WRAL.com at the State Fair

Panning for treasure in Dorton Arena

Posted May 21, 2010 6:26 p.m. EDT

Many, many years ago, about the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was a "panning for treasure" attraction at the Fair. It was near the pond, as it used a lot of water. Here's how it worked: you bought a bag of dirt, then put the dirt into a screening tool and swished it around in some water. The dirt was washed away and you got to pick through the treasures that you found.

It was very messy and depending on how cold it was at the Fair you could end up with pruny, frozen hands. But it was also a lot of fun. "What did you get at the Fair?" "A bag of rocks! See!"

We hadn't thought of the panning thing for a long time, but it all came back to us, when we spotted Glitter Gulch Mining company in Dorton Arena. The setup is a lot smaller (there's no pond nearby; the water is recirculated in a self-contained system) but it works almost the same.

Almost. You buy a bag of dirt -- they range from $6 to $16, though four of the five bags are priced at less than $10. In addition to different kinds of rocks, some bags also have arrowheads, shark's teeth, and fossils. (I do not recall panning for shark's teeth at the other place.) When you buy a bag you also get a brochure that shows you various kinds of rocks, fossils, and other items.

We sprung for a $16 "Super Bag" and Glitter Gulch Mining owner Robin Hennessey hung out with us as we panned, pointing out various items as we sifted away the dirt. She guarantees that each bag has what it is described to have, so it's less a game of chance and more a game of "What's under all this dirt?" While sifting, we pulled out shark's teeth, an arrowhead, several fossils, lots of stones, and a big chunk of amethyst. See the pictures to see part of the haul. Note the items are not long out of dirty water -- they need a good washing and drying.

Is all the material in the bag from North Carolina? Nope, Robin buys rocks and other items from all over the world, though Glitter Gulch Mining itself is based in Southport, NC. Even the dirt comes from somewhere else; Robin uses silt, as North Carolina clay would end up clogging the water pumps.

If you've got kids who like splashing around and playing in the mud, this is a fun way to spend six bucks (or more if you want to try a different bag.) It's educational, too, as you go through the rocks and try to match what you have in your hand to what's on the chart. Now we have to figure out what we're going to do with this amethyst....