njurgulahti — Almost 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, hidden in the Lemmenjoki river valley between the fells and tundra, is a village called Njurgulahti: sixty people, twenty houses, two bars. On this endless summer day, the whole village is preparing for the social event of the year — the Lemmenjoki Gold Panning Championships, which have taken place here in Lapland since 1989.
Inside the Poronsarvi bar, two middle-aged women, necks heavy with gold-nugget jewellery, run the registration. Outside, grizzled old-timers drink beer on the veranda. Wandering in and out are young parents and well-coiffed couples wearing T-shirts from other gold panning championships — South Africa, Yukon, Alaska, Poland. There are sulking teenagers, goths in indie film shirts, and, of course, the lonely diggers who arrive from remote sites upstream twice daily by motorboat.
The Lemmenjoki valley is one of two areas in Lapland that have a history of gold digging. Early rushes — during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — yielded only small amounts of gold. The first real rush happened after World War II, when the retreating Nazi army razed northern Finland, leaving Laplanders destitute and desperate enough to go looking for gold, their search based only on rumour. Some found what they were looking for. Many didn’t. About 100 people — mostly from the south of Finland — are still searching today.
By 2 p.m., a large group is gathered on the bank of the river. Bluegrass tunes recorded in Finnish crackle out of the tinny loudspeaker. Jouni, a tall, weathered gold digger, smacks a shovel with a stone, and the day officially begins. Nine child panners wade knee-deep into the river, searching for gold nuggets. It’s an organized treasure hunt, with events for children, first-timers, seniors, men, and women, and there’s also a team competition. Each competitor is given a red plastic bucket of sand with real, albeit tiny, gold nuggets planted inside. Fastest time wins, but a time penalty is added for every nugget lost.
This is not the only place in the world this happens. Seventy-two-year-old Meeri takes part in twenty competitions annually, including one in a Helsinki restaurant (they pan in large troughs of water). She and her husband have a small claim nearby that they hand-dig the old-fashioned way, with pick and shovel and sluice box. She is quick, and her technique is refined — she moves the pan in large, sure circles, gets rid of the big stones, then urges the remaining sand out over the lip of the pan, leaving the heavier gold pieces on the bottom. Though they are only the size of fleas, she collects them deftly, with the tip of her finger, and carefully transfers them into a small glass tube half full of water. She’s not the fastest, but she’s precise and has won two world championships. After taking home the women’s and seniors’ titles, Meeri confesses she comes early to test the sand, practising with nuggets she plants herself.
The day attracts other professional diggers as well, lifers like Ari Nissilä. “There are many people here who aren’t really gold diggers,” Ari says. “They say they are but they just come here to socialize, to win a trophy. That isn’t gold digging.” Ari first dug for gold when he was sixteen, and he loves the lifestyle: “You’re alone, working hard in the middle of the wilderness.” For a few months a year, Ari lives in Lemmenjoki National Park with his wife and four children. Unlike his predecessors, he uses a machine to dig — an enormous track loader that can haul two cubic metres per shovelful. In one summer he can find three to ten kilograms of gold — enough to half-fill a one-litre milk carton. With gold at sixteen euros a gram, it’s only a sideline; the rest of the year he teaches lapidary work and goldsmithing at the local Sami college. “Sure, there’s always the hope of getting rich quick. But I’ve been at it long enough to know you have to work to make a living.”
The final event. Thirty-five panners scoop huge pans full of sand from a large mound at the top of the riverbank, furiously wash their panfuls, then scramble up the bank for more sand, trying to find as much of the ten grams of gold planted there as possible — winner take all. People elbow their way to the front, tossing the bigger rocks to the side. The older men gasp as they climb the mound again and again. A bearded man jumps up, fist raised — he’s found a 1.2-gram nugget, securing his place as festival champ. The crowd gathers to get a glimpse of the bean-sized hunk of gold.
At the end of the day, plastic trophies are awarded, and a five-piece band strikes up a half-rehearsed tune. The diggers dance on dusty plywood, and the band plays Finnish waltzes with the odd tango thrown in. Couples circle, bumping into one another, the sun shimmers on the accordion’s pearly inlay, and inside the bar, stories start to flow: How to pan fifteen kilos of dirt in under sixty seconds. How to properly kiss a woman’s hand. “Does anybody dig in the winter anymore?” “The last one died last year,” someone answers. “It’s not worth the trouble.” No matter. By 3 a.m. a collection is taken up so the band will play on. The gold diggers, not so lonely and not so rich, continue their dance.