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Americans fascinated by gold

Rick Chandler

COLOMA – It’s a somewhat surreal feeling to stand on the exact

spot where gold was first discovered. When John Marshall reached

into the South Fork of the American River and pulled back a gold

nugget on Jan. 24, 1848, he touched off a stampede that changed

American culture.

These days in Coloma, the big migration is toward the snack bar.

Several can be found in this small town which thrives on the tourist

trade and their fascination with gold and the region’s colorful

history.

“They are of all ages, and they come from everywhere, every state

and every country,” said Frank Bechtel, who owns Beckearts Gun

Shop here in town. In addition to selling and servicing antique

firearms, Bechtel sells gold and offers gold panning demonstrations

and lessons outside his shop, only about 200 yards from the original

Marshall gold discovery site at Sutter’s Mill – now a state historical

park. “People are still fascinated with gold, but few realize

that it’s not just a history lesson. There is still a lot of gold

out here.”

Beginning today, the world will get an update. That’s when Coloma

plays host to the 1998 World Gold Panning Championships, where

teams of panners from 20 nations will compete for ultimate precious

metal glory.

The championships began in 1974 in Finland, and in recent years

have taken place in Australia, Canada, Italy, France, Germany,

Sweden and Great Britain – all which have experienced gold rushes

of their own at one time or another.

But there’s something different about the American version. The

California gold rush simply offers more historical flavor, more

world impact and more colorful characters.

Speaking of which, meet Ernie Lazlo Jr., a former airplane mechanic

from Mountain View, Calif., who chucked his job and moved to the

mountains 15 years ago to search for gold.

“I’m proud to say that I make a living at it,” said Lazlo, who

is a member of one of the 15 five-man teams from the U.S. which

will be competing this weekend.

“Sometimes it’s just a ‘beans and bread’ living, but it gets me

by,” he said. “It’s an activity that just gets into your blood

and doesn’t let you go. Seeing that shiny stuff is something special.

You get ‘the fever.'”

Lazlo, who now lives in Mariposa, Calif., near Yosemite, conducts

gold panning classes and outdoors talks in his spare time. He

competed in the National Championships in Milan, Italy, in 1997.

Lazlo and his colleagues take their gold panning seriously – and

not only because of the money involved (gold is about $293 an

ounce).

Panning has developed into a popular sport – with some competitors

following the World Championship circuit throughout the world.

Many of America’s top competitors are from the Coloma Valley area

– the current U.S. women’s champ, Belinda Wright, is from Forest

Hill.

Want to join in the fun? The competition is open to anyone of

any age – but be warned. The pros own this event, and what they

can do with a pan and a bucket of rocks and gravel is somewhat

amazing.

Competitors will get a three gallons of dirt and gravel in a five-gallon

bucket, with five to eight small pieces of gold mixed in. The

challenge is to pan out all the pieces, without missing any, all

while being timed.

“Winning times have been averaging about three minutes,” said

Michael Penney, a panning veteran from Smith River, Calif., not

far from the Oregon border.

“The thing I like about (the competition) is meeting friends and

talking about your hobby,” said Penney, an environmental engineer

with Del Norte County.

But panning can also be lucrative.

“When I was courting my wife, I had to drive a long distance to

visit her,” Penney said. “I paid for the trips with the money

I made from gold panning; at the time between $200 and $300 per

week.

“So, yeah, there’s still gold out there. I wonder how many people

know that?”


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