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Sam Steward, who in his role as a living history guide identifies himself as Spot, helps students from Contra Costa Christian School in Walnut Creek with gold panning at Rock-n-Water adventure camp in Coloma. (Tom Barnidge/Staff)

This time last week, I was en route to gold country and the year 1854, along with all the students, several of their parents and teacher, Kate Heinz, from the fourth-grade class at Contra Costa Christian School.

The field trip is a living history lesson that features mine tours, gold panning, a visit to the site of Sutter's Mill and a chance to live life as crusty miners did, pitching tents, gathering around fires and sleeping on the ground. It was a two-day journey to yesteryear.

Mrs. Heinz, as her students know her, attaches a lot of educational value to the trip -- this was her 11th year trekking to Rock-n-Water adventure camp in Coloma -- but for those of us without a lesson plan, the fun was in watching how the kids warmed to the experience.

Cynicism reared its head early on when our cowboy-hatted guide Sam Steward -- he prefers the nickname "Spot" -- asked youngsters what year it was and announced he had time-traveled from 1854.

"Boy, they had good technology back then," said my wiseacre 10-year-old companion.

Later, while leading the youngsters along a trail to abandoned Gold Bug Mine, Spot pointed to some greenery and cautioned that it was poison oak.

"Touch it," said the imp alongside me. I don't know where he gets his sense of humor.

Eventually, mischief-making gave way to curiosity, as the mystery and magic of the experience sank in.

Even working from dawn to dusk and using blasting charges, miners did well to dig 12 inches a day, students were told. They learned that the vertical shaft, rising 110 feet to the surface, was for ventilation, and all mines were dug on an upward incline, so gravity aided workers in pushing ore-laden carts back to the entrance.

The kids were told James Marshall discovered the first nugget at Sutter's Mill, but he died in poverty, and the folks who made out best in the Gold Rush were merchants who cornered the market on picks and shovels. It was a tidy lesson about fleeting wealth and the principle of supply and demand.

The highlight of the trip was a chance to pan for gold from the "tailings" (discarded dirt and gravel) of an active mine. Each student was given instructions and a pan full of dirt before being told to wade ankle-deep into the American River.

"It's so c-o-l-d!" squealed one of the panners.

"They did this all day long during the gold rush," Spot said.

"I want to take my dirt home and pan in the bathtub," said another.

"Keep working your hands through the dirt so all that's left is pebbles and sand," Spot said.

"I don't think I have the patience for this," said a youngster, bent at the waist.

"Miners used to finish one pan every 60 seconds," Spot said.

One by one, they asked the expert to inspect their finds. With a practiced eye, he scanned each pan, occasionally spotting a gold fleck and sealing it in a small vial.

My wiseacre grandson Graham, who'd shown faint interest in prospecting at the outset, suddenly lit up when two flecks were found in his pan. He handed me the container with his newfound treasure and asked, "Will you keep this for me?"

He said gold panning was tedious work, and he was glad he didn't have to do it for a living.

I didn't ask, but I think that's part of what Mrs. Heinz wanted them to understand.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.