ILWACO — They stalk the beach in search of black sand after the storms hit.
The winter is sometimes best, when strong winds and powerful tides strip deep swaths from Benson Beach, easing access to the dark, gold-laden sands underneath.
The payoff often isn’t a lot. A successful day might yield up to a couple grams of gold — about $60 at current prices. But for the amateur gold prospectors, the experience is what’s truly treasured.
Vacation and fascination
On a brisk, overcast February morning, Portland resident Matt Tomlinson, 37, methodically ladled scoop after scoop of black sand from a five-gallon bucket over the top of his portable prospecting equipment perched on Benson Beach in the southwest corner of Cape Disappointment State Park.
Within minutes glistening gold specks began to gather in the riffles of his small sluice, a device that traps heavy gold specks while water washed away lighter material.
“You could say I have a fascination with it,” Tomlinson said. “Humans have always had a fascination with gold.”
The gold on Benson Beach isn’t big nuggets like those famously recovered from rivers and streams in California in the 1800s during the Gold Rush. Instead, it’s very fine — often smaller than 75 microns, about .075 millimeter — roughly the size of a typical tiny grain of local sand.
“It’s very small pieces of gold,” Tomlinson said. “It looks like powder, like flour.”
Tomlinson first became interested in prospecting after observing others mining on Benson Beach. He purchased his own prospecting equipment about six months ago and has since returned to the area a couple times, he said.
“I’ve been waiting for a break in the weather. My vacation time was building up, so I thought why not take a day off and go find some gold,” he said.
Gold prospecting doesn’t require a huge investment and can provide a new outlet for experiencing the outdoors.
“You’ll see people with homemade equipment. But this particular device is called the ‘Gold Cube.’ It’s like a $300 kit,” Tomlinson said. “When you’re done, you’re probably about $500 in, but you can do it for cheaper if you’re handy.”
Any gold found on a given day is considered a bonus; the true pleasure simply comes from being outside, Tomlinson said.
“I noticed people doing it and got intrigued. You get out and enjoy the weather,” he said. “It’s a great pandemic hobby. If you can get a couple of grams of gold a day, that’s a great day.”
Rules and regulations
Each miner is required to carry a pamphlet about the rules and regulations for mineral prospecting and placer mining from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The pamphlet also serves as a permit. Placer (pronounced to rhyme with passer) mining consists of separating gold from sand and sediment, usually by means of water.
Benson Beach is open to amateur mining year-around, but commercial equipment isn’t permitted, Tomlinson said. The rules allow the resource to be made accessible without severely impacting the environment.
“There’s rules about things you can and can’t do. For instance, you have to fill your holes in and you can’t use motorized or gas-powered equipment. I have a car battery hooked up to a bilge pump. There’s a limit on how much sand you can take away from the beach. It’s one [five-gallon] bucket at a time.”
Tomlinson suggested anyone interested in beach mining for gold to do some research online or simply approach a miner on the beach.
“There’s a community for everything out there,” he said. “Just come out here and talk to other people. They’re friendly and want to share information.”
Signs in the sand
Mike Brannan, 62, of Camas, walked Benson Beach scouting potential dig spots while stopping to speak with fellow prospectors he met along the way.
“By March or April, this sand will be gone,” Brannan said, pointing to stretches of light-colored sand. “Sometimes you come down here and the whole beach will be black, because the storms come in and pull the top layer away. In the summertime, it’s just the opposite.”
Brannan was searching for the darkest sand possible, a sign there may be gold mixed iron oxides and other minerals. These simple signs in the sand can steer prospectors to more productive mining areas, saving time and effort, he said.
“In the summertime you have to dig down two or three feet, other places not so much. That’s what I’m doing today, testing to find out. You want to dig down until you hit pockets of the super dark or black sand. That’s where the gold will be at,” Brannan said.
The amount of mining on Benson Beach often ebbs and flows with the tides.
“That’s why there’s guy here now, because there’s less sand and you don’t have to dig as deep. In the summertime the weather is nicer but you dig deeper. From now through summer is the prime season,” Brannan said.
Gold for a special gift
Bill Taylor, 65, was at first perplexed at what he witnessed at Benson Beach a few years ago.
“Five years ago I came down here to camp and watched it,” Taylor said. “I thought what? Really?”
A retired nuclear engineer, Taylor had an interest in gold mining.
“Hydraulics and fluids is what I used to do,” he said.
One of the first prospectors Taylor met early on amassed a sizeable amount of gold and left a lasting impression.
“The guy that got me into it collected more than 2½ pounds over the years. He had a back injury five years ago and he sold 1½ pounds for $85,000. He did exactly like we’re doing, just coming down here and playing,” Taylor said.
Today, Taylor makes routine visits to Benson Beach during the winter and spring, including the latest trip that’s lasted more than 20 days while staying at the park with his wife.
“We come down here to play. This is just a beautiful park. I just love it here,” he said.
For the past nearly two weeks, Taylor had been ‘chumming’ and prospecting alongside his friend Glen, another miner who he happened to meet on the beach. Together, the retirees have been spending their mornings and afternoons sifting through the Benson Beach sands in search of glittering gold.
“On a good day a five-gallon bucket will produce a gram of gold,” Taylor said. “A half or quarter gram is probably the average.”
On his best day, Taylor once found eight grams, which he added to the collection he’s saving for a special gift.
“I don’t sell my gold, I just keep it. Last year I got around .75 of an ounce. It’s not a lot but it’s a little bit. This year so far I’ve gotten about eight or nine grams. When I get my first ounce, I’m going to make a nugget for my wife.”