Soaring commodities prices spark new US gold rush
APACHE JUNCTION, Arizona (AFP) — There's gold in them there hills -- and a new wave of American treasure-hunters are hoping to find it.
At Dan Ware's mining supply store, located in a replica Old West town at the foot of the Superstition Mountains 38 miles (61 kilometers) east of Phoenix, business is booming, fueled by a sluggish economy and record high gold prices.
Ware, who is president of the Superstition Mountain Treasure Hunters, a private club with its own claims, has seen membership leap from 70 to 400 in two years. "My wife and I are happy about it," Ware says with a smile.
The sharp spike in world gold prices -- the yellow metal traded at around 280 dollars an ounce in 2000 compared to more than 1,000 dollars earlier this year -- has driven the boom.
For 75 dollars, Ware's members can work mining claims on federal land as often as they like, after signing a waiver acknowledging the dangers of snakes, wild animals, and hazardous terrain.
The Superstition Mountains are home to one of the most enduring legends of the American west, the "Lost Dutchman Gold Mine," a mythical seam of gold ore known only to the Apaches and hidden to outsiders.
Few of the modern-day gold hunters are expecting to stumble across the mine, however. Most see it as a hobby that may yield occasional dividends.
The new craze for amateur treasure-hunting kicked into gear last fall, said Steve Robertson, manager of A&B Prospecting Supplies in Mesa, Arizona.
"It's a combination of the economy being in the pits, plus people want to earn a little bit of money, plus have some fun," Robertson said. "It's a heck of a lot cheaper than golf, which costs you money."
Harold Allen has been treasure hunting for 40 of his 50 years and prospecting for the past 15 years. "I was a child prodigy with a metal detector," the Texas native said.
-- 'Once you have gold fever, it's forever' --
Allen couldn't tell you how much gold he's found in 15 years. He heads out to the deserts between Kingman and Tucson for the joy, not the greed.
"I love being the first person to see that gold," Allen said. "God and Mother Nature put that gold in the ground and you're the first person to see it ... You learn the desert has a beauty of its own.
"The blue bonnets are blooming now. There's different animals to see and there's a lot to see and enjoy getting out of the city."
Basic gold prospecting equipment costs about 36 dollars, not including a pail and shovel. "It's not like they have to get thousands and thousands of dollars of equipment," said Robertson.
After 50 years, Robertson said he has prospected in 47 states and found gold in every one except three.
"There's nothing like getting gold fever," Robertson said. "Once you have gold fever, you always have gold fever."
And at more than 900 dollars an ounce, gold fever is epidemic. Ware tells members in his club to temper their expectations. Moving tons of rock and gravel is not easy work.
"We do desperately try to explain this to them when they buy equipment. You're going to have to move a lot of material to find a lot of gold, a lot more than you can move doing this on the weekends."
The Arizona gold prospector circa 2008 tends to be a retiree, Ware said. "Some of it is the Gold Rush. They've seen pictures of their grandparents standing by sluices and thought, 'That looks like fun. I'd like to do that.'"
Robertson runs into people who watch Westerns and think they're going to make 1,000 dollars in a weekend.
"That's not reality," he said. "I tell people not to quit their day jobs, but if they learn from the people who have been doing it for awhile, they might have some luck."
Ware, a former mining mechanic, has found 11 or 12 ounces in a decade. He said prospecting is best taken as a hobby which occasionally pays back a bonus.
"It's like fishing," he said. "You don't always get a fish."
But some customers have brought gold into A&B Prospecting Supplies to show to Robertson that finding the glint in the gravel isn't impossible, he said.
"I have had people come in who have found ounces," he said.
For Allen, meanwhile, Gold prospecting is like travel. It's about the journey, not the destination. He's ambivalent about striking a mother lode.
"It would be a wonderful thing, but then you might give up going out there and looking for it, and that's the thrill," he said. "It's always a good day out there. Even if you don't find it, you know where not to look next time."