What is lazy, likes to hitchhike, is 19 times denser than water and can be found in abundance amid the black sand of Cape Disappointment’s Benson Beach?
Would it surprise you to know the answer is gold?
On an April afternoon when the wind is blowing the rain sideways, members of the Western Washington chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America are in search of their glittering quarry. According to Mark Green, who has been prospecting since he retired 10 years ago, Benson Beach is one of the best places in the Northwest to find gold.
Green and Carolyn Crowson teach middle school children about gold mining. They describe the element in such a way that gives it a personality all its own: Too heavy and lazy to travel on its own steam, gold prefers to hitchhike on mud, quartz or clay. When it washes in on the Columbia’s currents, it likes to mix and mingle with black sand. “Wherever you see black sand, normally you’ll see gold, if there’s gold in the area,” Green says.
Gold’s density is the key to its capture. The ’49-ers panning in California streams 164 years ago used the same principles modern miners use today. “The science is the same,” Crowson, who began prospecting with her grandfather as a child, says. “If you look at the way they did it in the 1800s versus the way they’re doing it now, the science is exactly the same.” In water, gold sinks while all other debris floats to the top. “It goes to the bottom of whatever you’re doing, and whatever you can do to make it stay there is the idea,” Dennis Schmidt says. Schmidt started searching for gold when he was a child in Montana.
While equipment has evolved, become more elaborate and often expensive, it is still possible to prospect on the cheap. Jan Meritt uses an old sifter. “A buck fifty at Goodwill, and I’ve used it for 10 years,” she says. “A pan. You’ve gotta have a pan. The rest of it, it doesn’t matter. I’ve used a pie tin before.” Meritt saw the show “Gold Fever” on television and thought prospecting looked like fun. She’s been searching for gold for eight or nine years. In all that time, she’s found less than two ounces.
“You’re not going to get rich,” Green says. Schmidt agrees. “If you manage to find enough gold to pay for the gas it took to get you there, you did real well,” he laughs.
Whether the find is small or large, it doesn’t seem to matter. Finding even one speck of gold is exciting. And by speck, “I mean small, you can almost not see it,” Green says, “but when you find that first speck, that first time, it’s unbelievable. Every time you find gold, you get tickled to death.”
But it’s more than just finding gold. The sense of community and shared passion is the biggest treasure. “It’s all about the people you meet,” Schmidt says. “It’s mostly old, retired people doing it,” he laughs. “It gets you out, it gets you active. That’s the best thing about it. It keeps you active, keeps you young, you’re out doing something. You’re not sitting at home watching TV.”
These prospectors also try to aid the earth when they’re searching for gold. They recycle the water they use, throw away trash they find, and help remove dangerous toxins from rivers when dredging for gold. “The old-timers were using mercury and all these other chemicals (to prospect),” Green says. “When we dredge, that gets caught in our machines, and we collect it, get the gold out of it, and then we take it to a Hazmat place.”
“You never get tired of seeing gold. Never ever,” Schmidt says while the rain lashes, and the wind blows everything away that isn’t tied down. No one seems to notice. They’re too dedicated to their search. “You get gold fever, you’ve got it forever.”