Digger Don disappears beneath the surface of the water, where it courses seven feet deep, to guide the three-inch nozzle of his dredge over the crenulations of quartz and granite, burrowing through silt and sand toward the hard-packed bedrock in Tesnatee Creek, a storied destination on geological maps of the "Gold Belt" arcing across northeast Georgia.
The dredge’s racket scares away snakes but not the trout, which loiter nearby to feed on insects expelled with the tailings, or loose gravel. Digger Don, an athletic fifty-three, shrink-wrapped in a wet suit and diving mask, bobs to the surface from time to time, grins, and gives a thumbs-up to his prospecting buddy, "the Sheriff," who watches, hawkeyed, from the bank. Digger Don looks as sleek and carefree as the otters that play farther downstream near a berry patch.
However, with this virile vacuum cleaner, he is intent on cleaning up—really cleaning up.
With gold’s eye-popping ascent in the commodities exchange (it could exceed $2,000 per ounce later this summer if its current trajectory continues); flinty, flannel-friendly reality television shows such as Gold Fever, Gold Rush, and Prospecting America; and the availability of more efficient, high-tech gear, Lumpkin County, the site of this country’s first gold rush—and according to legend, the point of origin for every treasure hunter’s rallying cry, "There’s gold in them thar hills!"—is once again in the crick-churning throes of what folks around here simply call "the fever."
Digger Don is known by most as Don Minzey, a Cumming electrical contractor, but the secretive social code of gold mining values the discretion of nicknames almost as much as "color in the water." This is Minzey’s fourth season of prospecting. He belongs to the Weekend Gold Miner’s Club, a Dahlonega-based organization with 783 members scattered all over the country—sometimes trekking from the West Coast, where personal dredging is banned. "The monthly meetings used to be dominated by retirees just looking to socialize, but there’s been an influx of younger members who are serious about getting out there," Minzey says. The organization, which leases about 240 acres from private landowners, has grown by seventy-five hobbyists so far this year and expects to swell its ranks even more as the weather heats up and hopeful, if not desperate, treasure hunters wield pan, sluice, highbanker, trommel, and—this year’s must-have Father’s Day gift—the dredge.
Buoyed by a couple of pontoons and tied with ropes to birches overhanging the riverbank, Minzey’s dredge sucks up loose material from the riverbed and runs it through a sluice that traps the weightiest particles in its ridges, or "riffles." Because gold is twice as heavy as most minerals and nineteen times heavier than water—and possibly because the stuff virtually winks with a smug awareness of its maddening desirability—it tends to "hide," as miners say, by settling into loose but hard-to-reach deposits called "placers."
After four hours of dredging, Minzey carries the sluice box to the narrow shore, filters the contents through the mesh of two "classifiers" resembling kitchen colanders, and finally whips out that iconic old-timer’s tool: the pan. "No matter how much fancy equipment you use to mine gold, one way or another, you ultimately end up back at the pan," he says, swirling the contents slowly and methodically until the water and lightweight particles slosh gently over the sides. "Some people who are starting out will shake it really hard, as if they’re fighting with it, but that just wears you out because this is time-consuming. You want to find your own rhythm. There’s a sort of pleasant, Zen tedium to it."
Photograph by Jamey Guy
Finally a small but noticeable sheen of yellow flecks starts to illuminate the black sand in the pan, like a mouth-watering emulsion of butter.
"To make sure it’s not fool’s gold, you can hold your hand over it to block the light—gold glows even in the shade, while pyrite needs to be hit by the sun to sparkle," says Minzey, demonstrating with his palm.
This is what they mean by "pay dirt."
The Sheriff, also known as Benny Chester, leans over to squint at the find and casts a larger shadow. The mining club’s membership director and unofficial philosopher king, Chester looks the part of old-timey prospector with his galluses and feral, salt-and-pepper whiskers. "There’s an important distinction between 'gleam' and 'glitter,'" he says. "Don’t ever say the word 'glitter' to a gold miner. It’s one of those bad, unlucky words, as in 'all that glitters . . . '" He leaves the axiom unfinished. "But gold, well, gold always gleams, no matter where it is."
By the end of the day, Minzey estimates a gold recovery of about half a pennyweight, a standard measuring unit derived from the weight of a medieval coin—a haul adding up, roughly, to around $40, depending on market fluctuations and other variables, or "just enough to pay for gas, which is pretty typical," Chester says with a shrug.
"It’s enough to make me come back and try this spot again next weekend," Minzey says. Before moving to North Georgia twenty years ago, he grew up near a gold mine in southern California, where he failed to find much in the neighborhood creek. "Looks like today we have flour gold, a few flakes, and some wire gold. Georgia supplies most of the world’s wire gold, which looks the way it sounds. Most of our flakes are the size of sesame seeds, but some are a little bigger, like rice grains. An oatmeal-sized flake you can pick up with your fingers is called a 'picker.' A picker is a step smaller than a nugget; those are exciting to find, and you will get a few on a good day. Another definition is that if you can hold the piece six inches above the pan, drop it, and hear it hit the pan, it’s a nugget. The 'clink' that gold makes is its own sound, and some would say its own reward, and it’s one of the root causes of auri sacra fames, more commonly known as 'gold fever.'"
That nugget of Latin comes from Virgil’s The Aeneid, written between 29 and 19 BC. "Sacra" can mean either "holy" or "accursed." Both definitions are apt, since gold places a supernaturally powerful and potentially destructive hold on our collective imagination.