Panning for Gold

The expression “pan out,” meaning something that is successful or works out well, comes from prospectors panning for gold.

A prospector panning for gold is an iconic image from gold rushes in the 1800s but panning is still an important method of prospecting today.

Panning means scooping up water, sand and gravel in a pan and swirling it around. The gold, which is very heavy, settles on the bottom of the pan while the lighter gravel and sand wash over the side. Simple but effective!

Panning is used to find placer (aka alluvial) gold that eroded from bedrock deposits and was carried downhill by a river until it settled out and became concentrated in an area.

However, most prospectors are not just looking for a few small pieces of placer gold – they want to find the larger, bedrock deposits from which the placer gold eroded.

Panning in rivers is an excellent way to quickly and inexpensively evaluate areas through which a river passes. In most cases heavy minerals, particularly gold, can be seen in the pan giving a visual signal of mineralization. The prospector continues up the river until no more gold is seen in the pan, meaning the prospector has passed the point where the eroded gold entered the river.

He/she then goes back downstream to the nearest tributaries and pans them to try to locate the source stream. The prospector continues up the tributary that shows signs of gold. As the prospector gets closer to the bedrock deposit, there should be more gold in the pan samples. (This is like the game in which you say someone is getting hotter as they get closer to something and colder as they get further from it.) In this way, panning can help guide a prospector to the area of the main gold deposit.

It also helps that rock is often exposed along river valleys and can be easily examined for additional clues. Boulders that have been carried downstream can also often be found and examined.

Nova Scotia has some placer gold but very little compared to places like California and the Yukon. The reason is Nova Scotia was repeatedly covered with glaciers in the past 100,000 years, until the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago. The glaciers dragged sediments and rocks along with them as they moved, scattering the gold of placer deposits that existed prior to the glaciers.

California and the Yukon, on the other hand, had gold rushes that were mainly based on placer gold and panning. They were not as heavily glaciated as Nova Scotia was so they had many more thousands of years of stream erosion than Nova Scotia. This liberated huge quantities of gold from bedrock deposits. Their placer deposits were mainly left intact because they had less glaciation, so they were just waiting to be discovered in the 1800s.

The provincial government has a brochure that discusses recreational mineral and rock collecting, including gold panning: It explains, for example, the need to get permission to access land in areas that have been staked. It also discusses important safety measures.

The Ovens is one of the few places in Nova Scotia where placer gold has been found in significant quantities, due to The Oven’s bedrock deposits being in cliffs right on the shore. See the story of the Ovens’ gold rush at