Ah, summer. The time to enjoy the bounty of our region.  The time to get away from the rigors of work and school. The time to hit the multiplexes to see the summer’s blockbuster movies. Laying in a hammock or on a deck, texting, Facebooking, e-mailing and playing video games.

There was a time when summer meant camping, fishing, beachcombing—and for a lucky few, gold panning.

My dad got gold fever in the late 1960s. He had read a news article about a man who stumbled across a large gold nugget in a California creek; the man wasn’t even looking for it—talk about lucky.

Dad figured “there’s gold in them thar hills.”  Being a journalist, he did some cursory research about gold in the Cascade Mountains; he learned about gold mining in the 19th century.  He discovered if one didn’t trip over a nugget, one could find gold by following the natural path of gold from the mines dug into the mountains into the creeks and rivers. That’s where the summer ‘fun’ for us kids started.

Those of us kids who were older spent the weekdays picking berries or beans at any number of farms near Keizer. Come Friday afternoon we helped pack up our small travel trailer and headed out to the gold fields for the weekend.

Poring over geological maps that showed where once-working gold mines were located, dad choose the area in which to search for gold—Quartzville Creek, outside Sweet Home, miles past Green Peter Dam.

It seemed we spent just about every summer weekend on Quartzville Creek setting up camp at the Yellowbottom camp ground. In those days, back in the ‘60s, that area was still undiscovered by the masses. Many weekends the Zaitz family was one of but a handful of campers—many times we were the only campers.

Panning for gold on Quartzville Creek circa 1968. The Zaitz clan includes (from left) Les, Leland, David, Lyndon, Janet and Joanne. (PHOTO/Clarence Zaitz)

The first task upon arriving at Yellowbottom was to pick a camping site, then came setting the trailer, making it level, unpacking the station wagon, gathering and chopping firewood. The chores were fun because we were camping! Each of the older kids begged to be the campfire builder.  Until we were a bit older, this was a job only dad took on. We all couldn’t wait until we would be entrusted with building the fire.  For us kids the bigger the better; that idea was usually squelched by parents who knew better.

After mom made dinner on the campfire grill, usually hot dogs or hamburgers, it was time for the kids to explore the campground.  There was nothing new to explore by the fifth time we camped at Yellowbottom.

Saturday mornings was preparation time. Dad and mom made sure they had all the gold pans, shovels, and brushes ready to go.  Excitedly, us kids made sure we had bathing suits and swim masks. The first few months of the gold panning trips the Zaitz kids were excited to hunt for places along Quartzville Creek that dad taught us could be hiding nuggets, or at least large pieces of gold dust.

We cracked open rocks with a crowbar, swept out the dirt and small gravel into a gold pan and went to work.  Sloshing water around and around, being careful not to do it too hard or the gold might get washed out. Dad said that what we wanted was to pan out the large rocks, dirt and sand.  We would end up with black sand and, hopefully, gold in the pan.  Look at us! The Zaitz family are gold prospectors!

We were excited the first time we found gold.  The gold we found were gold flakes, most no bigger than the head of a pin.  But it was gold and it looked so beautiful shining in the sun against the black sand.  Dad and mom would carefully retrieve a wooden matchstick from their pocket and use it snag the flake. It was then carefully deposited in a little bottle; it was the start of the Zaitz gold fortune.

After a day of panning for gold and playing in the creek, we were all tired. It was time to head back to the campground to build a fire, make dinner, but, as the photo above shows, at the end of day panning shows, we were happy. This is one of the most iconic photos of the Zaitz clan, it’s in all of our homes and reminds us who we were then.

This went on for weeks, then months, and eventually years.  For the Zaitz kids, it was the swimming that was the draw after a while. Dad and mom looked for gold, for us kids our treasures were fishing lures. With our swim masks we’d look for fishing lines under the water; we’d follow the line hoping to find an interesting fishing lure that some fisherman had lost to the creek. Because none of us fished much it was just fun finding lures wedged under a rock.

The Zaitz kids practically grew up on Quartzville Creek. Dad’s gold fever raged on; sometimes he’d try another area, such as the central Cascades outside Eugene, even in northern California.

Eventually us five Zaitz kids lost any fever we had. And like any adolescent, we groaned when the weekend came and we had to load the trailer and yet another gold panning trip.  We almost welcomed Monday mornings and a return to picking to raise money for school clothes and other things.

The five Zaitz children did not have a lot of down time during the summer. We didn’t have time to get into trouble (though we usually found a way). After a while our gold panning days at Quartzville Creek became tedious for us kids.

And all the gold that we found?  Totaling about an ounce in all, it is in a little glass vial attached and displayed in a hall at my parents’ home. Every walk down that hall brings memories of days when we didn’t know how good we had it.

Lyndon A. Zaitz is publisher and editor of the Keizertimes.