There's money to be made in them thar Maine hills (well, rivers, anyway)
By Tom O'Donnell
For the last few years, Steve and Keith have spent just about every free day from late spring until late autumn out on the Swift River, a dozen or so miles north of their homes in Rumford. They work from sunrise to sunset, sifting through the rocks and gravel on the bottom of the river using an array of hand tools and light industrial machinery. Their reward for these countless hours of backbreaking labor: a handful of hypnotically glittering flakes of pure, authentic Maine gold.
THINGS ARE PANNING OUT:
you can get all your gold-digging supplies at Rosey White’s Ole Prospector Mineral and Gift Shoppe.
“It’s more than a hobby now,” Keith laughs. “It’s an obsession.”
“Yeah,” Steve pipes in, “there really is such a thing as gold fever.”
Keith estimates his haul since May has been about an ounce. On the open market, that amount of raw material would fetch about $300. Keith’s exchange rates are a bit higher, though.
“That ounce is worth a million dollars,” he assesses, citing the amount of time he has invested in the project. “I’m putting way too much into it.”
To these zealous locals, the presence of gold in western Maine rivers has always been a given. Just about anyone from that part of the state knows about it, and more than a few have walked away with nuggets of their own.
For the rest of us, though, the gold is a bit of surprise. It’s the sort of treasure you’d expect to find in the Yukon or at least west of the Mississippi. But however unlikely it may seem, if you follow the river north to the small town of Byron, chances are you’ll see plenty of hopefuls, knee-deep in the icy water, gold pans in hand.
“It’s not anything you’d find enough to make money at, but you do it for the fun,” explains Rosey White, co-proprietor of the Ole Prospector Mineral and Gift Shoppe across from the nearby Coos Canyon picnic area.
The store — with a sign out front reading “Gold bought, sold, and lied about here” — sees a steady stream of treasure-hunters, ranging from eager first-timers to regular customers. They stop by to pick up gold pans and other gear, to exchange techniques and advice on the latest hotspots, or just to gaze longingly at the display case full of Swift River gold.
Rosey also summarizes the relevant laws for newcomers: dig only in the riverbed and not in the banks, don’t disturb any vegetation, and be sure you have the landowner’s permission. To the last point she adds that Mead Paper Company, which owns much of the land around the Swift River, does allow recreational panning.
“You go out to have a good time, and if you find any gold it’s a bonus,” Rosey tells them. She relates that on a good day a panner might get a few flakes — a couple dollars worth at best — for a full day’s work. But she’s also sure to mention that there are exceptions. “Sometimes,” she concedes, “you do find big nuggets.”
Meanwhile, off Route 17, a mile upstream from the shop, Greg Daggett of Union, Maine is busy swirling a pan of water and gravel, letting the lighter sands wash away so any heavy materials like gold will be left in the pan. “That’s what we’re looking for: the nugget,” he says. His family found five flakes during a visit last year, and now he clearly has a taste for gold. “It’s just the excitement of trying to find that nugget.”
“Even if you don’t find it,” his wife Wendy quickly adds, “it’s still exciting learning something new.” Of course, as Greg points out, she did find a flake of gold this time, while he and the rest of the family came up empty.
They’re visiting Byron as part of a group from nearby Mount Blue State Park, which offers panning lessons and equipment loans in the summer. The guided trips start every Friday and Saturday at 1 p.m. from the Nature Center on the Webb Lake side of the park.
A bit further up from the Mount Blue group, at the head of the Swift River’s East Branch, newcomer Roland Rivard of Springvale is trying his luck panning with his three daughters. Their gold total for the day also stands at one flake, but he’s discovered a couple of different reasons to enjoy the hobby.
“For one, because it’s relaxing, and the other, because I can do it with my family.” Besides, he and his daughters are also fond of gem hunting, and so far their pans have turned up a small-yet-perfect crystal of green tourmaline and a handful of respectable garnets. Other semi-precious stones, such as jasper, topaz, and assorted shades of quartz, are also found in the region’s rivers.
At first, most searchers stick to using traditional wide slant-sided gold pans, which can be purchased for under $10 at the shop near Coos Canyon, as well as from other specialty shops like Perham’s, a renowned rock and mineral store in West Paris. Once the fever hits, though, some invest in more productive equipment.
Finding some flecks on a couple panning trips to the Swift was enough to convince Nancy Renaud of Vernon, Vermont to take the hunt to the next level. Abetted by her two sisters, she stops into the mineral shop and buys a sluice for about $60. Rosey explains how it works: you lay the sluice in shallow water at an angle, slowly scoop gravel onto one end, and let the current wash away the lighter materials. As with panning, any gold in the gravel will remain on the sluice because it’s heavier than anything else in the river.
So Nancy and her sisters drive back over the bridge into Byron village, turn left on the unpaved East Branch Road, and follow it a couple miles to its end near the river. They set up the sluice and commence shoveling not far from Steve and Keith’s makeshift mining camp. It’s a beneficial location, because like many of the more experienced locals, Steve and Keith are happy to offer advice.
While Keith helps the sisters set up their sluice, Steve explains that anyone new to gold-panning in Maine ought to read C.J. Stevens’s book The Next Bend in the River, which is quite possibly the only full volume devoted to the subject. It weaves personal experiences and historical minutia (hey, did you know that Maine’s first gold was found in the town of Madrid in 1854?) along with plenty of practical how-to and where-to tips.
As the conversation turns to matters of technique, Steve points out his nearby motorized dredge, the ultimate weapon for die-hard gold hunters. Like an oversized vacuum cleaner, the dredge uses a hose to suck gravel from the bottom of the riverbed up to a platform on the surface, where the material is then sorted by weight much like on a sluice, only in higher volumes.
In shallow water it’s a simple procedure, but in deeper spots it requires wearing a neoprene wetsuit to ward off the chill from the mountain runoff and a snorkel to breathe underwater. In some pockets, Steve and Keith have had to rely on air hoses so they could work the riverbed ten or more feet below the surface. Though it sounds impressive enough in the summer, keep in mind that their season actually starts in May, when there’s still snow in the woods.
“Do you know how cold the water is in May?” Steve asks, almost shivering as he recalls the experience. One time, he even got caught in a late spring snowstorm, but he kept working because he was so eager to get back to the water after a long winter.
While this degree of perseverance is the best strategy for long-term gold seekers, nothing can match the value of good old-fashioned luck. Every now and then — just often enough to keep the tall tales flowing around the Ole Prospectors Shop — someone stumbles across one of those elusive larger nuggets.
The best Rosey has seen was a whopping one-and-a-quarter-ounce chunk found just a few years ago. She estimates that it would fetch about $2500 if sold. Her personal prize is a thick third-of-an-ounce nugget a bit wider than a nickel, which she bought from a friend for $1000. Her appraisals are actually higher than the usual market value, she explains, because local gold is harder to come by than, say, California gold, and the local connection adds value if it’s used for jewelry-making.
To record such exceptional finds for posterity, the shop maintains a photo album showing panners with their prizes. To qualify, the gold needs to weigh at least three grains (about .00625 of an ounce), which generally equates to a flake about an eighth of an inch in diameter. The dozens of pictures not only prove that respectable gold can be found in Maine, they also demonstrate how unpredictably such luck is dispersed.
“Some people get their picture in their first time out,” Rosey explains. “For others, it takes years.”
Even more enticing than these recent discoveries, however, are the apocryphal tales of those who worked the water in decades past. When asked if anyone has ever made any real money off the gold, Rosey tells of one Byron woman, now in her 70s, who reputedly paid her way through college using her family’s haul from the river. Stevens’s book offers similar anecdotes about locals who spent the Great Depression panning for gold because it paid more than other jobs in the area. He even tells of one archetypal grizzled old prospector who lived for years as a hermit, using panned gold as his primary source of income.
That’s not to say that the folks on the river these days are only in it for the money. Sure, no self-respecting panner would pass up a nugget, but the fact that most find a flake or less and return to pan again proves that there’s more to it than that.
“It’s just nice to find something that no one else has ever seen,” Keith concludes after a long day of searching. He and Steve will keep working the river, and they probably won’t get rich in the process. But then again, they’re at least one ounce of gold closer than the rest of us.
Tom O’Donnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.