John Fair is one of the few gold prospectors left in British Columbia, and he’s offering gold panning lessons on the banks of the Fraser River.
“We’re avid prospectors. We do this every day of our life,” he says as he takes a look around the rocky bank of the Fraser below the town of Yale, population c. 100. Some 160 years ago, prospectors struck gold in the area and Yale came alive. At one point it had a constituent base of 25,000 people: the largest city north of San Francisco, as miners from the California gold rush leapt at the chance of another opportunity to strike it rich.
Now, full-time prospectors and panners are few and far between, Fair says. They live a different kind of life, with Fair himself having spent hundreds of days living outdoors last year.
“It’s free, it has no burdens,” he says. “We live in the bush, we love our life in the bush, we live off the land, and we read nature.”
Fair first learned about gold panning from his uncle when he was seven years old, during a time when his family was going through difficult times and facing poverty.
“It’s one of the only things that stuck with me besides working in the sciences, cooking, and music. I just ran with my passions, I stuck with that,” he says.
Along the waterline, Fair gives an impromptu lesson to his friend and student Dexter Livingstone. The first step is to assess the ground, looking at how the water flows in over the bank and where the plants are growing.
“One of the nice thing about mining, prospecting, is that where the plants are doing well there’s minerals in the ground,” Fair says, pointing to the moss growing on the boulders along the bank. He says to look for five indicators: black sand, pyrite, garnets, native copper, and serpentine. Where any three of these exist you will find gold, silver, or platinum.
All of the indicators can be seen on the beach, Fair says, and begins to fill his pans.
Although panning is a lot of science, it’s more than just knowing your metals. It is also knowing your history, he notes as he points out one point further up the bank where he doesn’t dig.
“When the Chinese came through here mining, there were lead tops on the wine bottles. They’d peel them off and throw them on the ground,” he says of the time when Yale was flourishing as a gold rush town. He stays below this area when he digs for gold.
It’s also about a state of mind, Fair explains, as he uses a modern plastic pan to wash out rocks and sand, leaving tiny specks of visible gold behind.
“That’s why I say, if you’re afraid you’re going to lose it, you’re gonna lose it. But if you’re confident you’re not going to lose it, it’s going to stay right there,” he says, pointing out the tiny particles of gold. “Once you know what it looks like, it doesn’t look like anything else.”
Fair says he has taught more than 3,000 people, a few of whom have become full-time panners.
His advice to beginner gold fiends? “Keep your pans wet and your shovels dirty.”