Bayfield resident Jim Kolb was laid off from his job as a machine serviceman three years ago about the beginning of the financial crisis.
Kolb, 65, said he was ready to retire anyway. But given the economic climate, he decided to revisit an old hobby: gold prospecting.
With the economy the way it is, you never know you might pick up a few flakes here and there, and it might help with your income, Kolb said last week while panning for gold in the Animas River near the Ninth Street bridge in Durango. Thats what everyone is looking for something to help with income.
Public interest in prospecting has skyrocketed in the last few years as a result of the economy and record-high gold prices, said Brad Jones, editor and content director for the Gold Prospectors Association of America.
When the gold prices go up, so does our membership, Jones said.
And Southwest Colorado, with its rich mining history, is no exception.
The number of amateur prospectors locally has grown tenfold during the last few years, said Wayne Nugget Brain Peterson, founder of the Durango Diggers, a club affiliated with the GPAA.
The reason that its getting so popular is because of the cost of gold, Peterson said.
The price of gold more than doubled in three years, from about $875 per ounce in late September 2008 to a record high of $1,908 on Aug. 22. An ounce of gold traded for $1,672 at Mondays close of the Comex Division of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
While the weak economy and high gold prices have sparked interest in the hobby, it doesnt change the fact that it is extremely difficult to make money prospecting.
Only a few of the 250 members with Durango Diggers have sold gold, Peterson said. Instead, they prefer to collect the few nuggets they find and show them to friends, he said.
While the possibility of striking it rich draws people to the hobby, it is the outdoor and sporting aspect that keeps people interested, Peterson said. It is a good activity to enjoy with family and friends on camping, hiking and fishing trips, he said.
The most common technique used in gold prospecting is panning in streams. It is a simple process that involves placing dirt and water in a pan and shaking it left to right, causing the heavy materials to sink to the bottom. The lighter materials spill over the top of the pan, while larger rocks are picked out by hand. The process is repeated until only heavy materials remain in the bottom of the pan.
Pure gold is 18 times heavier than water, Jones said. Thats why you can pan for it in streams. It sinks to the bottom of your pan and is much heavier than the black sand in which gold is often found.
It costs as little as $15 to get started. That can include a small shovel, plastic gold pan, snuffer bottle and a small vial to hold gold flakes.
But amateurs quickly learn the more material they can move, the more gold they stand to find. More sophisticated methods include sluicing, highbanking, drywashing, dredging and using a metal detector.
A common perception of gold prospectors is one of an old man wearing overalls and a crooked hat with a long beard. Those characters still exist, Jones said, but more common are families and young adults.
Theyre really salt-of-the-earth people, Jones said. They love to get outdoors and escape ... near a stream. Its peaceful, and theres always a chance of finding that big nugget.
Its not all about finding gold, he added. Its also about the prospecting experience and getting outdoors with friends and family.
Prospectors must follow land-use laws when venturing outdoors. Generally, gold panning is allowed on public property, but permits are likely needed for motor-driven machinery. People should ask for permission to access private property.
If youre walking around with a gold pan, nobody is going to say anything, Peterson said. But if you come in with a big piece of equipment, somebody is going to get pretty upset.
People start out with hopes of striking it rich, but they soon find out it is more difficult than expected and would take a large time investment to make money.
Some give up quickly. Others become excited by the tiny flecks of gold at the bottom of a pan and catch The Fever.
When you see those first flakes in the pan, you kind of get bit by the bug, said Pete Benedict, 69, who has been panning for about five years.
He has found one nugget, smaller than a raisin, while using a metal detector in Arizona. Its not big enough to sell, he said.
If anybody thinks youre going to just go walk out there and pick it up, Benedict said with a pause. All the easy gold has been found.
But theres always that hope of striking it rich.
Peterson said a Dolores woman bought a metal detector about eight years ago and found a 13-ounce nugget worth about $20,000 today on her first outing.
That is a larger nugget than Peterson has found during his 28 years of prospecting, which includes seasonal work in Alaska and owning his own mining claims, including one in Naturita.
Bayfield resident Tom Brown has been prospecting since 1962. He has invested about $9,000 in equipment including a metal detector, dredger, spiral wheel and drywasher and has found about $200 worth of gold, he said.
Does that tell you anything? he asked. Everybody knows youre going to go out there and not get jack. You wont pay for your gas.
Brown said its not about the money; rather, its about enjoying the outdoors and staying busy.
Its totally a blast, he said. Its like a sport.
Brown became hooked the first time he saw gold flakes in his pan.
Its just cool to go out and find a little bit of gold in your pan, he said. A lot of people get hit by the gold fever. They love it. Its really contagious.