LIBBY, Mont. – Shovels in hand, covered in dust, they work in the sandy soil above Libby Creek in the Kootenai National Forest. Like so many before them, they search the hillside and creek for the flakes of fortune that have drawn people to the remote stream since the 1860s.
While finding gold is the ultimate goal of the Northwest Montana Gold Prospectors, the group says friendship is the most valuable fortune they find in the hills.
“Getting together out here once a month is a chance for people to get a little gold and be with other people who enjoy prospecting as well. It’s not as much about the gold as it is about getting together with folks and having a good time,” Sandy Randall, the group’s president, told the Daily Inter Lake. “We are not in it to make money. We are here to have fun and to get people involved, especially kids.”
Based in Columbia Falls, the nonprofit organization has been helping people get interested in prospecting since its founding in 1995 by Clarence and Jill Taber.
The group began leasing small claims adjacent to the Libby Creek Recreational Gold Panning Area in 1996 and bought out those claims in 2003.
Located 23 miles south of Libby, the land surrounding the Libby Creek area has been of interest to prospectors since the early 1860s, when it was home to up to 600 miners working at a camp known as Libbysville.
By 1876, only one miner was reported to be working the creek, but a second gold rush in 1885 brought another wave of miners to a new camp known as Lake City or Oldtown. A store in the mining camp was supplied by a packstring that brought supplies via a trail from Thompson Falls. Mining on the Creek hit its peak from 1889 to 1909.
Hydraulic mining operations began around 1909 and continued until the late 1940s, when mining activities in the area began to trail off.
The current gold panning area was acquired through a land exchange in 1987 and opened to the public the following year.
With their claim just a short walk from Libby Creek, the Northwest Montana Gold Prospectors are continuing a 160-year tradition of prospecting in the area.
The Northwest Montana Gold Prospectors started as a local group of mining and prospecting enthusiasts, but over the years it has seen hundreds of members from across the country. These days, it has about 60 active members.
“Some people stay members forever, and then there are some that we see for a few years and then we never see them again,” group secretary Don Roe Jr. said. “There are also the one-and-dones. They come up here on summer vacation and join the club. Many of them pay their club dues every year, but they never come back. I think part of it is just being able to tell people they have a gold claim in Montana.”
The group began working its claim with shovels and buckets and slowly progressed to the current operation, which includes the monthly rental of an excavator and up to nine trommel screens that help sift the material.
Currently, the group spends one weekend a month in the summer and two weekends in September getting together to search their claim for gold, splitting their haul equally at the end of each outing.
Randall’s association with the group began in 1998 when she got interested in metal detecting and began looking for a place to pursue her new hobby. After speaking with Jill Taber at her shoe store in Columbia Falls, Randall decided to join the Northwest Montana Gold Prospectors for one of their Libby Creek outings, where she found a small nugget about the size of her pinky fingernail.
“After that, you couldn’t get me away from here. I have been hooked ever since I found that first piece of gold,” she said. “Some people say I am lucky, but it is more of a combination of patience and tenacity.”
While the majority of finds are not nearly that large, Randall says there are still some “pretty darn nice pieces of gold” to be found at Libby Creek.
Between food, gasoline and the cost of renting the excavator, each monthly outing costs the organization around $1,300, which the group offsets with the spoils of its labor.
“We are all out here to find gold, but it is more about the friendships that come out of these get-togethers,” Randall said. “The gold is nice, but friendships made out here are the real treasures.”
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