For centuries, wealth has been measured in gold. King Tut was buried in it; Scrooge McDuck swam in it, and today, many people can’t help but search for it.Huge jumps in the price of gold — which was selling at $1,580 an ounce Tuesday, up $900 in the past five years — have drawn more hobbyists to prospecting,
“I’ve seen more hobby prospectors than ever before,” Baide said.
His store at 402 E. Main St., buys gold in all forms, including the flakes and nuggets found by locals and people with claims across the state.
If the gold rush and ghost towns it left behind are any indication, the metal is certain to be found in the hills of southwest Montana, though Bozeman itself might be one of the only places in the area that doesn’t have gold, according to Patti Albrecht.
Albrecht own Earth’s Treasures, 25 N. Willson Ave., which sells supplies for recreational miners, from pans to magnets that separate iron-rich black sand from small flecks of gold.
Albrecht said old prospectors used to look for gold with the same pan that made their breakfasts, even though the oils on the pan could cause flakes to stick to other debris and not fall to the bottom — which is the same reason modern prospectors should avoid using hand lotion, she said.
Today’s pans are mainly light plastic, with ridges to help separate out rocks and sand. Albrecht calls them “training wheels.” Because they’re lightweight, backpackers and fisherman sometimes take pans with them for downtime on rivers and in mountain streams, she said.
Jessie Soukup of Bozeman and her father first tried panning years ago after seeing a demonstration at the Great Rockies Sport Show.
“We thought it would be something fun to do together,” she said.
They only found a few gold flakes and some garnets, but Soukup said her father now sometimes takes the pan along while fishing.
Travel about an hour outside of Bozeman in practically any direction and gold flakes can be found in Montana’s waterways. The first strike in Montana, in 1852, was near Bannock. Others followed in Helena, Norris, Butte and Deer Lodge, according to Albrecht.
According to the United States Geological Survey’s publication on gold, the metal was one of the first mined because it commonly occurs in its native form, not combined with other materials. This also means it’s relatively simple for anyone to find, if they know where to look.
That’s not to say that anyone will tell you where to look. Most people are secretive about where they’ve found gold, or where there may be more, although if you’re only armed with a pan, they may let you go splash around.
According to the Bureau of land Management, “recreational mining and panning is allowed on ‘open’ federal land” or land not under current mining claims. Panning or mining with a pick or shovel does not require a special permit in Montana.
For more information on recreational panning regulations, visit http://bit.ly/mt-prospecting.
Recreational panning will probably not make you rich — it’s more of an exploratory art, meant to show whether there’s the possibility of more gold in the area, Albrecht said.
But if you find a few small flakes in a bit of dirt, it might be worth moving to the next step – a sluice, which uses water to separate gold from larger amounts of detritus shoveled into one end.
The amounts of gold Baide is seeing come in to the Gem Gallery vary, but he said he’s certainly seeing more people.
“Some people are not finding very much, with others it’s considerable amounts,” he said.
With recreational prospecting, not everyone is out looking for the mother lode, and that’s the beauty of it, Albrecht said. They may never see a nugget in their pans, but they enjoy finding a few flakes now and then.
For those people, Albrecht and her staff at Earth’s Treasures give demonstrations if people have questions.
“We try to help people,” she said.
Albrecht has also taught classes and taken her own children panning. Her son was able to separate the gold even when he was “doing everything wrong,” Albrecht said.
He would throw and splash instead of allowing the water to naturally carry the light debris out into the water, she said. The gold, which is heavier than most materials, settles to the bottom and catches along the edge.
For more information, Earth’s Treasures also has copies of Phil Walsh’s book, “Recreational Gold Panning in Montana” and maps of where gold and other minerals and gems have been found.