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The New Gold Rush

Panning British Columbia's mineral wealth, one nugget at a time



Diego MacDougall has gold fever.

And if the explosion of TV shows on prospecting for gold underground, in the ocean and in the woods is anything to go by, he is not alone.

Today while the majority of the gold in B.C. is mined commercially (such as at the recently re-opened Bralorne lode gold mine) there is a growing culture of amateur prospectors that have caught their own gold fever.

"Start where there's history, because we never got it all," says 11-year Whistler local Diego MacDougall, who owns three claims in the Bralorne/Bridge River area.

"People ask, 'Is there still gold out there?' Oh yeah, There's still tons of gold to be had, its just deep in the mountains. All the easy stuff has been gotten."

MacDougall has had a fascination with the treasures that lie in the soil, and the process of unearthing them, since a young age. His move to B.C. in 2002 reignited his spark to seek the alluring glitter.

"I've always been a rock hound, always studying them since I was a kid. I moved out to Whistler and one of the first things that I did was make a pan, then I headed out to a creek. I just sat by a creek and basically played in the mud."

It was not long before MacDougall was buried in research on the geology of the area, cross-referencing historical data to pinpoint areas that could yield significant gold deposits.

"I did some homework on it, studied up on the matter and figured out how it all works. Next thing you know I've got claims with really good potential.

"The main goal is to mine it with machinery one day, that's what I would like to do. You're taking soil samples up top, you're hiking dirt out and panning it and seeing what's there. Then you put it on a map and try to figure out the pattern — if there is one. It's one hell of a study.

"My newest claims are 200 metres above the river, so I'm looking (for gold) up top, but I also journey down into the river because... there's always gold there. You can always put your pan in the water and find a nice speck of gold, even if it's a tiny one. It's definitely worth the hike."

Starting with the bare essentials of the amateur prospector — a gold pan, shovel and pick axe — MacDougall has built up more advanced equipment to increase his productivity on his placer claims — after all, the more dirt you can wash, the more gold you'll hopefully find.

The sluice box utilizes flowing water over a series of riffles to catch finer flakes of gold, a technology that has changed little over the centuries. Despite gold being 19 times more dense than the water around it, finer gold flakes can wash straight through the sluice box, especially if it is not set up with the correct gradient and flow rate of water. This is overcome with the rate that the ore can be washed, meaning despite the minute losses, more gold flakes are recovered per hour over hand panning.

The first prospectors on the Fraser River used this technique extensively, but with the increased amount of sediment in the river the salmon population suffered. Today it is illegal to run a sluice box in any river in B.C.; however, with the use of a high banker (a modified sluice box that pumps water from the river) prospectors are able to deposit the tailings — containing a harmful suspension of sediment — away from the flowing water.

"It's a mini wash plant essentially," says MacDougall, who can spend weeks, and even months at a time, washing ore on his placer claims during the summer and fall.

"I had that opportunity last fall. I went out there with my high banker and my brother joined me. I was itching to get out there the whole month but by the time we got out there we had just four days before the weather turned. It took us a couple of days to hike our gear up the canyon and set up camp. We ran about an eight-hour day's worth of dirt and we pulled a gram and a half of gold out of there. At the time that would have been worth about $150. That's OK for a day of work, even if you split that between two guys.

"And that was just the top material. If we had been out there for the whole month it just would have gotten better and better. The deeper you go, the better it gets."

While making money from a hobby is a welcome bonus, the possibility of striking it rich and affording an early retirement was slim on the Fraser during the gold rush, let alone the combed-over waterways of B.C. 150 years later. Independent full-time prospectors are few and far between, particularly due to B.C.'s long and snowy winters.

But it's not all about money. The all-important experience is the search for the gold and the places it takes you.

"Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life, even though it's some of the hardest work I've ever done," says MacDougall.

"Guys spend tons of money to go fishing for a fish that they have to throw back. I get to keep my catch. I'm not in it for the money, that's not the MO. I work here (in Whistler) and then go out there. But I can go down to the creek and pan a decent wage at the end of the day."