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