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There's gold in that there river

SULTAN, Wash. — With gold at sky-high prices — an ounce goes for about $1,700 — plenty of people are taking up that old venture of gold panning.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management office in Portland, which also oversees gold claims in Washington state, says that a few years ago, it maybe would get five inquiries a week about gold prospecting.

Now it's 15 to 20 would-be prospectors a week asking questions. Here is the first question that those seeking riches in gold panning should ask: Do I like working for 60 cents an hour?

On a recent afternoon, about seven miles north of Highway 2, Chuck and Jim and Rusty and Harold are wading around Olney Creek, looking for gold. It is quite picturesque, on this cloudy but warm September day, the men standing in their hip waders in this shallow creek that meanders through the forest. They've got all the necessary equipment: the traditional gold pans, as well as a contraption called a sluice box that speeds up separation of gold from gravel and portable generators to run the equipment.

Still, even with all that gear, time "… just "… goes "… by.

Harold Ogilvie, 57, who lives in Sultan, has been looking for gold in various creeks for seven months. He figures he's put in some 500 hours prospecting. The gravel has yielded him maybe $300 in gold, he says.

Let's see, 300 divided by 500, that's 60 cents an hour. Not enough for the down payment on that Maserati.

"Well, I like being outdoors," Ogilvie says. "I'd rather be here and watch nature."

He and the three other men at the creek belong to a club called Prospectors Plus, headquartered in nearby Gold Bar, a town that, naturally, got its name from being a prospectors' camp in the late 1800s. The private club, with $70-a-year fees, has about 1,500 acres in gold claims that its members can mine, including three miles along Olney Creek. You can't just drive along a country road, park by a nice creek and start prospecting.

Ray Lasmanis, formerly this state's geologist and now an in-house consultant with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), says that joining one of the many prospecting clubs in the area is a good idea. Otherwise, he says, you might end up panning for gold on a creek bed claimed by someone else, or maybe even a creek in which prospecting is banned. In the old days, you could get shot prospecting someone else's claim. Lasmanis says the gold flakes travel downstream from gold veins that have come to the surface after "tens of thousands of years" of erosion. He says this state never has been a big gold producer and looking for gold is "more of a hobby than anything else."

Chris Brawn, a professional miner who started Prospectors Plus with his wife, Michele, says the club began in 2007 with a membership of 35. He says it now has grown to some 600 members. Is that $1,700 an ounce one of the reasons for the club's fast growth?

"Absolutely," he says. It was going for about a third of that in 2007.

But don't expect promises of riches from Brawn.

"It's not about having gold," he philosophizes, "it's about finding it."

A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey paper on gold prospecting minces no words:

"The prospective gold seeker must have ample funds to travel to and from the region he selects to prospect and to support the venture. He must be prepared to undergo physical hardships, possess a car capable of traveling the roughest and steepest roads, and not be discouraged by repeated disappointments."

Instead of promoting possible riches, Prospectors Plus is big on promoting its family outings and barbecues. Says one of its brochures: "Get off the couch. Put down the phone. Get away from the office. Grab the kids, a shovel and a bucket. "… "

Joining a club — the DNR has a list, found by typing "Washington DNR gem and mineral clubs" on an Internet search — also helps in figuring out the myriad prospecting rules.

The state wants to make sure you know about all those rules, and prospective prospectors have to download or request from the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife a 40-page pamphlet called "Gold and Fish."

To make sure you don't forget, you must carry the 40-page pamphlet with you when prospecting. It explains such matters as how, in some cases, hose-connecting fittings on equipment may not have an inside diameter larger than ¾-inch. From a backpack, Ogilvie pulls out his copy of "Gold and Fish." He's following the rules. Although it is all men who are prospecting on this afternoon along Olney Creek, Brawn says plenty of women are in the club. But mucking in creek gravel on a weekday such as this seems like a distinctly male hobby and one for retired guys with the time. Ogilvie has teamed up with Rusty Kerr, 52, of Shoreline, who two years ago decided he and his back had had enough of being a heavy-equipment operator. He retired and took up wildlife photography and prospecting.

"I worked real hard, raised my kids all by myself," Kerr says. "My back will go out eventually, and I won't be able to walk. I wanted to say, 'I did something.' "

Chuck Martichuski, 66, of Everett, a retired machinist, is there with his buddy, Jim Mullaley, 73, of Arlington, a retired mechanic.

They talk about one of the prospecting hazards that some might not initially consider.

Olney Creek is what, maybe 30 feet across? It's shallow, and you can see the bottom, but what you thought was going to be 2 feet deep is — oops — more like 4 feet deep.

Creek bottoms have wobbly rocks covered with algae that makes them slippery.

"Yeah, I've fallen. I went down really hard, and I had to have somebody help me get up," Mullaley says.

The guys quickly figured out to bring a ski pole or some kind of big stick for balancing.

They also all talk about just how good it feels to be out of the house, in the outdoors.

Martichuski has had two knee surgeries and is diabetic. Since March, he's gone prospecting twice a week.

"My sugar count is almost normal. I'm walking better. I walk up those steep banks. I might have to stop once or twice, but I make it up those banks. I backpacked in that 60-pound battery (for an electric generator)," he says.

He's spent about $500 on gold-prospecting equipment. After that, there are few costs, he says, unlike, say, having to pay greens fees every time you golf.

As for the gold, "I've got two vials, maybe a couple of hundred dollars' worth," he says.

That gold will contain impurities, and if Martichuski takes it to a coin or gold dealer, he will get 70 percent to 80 percent of what pure gold is selling for. Right now, the vials sit at home, for him to remember those outings.

The afternoon passes.

The men see little flecks of gold here and there in the concentrate of sand they'll take home and use a pan to sift through. That'll take up even more time.

"You're not supposed to count the hours," Martichuski says.

Mullaley also talks up the hobby part of prospecting.

But he also can't help but talk about going to the Salmon River in Idaho. That, he says, is real gold country.

"You have to go to isolated places where there is no trail, where you gotta hike way back in there, and no way you can use a vehicle," Mullaley says. "I know there is gold nuggets there."

When you're talking about gold, hope springs eternal.