Still gold in them there hills: B.C. prospector hangs up his pan after six decades

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Meet George Vanderwolf, who may or may not be the last of a breed of gold prospectors and independent miners.

The 78-year-old Lillooet, B.C., resident is retiring after 59 years of hunting for gold and staking claims in the mountains of British Columbia.

He told the Globe and Mail he's sold off the last of his claims but still goes out to show school groups how prospecting is done or teach anyone who's interested in the ways of panning for gold.

"I just love passing on my knowledge," he told the Globe.

British Columbia, which saw its first gold rush in 1859, remains a mecca for prospectors, thanks to gold prices pushing past $1,700 an ounce. It's spawned a new generation of amateur prospectors, according to B.C. Business Magazine.

Hobbyists pan the province's rivers and streams, hoping to turn up a valuable nugget or simply enjoy the quest.

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Most exploration is done by professionals looking for deposits that can be mined commercially.

But prospectors like Vanderwolf are drawn by more than the chance of striking it rich. The thrill of discovery pushed him too.

"A gold nugget is a miracle of nature," said Vanderwolf, who started prospecting in 1953.

"A diamond is worth more. But you get 10 diamonds and they all look the same. Every nugget is unique."

He told the Globe that once he was panning in the Bridge River near his home in a driving rainstorm when he turned up a nugget shaped like an eagle.

"It was one of those rare things that only happen once in a lifetime," he said.

He normally sells the gold he finds but has kept the eagle-shaped nugget as a priceless reminder of the joys of prospecting and the beauty of gold, the Globe said.

"Okay, so you get a few thousand dollars for it. But once the money is gone you've got nothing," Vanderwolf said. "I'll never sell that one."

If he found a promising site with traces of gold, Vanderwolf would return with a backhoe to dig large amounts of dirt and gravel and dump it into sluice box to recover any potential gold.

But finding gold is not the same as finding a gold deposit rich enough to mine, Vanderwolf told the Globe, even with gold selling at $1,700 an ounce.

"The cost of everything is so high today," he said. "Fuel costs are high, equipment costs are high, labour costs are high. It costs too much to mine most gold deposits.

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"Look at it this way. When I started it was $35 an ounce. But I just bought a new pickup truck, and it cost me $53,000. In '56 I bought a new truck for $2,600."