Gold Panning the Wild Ammonoosuc
There’s buried treasure in the rivers and streams of New Hampshire. 22 carat gold to be precise. While it’s very high quality, it’s also very low quantity. Experienced New Hampshire prospectors say that even though there isn’t much to find, it’s not hard to find. But you have to know where to look and how to find it as Sean Hurley reports from the gold-speckled Wild Amonoosuc River in Bath.
The Wild Ammonoosuc River trickles to life in Kinsman Notch and rushes for 15 miles from Woodstock to Bath before breaking into the bigger, slower glass of the Ammonoosuc.
While the Wild Am is heavily stocked with salmon, it is not heavily fished by tourists. That might be due to the other kind of fishermen working the water. Instead of rods, they use pans. Instead of hunting for salmon, they’re hunting for gold.
This is the first time I’ve ever done it. Put em in the little jug here. You suck em up. And then take these afterwards up in the comfort of your camp, then you pick out the fine particles. That’s how it seems to work. See that? That’s a little flake of gold.
Even though he’s just arrived at the Twin River Campsite and just learned how to pan, Tim Birmingham, a fireman from Brookfield, Massachusetts, already has gold fever.
I'm thinking I'm digging it. We found a few pieces and now I can't stop. It's like a good piece of gum. You start chewing it, you don't want to stop.
Birmingham came to the camp because it’s prospector friendly. Campsite owner Dennis Solinsky is himself a panner.
All you need is a pan and a scoop and you’re gonna love it or hate it. If you love it you come back and get a sniffer bottle to suck it up and a vial to put it in.
Solinsky’s camp store not only stocks the basic equipment - from riffled blue pans to sluices - but he also teaches proper panning technique. If you don’t know how to bring a pan down, you’ll never find the gold.
The idea is that you swirl it around and the gold will settle to the bottom. I tell people if you’re looking for gold when your pan is half full your wasting your time because the gold settles to the bottom, cause it’s that much heavier.
If you can pan it all down to the black sand, that’s where you’ll find the gold.
See when I get down that low, then I’ll bring it over here. See it? Then that’s it.
6 or 7 battered bits of gold glide out like tiny coins from the dark sand. How to pan is one thing. Where to pan is another. Veteran prospector Jim Somers says gold works its way down to the clay or bedrock. To find it, you have dig behind rocks and boulders. Somers runs a web design company in Boston. But he doesn’t go anywhere without a pan. His vacations are rivers and gold, pans and pay dirt.
It’s quite addicting. Gold fever is a real thing. Once you got that first piece of gold, it just does something to you.
Like most hobbies, the pay-off is personal. An end in itself. As valuable as gold is, Jim Somers says most gold panners don’t sell their gold.
We hang on to it. We show people and we’re like “Yeah, this is really cool, I found this out of the ground. It’s very good gold up here in New England.” So I think really the underlying theme is it’s an excuse to get outside.
If that’s the underlying theme then the overhanging question is – could someone, hypothetically, make a living at it? Jim Somers says that’s not the point. But Dennis Solinsky does know one full time prospector -
Well I know one guy that does. But he lives in the river. And I mean I don’t know how he does it, but he does ok.
Solinsky also knows Arthur, a local legend who runs a dredge a few miles upstream in a location that cannot be disclosed.
Gold has always been currency, religion, everything throughout the world. Not so much here, I’m just saying everywhere else.
Here too, if you count Arthur. He's worked these waters in a wetsuit and snorkel every summer weekend for a decade using a 4 inch dredge - the largest the state allows.
This is just the art of moving gravel. I can move a lot of dirt.
Like an old-time prospector nervous about his claim, Arthur doesn’t want his last name used, or this location pinned. As to the viability of making a living from gold -
No. No way! (laughs) There’s some very rich gold, but there’s no gold. You know what I mean, the concentration of it, there’s very little. I get probably a couple ounces a year.
Like most local prospectors, Arthur never thought he’d sell his gold.
But when it shot up to $1,700, it makes you think twice. So I found a jeweler who would give me an honest price for it. After 10 years I had maybe 20 ounces at maybe $1,000 an ounce. And I went and bought a motorcycle with it.
10 years. 20 ounces. One Harley. Arthur pulls on his wetsuit and tests his snorkel before starting up his dredge. With no last name, in this unnameable spot, in a place without gold, Arthur is already gathering together the payments for his next bike from the bottom of the Wild Ammonoosuc. For NHPR, I’m SH