Arts, Entertainment, Adventure and More in Western Maine


Gold Flakes and Ghosts

Western Maine Secrets Revealed
By Judith Hayes

The Swift River winds through Coos Canyon in Byron. Photo by Judith Hayes.

The Swift River winds through Coos Canyon in Byron. Photo by Judith Hayes.

While many people know of Maine’s reputation for beautiful tourmaline and other gemstones, most are unaware that in the riverbeds of the western Maine foothills, there is hidden gold. The last ice age sketched the face of Maine as you see it today. It is estimated that 25,000 years ago, an enormous glacier covered the state. As the glacier retreated, the enormous pressure of melting ice, and the resulting flooding, carved out a distinctive landscape of mountains, canyons, gorges and amazing rock formations. The glacier also deposited sediments, eroded from bedrock and containing gold, into some of Maine’s rivers and streambeds. These gold deposits, found in unconsolidated sediments are called “placer” gold. Although Maine has gold in some of the bedrock, called “lode” deposits, most of what is currently found is “placer” gold.

Gold nuggets from the Swift River in Byron were inserted into this wedding ring, also made from area gold. Photo by Judith Hayes.

Gold nuggets from the Swift River in Byron were inserted into this wedding ring, also made from area gold. Photo by Judith Hayes.

Optimistic “vacation prospectors” visit the hills and streams of western Maine each year, hoping to find some nuggets, or just a few of the golden flakes. Panning for gold is a great family adventure, and exciting fun for people of all ages. There are plenty of local prospectors willing to teach the novice how to use their pan properly, tell stories of amazing nugget finds, and share a trick or two. I talked to several gold panning experts, and they provided me with a gold mine of information.

What kind of gold panner are you? – The majority of folks just want to have a fun day exploring and panning, hoping they will find a little gold dust at the least, and a little nugget at best. Their whole goal is to have fun! Renting a pan is the best option for this type of panner. Be warned however, it can be addictive if you find so much as a flake! There are a couple of places in the Swift River area where you can rent equipment and, get some quick lessons on panning. Coos Canyon Rock and Gift Shop is located on Route 17 in Byron, across from Coos Canyon, and Yankee Gems is located on Roxbury Pond Road in Roxbury. Both shops have all the supplies you’ll need. If you are a more serious prospector, you can find pans and sluices, as well as other equipment at both stores. You’ll also need a small glass jar to store any gold flakes or nuggets you find.

Where should you go to pan for gold in Maine? – Two prime gold panning areas are along the east branch of the Swift River on Route 17 in Byron, and along the Cupsuptic River following Route 16 north of Rangeley. I was told by one miner, “There is more gold in the Cupsuptic River than in the Swift River.” I soon discovered every miner has a unique opinion about the proper way to pan and the best place to pan. There are other popular gold panning areas, including some old placer workings found along Gold Brook in the Chain of Ponds, Nile Brook in Dallas and Rangeley Townships, and there are reports of placer gold being found along the Sandy River between the Madrid and New Sharon Townships.

A day’s haul of placer gold flakes. Photo by Judith Hayes.

A day’s haul of placer gold flakes. Photo by Judith Hayes.

If you are planning a family day with children, the Coos Canyon area on the Swift River is a good choice with easy access and plenty of parking available. Bring along some drinking water, snacks, sunscreen, hats, a dry change of clothes in case you get too wet, and if you don’t like going barefoot in the river, bring along some beach shoes or old sneakers. Another important thing to bring is a strong plastic trash bag. Place any trash you generate in the bag, and take it with you when you leave. You will be helping keep Maine’s gold panning areas clean, accessible, and free for everyone.

What will the gold look like? – It will look just like gold! In the bottom of your pan you will find little bright gold flakes or, if luck is with you, a little gold nugget. Once all the sediment is washed off the gold will remain. Gold is the heaviest of the materials you will find in your pan, and it will sink to the bottom. The following good advice comes from local prospectors and miners.

  1. Wear appropriate clothing, and plan to get wet.
  2. Don’t pan in fast moving water. If you have gold in your pan, some of it can be washed away.
  3. While holding your pan in both hands, drag it across the streambed and fill it half to three quarters full.
  4. Remove any rocks, pebbles, and debris.
  5. Move your pan back and forth under water letting light materials float off. Don’t worry. As you move the pan around, the heavier gold will move to the bottom.
  6. Keep shaking your pan under water and tilting it from front to back with a little swirl. Sound complicated? It’s not. You will quickly catch on and be panning like a pro. Keep repeating this action until all you have left is some fine black sand. This black sand is magnetite. If you have gold, it will be in the black sand. Because gold is not magnetic, some people use a magnet to remove the black sand. Others keep rinsing until all the sand is gone, hoping to find shiny gold.
  7. If you have any gold flakes or nuggets put them into your glass jar. A funnel is handy for moving gold flakes into your jar.

There is a rich history of gold seekers visiting Maine. People have been searching for gold in the western foothills since the early settlers saw Indians wearing strands of nuggets around their necks. Some, like Carl Shilling, lived close to the gold, and worked for it every day. Carl was born in Germany and came to Maine in the early 1930s. He was a bit of a recluse, and didn’t trust many people. An air of mystery surrounded Carl while he was living, and it continued after his death in 1977. The story is told that Carl had a jar full of nuggets hidden in his cabin, and it was never found after his death. If someone did find the nuggets, they kept it secret. Lots of people still search for Carl’s nuggets around the area where his cabin once stood. Some say his ghost walks the area at night.

Don’t let their small size fool you. All those tiny pieces add up to big things. Photo by Judith Hayes.

Don’t let their small size fool you. All those tiny pieces add up to big things. Photo by Judith Hayes.

I had an interesting conversation with Harvey Packard. He’s been panning gold in western Maine for years. He knew Carl Shilling, and he told me about a place downstream from where Carl’s cabin once stood. “You can see bedrock when looking upstream and downstream,” Harvey said. “There’s one spot with no bedrock, and I dug there. There was clay, about three feet of it, and I found jagged pieces of quartz.” He then told me about finding gold nuggets that contained a quartz matrix. Harvey believes there is a lot of unfound gold in Maine.
Ann McCrillis of Yankee Gem said people should look for black magnetite and garnet sand. The magnetite is heavy, but not as heavy as the gold. Rosey Perrier of Coos Canyon Rock and Gift showed me the proper way to pan. There are some that say once you find that first little piece of gold, you’ll be hooked and return to Maine every year looking for more and bigger nuggets of gold.

There’s a great book about gold mining in Maine, written by C. J. Stevens. He and his wife did their share of gold prospecting. In “The Next Bend In The River,” C. J. shares many of their fascinating experiences, peppered with a lot of “gold” knowledge.

No special permits are needed to pan for gold in Maine. However, there are some state mandated rules to be followed. This information is provided by


With the exception of areas administered by the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission (see below), gold panning activities in Maine do not require a permit as long as the following restrictions are adhered to:

  1. The activity is confined to sandy/gravelly/cobbley un-vegetated streambeds, with no disturbance of stream banks.
  2. The activity is limited to the use of gold pans, sluices of less than 10 square feet, or suction dredges with a hose diameter of 4 inches or less.
  3. Permission from the landowner must be obtained. Why? First, it’s a matter of common courtesy to the landowner. But also, trespassing on posted land in Maine can be a matter of civil law. The water in a stream is under the jurisdiction of the State; but the stream bottom and stream bank - as well as the access across land to the stream - is most likely private property (exceptions include public lots, state parks, etc.). If you cause any damage to that property, even if it is not posted, you may be subject to civil action brought by the landowner. You can avoid these problems by talking to the landowner ahead of time.

Gold mining activities that would disturb stream banks or utilize larger equipment than what is described above require a permit under the Natural Resources Protection Act even on private property. If you have any questions about gold-mining regulations, or the use of a suction dredge, please contact the Division of Land Resource Regulation, Bureau of Land and Water Quality, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, State House Station #17, Augusta, ME 04333 (207-287-3901). In addition, commercial prospecting or mining on State property requires prior authorization. Contact the Maine Geological Survey for details. ❧