Prospectors find gold flakes, petrified wood and, yes, even diamonds in the North Saskatchewan River.
Gold prospecting is more common than you think.
Illustration by Josh Holinaty
Doug Winkleman can usually be found on weekends panning for gold and teaching others the secrets of prospecting down at Gold Bar Creek, where it flows into the North Saskatchewan.
“Folks are surprised to find out there’s gold along the river,” he says. “Well, it’s here, there’s lots of it, and it’s free for the taking.”
People have been chasing gold in the Edmonton area since the 1800s. Hundreds, if not thousands, of prospectors passed through here on their way to strike it rich in the Yukon. A few hundred decided to stay and try their luck on the North Saskatchewan. Between the 1890s and 1907, prospectors dredging the river pulled out as much as $50 worth of gold a day, the equivalent of more than $1,000 in today’s money.
The dream for gold has never left Winkleman, who has been prospecting for 33 years, says gold panning is gaining in popularity thanks, in part, to high-octane reality shows like Yukon Gold, along with eye-popping gold prices of up to $1,500 an ounce. His classes are always full. He also manufactures highbankers – power-generated machines that extract gold at high volumes – and can’t keep up with orders for them.
“For most, it’s a hobby,” he says. “With a gold pan and a good deposit, you might get one gram of gold in a weekend – about an eighth of a teaspoon, worth $60. But there are a few who say they plan to make money. You’d need a big operation to do that, and in Alberta you can’t get claims. Even with a highbanker, where you’re processing 500 shovelfuls a day, you might get a quarter ounce in a weekend with a really good pocket.”
A 40-kilometre stretch of the North Saskatchewan on each side of Edmonton has some of the best deposits, dropped by glaciers as they pushed across the land. What they left behind is flour gold. Also known as placer gold, the tiny flakes are found in loose soil and gravel along the river. You’ll need about 40,000 of those flakes to make one ounce of gold.
Just because the gold is miniscule, doesn’t mean its quality is any less. According to Winkleman, the North Saskatchewan gold is some of the purest you’ll find – 22 karats or more.
And don’t rule out nuggets. “It’s extremely rare, but it has happened,” says Winkleman. “Nuggets are heavier, so they settle in deeper areas of the river where they normally aren’t accessible. About 10 years ago, the river happened to be quite low that summer, so a buddy of mine was able to walk onto a sandbar and that’s where he found a couple of nuggets using tin pans.”
Knowing where to dig along the river is as much a science as the actual panning is an art. The inside bends of the river, where banks are wider and heavy with fertile gravel beds, are the sweet spots. These areas are where the current slows and concentrates the gold.
Rod Walker, a member of the Edmonton Gold Prospectors Association, has been prospecting for 45 years. He tries to get down to the river as often as he can, usually starting in early May or as soon as he can get past the shore ice “You have to learn how to read the river, learn how to see where the gravel bars are. A river flows downstream, but water flows all over in a helical pattern, so you go where the water has been, the old channels. That’s why a flood is good. It brings up the gold and redistributes it.”
But he also knows the likelihood of getting wealthy is slim. “Don’t count on getting rich. It’s romantic for the first 30 minutes. Then it’s hard work on the wrong end of a shovel.”
If it isn’t the money that draws people like Rod Walker and Doug Winkleman to gold prospecting, what is it? For them, it’s more about seeing what the river will offer up rather than about making them rich.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” says Ray Sarasin, another gold prospector, who lives east of Edmonton in Viking. When not in British Columbia at his claims, he comes into Edmonton to muck around at the river. “It’s about searching for that hot spot, seeing what you’ll find.”
Walker and Winkleman haven’t bothered cashing in their gold. They’re reluctant to part with their hard-earned treasure. Sarasin has used some of his to barter with, once trading three ounces of gold for a ’98 Ford F-150. “I don’t always have the cash on hand, so I use gold as my currency.”
Bartering is one way to avoid paying the five per cent royalty to the government if you do decide to cash in, and you’ll have to have at least an ounce of gold to do that. But first you have to smelt it, have it assayed to find out the gold content, and then have it refined for a total cost of about $170 to more than $220, depending on the amount of raw material.
As a hobby, gold panning is an inexpensive venture. You don’t need a licence if just using a pan, which costs $15 or $20. If you plan to ramp up production with a sluice box or highbanker, which processes material much faster than using a pan alone, you can spend as much as $1,500 (or up to $2,500, if you go for all the premium accessories). You’ll also need a $50 recreational placer mining licence (good for five years) from Alberta Energy.
Police come around occasionally, but they are more curious than intent on checking to see if you have a licence. “Most don’t even know you need a licence,” says Winkleman, who is an RCMP officer.
Gold isn’t the only treasure you’ll find along the river. Garnets, rubies and opals can turn up in your pan. Winkleman has also found petrified coral, small dinosaur bones and ancient arrowheads. One of the neatest things he has seen was a huge piece of petrified wood a student found. “In the centre was a piece of amber. He had it appraised and it’s worth $1,000.”
Last August, Winkleman found a diamond about the size of the end of a thumb. It’s not high quality, but it’s a diamond nonetheless. Even though it’s lower grade, he figures it’s worth between $500 and $1,000.
Sarasin found a diamond while panning at Emily Murphy Park. “It’s pretty rare. It’s the only one I’ve found on the North Saskatchewan. It’s not worth much. The quality isn’t great and it’s pretty small, I’d say about three times the size of the head of a pin. It’s the memory of finding it that’s worth a lot to me.”
Sarasin also pans at Terwillegar Park, but his favourite area is just outside the city under the Devon Bridge at Prospector’s Point. The riverbank is pockmarked with depressions and small mountains of gravel tailings where modern-day prospectors have been digging.
Sarasin spots something in the tailings and picks it up. “Petrified wood,” he says, turning it over in his hand. “People think it’s just a rock. They’re missing some interesting stuff, and it’s worth $3 a pound.”
Still, gold is the main prize. During the summer at Prospector’s Point, it’s not uncommon to see 25 people searching for gold.
More than a century later, the dream for gold still lures us to the river.