The snow is still 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 to the edge of the continent in search of gold. Gold reached a new high of $924.30 Friday, before easing back to settle at $910.70.
Telgenhoff and two other miners normally have this narrow valley southeast of Anchorage all to themselves after the winter freeze. But once the spring thaw arrives, they anticipate seeing additional prospectors.
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. As a result, the association is preparing to hire more staff.
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.
The heightened interest is nowhere near that of the famous 19th century gold rushes in California, Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory. Those grizzled prospectors have long since been replaced by recreational gold hounds — mostly seasonal workers and retirees.
Roughly 150 families in Alaska live off gold they have collected, according to state officials. But longtime prospectors say small-scale mining is generally unpredictable, tough on the body and yields little to no profit.
“If you love ditch-digging, you’ll just love gold mining,” said Steve Herschbach, owner of Alaska Mining and Diving, a mining-supply shop in Anchorage. “It’s just hard labor. I knew a guy up in Nome who did really, really well, but he was like a human backhoe. The guy could just shovel all day long.”
Mining clubs are popular with hobbyists who want to avoid the paperwork and fees required to stake claims to gold. The groups have forged various agreements over the years that allow members to mine on government or private land.
“It’s great to just go out and maybe find a little bit and just enjoy being out in nature,” said Rick Segebrecht, a plumber in Oregon, Wis., who started prospecting there five years ago. “And there’s always that chance every time we go out, you could find the big one.”
The Gold Prospectors Association, the largest gold-prospecting group in the country, lets members operate dredges and sluice boxes, which are metal or plastic channels designed to catch gold. Or they can spend a day sifting through dirt with a pan, on hundreds of thousands of acres across the U.S. and Canada.
Another club called the New 49ers in the former gold mining settlement of Happy Camp, Calif., has access to 70 miles of federal mining claims along the Klamath River.
“That’s almost the only way to get into mining anymore because there are so many bureaucratic steps,” said New 49ers President Dave McCracken. “We take care of all the legal and political stuff that surrounds this activity.”
The rare individual who does stake a claim must navigate an array of state or federal regulations to establish mineral rights and adhere to the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections.
In Alaska, the state still enforces a 19th-century law requiring prospectors to mark the four corners of each parcel with a post. Herschbach, who holds a large swath of claims in the Alaskan interior, said he and other serious miners use GPS to plot out their territory. Maps posted on government Web sites lay out which claims are occupied.
State officials said their data indicates a recent uptick in gold mining. Lately, the number of abandoned claims has dropped significantly, while the number of permits issued to small miners rose steadily from 233 in 2002 to 315 in 2007.
Even so, the era of the self-sufficient Alaskan gold miner is long past.
“It’s more of a lifestyle than anything else,” said Rick Frederickson, the acting mining section chief at the Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of these guys are pretty elderly, and I don’t see a lot of young people who want to do that for a living.”
Toni Logan Goodrich, who co-owns Oxford Assaying and Refining Corp. in Anchorage, said she believes 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.”
Goodrich displayed the impressive amounts of gold unearthed by her clients. In the workshop, her husband smelted 18 pounds of gold into a brick worth $250,000. Three fistfuls of gleaming nuggets and two quarts of gold flakes sat nearby, with a total value of another $500,000.
Many prospectors liken the hunt for gold to a weekend of gambling in Las Vegas. Others love the feel of the soil, the illusion of self-sufficiency in the wilderness and the link to America’s past.
“We like to see the gold at $800 or $900 an ounce, but we were doing this when gold was a hundred an ounce,” said Telgenhoff, who earns most of his money through his contracting business. “We’re going to continue doing this when gold drops again or goes up again or whatever.”