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Martin Milas, president of the Prospector's Club of Southern California, shows Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal how to pan for gold.   - 

Panning for gold on the San Gabriel River in Southern California hasn’t changed much since prospectors originally showed up there 150 years ago, says Martin Milas, president of the Prospectors Club of Southern California. With just an exception or two: “They’d wonder about plastic. That hadn’t been invented yet,” says Milas. And by “they,” Milas means the settlers that rushed into the area to make their fortunes on gold nuggets in the 1850s.

At this bend of the river, a boom town called Eldoradoville sprung up to serve panners, sluicers and prospectors. “Eldoradoville was mostly saloons, a few stores, and a lot of folks driven by a common purpose: to get as much as they could.” And 1850 was, of course, a time when one could make a living on the river. In 2013, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

“There are two ways to make a living on gold. One is by starting out as a billionaire and you become a millionaire very quickly,” Milas jokes. “But mostly you either trade it or you can get into production. But it’s no longer a one-man operation. You need a corporation, funding, scope, etc.” Trading on the commodities market, or setting up a large-scale mining operation. “Little guy, somebody like me? We’re known as small-scale miners. And usually it’s not our primary means of income.”

And it’s becoming even harder than it used to be to make money on gold. Just like the town of Eldoradoville was swallowed up in a flood in 1862, the boom in gold prices of the last few years is washing away. The price of gold is at its lowest level in two years, about $1470 an ounce.

But for Milas, panning for gold on the San Gabriel River isn’t about making money. “It’s an end in itself. It’s just simply the experience of using all of my skills and all of the cleverness I can muster to defeat the powers of Mother Nature, who’s really good at hiding these things. These little flakes and these little nuggets,” he says. “And so it’s a contest between me and Mama. And at the end of the day, if I come back with a little bit, then I can feel pretty good about that.”

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal