It isn't the prospect of a major gold strike that lures Jack Nelson to the streams near his Poolesville home with a shovel and pan.
Nelson rakes the tributaries of the Potomac River for the thrill of finding tiny flakes of the precious metal that have been buried underwater for 200 million years.
He also likes displaying his gold, giving it away and talking about it.
"Sometimes it's almost embarrassing to tell people what I do. At my age you'd think I'd have something better to do, but I love this," said Nelson, 68.
The retired Navy commander, who sold real estate as a second career until a year ago, is said to be one of the most active prospectors of about 200 working the waterways in Maryland.
He never sells the gold that he sifts from the waters near Great Falls in Montgomery County. But he has collected enough of it in the past seven years to fill two palm-sized display cases, make 15 necklaces for relatives and friends and craft wedding rings for himself and his wife when they were married in 1994.
"It does make for a very special gift," said his wife, Leona Nelson.
Nelson pans for gold about once a week in a half-dozen streams around Potomac, an affluent community where he says there is more money in the real estate than in the streams.
He will usually spend about three hours on each outing and come away with dozens of flecks of gold -- most of which are worth pennies.
Panning for gold is laborious. It involves shoveling debris from the stream bed into a screen-covered bucket, dumping the screen into a pan (available for $7 from the California-based Roaring Camp Mining Co.) equipped with grooves to catch the gold, and tipping the edge of the pan into the stream to wash out unwanted rocks and heavier metals.
"I enjoy this, there is nothing I'd rather do," Nelson says as he wades up to his knees into one of his favorite streams, which he is reluctant to disclose for fear of an avalanche of prospectors.
Nelson has panned 55 locations in Rock Run, Seneca Creek, Cabin John Creek, the Watts Branch and a few smaller tributaries of the Potomac that lie in county parklands and other public areas.
He has found gold at 25 sites, many of them in streams once mined by Civil War veterans in the 1860s.
Most of what Nelson finds is known as "flour gold" -- specks no larger than grains of flour.
But on July 4, 1993, Nelson struck what amounted to his mother lode. Sifting through his pan on a stream he won't disclose, he found a nugget the size of a quarter, shaped like a corn flake and weighing about a quarter-ounce.
"I was all alone, and I didn't have anybody to scream to, and that's what I really wanted to do," Nelson said.
He keeps that nugget in a glass case in his home, his largest token of a hobby motivated by pleasure, not profit.
15 cents an hour
Nelson figures that he has been out panning for gold 471 times and spent 1,400 hours doing it. In that time, he's collected just under 3 ounces, which means he would have earned about 15 cents an hour if he were to sell it.
"If you were in this for the money, you'd have to keep your day job," he said.
Nelson, who has had a longtime interest in geology, began prospecting in 1991 after he heard a talk sponsored by the Montgomery County Gem Lapidary and Mineral Society. The speech was given by Walter Goetz, a 61-year-old mechanical engineer from Bethesda and an amateur gold prospector.
Nelson persuaded Goetz to take him to the stream beds near Great Falls where gold mines flourished from the 1860s to the 1930s.
Goetz, who has been prospecting for 30 years and has written three self-published books on the subject, said Nelson pans in the same streams where gold was discovered in 1861 by members of the Union Army's 71st Pennsylvania Infantry while camped near Great Falls.
After the Civil War, two members of the Pennsylvania regiment returned to buy property along the Potomac with two other investors, Goetz said. They formed the Maryland Mining Co., which became the first of several firms to pluck gold from Montgomery County's streams before the industry died out in the late 1930s, he said.
Homes cover gold
Goetz is convinced there is still gold in the hills around Potomac, but he said most of it is on such expensive real estate that it makes it impossible to mine.
"The gold is laying there under those $400,000 houses in Potomac, but you'd never be able to dig under those houses to get at it," he said.
Goetz called Nelson "one of the most enthusiastic" prospectors around.
Nelson said that he spends a lot of time trying to spread that enthusiasm, leading field trips for friends, Boy Scout troops and students at schools near his home.
"What I tell school kids is they're the first people to see this gold in the 200 million years since it was formed here," he said. "They love that."
Pub Date: 8/15/98