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Recession sparks modern-day gold rush.

By Karl Vick COLUMBIA, Calif.AuMaybe it was the nail in RayAAEs head. Maybe it was the economy. His wife said one as much as the other drove the decision to auction off everything that wouldnAAEt fit in the trailer and leave Vermont for the mother lode. AoThought weAAEd try to make a living at it,Ao Kim Lague said, standing in a mining camp that was busier during the Great Depression than it was in the Gold Rush of 1849, and is busy once again. And so, 18 months after a co-workerAAEs pneumatic hammer drove a 2 A'-inch stainless-steel nail into Ray LagueAAEs skullAuAothe plunger of the gun brushed my hat and dischargedAoAuthe once-thriving contractor took his place among the prospectors lining the steep banks of the South Fork of the Stanislaus River, 40 miles west of Yosemite National Park. The bearded man helping him drag the mining gear into the water was a jobless logger who lost his home to foreclosure. Fifty feet downstream, an unemployed concrete-truck driver scoured the river bottom beside a laid-off furniture mover, back to prospecting after a day spent wrestling with the unemployment office. AoYou have to consider the economy,Ao said Gary Rhinevault, caretaker of the Lost DutchmanAAEs Mining Association campground, where 45 prospectors pay as little as 30 cents a day to pitch their tents. AoIn 1932, there were more prospectors out trying to make a living than in the 1850s.Ao Even in the trough of todayAAEs great recession, most of the prospectors still double as hobbyists. The Lost DutchmanAAEs club allows members to camp for six months at a time, and its dozen or so claims are crowded first with the motor homes of freewheeling retirees. But as the economy soured, their ranks were swelled by adults of working age, pulled by gold prices flirting with $1,000 a troy ounceAuthe highest in more than two decadesAuand pushed by unfortunate circumstance. While there is no way to quantify the trend, anecdotally it is clear that the jobless are showing up not only in California but also elsewhere around the country where gold has been found in the past. AoI have been seeing a lot of it this year, with so many people getting laid off or hours cut way back,Ao said Tim LeGrand, owner of TN Gold & Gems in Coker, Tenn. Permits for prospecting in the nearby Cherokee National Forest, named for the tribe pushed westward after gold was discovered in early 1800s, have more than doubled since 2007. AoPeople come out with high hopes and donAAEt realize the work that is involved until they get into it,Ao LeGrand said. AoMost try a few days and give up. Many struggle on and learn to pan. Very few get enough gold to do them any financial good.Ao On the South Fork, everyone claims to know this. AoNo oneAAEs making a living down here,Ao said Tony Stroud, an unemployed machinist who, like the other prospectors repeating the phrase, surely believes the words. And yet, here they all are, investing $1,500 to $5,000 for the suction dredges that vacuum up gravel, for the sluices that separate the gravel from the black sand, and, not least, for the big plastic pans that, after the machines have done the heavy work, reveal the glimmers of color that set hearts to racing and render reason irrelevant. AoYou didnAAEt hear it from me,Ao Stroud went on a moment later, Aobut a guy in Columbia said downstream he took 14 ounces out in 48 hours. And weAAEre going to jump his hole.Ao Robert McFadden, seated to his right on a picnic table, set down his morning beer. AoWhatAAEs the appeal of prospecting?Ao he said. AoHope I can get rich, number one.Ao The river is cluttered with the minersAAE gear and the boulders they constantly rearrange in the search for a spot not already groomed of flakes. Yet the feeling is orderly, tents and motor homes lined around a rustic clubhouse that evokes familiar notions of prospecting as reliably as the bushy beards sported by many of the men. In a shady bend a mile downstream, DeWayne and Nick Shepard labored in frustration beside the Michigan flag, planted upon arrival 30 days earlier on a trip planned for three years. Their vision of prospecting was informed by repeated viewingsAuAomust be hundreds of times,Ao Nick saidAuof AoGold FeverAo and other cable television programs produced by members of the family that owns the camps. AoHe shows you, in his pan, what must be $15,000 in gold he says he got in two days,Ao said Nick Shepard, 28, who left his masonry job to come west with his retired father. AoWe wonder if there arenAAEt people who got sucked in worse than us,Ao DeWayne said. The Lagues watched the same shows.AoRealistically, when we first started out, they say you can make an ounce a day,Ao said Kim Lague, in the 31-foot trailer the couple now calls home. AoNow itAAEs down to, we just want to make an ounce a month.Ao Washington Post photos by Katherine Frey. LATWP News Servic

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Aug 31, 2009
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