Gold prices entice prospectors to wild

The promise of a jackpot once again lures miners to the bitter chill of the Alaskan wilderness.

Associated Press
Published February 1, 2008

GIRDWOOD, Alaska - The snow is knee-high along the banks of Crow Creek, where men are crouching up to their chests in near-freezing water, and the air is several degrees colder.

But for Mike Telgenhoff and his companions, this is a fine day to look for gold.

"We do real good in the wintertime because the creek's so low," said Telgenhoff, dressed in a sopping leather hat and drysuit. "I've made a lot of money at it, but I've spent a lot, too. You don't get rich doing this."

But with gold prices reaching an all-time high of $900 an ounce and the economy slumping, Alaska expects to see more and more people trekking in search of gold.

Membership in gold prospecting clubs is climbing nationwide, along with sales of pans, dredges, metal detectors and other small-scale mining equipment. A trade show recently hosted by the Gold Prospectors Association of America in Orange County, Calif., typified the trend.

"I saw more people walking out with more metal detectors and sluice boxes than I can remember in a long time," said Ken Rucker, general manager of the 45,000-member association. "That $900 is really getting to people."

The group has received hundreds of calls and e-mails from interested gold seekers. New memberships are increasing, and the number of membership renewals at the close of 2007 was twice as high as the year before, said Brandon Johnson, the director of operations.

Investors typically turn to gold during times of political and economic instability. The falling dollar, threat of a recession, political troubles in the Middle East and rising oil costs have raised the metal's appeal as a safe investment. Recreational gold hounds are mostly seasonal workers and retirees.

But Toni Logan Goodrich, who co-owns Oxford Assaying and Refining Corp. in Anchorage, said she thinks high prices are bringing a younger demographic to mining. It's a shift from 10 years ago, when she wondered whether her business of purifying and assessing gold would survive.

"I was thinking, 'I'm 30, what am I going to do? In 10 years, all my miners are going to be dead,'" she said. "I think it's becoming profitable, and younger people are getting involved."