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NFL punter gets kick from finding gold in W.Va.

The West Virginia Gold Seekers meet at 2 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month at the Brandywine Flea Market in Nitro. For information, call 304-972-1976. For information on the Gold Prospectors Association of America, visit www.goldprospectors.org.CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- What do you get when you blend an NFL punter with a reputation as a wild and crazy guy and a search for gold in a state not known for minerals more precious than coal?

With any luck, you'll get an episode of "Pat McAfee's Reality Road Trip." McAfee, a punter for the Indianapolis Colts and a former West Virginia University kicker, is filming the series with help from a North Carolina-based production crew during the NFL off-season.

With help from members of the Nitro-based West Virginia Gold Seekers, a club formed last year in affiliation with the Gold Prospectors Association of America, McAfee struck gold -- literally and figuratively-- during a "Reality Road Trip" taping session earlier this week.

"Pat's been in an RV, going across the eastern part of the country doing his own take on some of the popular reality shows," said Hannah Patrick, a member of the production crew. "He's hunted for Bigfoot in Georgia, and in Louisiana, he spent time in a pawn shop and went on a hog hunt."

Among other stops in his month-long swing through the region, McAfee took part in a storage locker auction in Charlotte, ate grubs during a "Man vs. Wild" homage in Georgia, spent the night in a haunted house in Florida, and took in a "Toddlers & Tiaras"-type beauty pageant in Nashville.

"I'm a huge reality TV fan," said McAfee. "I started kicking the idea of doing a reality show of my own, and came up with this. I've really been enjoying the trip and the people I've met, and having played at WVU, I had to include a stop in West Virginia."

Seeking to combine that stop with a down-home tribute to the "Alaska Gold Rush" reality series, Patrick came up with the West Virginia Gold Seekers and its president, Joe Smoot.

To say that West Virginia is not known as a gold-producing state is something of an understatement. The West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey's website maintains, "There has been no native gold or native silver recognized to date in West Virginia." But recreational prospectors have been finding small quantities of gold, usually in the form of tiny specks known as "flour" gold, for years.

Tom Massie, the host of The Outdoor Channel's "Gold Fever" show, found gold flakes and flour gold while prospecting an unidentified West Virginia river during an episode that aired last year, but struck out during a brief panning session on the New River in Fayette County.

"It's here," said Smoot. "I've found some flour gold in local streams, and so have a lot of other people.

On March 20, Smoot got a call from Patrick, asking if he could find a location for a gold prospecting shoot six days later, when McAfee was scheduled to roll through West Virginia.

"We had to pull everything together real quick," Smoot said. "There's a lot more involved in doing something like this than people think."

First, he lined up club members to take part in the taping and volunteer the use of their equipment. Then he scouted out prospecting locales and got verbal approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection to use a "highbanker" to separate heavy gold from lighter gravel and sand, provided it did not discharge directly back into a stream.

Smoot knew of a fairly easy-to-reach Coal River tributary that flowed through property owned by a relative. Several days before McAfee's arrival, he panned out a few scoops of gravel from the stream, found a couple of specks of gold, and decided that, given the tight time frame, he had found his site.

"Think we'll find anything?" McAfee asked, after he and his production crew arrived at the prospecting site on Monday morning.

"I'm about 75 percent sure," Smoot replied.

"I'm excited," McAfee responded. "Do we get some shovels out and start going to town?"

Not quiet, Smoot explained. Club members had to set up Dave Kessler's highbanker, a machine in which stream gravel is dumped into a bin, fed through a series of spray nozzles to wash gold particles from rocks, and then run through a sluice box.

There, metal riffles and plastic ribbing capture heavy materials like gold, stray shotgun pellets and iron-bearing black sand from the flowing water. Lighter materials, like sandstone pebbles and sand are washed out of the system.

A short distance upstream from the highbanker, other club members set up a mini-sluice, a small non-motorized device that uses water power to push small quantities of gravel over a series of riffles.

Next, Smoot and other club members selected a site in the stream for prospecting.

"In this area, I usually look for white quartz," a rock often associated with gold, Smoot said. "We don't want to be shoveling in the creek banks," he added, since that could cause the banks to collapse or erode. But sometimes the root systems of the weeds growing in the creek will trap gold, he said, and are worth taking a look at.

First, McAfee and club members dug into the creek bottom and shoveled material into five-gallon buckets, which McAfee and Kessler later fed into the highbanker.

"On 'Gold Rush Alaska,' the problems always seem to involve equipment breaking down," McAfee said. "But this is impressive to look at," he said, as he watched the highbanker process material from the stream bed.

While raking larger stones from the sluice riffles, McAfee found a large piece of glass from a beer bottle.

"With this hobby, I bet you come across a lot of these," he joked.

Later, after squeezing clay balls that McAfee said "look like poop" under the highbanker's spray bars to free trapped minerals, the Colts punter realized he was soaked. "I think you brought me out here for April Fool's Gold Day," he said.

"Mom used to kill me for playing in the river," said Kessler, who was equally damp. " But now, it's my hobby."

 After running four five-gallon buckets of gravel through the highbanker, club members decided to shut down the machine long enough to pan out the trapped material and check for the presence of gold.

Using a plastic masonry tub filled with water as a panning medium, club member Larry Floyd showed McAfee the basics of using gold prospecting's primary tool -- the gold pan.

"The idea is to let the lighter material wash out, while the heavies stay in," said Floyd, a recreational prospector for 20 years, as he watched McAfee swirl a pan bearing "concentrates," material too heavy to wash out of the highbanker, in the murky water.

When Floyd identified one rock he removed from the pan as a chunk of leverite, and threw it on the ground, McAfee correctly interpreted the meaning of the mineral's name.

"It means you leave 'er right there," he said. The correct answer, McAfee said, proved he was a "linguishan," just as previous comments proved he was a "historoligist" and a "scientician."

As Floyd completed the panning process from the highbanker's initial cleanup, only a few tablespoons of black sand remained in the pan. As he swirled more water through the pan, one tiny nugget and the first of more than a dozen shiny flakes and specks of gold began to appear from beneath the sand, causing a ripple of excitement among club members.

"Is this good?" McAfee asked.

"It's great!" said Smoot, who indicated he would have been happy with finding a few specks of flour gold. "I'm really surprised," said Kessler.

"I found gold, got wet and found out what a highbanker was ... in a sweet slice of Almost Heaven, West Virginia," McAfee said, as videographers and a sound technician gathered around the gold panning area for a parting shot. "And Larry, if I can be anything like you when I grow up, I'm there."

"You'd better keep on with those Colts," Floyd replied. "They need all the help they can get, don't they?"

"They sure do," McAfee agreed.

Patrick said shooting for "Pat McAfee's Reality Road Trip" wraps up at the end of March, with a stop in a bologna factory in the host's hometown of Pittsburgh.

The show will be shopped to television outlets, and it should be known in about one month where, or if, the program will eventually appear.

Smoot said he hopes the "Road Trip" segment will get more people interested in joining the West Virginia Gold Prospectors, or other GPAA clubs that have recently formed in Mason County and Craigsville. A fourth West Virginia chapter may soon emerge in the state's Eastern Panhandle, he said. He said the national GPAA includes 900 members from West Virginia.

Currently, the nearest GPAA-leased prospecting properties are three sites in Ohio. Some West Virginia recreational gold prospectors also pursue their hobby in North Carolina, where non-motorized prospecting is legal in some national forests and privately owned pay-to-prospect sites are available.

"We're interested in helping people learn the legal, proper ways to prospect," Smoot said. He said he also hopes to work with state officials to clarify what constitutes legal recreational gold prospecting in West Virginia.

While gold prices are at near-record highs -- $1,658 per ounce on Thursday -- recreational prospecting is not likely to make anyone rich, Smoot said. 

Everyone hopes to find a big nugget some day, but "it's more about being involved in a family oriented activity where you get out and camp and cook out and spend time with your friends," he said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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