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Gold championships start today

Rick Chandler

Seen the elephant? Randy Everhart has, and he’s on duty five days a week testifying to the fact that the Golden State is still named that way for a reason.

“The Elephant” is a 19th century term for a big gold find, and that’s appropriate also – as upward of 20,000 modern prospectors prepare to stomp into the tiny town of Coloma for the World Gold Panning Championships beginning today.

Teams of competitors will be panning for “stocked” gold flakes during the competition, laboring in man-made troughs of gravel, water and sand with the clock ticking. But the big event during the town’s Gold Rush Days is more than a mere nod to history and nostalgia; it’s a celebration of an ongoing lifestyle.

“There’s still a lot of gold out there, and people are looking for it,” said Everhart, the senior park aide at John Marshall Gold Discovery Park in Coloma.

“We get about a half a million visitors to the park every year, and the majority want to try gold panning,” he said. “It’s a big attraction.”

Yes, the search for gold is still a big part of the economy in El Dorado County, and tourists represent only one slice of the pie.

“Some people still make a living at it,” said Emory Thomas, a retired teacher who runs the Pan, Pick and Shovel Gold Mining Co. in Coloma. “You can’t get much out of a pan … that’s mostly for fooling around. There are a couple of dredging operations in the area that make a more serious stab at (getting gold).”

A dredge acts like an underwater vacuum cleaner, sucking water, sand and gravel – and hopefully gold – into a large container that strains the material. Serious dredge miners can make as much as $90,000 a year with their labors, and there are several on the river.

“It’s hard work,” said Thomas, who did it himself for a time before turning to the retail end of the business. “A lot of guys try it for a year or two, then go out and get a ‘real’ job.”

Planning on starting a dredging operation? You’ll need a permit – and the Department of Fish and Game, which issues them, is pretty strict about what you can and cannot do.

“They tell you where to go, what you can use and when you can use it,” Everhart said. “There are some rivers closed (to mining and panning) year ’round. So for most people, it’s just a hobby.”

But it’s more than that. According to the Department of Mining and Geology in Sacramento, gold production in California is up nearly 100 percent over the past 12 years – from 85,000 troy ounces produced in 1984 to 835,000 in 1996, the last year for which statistics were available. A troy ounce – a measure used in the gold industry – is equal to 1.097 regular ounces.

There are 32 active mines in the state, three in Placer County. There are no currently active mines in El Dorado County, although there are two near Georgetown that are listed as idle (with an intent to resume production).

“Gold production is rising dramatically,” said Mark Oldfield, a spokesman for the Department of Mining and Geology. “I know a lot of the mining supply stores (in El Dorado, Placer and Sierra counties) are doing good business.”

Of course, it’s nothing like the business that was being done during the original gold rush, when the metal was going for as much as $16 an ounce and the crush of prospectors changed the physical and political landscape of California, and the nation.

But gold still brings a pretty penny these days – $293 an ounce on the current market – and panning for the precious metal is one of El Dorado County’s biggest tourist attractions.

“We’re just down the river from the spot where gold was originally discovered,” said Thomas, who has lived in El Dorado County for 60 years. Where once he prospected for gold, he now is busy fashioning displays for Coloma’s Gold Rush Days celebration.

The 1998 World Gold Panning Championships is open to all ages. For information call (530) 622-3069 or (530) 622-6198.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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