June 27, 2013 Updated: June 27, 2013 at 9:50 am
FREMONT COUNTY - There's still gold in "them thar hills."
I was skeptical.
After all, from the first cries of "Pike's (sic) Peak or Bust" in 1859 until the collapse of the gold camps at Cripple Creek 40 years later, prospectors blasted, tunneled, dug or panned seemingly every inch of Colorado that might hide gold. To find gold today, you need dump trucks the size of houses and sodium cyanide to leach it from entire mountainsides of rocks, like is done at the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co.
I was wrong. All you need is a pan and a little perseverance.
A surprising number of modern-day prospectors still take to the hills in search of "the color," not out of some atavistic American dream of getting rich quick, but for the fun of it. The Gold Prospectors of Colorado, based in Colorado Springs, has more than 600 members, and its gold panning championships, in Cripple Creek this weekend, always attract a large crowd.
But what's the fun of squatting in the dirt and mud, picking through sediment in search of something shiny?
The prospecting club invited me to visit their claims along the Arkansas River near Howard to find out.
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Journalistic ethics require me to disclose that I was bribed, paid in gold, while researching this article.
I'm told the flake of gold we pulled from the ground would fetch me $2.87 in today's market, on the off chance I could find somebody who buys flakes of gold.
"You're not going to get rich," said prospector Howard Divelbiss of Howard. "There are some people who go in thinking they're going to get rich, but it's not going to happen."
Though humans have been mining gold for thousands of years, experts estimate 80 percent of the world's gold is undiscovered. In Colorado, it's found in a huge stretch of the mountains, including along the Arkansas River northeast to Pikes Peak, pushed up from the Earth's depths by volcanoes and washed down by glaciers and runoff.
But it's found in such small quantities that, in most of the state, it's not economically viable to mine.
Cripple Creek & Victor is the only large gold mine left.
Divelbiss, 63, became interested from reality television shows about modern prospectors.
He joined the prospecting club mainly as a way to be active and "stay off the couch."
He found that prospecting has changed little in 150 years.
But you have to spend money to make money, so some prospectors invest hundreds or thousands in equipment.
Just don't expect to make the money back.
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Mandatory equipment for prospecting: shovel, bucket, sluice, pan.
The shovel is to scoop dirt from along the banks of the river or creek into the bucket. The bucket is to pour the dirt and rocks into the sluice, a rectangular piece of metal with screens and carpets to filter heavier metals with water. The pan is for swishing and swirling what comes from the sluice until you just have a bit of sediment and hopefully a little gleam of gold.
Divelbiss uses a generator to pump water from the river into the sluice, creating constant filtering water. And he uses a massive sluice, known as a highbanker, a powered pressure washer with three chambers for catching the gold.
And the pan, well, that hasn't changed much, just a few indentations to prevent gold from spilling.
"It all boils down to a pan. It's different than what they had way back then, but it's still a pan," he said.
Divelbiss wouldn't say how much he spent on his toys, only that it's far, far more than he'll ever make from finding gold.
After an hour of work, including what seemed like endless swishing the pan along the river, Divelbiss got a gleam in his eye.
"Yellow gold!" he cried to his brother.
There it was, one tiny flake.
"It's never been seen before. It's the money, all new money. It's never been seen, never been touched," he said.
This feeling, the heart racing, the thrill of success, is why Divelbiss and others prospect for gold.
If he finds a flake among the sediments, he takes it home, lets it dry on a coffee filter for a couple of days and, using a magnet, separates it from the rest.
Real gold isn't magnetic. And this is real gold.
Then he puts it in a jar. That's it.
After all, he isn't doing this to get rich.