Secrets of

Athabasca

River of gold

See a glimmering in the dirt along the Athabasca River? It could be gold

Jessica Caparini, Athabasca Advocate

You can’t see gold specks in the water of the Athabasca River. They’re hardly the size of pepper from a shaker. But for more than 100 years, gold has touched the history of the Athabasca and its town.

According to Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History, a book by the Athabasca Historical Society, several groups of gold seekers prospected gold in 1895, but didn’t find their riches here.

Nonetheless, the town’s history has been kissed by gold lust.

Gold panning is just a hobby for some in Alberta. When done in the Athabasca, people are hunting for flour gold, specks that are almost too small to see with the naked eye.
Gold panning is just a hobby for some in Alberta. When done in the Athabasca, people are hunting for flour gold, specks that are almost too small to see with the naked eye. (Jessica Caparini)

One stop on a long trek

For a brief period in the late 1880s, the hordes of hopeful Klondikers turned Athabasca Landing into a boom tent city.

The Landing formed mile zero of the Canadian water route – the least treacherous and easiest Canadian route, according to the book.

It wasn’t an easy go up, but delivered approximately 65 per cent of those who attempted the journey safely.

Some unknown correspondent for the Edmonton Bulletin wrote on the established tent city April 18, 1898.

“A row of shacks southeast of the H.B. fort enjoys the distinction of being the first thing in the village to resemble a street and it bears the title of Bohemian Row. Ever shade of opinion, on topics ranging from gold mining down to the qualities of pain killer cordial, is here nightly discussed. Ten different languages are spoken among the tenants of this row … To reside in Bohemian Row is considered an honor and room is at a premium. All things considered the Landing is about as orderly a place as a man would care to live in.”

The Athabasca Historical Society estimates that the population reached 1,000 at its height at this time.

By May of that year, there were two hotels, one restaurant and four general stores in town, according to Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History.

And merchants, carpenters and boatmen made their fortunes in the landing, without going north for gold.

As the turn of the century approached, the Klondike rush came to a halt. When it was over, the Landing’s population declined.

The historical society said that, nonetheless, the gold rush put the town on the map – after 1898, Athabasca Landing was recognized as a gateway to the northwest “and the transportation route along the Athabasca and Mackenzie valleys to the Arctic became almost a tourist attraction.”

A hobby

Nowadays, one might catch a canoer paddling down the Athabasca with a gold pan, or see someone out under the bridge on a nice day.

“Gold panning in Alberta is just for hobby,” said Robin Rosborough, member of the Alberta Gold Prospectors Association.

Rosborough has been panning gold for 30 years, and has 18 ounces of gold kept in a safety deposit box. His retirement fund, he jokes.

People panning in the Athabasca aren’t looking for nuggets or flakes of gold – they’re searching for tiny yellow specks almost too small to see without a magnifying glass.

This is called flour gold, because its roughly the size of flour. Much heavier though. Gold is slightly more than 19 times heavier than water.

Rosborough said one of the best places he’s ever found gold was along the Athabasca.

Advocate reporter Jessica Caparini went gold panning on the Athabasca River with Bruno Wiskel.
Advocate reporter Jessica Caparini went gold panning on the Athabasca River with Bruno Wiskel. (Bruno Wiskel)

On the hunt

To learn about gold panning, I went out to the river with local geologist Bruno Wiskel.

Wiskel is a wealth of knowledge, and as we hiked through brush along the river’s slopes to find a gravel bar I thought I saw from across it, he tells tales of gold lust in Alberta – of the Lost Lemmon Mine, which is said to be worth millions, but no one could find since one man killed his partner for it.

Gold panning is a mucky business, and we had to walk along the river, hoping that I hadn’t mistaken a sun-bleached log for our sought-after gravel strip. Wiskel had on knee-high boots, and I just had running shoes. By the end of the day I’d felt a lot of the river between my toes.

Fortunately what I’d spotted was a gravel bar. As he showed me how to vigorously – but not too vigorously – shake the pan, I eventually found gold in the bottom of my own bit of gold.

How much gold? Exactly two specks.

“That’s flour gold,” he told me. “It’s worth nothing.”

How to pan for gold

  1. Start with the pan – I picked mine up for $15 from Cheap Seats before I went out. You can also find them in specialty stores in Edmonton. Look for a dark colour pan so the gold pops against it. You can also bring out a small shovel, mesh for sorting rocks and a “snuffer bottle,” which sucks gold out of a pan. Bring a vial to hold the gold in, if you’re optimistic.
  2. Get scouting. You’re looking for gravel bars on the inside bend of the river where heavy gold is deposited. You might have to do some hiking for this.
  3. Put gravel into your pan. Avoid the layer of mud that may be at the bottom as it won’t hold any gold.
  4. Put your pan underwater. The ideal place is by a slight currant that can wash away the silt you shake up so you can see clearly.
  5. Shuffle the pan and kneed the dirt with your fingers so that the gravel settles out by weight.
  6. Shake the pan more vigorously so the lighter stones float out in the water.
  7. Scoop any big rocks out with your thumb.
  8. Repeat this process until you have only the fine grains of minerals and tiny rocks in your pan.
  9. Bring your pan above water and gently swirl the water while tipping your pan slightly. Allow the water to come out of the pan as you swirl.
  10. You should see a layer of black sand (magnetite) form as the swirling motion causes different weights of sand to move to different parts of the pan. Any gold will be sitting higher than the black sand.
  11. Well done! You’re a gold panner.

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