BATH, N.H. — It didn’t take long for Nicholas Ward to strike gold on the Wild Ammonoosuc River in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
The freckled 12-year-old scooped some sand into a green plastic pan, added a little water, swirled, and tapped the bowl a few times to shake the material loose, and then pointed to a tiny yellow speck.
“There’s a small piece right there,” said Ward of Derry, N.H., who patiently spent hours digging and sifting through the bottom of the shallow stream.
Ward is among the growing number of amateur prospectors flocking to mountain streams and and other remote spots across the country, hoping to find pieces of the precious yellow metal. The Gold Prospectors Association of America in Temecula, Calif., said it has added three chapters in New England in the past year alone, while the group’s national membership has soared 83 percent to more than 45,000 since 2008.
In New Hampshire, the number of permits to use dredging equipment, which works like a vacuum to suck up mud, sand, and — maybe — gold, has more than doubled since 2007. The state has issued 152 dredging permits so far this year, more than it issued in all 2011.
Panners like Ward do not need permits, but they appear to be coming out in force. On a recent sunny afternoon, close to a dozen prospectors lined a short stretch of the Wild Ammonoosuc, digging up hunks of riverbed and sifting through it for glimmers of gold.
At Twin River Campground, which sits along the river, pans, shovels, guides, and other prospecting equipment line one of the walls of the campground store. Scott Solinsky, whose family owns the campground, estimates that one-third of the campers each season spend at least some time prospecting for gold, each year buying a couple hundred gold pans, which sell for $7 to $14 each.
“It’s a good part of our business,” said Solinsky.
The prospectors cite a few reasons for the increased interest in their hobby. Some have been inspired by the reality television show, “Gold Rush,” which spotlights gold hunters in Alaska and Canada’s Yukon and begins its third season on the Discovery Channel in October. Severe storms that tore through New England and swelled rivers last year, including Tropical Storm Irene, also improved the chances of finding gold by churning up pieces buried deep.
And, of course, the stratospheric price of gold, which hit a record $1,920 an ounce last year, spurred interest in the precious metal.
But few New England prospectors expect to strike it rich. Some along the Wild Ammonoosuc acknowledged that the flakes of gold they collected wouldn’t even pay for the gas it took to get them there. But like fishing, the hobby gives them the chance to spend hours in the woods away from the bustle of modern life, even though they may go home empty-handed.
Bryan Allsop, a computer network administrator from Melrose, Mass., said he took up gold panning last year after a therapist suggested that he spend more time outdoors to relieve stress — and he thought gold hunting sounded more exciting than hiking.
After hours of panning on the Wild Ammonoosuc, Allsop had collected a handful of shiny gold flakes, which he proudly showed off by emptying them into his pan. But he said few nonprospectors believe there is actually any gold to be found in New England.
“All my friends think I am completely insane,” he said.
Though most US gold has historically been found in the West — sparking famous gold rushes in California, Colorado, and other states — smaller pockets of gold have occasionally been found in New England. A discovery in Lyman, N.H., in 1864 triggered a minor gold rush. But the mines didn’t last long.
“The only people who probably made out were the land speculators and people putting prospectors up for the night,” said Rick Chormann, New Hampshire’s state geologist.
Chormann said there are relatively small amounts of gold in New England and most is widely dispersed, making the odds of stumbling on a rich vein very low. Most of the gold people find today are flakes or small nuggets that settle at the bottom of riverbeds, because they are heavier than sand.
Panning for gold is based on the same dynamics. As hobbyists swish sand and water around a ridged bowl, the lighter material and water float off, leaving gold and other heavy metals behind.
Many people also use sluice boxes — ribbed trays that sit in the river to catch any gold or heavy rocks — to increase the amount they can sift. Ward, the 12-year-old prospector, saved for three months to buy a $100 sluice box after he caught the gold bug.
Jeff Orchard, who wrote a book about finding gold in New Hampshire, said some of the more popular places to search for gold in New England include rivers near Bath, N.H.; Plymouth, Vt.; and Byron, Maine.
But Orchard does not know anyone who has struck it rich. He said a friend once found a 3/4-ounce gold nugget in New Hampshire that would be worth about $1,200 today. But that was 25 years ago. Orchard said he has only found much smaller pieces.
“I spent far more money in gas and equipment and time than I have ever earned panning for gold,” said Orchard, of Charlotte, Maine.
The payoff for Orchard and others comes in bragging rights, the joy of the hunt, and the chance to dream. David Maxfield, 40, a carpenter from Hardwick was also panning for gold in Bath. He had a small vial filled with some of the gold flakes and small nuggets he had amassed from brooks in Vermont and New Hampshire over the past few months.
“It’s the treasure hunt,” said Maxfield, who was vacationing in the mountains with his wife and three children. “You never know. The next pan may have a nugget. There’s that chance. You don’t want to put the pan down.”