Economic woes spark new US gold rush

Soaring precious metal prices, accompanied by a national economy that is suddenly on the skids, is spurring a modern-day gold rush across northern California, and other sections of the western United States and Canada, that veterans of panning and sluicing have not seen in many a decade.

It is not quite the stampede of 1849, the year that marked the beginning of the original Gold Rush, when some 300,000 adventurers rushed to California in covered wagons and by sea. Where the "49ers" were rugged and wild, the "08ers" generally turn up on weekends with metal detectors in minivans.

But, as gold prices reach historic highs – passing $1,000 an ounce earlier this month, and with the spring thaw just beginning, the traffic in these areas is expected to be heavy.

Just ask the Gold Prospectors' Association of America, which has seen its membership multiply by three as gold prices have surged. The Mojave Prospectors' Association organises special events for gold-panning enthusiasts, including an outing to a stretch of the Mojave Desert in Arizona yesterday where president Al Adams buried 300 tokens with the letter "g" for gold in the gritty soil. "More people are looking for a hobby, and the price of gold being nearly $1,000 an ounce is why attendance is so high," Mr Adams said.

Commercial claims for gold prospecting are rising too. The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for federal land in the west, recently revealed that claims had risen to 2,274 in the first quarter of this year, compared to 132 claims in the same quarter of 2005.

Amateur gold-seekers are likely to head first to the "Mother Lode" located in the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California and along Route 49. Most experts believe that the longtime popularity of the area notwithstanding, there should be plenty of gold left.

But it is not just California where the glitter of gold is drawing new crowds. "Every dang fool with nothing to do is gonna be up in the woods getting flat tyres and getting lost," grumbled Bill Dobell, 59, of Granite in northwestern Oregon.

"Theoretically, if a guy was a good panner, he could probably go out and make a couple of hundred bucks a day," said veteran miner Ed Hardt, 74, who is president of the Eastern Oregon Mining Association.

For those not thrilled about roughed-up knuckles and hours of scanning the soil with a metal detector, there is another way to cash in on gold's soaring value: trading in all those unwanted baubles. Jewellery makers and pawn shops across the nation have reported a surge of customers in recent weeks.

"I haven't seen anything like this in nearly 30 years," says Klaus Degler, president of Rocky Mountain Coin and Jewelry in Denver.

But some of his more intrepid patrons are hearing the siren call of them thar hills. "Metal detectors and gold pans are flying out the door too," Mr Degler adds.