Panning for a different gold
Sunday, I took the gold pan up the Beckford River, caught up in how different the sides of the river are in fall.
The cusp of fall on the east coast of Newfoundland is not the brilliant wonder it is in other Atlantic provinces. No apple trees revealing the harvest in bright reds and yellows. Few maples to turn with a blaze of colour, and the greatest change is watching the birches and larches make the one-step shift into yellow, as if revealing themselves after a summer-long game of hide and seek.
But down near Branch on the southern Avalon, the barrens are changing colour, a variety of shades of colours — red, ochre, yellow — blending into a single pointillist shade slightly to the purple/mauve end of deep red. The occasional swamp maple burns from the ground up in scarlet, but mostly, the riverside was a muted symphony leaning towards brown.
Panning is a wonderfully meditative thing: like fly fishing, rocking the pan becomes a kind of muscle-memory, but without the need for a fisherman’s sharp attention for the strike. Pick out the bigger rocks, flick gravel over the edge with your wrists, shake the pan to let the heavier gold thread down to the very bottom.
You can let your mind go, imagine that you might stop the rocking, swirling the pan that last time and seeing the bottom light up with colour: at the same time, it’s easy to imag- ine that your success would bring nothing good to this comforting river, a river brown with peat and rolling steady over big rocks and long, sideways shale ledges.
Trouting season is over, so you can only watch when a few large, bold trout bolt back into the current from where they’ve been feeding in the shallows.
I found a spot near where a small, bright stream — a freshet, really, a fine word that — broke out of the brush and fell over a small stone parapet so that the water kicked out so far it seemed like a parody of a falls. It meant I could sit comfortably on the rock and dip the pan into the stream easily. Nice not to have to squat until you feel the long tendons in your legs start to bind and lock.
Spoon up sand and rock with the edge of the black pan from a shallow berm, caught below an s-bend riffle, rock, spill and think, rock, spill and think, while the particular smell of a wet Newfoundland autumn rises up all around you. The rising damp that lets you know that in under bank-alders, there will be mushrooms and other fungi revelling the ways flowers do in spring. A Canada jay, curious and head-tilting, coming in too close for a look the way they do.
Another pan from a different part of the river, a spot where the slowing water could be expected to shed whatever it was carrying, and then another. From the air, an irregular zigzag across the river from water feature to water feature. In the bottom of the pan, small fine lozenges of stone: chalky whites and reds, seamed browns and siennas, flakes of quartz and lying mica. The pan black, the gravel set out like stars or planets but in carefully edged relief. Stars are too far to reach; â these tiny perfect stones are too small to touch. Then, a rinse, the little universe shaken free.
In the end, the only gold I end up panning is a few bright yellow leaves that had dropped into the water from a bog plant somewhere upstream, which then stuck to the sides of the pan. Another river next time; there are better choices, ones where there’s more quartz showing in the cliffs, places where a flake or two of placer might well appear in that last thin whisper at the bottom of the pan.
But the gold wasn’t really the point. It never was. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, is there?