"I've found a little bit up in the mountains, and there's probably some up in the Ohio River," said Kessler. "We need to find a place that's not so far away, where we can go and pan on weekends."

Smoot said the legal status of prospecting for gold in West Virginia is cloudy, and that his organization hopes to introduce a bill in the state Legislature to bring some clarity to the subject -- hopefully, in a way that accommodates recreational prospecting.

"We'd like to get something passed that's similar to what they have in Virginia," he said. There, gold prospecting is legal with landowner permission, and power sluicing and suction dredging are permissible with small-diameter suction hoses where certain fish species and spawning habitats are not present.

The rewards of recreational gold prospecting have more to do with collecting memories with friends and family than accumulating wealth.

"It would be really difficult for weekend warriors like us to make any real money prospecting," said Kessler. "But there's always the chance of finding something nice, whether it's a piece of gold, a gem or an arrowhead."

In addition to Nitro and Smithville, West Virginia GPAA chapters can be found in Craigsville in Nicholas County and New Haven in Mason County.

On September 20-21, the national GPAA organization will hold a Gold and Treasure Expo at the Jackson County Armed Forces Reserve Center at Millwood, featuring seminars in prospecting, an array of prospecting vendors, and a possible appearance by "Gold Fever" host Tom Massie.

The Nitro Chapter of the GPAA meets on the second Saturday of the month at Rock Lake Park in the Spring Hill section of South Charleston. Meetings start at 2 p.m.

"For people who have wondered about prospecting, this is a chance to give it a try," Kessler said. "We have some nice outings, and you come in contact with people with skills to share."

For more information on the GPAA, visit www.goldprospectors.org.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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