The road to the legendary city of El Dorado may have been paved with gold, but treasure hunters won’t have to search far for the lustrous element when the 2016 World Gold Panning Championships comes to Placerville next week.
Running Sept. 14-18 at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds, the event brings together panners from across the globe – more than 20 countries are expected to send representatives this year – all hoping to be crowned the gold standard.
The annual competition, also referred to as the Olympics of Gold Panning, rotates host countries in similar fashion to the actual Olympics, and can only be hosted by the same country every five years. The last time the United States hosted the championships was in 1998, when it was held in Coloma.
“Yeah, when we use that term, Olympics of Gold Panning, it kind of puts things in perspective for people, because it’s been really difficult for people to kind of wrap their head around what this is,” said Jody Franklin, executive director of tourism for El Dorado County Visitor’s Authority. “And it’s just a unique sporting event.”
This year’s event is expected to draw around 600 competitors, according to Franklin. Competition categories include juniors, men, women and veterans (ages 60 and older) divisions, team events and fun categories, including one for people who never panned for gold before.
For Franklin, the sporting interest in gold panning was a revelation.
“I thought that after the fourth-grade class, you were done with it,” Franklin said. “But we have people from all the world still engaged (with) gold panning. And I think it’s kind of twofold. One is the mystery of it, and it’s something that anybody can do. … And then it’s that pioneer spirit.”
And while the original forty-niners were concerned about little more than striking it rich, today’s competitors are judged not just on finding gold, but on both time and accuracy. In each round, 30 competitors all have their own tubs, all connected with a timing system.
Participants receive a bucket filled with gravel and gold flakes, with each person receiving the same amount of each. Competitors aren’t told how much gold is in their bucket. And if they don’t find every last piece before hitting their timer button, a penalty of three minutes for each piece they miss is added to their time.
Qualifying rounds are held throughout the week, with the finals being held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to the winners, and winning times can be as fast as under a minute, according to Franklin.
“I know, when you think gold panning, they picture this little old guy with a beard next to the river, you know, swishing away like (he was) fishing,” Franklin said. “… No, it’s a lot quicker than that.”
Kara Adema, co-chair of the El Dorado County Gold Week Committee, was a participant in the 2015 championships that took place in Spain. She placed fourth in that year’s event, missing a medal by three seconds.
She said the sport’s appeal can be found in the “thrill of discovery of seeing the gold after you’ve worked all of that material down.”
The World Gold Panning Championships join several other events schedules over the course of the aptly named El Dorado County Gold Week, (Sept. 11-18), including concerts, historical reenactments, Old West shootouts, a gem and mineral show, Placerville’s Octoberfest and mine tours.
“It’s an unprecedented time to come here, because I’ve never seen this much to do … in my time here, and I’ve lived here my whole life,” Franklin said.
Franklin said it makes sense to hold the championships in Placerville because of the area’s history and long relationship with gold.
“This is where is all started, right here in Coloma, right where that first nugget was picked up and that kicked off the California Gold Rush,” Franklin said. “It wasn’t until after that California became a state. … So it’s the backdrop and kind of the backbone of everything we do here. … (The) Gold Rush permeates everything we do here, so when this opportunity for this event came along that we could host it, it felt right for everyone.”
World Gold Panning Championships
When: Sept. 14-18
Where: El Dorado County Fairgrounds (100 Placerville Drive, Placerville)
Cost: Free to view the competition