POWELL — Jan Earle still remembers the first flakes of gold she spied in the bottom of her pan: “It was like finding a lost ring or a diamond. Or seeing a spectacular butterfly for the first time.”
Forty-some years ago, Earle was a geologist helping to survey South Pass in the Wind River Range for new Wyoming geological maps. After long hours of summer field work, she would spend time panning area streams. Earle knew the boundaries of claims and how to recognize good areas to hunt for precious metals. It wasn’t easy, but over three seasons of panning from May to September she found 10 ounces.
“I had to work very hard for my gold,” she said.
Had Earle held on to it all, she might be sitting on a pile of cash today: The price of gold has gone up more than 500% in the last 20 years, hitting more than $1,500 an ounce in late August.
But Earle was never looking to get rich: “It was just something we did with friends for fun.” She took her 10 ounces — worth about $350 then — and used it for a down payment on her first home.
Earle did better than many folks who poured into the region in the late 1800s, looking to strike it rich. So many people rushed to the territory, it helped Wyoming become a state. Entire towns, like Atlantic City and South Pass City, sprang up almost overnight.
But Wyoming wasn’t an easy place to mine. Access was difficult, and only a few individuals and operations did well.
“Most of the gold-bearing ground in Wyoming remains virgin,” according to the Wyoming Prospectors Association’s website.
Gold has been discovered in every mountain range in the state, with South Pass being the most productive. The trick is knowing where to look, and knowing the different regulations on state versus federal lands, Bureau of Land Management or National Forest Service areas.
“It’s best to go with people who know,” Earle said.
There’s a wealth of information and resources on prospecting to be dug up in Powell. The Big Horn Basin Prospectors Association meets the second Tuesday of every month and makes monthly outings.
“The club will help teach you how to pan,” said Doug Butler, a Lovell resident and longtime member of the group. “It’s fun.”
Wayne Sutherland — a gemstones, metals and economic geology specialist for the Wyoming State Geological Survey — has found his share of gold over the years, but his main motivation was studying geology and getting outside.
“It’s like fishing,” he said. “Even if you don’t get anything it was still a fun day.”
On its website, the State Geological Survey has pamphlets explaining regulations and maps pointing to where gold has been found in Wyoming. Sutherland said other valuable minerals are out there, including silver, copper and jade. Right now, he said, palladium is worth more than gold, and prospectors are finding it in the southern Wyoming.
As for Earle, at 72 she’s happy teaching about geology and prospecting at the South Pass City Historical Site, between Lander and Farson, where she spends her summers teaching would-be prospectors.
No. 1 on her tip list: Be patient.
“You’re not going to strike it rich on your first pan,” she said. “It may take 10,000 pans. You have to be able to deal well with disappointment.”