As I mention in the book, we did not head straight to the only local place I knew that operated a panning sluice, but first went to the local trout hatchery. I wanted pictures of hatchery-raised trout, stocking trucks and food pellets, and I thought my daughter would enjoy a visit to the facility. It was mostly in the right direction anyways, and it just seemed to make sense. She was excited to see the huge trout, asked many questions of me, and followed my lead snapping pictures of the fish and the surrounding environment. I was exceedingly proud that she seemed more excited about the osprey we saw flying overhead than the fish in the pens below. Throughout the day, my daughter and I both learned a great deal peering through each other’s eyes.
After our trip to the hatchery we jumped back in the car and headed west for about one half of an hour to try our luck panning for gold. We were on our way to a state park and museum with a world-class collection of dinosaur footprints. As soon as we arrived, I showed my daughter the sluice and the big sign advertising the adventure. She did not seem to quite understand how the game would be played, but was excited to learn. We went inside where I discovered that we had a total of four options. There were three different sized bags, identified as the ‘red’, ‘white’ and ‘green’ bags, that contained gemstones mixed in with sand, and a fourth ‘blue’ bag that contained fossils and sand. We were handed a nicely-colored brochure and asked to make a choice. Even though I had a vested interest in the scheme, I pushed my daughter towards the cheapest option, the $5.50 red bag. I felt slightly guilty that I was not willing to splurge for the deluxe $9.00 green bag and the promise of the bigger catch. Perhaps if it was called the ‘rainbow’ bag or even the ‘brown’ bag, I might have taken the bait.
We headed back outside and I helped her get started. I filled one of the many sieves supplied at the sluice with the sand and gem mixture, noting already a few colorful treasures hidden amongst the river rubble. I handed my daughter the sieve and instructed her in the gentle art of panning for gold, but she was a little reluctant to dip her hands into the chocolate-colored water of the sluice. She started swishing the sieve in the water tentatively at first, then with more vigor. I matched her pace with the camera in my hand. Soon, she lost her fear when she saw the first colorful gems start to shine through. She continued with a singular focus. The museum shop had supplied us with a small plastic bag to place our riches. Before long my daughter was plucking out stones of various shapes, sizes and colors. She even managed to find a single nugget of pyrite, which she already knew was fool’s gold. She did not care about looking the fool. The stones were all as valuable as diamonds to her.
My daughter’s enjoyment was paramount, but I also wanted to blend in as the unbiased observer. I was trying to balance the diametrically-opposed roles of participant and documentary photographer. There was much more activity at the artificial sluice than I had expected. It was spring vacation at the local schools, and many parents and kids had showed up to try their luck. It was hard to get pictures with only my daughter in the frame. Eager little fingers backed by the helpful hands of nurturing parents were everywhere, and space along the sluice was limited. I even heard the park staff talking about running out of ‘river rubble’ as they called it. Apparently, I was being cheap because even the $7.50, $8.00 and $9.00 bags were going fast. Perhaps I should have just ignored the cost and just focused on the entertainment value supplied. Soon a park volunteer with a hand truck was wheeling in three boxes filled with bags of the sand and gem mixture past us and into the museum shop. My daughter was oblivious to the logistical concerns around her; she was having much too much fun.
As I suspected, minerals of a similar size and breed were selling in the museum shop for $0.39 each. I made sure to snap a picture of my daughter looking at these samples even though the museum shop staff seemed to think I was a bit crazy. Based on our haul, it was about a 20 percent markup to fish for gems instead of buying them at the counter, which did not seem so bad given the fun we both had. The real cost of the gemstones to the manufacturer was unquestionably much less. According to the brochure we were handed, the river rubble was supplied from an adjacent state by a private company called the Cold River Mining Company. In my search for parallels to trout fishing, I could not have conjured up a more appropriate name if I had tried. This business also sold the sluices ranging in price from $2,000 to $7,000 depending on the length, which run from eight to 40 feet long. Given the variety of minerals contained in our bag and the limited geologic supply of the region, the gemstones themselves certainly originated from many faraway places. Perhaps some might have even come from the Pacific Northwest or Europe. Most of the stones were different varieties of quartz and agate, nature’s version of colored glass. A wholesaler I found offered higher quality samples for $13.27 for a one kilogram bag. We only managed to collect 134 grams for $5.50, which is approximately three times more expensive. Somebody was definitely striking it rich, but it was not us.
It was not until the car ride home that it struck me that both the state trout hatchery and the state park were run by the exact same agency, the Department of Environmental Protection. An ironic twist that was not planned, but very much appreciated. Both facilities were clearly designed to educate its visitors about the world around them using a combination of signs, maps, displays and activities. The hatchery is open to the public seven days a week. The park and museum is open only six days a week. Maybe someday the priorities will change and the situation will be reversed. Despite their shared heritage, the personnel at the two locations probably know very little about the operations at the other facility. Still, I must admit that the connection made me feel pretty good about drawing analogies between panning for fool’s gold and fishing for hatchery trout. Seeing the activities back-to-back made the connection very real. My daughter said that hunting for gems was the highlight of the day, even better than the real dinosaur footprints or the hatchery. I wonder, with a bit of concern, what she will think when she eventually reads this book. I hope it does not ruin the memory of the day. Unfortunately, with age comes new knowledge and with new knowledge often comes disillusionment.