Grand County prospectors land a hobby, but striking it rich unlikely
April 17, 2014
Grand County's mining history is not rich, at least in the monetary sense.
The majority of miners who settled here in the late 1870s deserted their claims just five-to-six years later.
"Prospectors were all over the hills," said Tim Nicklas, director of Grand County Historical Association. "They pulled out ore that produced, but it wasn't worth it. The grade wasn't high enough to warrant the cost of infrastructure to transport it."
Their predecessors' lack of success isn't stopping some modern-day prospectors from donning their picks and wielding their shovels in search of gold.
“There is a certain thrill to finding gold in the pan. It’s kind of like gambling: once you get a little, you think you might find ‘the big one.”
local mining hobbiest
Tom Clark, mayor of Kremmling, shares a placer claim on Willow Creek.
With a degree in mining engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, he has a lot more expertise than an average amateur prospector. He also has more realistic goals.
"It's a hobby, not a profession," he said. "You have to move a lot of material just to pay for your equipment and fees."
Clark saw more people out panning when the price of gold spiked to almost $2,000 an ounce in 2011, but he doesn't know of anyone who struck it rich.
At a state level, gold fever is contagious. According to James A. Long, president of Gold Prospectors of the Rockies based in Golden, amateur prospectors are increasing in numbers.
"About five years ago, our club had about 50 to 60 members. Today, we probably have 185 paid memberships," Long said. "Retired people and families are looking for something to do on the weekend rather than sit around and watch TV. Maybe you're not going to get rich, but at least you can get outdoors and find something that is the most beautiful and lustrous mineral that you can find. We teach them how to do that."
Louise Smyth, the proprietor of Gold-n-Detectors in Golden, Colo., agreed that hobby prospecting on the Front Range is growing.
"We have a lot of newbies coming out," she said. "We help them select the right tools."
With an increase in popularity come some concerns, including potential environmental impacts. Gold panning and rock hounding are considered "casual use" activities by the Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service and do not require special permits.
Motorized dredges that use a hose and suction to pull material out of riverbeds are more controversial because of greater disturbance to the surface, and policies regarding use are localized and require permits or a notice of intent.
"Look up and find out where you can go and where you can't go," Clark said. "BLM and [National] Forest Land allow some, but you can't prospect in National Parks and in Wilderness Areas."
Smyth hopes her customers also educate themselves to minimize their impact on the land and waterways.
"We just want people to recognize the rules and obey them. We don't like to see the holes not filled in and any destruction of the property. People should dig with care. We encourage them to get their material from under the water because the streambed will repair itself," she said.
Because Grand County does not lie on Colorado's mineral belt, the chances of striking gold here are remote. Clark did a historical survey of all the gold produced in Grand County — ever — and came up with 34 ounces. Compare that to the most productive gold mine in Colorado's modern history, the Cresson Mine near Cripple Creek, which produced more than 258,000 ounces of gold in 2008 alone.
But as long as there is a chance of finding gold here in Grand County, miners like Clark will keep looking.
"I'm not a prospector, I'm an explorer," he said. "I am not just looking for gold. I am looking at all of it."
Add inventor to that description. Clark and his colleagues have developed what they call "the handyman wash plant sluice box," which is a home-made hodge-podge of household items, including and old tool box, all operated by an electric boat bilge pump. Powered by rechargeable batteries, the electric dredging set is much quieter and more environmentally-conscious than its gas-motor-driven counterparts. It vacuums the rocks and sand out of creek beds and separates the heavy material — iron, garnets, and hopefully, gold — from the rest of the dirt and sludge.
When asked why he does it, Clark admitted that he has a touch of gold fever. "There is a certain thrill to finding gold in the pan. It's kind of like gambling — once you get a little you think you might find 'the big one.'"
Plus, there are some non-monetary benefits.
"I don't have to pay to go to the exercise place," Clark joked. "It's hard work digging in this rock around here."