“Keep you pans wet and your shovels dirty.”
That’s the advice that John Fair gives to prospective goldpanners and prospectors, and he has the experience to back it up. He’s been goldpanning for almost 50 years, ever since a neighbour who was a childhood friend taught him how when Fair was seven, and he’s more than happy to pass the fruits of that experience on to others.
When he was living in Hope in 2011 he opened John Fair’s Gold Panning School, although he says he did most of his panning upriver at Yale: “The gold is easier to get there.” However, he grew tired of the winters in Hope (“I don’t mind cold but I don’t like snow”) and moved to Cache Creek, where he tried to figure out how to open a school there.
“I prospected the whole area, but didn’t find any gold. I started in the Bonaparte, and didn’t find much, then went and prospected all the drainages on the hill- and mountainsides, but didn’t find much, although there were some opals and serpentine and some nice quartz crystals.
“I came down to Ashcroft to do some panning on the South Thompson, got good gold right away, and said ‘I’m moving to Ashcroft, and moving my school there’. That was almost two years ago, and since then I’ve taught people from four different countries how to pan for gold and prospect right here in Ashcroft.”
Fair has panned the South Thompson all the way from Kamloops Lake to Goldpan Provincial Park, but says that his favourite places to teach people how to pan are in Ashcroft: “It’s safe for everyone.” He knows the entire stretch of river from the CN bridge near the Ashcroft Terminal to the north of Black Canyon, and says he usually has the riverbank to himself, as far as people are concerned. “There are lots of ducks, otters, eagles, and geese, deer coming down to the river to drink, marmots by the cemetery.”
Fair says that there isn’t a big history of goldpanning in the area around Ashcroft.
“It’s mostly flake and flour gold [Fair uses a more colourful term for flour gold]. Anything from the size of a grain of black pepper to the size of a grain of rice is what we average here. After the railroad was put through Chinese workers might have done a little panning, but most went into farming. Most of the placer and gold mining done after the railroad was done by the Chinese. British Columbia was the Yellow Mountain, where the gold was.”
Although Fair’s school didn’t open until 2011, he has been teaching goldpanning since 1992. “I’ve taught more than 13,000 people from 14 different countries.” He doesn’t expect the people he teaches to know anything about goldpanning, and supplies pans, shovels, and vials for gold.
“A typical session is about three hours. That’s how long people last, but they can come out for a whole day. I can do families with children aged five and up, although children aren’t normally into panning; they’re more into playing with rocks and water. And I’ve taught people up to age 92.”
One of first things he tells people is that “It never changes, it always stays the same, it always reacts the same way. If you go too fast or too slow you’ll lose it. You’ll get frustrated. You have to take your emotions out of it when you’re panning. Yes, it’s a lot of fun, yes, it’s exciting when you see the gold, but I tell people to slow down. If you get excited you’ll lose your gold.”
He also notes that if you’re scared of losing your gold you’re going to lose it.
“I get people who are way too careful, who take way too long to work a pan. It shows they’re not confident, and scared of losing their gold. I tell them don’t worry, you can be rough with it. As long as you’re using the right method you won’t lose your gold.”
He can read the ground like a book, looking for the telltale signs of gold. “The five indicator minerals are black sand, pyrite, serpentine, native copper, and garnets. If you find three of the five that’s a good sign there’s gold. Mind you, I’ve panned places where all five indicators are and found no gold, so you can get skunked.”
Fair keeps an eye on water levels in the river. “If you know where the high water mark is you can work down to the low water mark and back up again, and you’ll always get paid for your efforts. Gold will layer, and will be present in some levels and not in others. When you start digging down you’ll find gold right on the surface; then as you go deeper it peters out, no more gold. Most people move on, but I don’t. I keep digging, because I know that in previous years the floodwater wasn’t so high, so no gold was deposited. You need to go deeper.”
Gold isn’t the only thing that Fair has found along the river in Ashcroft. “I found two grams of gold in a vial, and a full unbroken whisky bottle dated 1810. I’ve found bullets, lead shot, and a lot of broken glass. There are a couple of old cars down on the riverbank. There’s one place I call Chevy Narrows; there isn’t a Chevy, but there’s a ‘51 Ford and a ‘58 Buick on the bank.”
When he’s not goldpanning, Fair spends a lot of time in the bush, once spending 287 days alone in the bush. “I also teach about wild plants for food and medicine while teaching goldpanning, because people need to know it. Where there are no plants growing there’s no gold in the ground. Plants need precious metals in subatomic form in the biomass to grow. Where plants are growing you have minerals, where they’re not growing it’s a waste of time.”
Usually by this time of year Fair would already have taken some road trips, but this year he’s decided to stay in town, run his school, and teach people how to pan.
“Social distancing isn’t a problem. There’s no chance of getting COVID-19 goldpanning with me. Your hands are always in the water so your hands are always clean, but you‘re going to get your feet wet.
“I guarantee you’re going to get gold in your very first pan, and I haven’t had one complaint yet. Come on out and enjoy it. Goldpanning isn’t something you have to work hard at, it’s something you want to enjoy. It doesn’t matter how many pans you do, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get any gold: you were out in nature enjoying a beautiful day, so you still got paid in a certain way.”
For more information, including videos, or to contact Fair, visit the John Fair’s Gold Panning School Facebook page.