GAMBIER, Ohio – Patrick O'Masters wore a grin as he trudged up the muddy bank of the Kokosing River carrying a green plastic pan filled with water and gravel.
The 48-year-old heating and cooling contractor from Columbus stopped under a shade tree to dip the pan in a tub of water, removing some of the gravel with each dunk.
When all that remained in the pan was the black, iron-rich sand from the riverbed, he slowly began swirling the pan's remaining water across it, carrying a little away each time until at last a faint glimmer poked through from underneath.
"This is the exciting part," he said still smiling, as one and then another tiny fleck of gold appeared, collected against the edge of the green plastic bowl.
The small, foil-like flakes certainly won't make O'Masters rich, but that doesn't diminish the thrill of the hunt the prospector said he still feels each time he finds a few specks in the bottom of his pan.
There is gold, a number of hearty hunters say, in these here parts.
O'Masters was one of about a dozen members of the Ohio State Prospectors Association who traveled earlier this month to the group's claim on the Norris family farm near Mount Vernon in Knox County. There are a number of active associations across the state and region.
The Ohio State Prospectors Association leases the claim from April through September each year, and the outing was a chance to test the waters for the first time this season.
Mark Hunt, the group's president, traveled about 60 miles from Port Washington in Tuscarawas County to take part in the outing. He said the association is just as much about camaraderie and fun as it is about finding gold.
But that, he said, doesn't mean they don't know where to look.
Most modern prospectors learn a bit of geology along the way, he said, which is why the association thought this mile-long stretch of the Kokosing was a perfect place for a claim.
"We were the second people to ever put a pan in this section of the river," Hunt said.
Most know that none of the gold found in Ohio today is native to the state. The gold found in streams here likely came from Canada, carried by glaciers that traveled across the region during the Pleistocene Era, said Mike Hansen, a geologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Hansen published an article about Ohio gold for the department's Division of Geological Survey in the 1980s, when gold prices jumped to a then-high of more than $800 an ounce. Back then, the division received hundreds of letters a month asking for information about gold in Ohio, he said.
Gold veins form deep underground in igneous rocks that are rich in quartz and sulfide minerals. Millions of years of erosion can uncover the veins or bring them closer to the surface.
Despite attempts in the early 1900s and 1920s to mine for gold in Ohio, such veins have not been found near the surface anywhere in the state. So how did we get our gold from Canada?
Gold veins are found in regions of Canada almost directly north of the state. As glaciers cut across the land, they peeled up the Earth's crust and carried the mineral-rich soil south.
As the glaciers melted – the Pleistocene ended about 10,000 years ago – heavier minerals such as gold were concentrated by the melt water running off the ice. About two-thirds of the state was covered by glaciers.
When rivers and streams cut across these sediment deposits, the gold concentrated along the river and stream beds.
While gold was widely dispersed across the state, the concentrations are minimal and finding more than a few flakes of gold at a time is quite rare.
""The hobbyists get out there and it's fun for them," Hansen said. "I don't think anyone is making enough money to even pay for their equipment or gas."
There are a lot of them. According to the Gold Prospectors Association of America, there are 50,000 recreational prospectors nationwide.
"The real gold ain't out there, it's up here," O'Masters said pointing to the riverbank where most of the group's members stood, pans in hand.