By SARAH REIJONEN
For the GPAA
It’s all in a day’s work. Put in eight hours over two days with the Gold Prospectors Association of America Yellowstone Prospectors Chapter in Montana, and you’ll go home with gold.
“Everybody always goes away with some gold,” said GPAA Yellowstone Prospectors President Pat Bailey, who has been attending the chapter’s annual Memorial Day weekend outing for the last 18 out of 19 years.
This year’s dig is May 28 and 29, followed by a raffle and auction event May 30, in the dirt-road town of Zortman, Mont.
“The town’s people support us very well,” Bailey said. “The town is all of 50 people.”
The event is free, though the club charges $8 for the optional Miner’s Mess dinner on Sunday at which the club will provide hot dogs, brats, drinks and condiments. As for lodging, the Zortman Motel and Garage is taking reservations. RV and tent camping are also an option at the Bureau of Land Management’s Camp Creek Recreation Area. In addition, there are 10 trailers available for rent on the event property, but they must be reserved in advance.
The event carries on rain or shine, and Bailey said there have been a few blustery years, including one with six inches of snow.
“There was only one year that we did not host it because of a major rain event,” Bailey said. “A lot of roads got washed out and it wasn’t even safe to get up there.”
Bailey said all-terrain vehicles are welcome at the event, but they should be licensed in Montana.
“If you’re not from Montana, you can get a year permit for off-road,” Bailey said. “It includes the town of Zortman, considering it doesn’t have any pavement. There are two gas stations, a grocery store, a post office and a bar in town — what mining town wouldn’t have a bar?”
Though it’s small and off the beaten path, Zortman was a boomtown in its hey day.
“This was a very big mining town at one time,” Bailey said. “There was Pegasus Gold Mine and many others before that.”
So, the odds of finding gold are good. In fact, Bailey said he’s found a couple of pickers at past events.
“I’ve actually found two nuggets that were a half-ounce, so you can get big stuff; that is known,” Bailey said. “I found both of those in one day within a couple hours of each other.”
The digging is a group effort, with attendees digging four hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday. Claim owner, Zortman resident and GPAA member, John Kalal, brings his backhoe out to assist with the digging. The club also sets up a trommel and three highbankers.
“When we get done after four hours, we screen everything down with an eight-inch screen,” Bailey said. We divide it up right there. Any pickers bigger than the one-eighth of an inch screen, we save and draw for those nuggets on Monday.”
But, it isn’t all hard work — there’s plenty of play, as well, Bailey said. On Sunday night, the club holds a small raffle which includes a Goofy hat with the long ears, snout and all. The winner must wear the hat all night long, and if he or she is caught without the hat on, it can be stolen away. Wearing the hat pays off in the Monday raffle, which the club holds just before most participants pack up and head home.
“Monday we have raffles and auctions to help support the club and pay the guy who digs the holes,” Bailey said. “Everybody seems to have a really good time meeting people with all different levels of experience. We get people who haven’t even seen a gold pan to people who do heavy mining.”
They also get a few pint-sized prospectors. The kids have their own operation set up, and Bailey said he begrudgingly admits the younger generation has a knack for finding gold.
“For the kids, every day we start them mid-day and they have their own dig, and they usually do better than the adults. I hate to say it, but they seem more determined,” Bailey said. “It’s definitely a family event, so family and kids, come on up!”
One of Bailey’s favorite memories includes the kids and man’s best friend.
“I used to have a dog, an English setter named Sandy. One year a couple of us were just looking around, and we weren’t finding anything. I kind of looked at her and said, ‘Where’s the gold?’ She started digging and there was a picker. I said, ‘Well, where’s the rest of it?’ And, she just sat down,” Bailey said.
He tried the same trick the following year with his trusty four-legged friend.
“The next year, I was running the kids’ dig and I asked her, ‘OK Sandy, where is it?’ She ran over and started digging again and the kids would just flock to her. It was kinda cute. I don’t know if it was a fluke or what,” he said.
Young and old, the event usually
attracts between 70 and 100 people, but there is plenty of room to spread out with Kalal’s cluster of claims running approximately five miles in length.
Once the participants have put in their time on the common dig, they are encouraged to go out and explore and prospect on their own if they would like, Bailey said.
“After you work on morning or afternoon shift, you’re welcome to do whatever: panning, ride around in the mountains, go fishing,” he said. “The Missouri Reservoir System is close by and there’s lots of wildlife. We’ve seen mountain goats. We see bears and mountain lions, too. They don’t like lots of people, but they are around.”
If you miss out on the outing, there’s always a chance to visit the claims later on in the year,
“The place is open all summer long,” Bailey said.
Sarah Reijonen is a freelance writer based in California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
— Article as featured in the April/May 2016 Pick & Shovel Gazette