Panning or sluicing for shiny flakes in a stream near Blewett Pass — or anywhere the gold bug takes you — can be rewarding in more ways than one.

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BLEWETT PASS — The two men stepping out of the pickup truck were rough-looking fellows.

One of them wore a sidearm pistol, and the second was missing a front tooth and held a spade with a deadly-looking spike on one end.

On a normal day, these aren’t the type of strangers I would follow under a bridge deep in the mountains. But on this particular day, we were kindred spirits.

That’s because we were after the same thing: tiny flecks of placer gold that wash into streambeds.

Joe Rangel and Jesse Manion, of Moses Lake, are modern-day prospectors. I met them scouting Peshastin Creek near Blewett Pass when I was out trying to learn more about where precious metals and gems occur in nature.

As it turns out, looks can be deceiving, both in the people you meet and where you hunt for gold.

While my new mentors seemed intimidating at first glance, they were delighted to share their wisdom while they dug sand from dry riverbank — a place I never would have thought about probing.

You have to think about how the river moves, explained Manion. “It takes the straightest route it can down the stream.” So you try to guess how it will deposit in little eddies and under big rocks.

Rangel’s eyes stared hawklike on his swishing pan as he told how he caught gold fever. He received a panning set for Father’s Day, and on his first outing, discovered a few flakes of gold and some red garnets.

Joe Rangel, of Moses Lake, shows off a vial filled with the gold flakes and red garnets he discovered on his very first prospecting weekend. (Jeff Layton photo)

After panning for a while, he scrambled around the riverbank looking for bedrock to split apart — a technique known as sniping. You’re looking for seams where gold will collect over time, he explained.

You want to find rust red layers in a rock. “They say redder is better. If you find some rocks that have quartz running through it, well that’s where the gold gets trapped.”

Them thar hills

Washington probably isn’t a state that comes to mind when you imagine gold rushes. But the gold strike of 1860 is a big reason Blewett Pass came to be.

For decades, gold and silver were mined commercially, and today it remains a hub for those pulling riches from the ground.

In the old days, there were stories of miners finding large gold nuggets nicknamed “potatoes.”

“The early miners got a fair amount of the easy gold that was in the area,” says Ryan Brown, president of the North Central Washington Prospectors. But even at sites that saw commercial mining, it’s impossible to get everything.

You could still uncover a fortune, and it’s part of what makes it such an addicting hobby, he says.

“The thrill of the hunt and the possibility that there might be a big nugget under the next rock keeps even the oldest of our club out there searching.”

More than getting rich

I met Robert Higgins, of Wenatchee, a few miles upstream. He was relaxing in a shaded lawn chair with his dog Copper, next to a gurgling machine.

Every few minutes he scooped a trowel of sand inside, and sat back to enjoy his surroundings.

In the 1970s he worked on a commercial dredge, and decided to try prospecting after he retired. His battery-powered “high banker” diverted a gentle stream of water, pushing sand down a trough that traps gold flakes.

He was positioned downriver from a small landslide where he thought ore might have washed into the stream.

As someone new to DIY prospecting, he joined three different clubs, allowing him to use claims along the Old Blewett Highway.

The clubs already own mining rights to some of the best areas, he explained. Once you’re a member, you can basically go whenever you want.

Membership is relatively cheap — usually under $100 — and it means you don’t have to worry about accidentally trespassing.

Prospecting and gem hunting is heavily restricted, even if you’re working a legal claim. To minimize the damage to rivers and fish, there are limited windows of time when you may disturb a riverbed.

Higgins held up a book of regulations he’s required to carry. “It’s detailed down to the stream and tributary and shows exactly when and where someone can set up equipment.”

He admitted that he needs tweezers to handle his biggest finds.

People show up with quart jars expecting it to be like a TV program, he said. “I find a little speck and I’m like ‘Oh cool!’”

Would he feel disappointed if he worked all day and didn’t strike gold? Higgins smiled.

He was sitting by a tranquil mountain stream on a warm day with his dog by his side. There were worse ways to spend an afternoon.

“There are many forms of gold that you find on a prospecting trip, from the peacefulness of the creek to the laughter of family and friends that surround you,” says Brown, of the prospectors club.

“There are a fair amount of our members who will probably never sell a speck of the gold they have found because it’s a reminder of the trip that they found it on.”


Don’t know where to go? Join the club

A big challenge of prospecting and gem hunting is knowing where to legally search. Area clubs offer access to their claims as well as demonstrations, workshops, guest speakers, equipment loans, day hikes and group campouts. A sampling:

Washington Prospectors Mining Association,

Bedrock Prospectors Club,

North Central Washington Prospectors,

Prospectors Plus,

North American Miners Association,

Don’t just start digging

• Prospectors are required to carry a printed copy of Washington’s regulations, published by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife:

• Prospecting is never allowed in national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges and national scenic areas, or on tribal lands or private land without the owner’s permission.