On Thursday I visited a neighbor whose hobby is panning for gold. He showed me a small vial of gold he'd taken from the river in the canyon below us, the product of a whole month of hobby panning, and he explained how he separated gold flecks too small to fool with by hand by dissolving them in liquid mercury, which then he heats in a process giving off poisonous mercury vapors.
I have a friend who has always dreamed of panning for gold, not to make a killing, but to get just enough to survive on, so I asked this question: "Can a greenhorn come here and pan for gold, and make enough money to at least pay bills and survive without losing money?"
His reply was quick and unequivocal. He said "no." Of course there's always a chance that the first rock you turn over will have a nugget beneath it that will pay for a trip to Hawaii, but no one should count on that.
In fact he had one vial in which flecks of gold and lead were present in about equal measure. He explained that because both gold and lead are very heavy metals it's hard to separate them after they have both been separated from lighter sand and pebbles. The lead came from hunters' buckshot and bullets fallen into the river over the years. Seeing that gold is no more common in the river than hunters' lead let me know just how rare gold really is.
Anyone coming to California and interested in easy, tourist-style gold-panning might check out the page at www.fabuloustravel.com/usa/tuolumne/goldpanning.html. For the more serious loner, there's a list of equipment needed and general directions for panning at www.beloit.edu/~SEPM/Rocks_and_minerals/panning_for_gold.html.