• Panning for gold

    Left: More than 150 people panned for gold at the 2018 Yukon Goldpanning Championships. Right: Lorraine Millar looks for tiny flakes in of gold in her pan in the elite competition. (Photos: Reine Mihtla)

Lorraine Millar has packed her Swedish-made gold pan in her suitcase and is headed to Hodruša-Hámre, Slovakia to compete in the 2018 World Goldpanning Championship this weekend. Millar is one of at least 10 Canadians headed to eastern Europe on the hunt for gold, and she’s using her $2,000 first-place prize from her recent victory at the Yukon Goldpanning Championships to get there.

Since she first picked up a pan when she moved to the Yukon in 1983, Millar has traveled to Scandinavia, South Africa, Australia and elsewhere for competitions.

What is competitive goldpanning?

In a traditional speed panning competition, participants don hip-waders and stand in a trough of water, gold pan in hand. Everyone has a bucket of dirt in which five to 12 tiny, shiny gold flakes are hidden. While competitors don’t know how many they’re supposed to find, everyone has the same number.

On the start signal, participants load up their pans with dirt, swirl it with water and repeat until they’re satisfied that they’ve found all the hidden treasure. A true pro can find all of their flakes in under three minutes.

“Speed and accuracy are both important, but accuracy is probably more important because if you miss a gold flake, then that’s three minutes added to your time,” explains Andy Cunningham, an organizer of this year’s competition in Dawson City.

Millar’s strategy balances the two. “You don’t know how many flakes are in your pan at the start of each heat,” she says, “so you’re trying to find that pace that allows you to get all the gold fast enough to not be knocked out.

“There’s all kinds of luck involved, but I don’t have particular superstitions or anything like that.”

Regardless of their time, competitors are allowed to keep all the gold flakes they find. It’s not exactly the motherlode — “[They’re worth] very, very little,” says Cunningham. “If you did it year after year and added them up, you might get a little bit, but it’s more just something that you’re going to put on your shelf.”

The rush of competing

Millar beat out five of the top Canadian goldpanners to win first prize at the 2018 Yukon Championship. She’s putting the cash toward her travel costs to eastern Europe, though she says she was planning on going to Slovakia for the big event anyway. For her, competitive gold panning is about a different kind of rush.

“Each time, the thing that I most look forward to is getting together with the friends that we’ve met over the years in the panning community from around the world,” she says. “You hope to do well, but it’s that community that’s really a draw.”

Millar won’t have to travel so far to compete in 2021; the World Championship is being held in Dawson City.

Meanwhile, her hometown is behind her and Cunningham sends his best wishes to the veteran competitor.

“I think Lorraine is going to really represent Dawson, the Yukon and Canada. She’s been at this competition countless times. I hope she has a great time, and I hope she brings back some gold.”