Panning for gold

When my niece and nephew were younger, they had large, shallow pans to take along on trips to the Low Water Bridge. Wading and skipping rocks were favorite pastimes on this picturesque section of the Uwharrie River, but on occasion they would also pan for gold. Grandpa provided the labor, shoveling pebbles and sediment into their pans. They would dip the lip into the water then swirl to send a plume of silt downriver. Heavier particles settled in the bottom of the pan.

I don’t recall them ever finding a single fleck, but they were always hopeful. The Uwharries have a long history with this precious metal. In 1914, one of my ancestors, Walter Sanders, died along with two other men in a tragic accident at the nearby Coggins Mine. There were several mines in the area, between Eldorado and Ophir, communities whose very names are associated with gold. Even today, Montgomery County bills itself as “A Golden Opportunity.”

Many people still believe “there’s gold in them thar hills.” My dad recently received a letter from a gentleman in Mocksville. He didn’t know my dad personally, but he had obviously done his homework. The man somehow learned he owned a tract of land on Duncombe Creek, a tributary of the Uwharrie. He wrote asking for permission “to check the creek for gold samples.” I imagine many landowners in the area have received a similar letter.

The man referred to himself as a recreational panner, but he didn’t offer any specifics about what sort of equipment he’d use or indicate the scale of the operation he envisioned. He vaguely claimed his activities “wouldn’t harm the creek.” Casual, recreational gold panning can be a fun pastime for kids and adults alike – it gets us outdoors and connects us with an aspect of our history – but anything beyond the gentle and occasional use of a pan and shovel can have devastating consequences for our creeks and rivers.

For more information

Landowners who might consider granting access to even recreational prospectors ought to proceed with the caution. Start by reading the LandTrust for Central North Carolina’s guidelines at Or contact the LandTrust at 704-647-0302 to request a copy.

The LandTrust for Central North Carolina has had to address this issue at our Low Water Bridge preserve. Gold panning puts the LandTrust a bind. We want to encourage low-impact outdoor recreation in the Uwharries, but we also need to protect special natural areas like the Uwharrie River, home to rare and endangered aquatic species. To complicate matters even more, a significant portion of the money to purchase the 1,300-acre tract came from the state’s Ecosystem Enhancement Program, which was created to protect and improve water quality to offset damage done to waterways during road construction projects. If the LandTrust allowed any sort of activity that had a negative impact on the river, we would be in violation of our agreement with the state and federal government (through the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers).

After careful consideration – and in consultation with the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the U.S. Forest Service – the LandTrust came up with a list of guidelines that allow for certain forms of low-impact recreational panning but forbid more invasive methods that could degrade the creeks and rivers we have been entrusted to preserve. Motorized equipment or mechanical dredging isn’t allowed. Devices such as sluice boxes, dry washers, gold screws, gold bugs, rocker boxes and wheel barrows are also prohibited.

These days, no one is going to make more than a little pocket change from the waterways of the Uwharries, let alone strike it rich. The price of gold is down at least 30 percent from its highs of nearly $1,900 per ounce in 2011. People who’ve wielded pick axes in frigid rivers like to joke, “The old-timers didn’t miss much.” What they did leave behind is a priceless legacy – a wealth of stories. We can honor their pioneer spirit by following the guidelines for low-impact, recreational panning. This will ensure future generations will also be able to experience and appreciate the rich natural and cultural history of the Uwharries.

Ruth Ann Grissom serves on the board of the LandTrust for Central North Carolina. She grew up on a farm in Montgomery County and earned degrees in journalism and social work at UNC.