“What is a definition of a gold mine? A hole in the ground owned by a liar.”
Rare are the elements in nature that provoke primal, palpable reactions in humans. The swift alarm of a buzzworm puts hair on end, peering over the edge of a cliff puts sweat in the palms and seeing the flash of shiny yellow flakes in a swish of black sand sends the pulse racing.
Gold fever is real and has returned to the Front Range with a zealousness not seen since 1979 when gold briefly shot from $250 an ounce to $800.
The stampede of humanity into the Rocky Mountains some 160 years ago was fueled by the promise of instant wealth lying on the bottom of streams just waiting to be found. During the Great Depression, Denver officials gave panning lessons to help people get by on gold in the Platt River.
Until recently, old-fashioned man and pan placering—looking for gold deposited in and along streams—was more eccentric hobby than viable living. But with the price of gold hovering around $900 an ounce and showing no signs of falling, the rush is on again.
And it’s easy to see why. Getting in on Mother Nature’s lottery takes no more than a shovel, at least one 5-gallon bucket—the ubiquitous tool of the modern prospector—and a gold pan. Those simple tools, a little panning technique and a lot of time and effort have the potential to produce some real money. More often than not, the gold recovered in a day of placering wouldn’t buy a half a tank of gas, but it’s more than enough to stoke the gold fever that lives in everyone.
Just ask William Chapman Jr., owner of Gold-n-Detectors in Golden. His supply of pans, dredges, sluice boxes and myriad accessories is often sold out shortly after they hit the shelves.
“The season started early, and it’s been more difficult for manufacturers to maintain supplies,” Chapman says.
But unlike other hobbies that become one-way money pits, Chapman notes that prospecting can pay for itself. And the successful ones often aren’t willing to talk about how much they’ve found or offer more than a first name.
Like Chapman’s friend Bobby, who since March has found more than an ounce and a half of gold in Clear Creek and last year hauled in more than four ounces. In general, the amount of gold a person can find is directly proportional to the amount of material you can process.
Sure it’s fun to fill your 5-gallon bucket with pay dirt and spend the day panning it for gold dust and flakes. But if you’re serious, you’ll be moving up to a sluice box (about $100). It can process in an hour what it would take a day to do with a pan. And up from there is a gas-powered dredge ($1,200 or more) that sucks material off the bottom of a creek and into your sluice. It can do in half an hour what it would take a day to process with a sluice and a shovel.
One such fulltime prospector and gold guide is Chad Watkins. The Longmont resident quit his day job last year and now “mines gold part of the week and tourists the other part.” And while he won’t talk about the money he makes, he’s quick to show off his recent finds of gold dust, flakes and nuggets he carries in a pouch.
Some of his finds are on claims he works using a dredge and wetsuit. The tourists, he finds through Jesse Peterson, owner of the venerable Vic’s Gold Panning just below Blackhawk along Hwy. 119.
“You can’t depend on the tourists, but you can always depend on the gold,” Peterson says. But lately, about triple the number of tourists have been stopping by to pay $10 for a day of gold panning, more if he lets them use his sluice box or dredge.
As the rising price of gas forces today’s cost of fun ever higher, don’t be surprised if the number of weekend prospectors along Clear Creek start to outnumber the kayakers and rock climbers.