Although no country in the world has a gold standard, gold is still needed for the economy, especially now in the middle of the pandemic.
It’s a Saturday in mid-August in northern Montana, about 45 minutes outside Helena in an area informally referred to as Magpie Gulch by locals. Dustin LeDoux stands 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.
LeDoux isn’t here to take in the scenery – he’s looking for telltale flecks of yellow in a sluice he set up in the small stream.
LeDoux is fishing for gold – and he’s not alone.
A fistful of gold, which had a staggering value of about $1,864 per ounce as of Friday(up about $300 from an average price of about $1,500 in early January before the pandemic), could give LeDoux, who runs a successful masonry business, a very nice payday. His biggest score has been 6 grams (.21 ounces), netting him about $400. Most jewelry shops will purchase pure gold at market rates. Some people sell their gold on eBay or via internet forums.
The hobby, which is gaining traction for weekend enthusiasts as well as destination travelers, could herald a frenzy reminiscent of the gold rush of 1849.
About 170 years ago, hordes of people flocked to the Western USA 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 paydirt into a sluice. It might take several buckets of dirt to extract even a few small grains of gold. (Photo: Tyler Duncan)
Like a lot of other outdoor pursuits that allow practitioners to socially distance, prospecting has taken off during the 6-month-old pandemic. As the interest in gold prospecting spikes, some Facebook groups have seen a threefold increase in memberships. LeDoux noticed an increase in his area during the earliest months of the pandemic, when snow was still on the ground.
Although no official statistics are available for amateur prospecting, major mining companies are increasing their focus on gold, according to reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corp., German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle and the industry news site Mining.com.
LeDoux is accompanied by his wife, Lisa, as well as a friend, Anthony, and his son Christian. The father-son team uses shovels to extract dirt from near the riverbank. Having hit specks of gold, they’re in the right spot. 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 cellphone service within 2 miles of the LeDouxs’ prospecting spot. In the bright sunshine, the world’s problems seem a million miles away.
The adventure of a lifetime
While most concerts, events and international travel are off-limits for Americans, national and state parks have seen an uptick in visitors over the past few months. Yellowstone National Park saw a 7.5% increase in August visitors compared with 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
Gabriel Bustamante’s 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, embarked on a two-week, multistate gold prospecting journey with his three children (a daughter, 18, and two sons ages 15 and 14) in May once his children completed their online schooling for the year.
“We pulled out the GPAA mining guide (the Gold Prospectors Association of America’s guide to each state’s gold-bearing regions and claim maps) and began mapping out our trip,” Bustamante says.
Bustamante and his children camped every night, prospecting and taking in sites that are almost abandoned in the off-season spring months – including Yellowstone; the No Scum Allowed Saloon in New Mexico, which was the center of drinking and debauchery (and numerous shootouts) in the New Mexico Territory after gold was discovered in 1879; and dozens of old mining towns – before ending their journey on the Oregon coast.
“The night sky was beautiful. No humans for miles,” Bustamante says.
A dynamite holding facility was abandoned outside Marysville, Mont., in the remote northern part of the state. In the 1880s and 1890s, Marysville was a bustling mining town of 3,000 residents, the center of gold mining in Montana. Today, it is largely abandoned but still lures adventurous tourists and history buffs. (Photo: Tyler Duncan)
In Montana, boarded-up mines litter the mountain landscape and once-prosperous mining communities such as Marysville in the remote northern part of the state. In the 1880s and 1890s, Marysville was a bustling mining town of 3,000 residents, the center of gold mining in Montana. A few hours south of Glacier National Park, it is largely abandoned but still lures adventurous tourists and history buffs. The buildings remain much like they were 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 a city on unmarked dirt roads without cellphone service. 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 to make it through.
Taking a break, Anthony, the storyteller of the group, tells jaw-dropping tales of American mining successes – and tragedies. The most striking stories surround the mass murder of more than 300 Chinese miners in May 1866 along the Oregon-Nevada border. Legend has it that after the miners in China Gulch found gold, they were killed.
Though it’s 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 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 says.
Glimmers of hope and gold fever
Gold prospecting is finding new fans as Americans look for socially distanced hobbies that get them outdoors. A prospector looks for gold in a shallow riverbed in Magpie Gulch in northern Montana. (Photo: Tyler Duncan)
Americans have long had a fascinating love affair with gold for myriad reasons. On the surface, it’s attractive, bright and shiny. Even the small grains in LeDoux’s pan seem to not just sparkle but actually glow radiantly. It’s hypnotizing, and the longer you stare at it, the more it seems to sparkle, drawing you in wanting more.
The American quality of wanting more sparked the gold rush that shaped the Western USA – 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 more than a century.
A new kind of travel industry
Though most prospecting adventures yield little more than a few small grains of gold, prospectors are willing to shell out big bucks to roll the dice on the river. A weekend adventure for a family of four could cost upward 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 plans to purchase “about 10 claims” (a parcel of federally administered land for which an individual claims the mining rights), then rent them 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) and although 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 more than 30 years and used the pandemic as a way to build “The Modern Miner,” a small prospecting tour business in which he takes small groups prospecting in southern Utah. Limited entertainment and recreation options have made prospecting appealing to a wider audience.
During a tour of his shop, Monosso shows off the various prospecting machinery and equipment he built himself, often cobbled together from miscellaneous engine and appliance parts.
Though none of the people interviewed for this story has found more than a couple of 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 says.
In Marysville, LeDoux and his group are ready to pack it in after five hours of prospecting in the hot sun. 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, then he’ll use a pan to separate it 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 toward prospecting sites from more than 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, 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. Bustamante makes it a multi-week adventure; LeDoux takes it one afternoon at a time. Both seem to be content with their choices.
As neither the pandemic nor the economic crisis shows signs of easing up 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.
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