Prospecting for gold -- there are worse ways to spend your summer

Have a lot of time on your hands this summer? Need to get away but don't have a lot of money? Perhaps you should consider heading north to prospect for gold.

The tactic has precedent -- twice as much gold was mined in the U.S. during the Depression that during the California gold rush of the mid-1800s.

Years ago, when we were bicycling through the Yukon, we would occasionally spot people standing midstream shoveling or panning gravel for nuggets.

Each summer prospectors make their way to the wilds of the northwest to work the stream beds and beaches for the yellow flakes and nuggets. Although the large deposits were played out a century ago (witness the slag piles lining the road into Dawson City) or are owned by large corporations, there is still enough free-range gold in those mountains to pay for the occasional meal and, for the lucky few, much more.

With gold approaching $1,000 an ounce and unemployment 10%, the idea of such quick riches is bound to pique the curiosity of many.

I think, however, that the prospect of prospecting has other, more important advantages for the adventurous. Camping in the wilderness is a very cheap way to spend time, especially in the vast public holdings where there is no charge to camp. It's good for the soul, too. I'll take the babble of a mountain stream over the babble of a television any day.

Prospecting is also good exercise, much more than most people would expect. Think about shoveling gravel all day. There are few Wal-Marts or shopping malls near good prospecting sites, so your isolation might help you kick your shopping jones. And for those of us addicted to the Internet, a summer in the wilds could help free us from that monster's grip.

There are many places to pan for gold in Alaska, although you'll have to be aware of and avoid existing claims (usually sections of stream and adjacent lands 660 feet by 1,320 feet). I'd also suggest learning about bears and moose and how to avoid messy confrontations. In California, prospectors can buy available claims on public land for $170.

The gold prospecting business is famous for scams, and there are a ton of companies willing to mine the wallet of those who have caught the fever.Just Google "Gold prospecting" to see what I mean.

My advice? For information, stick with government publications from the Bureau of Mines, the USGS, the Bureau of Land Management, and state entities.

Don't believe everything you see on television shows made by companies disguised as non-profit organizations that make their gold by pimping the activity (the Gold Prospectors Association of America, for example). Keep your supplies simple.

Relish the outdoors, the exercise, and the peace. If you find some bling in your pan, that's just icing on your cake.

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