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Metal detecting for gold
By LISA BRITTON
Keith Magnuson unzips a soft-sided gun case to reveal something that will never fill his freezer with wild meat, but could someday make him rich with a little luck and a lot of patience.
But that's the nature of metal detecting for gold, he says, as he removes a dusty detector from the case.
"You've got to have patience. You can go a long time without finding anything," Magnuson says.
He bought his first metal detector in 1979.
"Then I put it in the closet and forgot about it," he says.
He revived the hobby in 1997 when he bought a coin detector, followed by one made to find gold.
"And I've been doing it ever since," he says with a smile.
Magnuson is the Public Works shop supervisor for the City of Baker City. During his free time, he operates Blue Bucket Metal Detectors out of his home, and he also belongs to the Eastern Oregon Mining Association and Eastern Oregon Miners and Prospectors.
Metal detectors can retail for $200 to $4,000 depending on the quality and sensitivity of the equipment.
"I've found pieces as big as a pinhead, but it wasn't very deep," he says. "The bigger the nugget, the deeper it'll detect it."
To demonstrate this mining technique, Magnuson flips a switch on a Fisher Gold Bug detector and the mountain evening is broken by a steady hum emanating from the machine.
He sweeps the device across the ground and listens as the sound changes in pitch as the coil passes over minerals and metal.
"It'll pick up any metal," he says.
Many metal detectors have a setting for iron sensitivity the hum stays at a steady high pitch if it detects a non-ferrous (gold, copper, brass, lead) specimen, but crackles if the metal is ferrous, such as a nail.
"Once you use it, you realize what (sound) to listen for," he says.
But a non-ferrous signal doesn't always yield gold.
"Lead and gold sound the same, so you gotta dig it up," Magnuson says.
Most detectors can be used with headphones, which let only the miner hear what might lie beneath his feet.
"Usually I wear headphones so no one else can hear," he says with a grin.
As he gets into the gold detecting rhythm, Magnuson slips on hefty headphones and begins sweeping his high-end Minelab GP3500 machine over the ground in continuous right-to-left motions.
Suddenly he kneels, sets the detector aside, grabs a blue scoop shovel off his belt clip and starts digging.
He fills the shovel full of dirt and rocks, then passes it over the top of the detector's sensitive coil.
"The top detects just like the bottom," he says.
If that scoopful doesn't elicit a response from the detector, he tosses it aside and digs another shovelful.
When he hears a high-pitched hint that metal is mixed with the dirt, he pours some dirt into one palm, then passes the scooper back over the coil. If that pile doesn't set off the detector, he knows the metal is in the handful he hasn't yet tossed aside.
It is essentially a process of elimination, and Magnuson never throws aside dirt he hasn't examined with the detector.
This trip, unfortunately, only yields a couple old bullets, which he slips in his pocket to take home.
"You take it home, throw it away. It's always good to pick up trash," he says. "And if I threw it back on the ground, I'd find it again."
He does keep some of his worthless discoveries to show the spectrum of stuff you find with a metal detector when people stop by his booth at the Sumpter flea markets.
"I put the display case out and it's all gold. Then I bring out the junk you always find junk," he says.
But he also finds gold, mostly in the local mountains that yielded millions of dollars worth gold from the 1860s up to World War II.
"It's amazing how much they've missed. I've detected where they've mined," he says. "The old-timers found it go where they went."
He doesn't, however, expect to find the motherlode when he heads out to the hills.
"My wife says Why do you do it if you never find anything?' But what if you do?" he says. "Detecting for gold and looking for gold is mostly a hobby. I just enjoy it. To me it's like fishing maybe that next swing you'll find a nugget."
He doesn't cash in the gold he finds.
"I keep all mine. I've had earrings made for my wife, I've had earrings made for my daughter," he says.
The price of gold is currently $666 per ounce.
But that doesn't really persuade people to give up their gold, he said.
"About everybody I talk to doesn't sell it," he says.
Warren Thompson, Baker County undersheriff, is also an avid metal detector miner.
"It's a great pastime, a good excuse to get out in the mountains," he says.
He doesn't sell his gold either he gives it to family.
"It gives them something to hold on to," Thompson says. "But I still have the first one I ever found that's a keeper."
Thompson started metal detecting six years ago after he tried panning for gold and using a sluice box.
"It took almost two years to find the first (nugget)," he said of his switch to detecting.
Then one time he found 17 nuggets in two days but he's not about to reveal where.
"It's just like a good fishing hole," he says with a laugh.
And just like fishing, detecting for gold takes a lot of patience and might cause just a little frustration.
"You dig a whole lot of nails and a whole lot of bullets, but sometimes it's not rusty it's yellow," he says. "It might be no bigger than a matchhead, but it makes you hoot and holler."
To learn more about mining, visit the booths of Eastern Oregon Mining Association and Eastern Oregon Miners and Prospectors in Geiser Pollman Park during Miners Jubilee. The booth will be located in the northeast corner of the park across from the Oregon Trail Regional Museum.
EOMA will hold gold panning championships on Saturday, bingo games for gold on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. and will raffle off a Gold Beaver historic coin and a Fisher Bug Gold II metal detector.
Youth can also try their skills at metal detecting for gold during contests held in a 10-foot-by-10-foot sandbox set up by EOMP. This is a timed event, and contests will be held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The winners whoever finds two gold nugget the fastest will be announced on Sunday at 3 p.m.
Kids can enter as many times as they wish the fee is $2 per session.