Gold prospecting grows as a hobby thanks to social distancing and an uncertain economy

It’s a Saturday in mid-August in northern Montana, about 45 minutes outside of Helena in an area informally referred to as Magpie Gulch by locals.  Dustin LeDoux is standing in an ankle-deep stream, the crystal-clear water sparkling in the sunlight as it quickly moves downstream. Aside from the wireless speaker, it could be a scene from “A River Runs Through It” or any other number of films whose plot is rivaled by the jaw-dropping beauty of the vibrant green landscape and bright blue sky.

But LeDoux isn’t there to take in the scenery or even fish – he’s looking for telltale flecks of yellow in the sluice that he’s set up in the small stream.

LeDoux  is fishing for gold – and he’s not alone.

With a staggering value of about $1,864 per ounce as of Sept. 25 (up about $300 from an average price of just over $1500 in early January before the pandemic), even a fistful of gold could give LeDoux, who already runs a successful masonry business, a very nice payday. To date, his biggest score has been six grams (.21 ounces), netting him about $400. Most jewelry shops will purchase pure gold at market rates. Others sell their gold on eBay or via internet forums.

LeDoux’s weekend hobby, which is quickly gaining traction for weekend enthusiasts as well as destination travelers, could be heralding in a frenzy reminiscent of the 1849 gold rush. 

Almost 170 years ago, hordes of people flocked to the western United States in search of gold. While good fortune smiled on some prospectors and made them millionaires almost overnight, most failed to strike it rich. Generally speaking, gold prospecting has remained buried in America’s collective conscious: a legacy to the romanticized notion of a modern-day miracle brought on by little more than hard work, determination, and an adventurous spirit.

Social distance, isolation from reality

The author tries her hand at shoveling pay dirt into the sluice. It might take several buckets of dirt to extract even a few small grains of gold.
The author tries her hand at shoveling pay dirt into the sluice. It might take several buckets of dirt to extract even a few small grains of gold.

Like a lot of other outdoor pursuits that allow practitioners to socially distance, interest in prospecting has taken off during the now six-month-old pandemic.  In recent months, the interest in gold prospecting has seen a significant spike with some Facebook groups seeing a threefold increase in memberships. LeDoux started noticing an increase in his area during the earliest months of the pandemic, when snow was still on the ground.

And while no official statistics are available for amateur prospecting, major mining companies around the world are increasing their focus on gold, according to reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle and the industry news site Mining.com.

LeDoux is accompanied only by his wife, Lisa, as well as a friend, Anthony, and his son Christian. The father-son team are using shovels to extract dirt from nearby the riverbank. Having hit specks of gold, they’re in the right spot. Now the challenge is to dig horizontally rather than deeper. Once they fill a bucket with dirt, Christian takes it to Dustin and Lisa, who shovel dirt into the sluice and sift through one shovelful at a time. The sluice will catch the heavy gold while all of the “junk” runs off back into the river.

Their dog Lena happily runs nearby, her tail wagging with excitement. There’s no cell phone service within two miles of the LeDouxs’ prospecting spot but in the bright sunshine, the world’s problems seem a million miles away.

The Adventure of a Lifetime

With most concerts, events, and international travel still off limits for Americans, national and state parks have seen a dramatic uptick in visitors over the past few months. For example, Yellowstone National Park saw a 7.5% increase in August visitors compared to 2019, making it the second-busiest August in park history. Other parks have seen similar increases.

Visiting a reopened national park after lockdown?   What to know before you go

Yet for people like Gabriel Bustamante, his desire to “get off the grid” took him beyond national parks and on the prospecting adventure of a lifetime.

Bustamante, an Army veteran who developed an interest in gold during a tour in a gem-rich region of Afghanistan, decided to embark on a two-week, multi-state gold prospecting journey with his three children (a daughter, 18, and two sons ages 15 and 14) in May once his children had completed their online schooling for the year.

“We pulled out the GPAA mining guide (the Gold Prospectors Association of America’s most recent guide to each state’s gold-bearing regions and current claim maps) and began mapping out our trip,” explains Bustamante.

Bustamante and his children camped every night, prospecting and taking in iconic sites that are almost abandoned in the off-season spring months including Yellowstone, the No Scum Allowed Saloon in New Mexico, which was the epicenter of drinking and debauchery (and numerous shootouts) in the New Mexico Territory following the 1879 discovery of gold, and dozens of old mining towns before ending their journey on the Oregon coast.

“The night sky was beautiful. No humans for miles,” says Bustamante.

An abandoned dynamite holding facility still stands outside of Marysville, Montana, located in the remote northern part of the state. In the 1880s and 1890s, it was a bustling mining town of 3,000 residents, and was the center of gold mining in Montana. Today, it is largely abandoned but still lures adventurous tourists and history buffs.
An abandoned dynamite holding facility still stands outside of Marysville, Montana, located in the remote northern part of the state. In the 1880s and 1890s, it was a bustling mining town of 3,000 residents, and was the center of gold mining in Montana. Today, it is largely abandoned but still lures adventurous tourists and history buffs.

In Montana, boarded-up mines litter the pristine mountain landscape and in once-prosperous mining communities like Marysville in the remote northern part of the state. In the 1880s and 1890s, it was a bustling mining town of 3,000 residents, and was the center of gold mining in Montana. Located a few hours south of Glacier National Park, it is largely abandoned but still lures adventurous tourists and history buffs. Here, the buildings remain pristine, much like when they were built. And the prospecting stories go back almost as far.

These semi-morbid attractions, like many Bustamante visited on his prospecting tours, aren’t near any airports or easily accessible by major interstate highways. They belong to the people who are willing to travel hours outside of a city on unmarked dirt roads without cell phone service. In fact, LeDoux and his friends had to travel to one location in an off-road 4×4 because the tall grass was too high for even a lifted pickup truck to make it through.

While taking a break, Anthony, who has quickly shown himself to be the storyteller of the group, tells jaw-dropping stories of American mining successes – and tragedies. The most striking stories surround the mass murder of over 300 Chinese miners in May of 1866 along the Oregon-Nevada border. Legend has it that after the miners in China Gulch found gold, they were killed.

While it’s still unclear exactly how they died or who killed them (the killings were blamed on native Americans), this much is certain: China Gulch was not the only incident involving the massacre of Chinese miners. On Sept. 3, 1885, 28 Chinese were killed and 15 more were wounded in the infamous Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming. There are similar stories of violence against Chinese miners that have been passed down over the years, all ending in the same way: a senseless tragedy driven by greed – and gold.  

“It really was the wild west,” Anthony ruminates. 

Glimmers of hope and gold fever

Gold prospecting is finding new fans as Americans look for new, socially-distanced hobbies that get them outdoors. Here, a prospector looks for gold in a shallow riverbed in Magpie Gulch in northern Montana. Writer Zoe Zorka breaks down the process.
Gold prospecting is finding new fans as Americans look for new, socially-distanced hobbies that get them outdoors. Here, a prospector looks for gold in a shallow riverbed in Magpie Gulch in northern Montana. Writer Zoe Zorka breaks down the process.

Americans have long had a fascinating love affair with gold for a myriad of reasons. On the surface, it’s attractive, bright, and shiny. Even the small grains we see in LeDoux’s pan seem to not just sparkle, but actually glow radiantly in the bright sunlight. It’s hypnotizing and the longer that you stare at it, the more it seems to sparkle, drawing you in and wanting more.

The American virtue of wanting more is what sparked the gold rush that shaped the western U.S. – and coined the term “gold fever” – an obsession that led people to risk everything for a chance at striking it rich.

Today’s prospectors also face precarious economic conditions. Gold offers a chance at the financial stability most Americans crave amid a pandemic-induced recession and widespread furloughs and layoffs – and fulfills an emotional need that has spanned over a century.

A new kind of travel industry

For the most dedicated prospectors, the winter months used to offer a more isolated prospecting experience. However, with many traditional winter travel destinations shut down due to the pandemic, this winter might bring more prospectors out in the snow.
For the most dedicated prospectors, the winter months used to offer a more isolated prospecting experience. However, with many traditional winter travel destinations shut down due to the pandemic, this winter might bring more prospectors out in the snow.

While most prospecting adventures yield little more than a few small grains of gold, today’s prospectors are willing to shell out big bucks to roll the dice with their luck on the river. A weekend adventure for a family of four could easily end up costing upwards of $2,000 once gas, lodging, dining, and basic prospecting equipment is totaled up.  For those looking for a “glamping”-style prospecting experience, that price could easily double. 

Business-savvy entrepreneurs such as LeDoux see opportunity beyond their own prospecting exploits. They see the money in tourism dollars. LeDoux, who already runs a successful masonry business in nearby Helena, plans to purchase “about ten claims” (a parcel of federally-administered land land for which an individual claims the mining rights) and then rent them out to other prospectors.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, claim size is usually limited to 20 acres but can be as big as 160 acres in Alaska. The claim application process is managed by each state’s Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service Department (depending on where the claim is located) and while the cost varies by state, it is usually less than $200 to file for rights to a mining claim.

“Mining the miners,” he quips. “That’s what (controversial entrepreneur) Samuel Brannan did – he made a good chunk of his money selling equipment to the early prospectors.”

Salt Lake City resident Mark Monosso has been prospecting for over 30 years and has used the pandemic as a way to build “The Modern Miner,” a small prospecting tour business in which he takes small groups out prospecting in southern Utah. With limited entertainment and recreation options, prospecting has become appealing to a wider audience than ever.

During a tour of his shop, he shows off the various prospecting machinery and equipment he has built himself, often cobbled together from miscellaneous engine and appliance parts.

While none of the people interviewed for this story have found more than a couple hundred dollars on any given day, they all insist that prospecting is more about passion than anything.

“Of course, you always hope that one day you do strike it big,” Monosso jokes.

Back in Marysville, LeDoux and his group are ready to pack it in after five hours of prospecting in the hot sun. But before they head out, it’s time to find out what they have.

He removes the sluice pad from the river and pours it in a bucket of water. The gold will sink and then he’ll use a pan to separate the gold from the various other heavy minerals in the river before using a snuffer bottle to extract it.

Later, LeDoux weighs the day’s findings: 12.4 grains. That amounts to $49.72 for five hours of work. Is it worth it? For LeDoux, yes.

As the group packs up for the day, Anthony points towards prospecting sites from over a hundred years ago.

“Can you imagine how tough those men were back then?” he says, describing some of the harsh conditions and overwhelming obstacles facing the area’s earliest prospectors. “They sure were something to be able to tough it out.”

Despite the rugged appeal of prospecting, today’s prospectors have a few more options when it comes to setting up camp. From basic bare-bones tents to luxury campers, prospecting has grown to encompass people of all backgrounds. While people like Bustamante make prospecting a multi-week adventure, others like LeDoux take it one afternoon at a time. Both groups seem to be content with their choices.

As neither the global pandemic nor economic crisis show signs of easing up anytime soon, Americans may find that they are as tough as the gold prospectors of yesteryear and that even when almost everything else is lost, there’s still that sliver of hope.

Or at the very least, they’ll have some really good stories.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Socially-distanced hobbies: Gold prospecting finds new fans

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