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."