15 March 2002
The New York Times
March 14, 2002
Gold Prospectors Go Digital
By Howard Millman
PEGLEG MINE, Trinity River Cache, Lost Gun Sight Claim. Long after the last gold rush ended, the names of old gold strikes and fabled hoards still promise adventure, welcome solitude and maybe, just maybe, instant riches. Gold discovered at those sites over a century ago transformed bedraggled prospectors into instant millionaires. Could it happen again? Helped along by satellite technology, thousands of leisure-time treasure hunters hope so.
A century ago, prospectors who ventured into the desert to answer gold's siren call needed little more than digging tools, vittles, a rifle and a sturdy mule. Today's prospectors carry some combination of a laptop, palmtop, metal detector, digital camera, cellphone, satellite-based navigation system and three-dimensional topographical mapping software. And their mules have all-wheel drive.
Thus outfitted, today's treasure hunters search for gold still hidden in hills, streambeds and abandoned mines, although they know the chances of a big strike are slim. ''A good day in the field is when you find enough gold to pay for your gas,'' concedes Gary Smith, a part-time gold prospector and full-time computer network architect at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Mr. Smith, 41, and Karla Tipton, 42, routinely travel from their home in Rosamond, Calif., to spend long days and occasional weekends searching the Mojave Desert.
A pragmatist, Mr. Smith admits that he does not expect to achieve financial independence from prospecting. But prospecting offers other important consolations. ''We enjoy the isolation of the desert,'' he said. ''It's quiet. We like the feeling of stepping back in time and working the same ground miners did a hundred years ago. When we do find gold, even a dime-size nugget gives us an indescribable rush.''
Treasure hunting is fueled by rumor and legends so outlandish that they surpass even the fanciful tales told by fly fisherman. ''Treasure hunters will never give a straightforward answer if you ask, 'How much gold have you found?' '' said Wayne Caldwell, a treasure hunter from Lewisville, Tex., and author of ''Texas Ghost: The Ghost Towns of Texas'' (Caldwell Publishing, 1991). ''Maybe it's because, like the miners of the 1800's, they fear claim-jumpers will raid their site. More likely it's because they're embarrassed to admit they never found much, even after buying all that expensive T-hunting equipment.''
Since most of the easy-to-pick treasures have long since been picked clean, any degree of success in finding gold or other treasure depends on acquiring suitable field gear. Treasure hunters once wandered for days, even weeks, trying to identify specific geological features for orientation. Today's Global Positioning System receivers, many using the Wide Area Augmentation System, can guide you to within a few feet of a site. Most G.P.S. receivers let users enter waypoints, electronic markers that help establish the best route to a site.
Owners of Palm and Handspring devices can download standard and 3-D topographical maps from DeLorme (www.delorme .com) through a wireless connection directly into their hand-helds. DeLorme is readying a Pocket PC version that runs Microsoft's Windows software. Maptech (www.maptech.com) enables owners of Compaq's iPAQ Pocket PC to connect it to a G.P.S. receiver and get real-time, full-color topographical maps. Topographical maps display the location of streams and water runoff paths that may carry gold flushed out of hillsides and mine tailings. Once the hunter reaches the site, high-frequency metal detectors can distinguish gold's electronic signature from that of lesser metals.
The tuned-for-gold detectors range in price from $500 to $5,000 and are available from online specialty shops like Kellyco Metal Detector Superstore (www .kellycodetectors.com). Vendors of the costlier units, which use multiple frequencies and multiple detector coils, claim that the devices will find pea-size nuggets at depths from a few feet to a few yards.
Research will significantly improve your chances at finding some gold. Here, too, technology plays a part. Government publications issued in the mid- to late 1800's and in the mid-1930's, the heydays of American gold exploration, are available online.
''The Internet and a G.P.S. receiver are my top tools,'' Mr. Smith said. ''I convert the locations of the sites described in the old documents into longitude and latitude. I plug these into my G.P.S., print topographical maps so I know the terrain, and I'm halfway there.''
If you would rather spend your time in the field hunting for gold than online hunting for clues, Charles Overbey, a retired aeronautical engineer from Cocoa Beach, Fla., offers a series of maps at his Web site, www.goldmaps.com, that show the location, latitude and longitude of hundreds of gold deposits throughout the United States.
''Knowing where gold was is likely to tell you where gold is,'' said Mr. Overbey, ''and the geologists say that most of it is still in the ground.''
Copyright 2002 The New York