If you're panning for gems in riverbeds and creeks, you might put hours or even days only to find nothing. On the other hand, you could pull up the big one in a matter of minutes. The key to finding riverbed gemstones is knowledge of the geologic processes which create and transport them. It is not legal to wander into the wilderness and begin dredging or panning for streambed gems. Check with local authorities before heading out.
All gems form by slow cooling and crystallization in the earth’s crust. As the crystallized rock is exposed due to processes of weathering, pieces will break off. These pieces get carried down the mountains by streams and rivers. Eventually when the stream’s current is no longer strong enough to carry these gems, they get deposited on the beds of streams. Days, weeks or hundreds of years later, you can find these underwater treasures lying beneath shallow waters.
Stream Bed Panning
When panning riverbeds, you are as likely to come across a golden nugget or historical artifact as you are gemstones. For the best chance to find gems, find a place that is located downstream from a gemstone mine or a location already known to be a productive place to pan. Gem hot spots emerge in riverbeds when the stream becomes too weak to carry the heavy items. Mounds of sediment and stones are signs that a river has a history of depositing material there. Common places for a river to deposit heavy items such as gold and gemstones include the lowest points of a river and where the river takes a bend.
The type of gems you find will depend on where you are. Different gems form over thousands of years due to specific geologic conditions such as pressure and heat. Idaho, the "Gem State," is the nation’s second largest producer of garnet, and these gems are often found when river panning. Opals and rubies are other gems often found in Idaho. North Carolina is another of the nation’s hot spots for gem hunting. In addition to garnets and rubies, the riverbeds of North Carolina have been known to divulge sapphires and emeralds.
Any mineral or gemstone that forms as a result of geologic processes can be found in stream beds. Quartz is the most common crystal on earth and is often found in streams. It's not uncommon to find amethyst, jasper, topaz and beryl in stream beds.
Panning riverbeds and alluvial deposits for gems can severely damage a stream's ecosystem. Panning involves using a suction cup to remove sediment and small rock deposits from the beds of streams. If you remove too much, the banks of the stream could collapse and the soil around it could become too loose to support life. Always contact a local geologic organization to find out where it is legal to hunt for riverbed gems. The Idaho Department of Lands, for example, oversees the pit mines and public gem mines of the state, as well as all of Idaho’s riverbeds and lakes. Strict regulations are in place concerning dredging and surface mining of these areas.
Michaelyn Erickson has been writing since 2005 and has been published regularly in a variety of northwest publications. She has written a science fiction novel and is now working on a children's book series. Michaelyn attends Evergreen State College where she is pursuing a degree in sustainable living.