GOLD! Pursuing the precious metal in southern Michigan

Aug 31, 2011

With the price of gold soaring to near $1,900 an ounce this summer, you may have fantasized about striking it rich prospecting for gold.

Some people are doing more than fantasizing.  They are looking for gold in southern Michigan.  

You wouldn’t think to look at it, but this nondescript campground about 15 miles due south of Battle Creek is one of the centers for gold prospecting in southern Michigan.

Most gold prospectors here are using decidedly low-tech methods.

A simple wooded slide, or sluice, which they use to strain buckets of mud from the nearby creek.  Then swishing the heavier muck in a salad bowl shaped disc, called a pan.   All the time looking for small flecks of gold.

It’s a delicate task. One that will have that will have you breaking a sweat within minutes.

Prospector Barry Anderson uses a slightly different method.

Anderson is unloading his propane powered dredging machine from the back of his pickup. It’s a jumble of hoses.  All leading to a conveyer belt, resting on two metal pontoons, that he’ll float on top of the creek.  

“The water comes up over here…and brings the gravel up…the heavies, gold, lead, cadmium…any heavy metal will get trapped in here…then the water and lighter stuff passes over…and is redeposited back  into the stream.”  

The dredger will plow through a lot more river muck in a day than a man with a bucket could hope to do.

Anderson will spend up to four hours, submerged in a wet suit breathing through a tube, as he guides a pipe that vacuums up silt from the creek bed. Along with mud, pebbles, buckshot and the odd bicycle tire, he also hopes to scoop up some gold.

That may sound like a waste of time to you.  And you’re not alone.

Steve Kesler is an emeritus professor of geology at the University of Michigan.  He says, while there are some gold veins in the Upper Peninsula that may be profitable to mine, there’s little chance of someone striking it rich prospecting for gold in southern Michigan.   

“Well…a little bit of gold looks pretty impressive in a pan.    So you can think you’ve got some pretty good stuff there.  But when you finally weigh it out…and see how much it is…it’s not going to be very much.”   

Still, with the price of gold at astronomical levels, there are people who dream. And longtime gold prospectors say they’ve seen more people coming out to try their hand.

But gold fever may end up doing damage to Michigan’s creeks and streams.

That worries Todd Losee. He’s a wetlands specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality. 

It’s his job to look out for Michigan’s fragile wetlands.   

"We do have a lot of concerns if they start excavating on dry land and putting it in the stream to sluice it…we also have concerns if they get to close the banks…and start causing an actual disruption to the stream…that can also be caused by getting too deep in the stream…you got to be careful.”    

It was just those concerns that brought Losee and another DEQ officer out to watch Barry Anderson use his propane powered dredger to scour a creek bottom.

As the the DEQ officers look on, after about a half hour collecting gunk from a creek bed,  Anderson, now back on shore, gently swishes the muck in a pan.

 Then.  

"That’s a little speck of gold right there…little bitty speck right there," Anderson points to a spot in the pan, "…see how it stays…even though the black sand moves away from it.”  

The gold sparkle is almost too small to see.  

"24,000 of those make an ounce…" says Anderson.

It seems almost comical.  All this work. All this expense. All for a speck of gold no bigger than a flake of pepper. 

But Anderson says,  in the end, its not about the money.  

"Prospecting is like hunting….but nothing dies.  Each little speck of gold is a trophy.  I still have all the gold I’ve ever found.  Most men get rid of their gold.  I’ve seen men with 7 ounce bars…even with the price of gold…they still won’t sell it.”    

This weekend, dozens of prospectors will be back out again panning for gold.  Some for the thrill of the find and others dreaming the elusive dream of striking it rich or at least breaking even.