Look here! Granite State has a gilded side

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Long
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2006

BATH, N.H. -- You probably have a better chance of being struck by lightning than striking it rich, but panning for gold in the Wild Ammonoosuc River is a rewarding excuse to play in the sunshine.

''All you're apt to get is chapped hands and a sunburn, but a lot of people enjoy it," David Wunsch, New Hampshire's state geologist, said recently.

Gold was discovered in nearby Lyman in 1864, sparking a minor rush, and several small mines soon opened in the Bath area. At about the same time, prospectors began running sluice boxes on the Wild Ammonoosuc and they have been at it ever since, with interest waxing and waning as the price of gold rises and falls.

On a sunny weekend, amateur gold seekers with plastic pans and semiprofessional prospectors with elaborate rigs can be found at nearly every bend near where the Wild Ammonoosuc meets the Ammonoosuc River.

''There's gold there, for sure," said Wunsch. ''But nobody's getting rich. It's mostly a recreational pursuit."

On a recent afternoon, we turned south off Route 302 onto Route 112 past the Twin River Campground, Cottages and RV Park, a mecca for gold panners. Here a sign reads: ''Souvenirs, Groceries, Propane and Prospecting supplies."

A couple of hundred yards upriver we found Bill Fralick of Belmont, N.H., in a blue wet suit, up to his ankles in the shallow, boulder-strewn stream, setting up an elaborate gas-powered dredge. A thick gold necklace glittered from his neck as he muscled the gear from his van into the river.

Is there really any gold in there?

''You bet," Fralick said.

You ever find a big nugget?

''No," he said, ''you're more apt to find flecks than nuggets. You won't get rich, but it's fun. And once you find a little, you get hooked."

Fralick said he has found plenty of gold over the years. A lot? ''It depends on what you call 'a lot.' I keep it in a glass vial in the top drawer of my desk at home."

Any tips for an amateur? ''Not really," he said. Perhaps, like any veteran prospector, he's mum about trade secrets.

We stopped in at the Swiftwater Way Station on Route 112, a former stagecoach stop turned convenience store decorated with more than a dozen mounted deer heads and antlers as well as a stuffed fox and mounted fish.

Did proprietor Wini Matteson have any tips? ''I see people all over the river," she said. ''One spot seems to be as good as another."

So we bought a couple of soft drinks and some shrink-wrapped sandwiches and got back on the road in search of just the right spot to find the mother lode.

It was a lovely drive through an undeveloped section of the White Mountains as Route 112 hugged the river and roller-coasted over frost heaves left by Old Man Winter.

We rocketed by a likely spot with a turnout and picnic table and pulled into the driveway of a riverfront cabin to turn around. ''If you can read this sign, you're in rifle range," said the sign on an outbuilding beside the driveway. A prospector afraid of somebody jumping his claim? Sounds promising.

Equipped with a large salad bowl for sloshing and an empty water bottle to stash our treasure, we pulled into the turnout beside a trout pool about 12 feet deep at a bend in the shallow stream.

The sun warmed the tumble of lichen-splotched boulders in the water as the river frothed downhill. We found a sandy shoal, lifted some gravel and sloshed it around with water in our bowl.

Our 8-year-old prospector was hooked right away when he found a miniscule fleck of glitter at the bottom of the bowl. ''Is it gold, Daddy?" We tried again and found another gold fleck.

We were soon immersed in the thrill of the hunt.

Was it a rewarding afternoon? I suppose anything that can keep a child outdoors and interested for more than 10 minutes can't be all bad. Without children, it's a pleasant way for those who don't fish to spend the day on a river. But did we find any real gold?

Who knows?

The geologist suggested an easy test to determine if all that glitters is gold. You might call it the Gabby Hayes test, after the old cowboy movie sidekick. ''Bite it," Wunsch said. ''Real gold is soft and malleable. Pyrite, or 'fool's gold,' is brittle and breaks."

We didn't feel like chewing on rocks, so we admired the few shiny flecks at the bottom of the water bottle and declared victory.

After our adventure, we checked with Sandy Solinsky, proprietor of the Twin River Campground, where she sells supplies ranging from plastic gold pans for amateurs priced from $4.95 to $9.95 to dredges and other more advanced equipment for hundreds of dollars. She said there's no shortage of customers, many of whom stay at her cabins and tent sites.

''They find gold in small amounts, but nobody is getting rich," Solinsky said. ''That's what keeps them coming back. It's like fishing, or gambling. They always think they're going to get the big one next time out."

Contact Tom Long, a freelance writer in Hudson, N.H., at

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