ATLANTIC CITY, Wyo. — Elden Kinderknetch comes to Atlantic City to gamble. But instead of hitting the slot machines or the blackjack tables, he dons a wetsuit and wades into a cold Wyoming creek.
Kinderknetch, 54, a shipping clerk from Salt Lake City, is one of an increasing number of recreational gold prospectors, folks who like to be outdoors as they satisfy a desire to hunt for hidden treasure.
"I could . . . find a nugget that makes me rich," he said. "My chances are probably like hitting the lottery, but they are there."
On a recent outing in central Wyoming, the gray-haired Kinderknetch worked patiently amid the hum of his small dredge. The water rushed around him as he pushed a hose attached to the dredge along the creek bottom.
Kinderknetch is not trying to find the mother lode. A few flakes of gold, sometimes so small he must squint to see them in his pan, are enough to swap stories with other prospectors, though each flake may only be worth a nickel or a dime.
"I like getting outdoors. That's why I'm here," he said.
They come to pan for gold nuggets and dust that have washed down from the veins and faults of gold hidden in the rocks. Some merely grab a pan and head for the wilderness.
But Kinderknetch takes his hobby a bit more seriously.
With an array of shovels, pans, buckets and garden tools, he prospected at Rock Creek, south of the old mining town of Atlantic City.
He used his dredge to suck up sediment from the creek bottom and pour it through a sluice to filter out large rocks and pebbles. He then swirled it around in a wide, shallow pan, dumping ou1948254209sand and gravel until only a fine black silt remained.
At the end of a long day, his pan sparkled with bounty.
"I probably only have a buck worth of gold in here, but that's beside the point," he said. "It's mine. I want it."
He knows he has a chance to find larger amounts of gold. About six years ago, he found a nugget about the size of a raisin. He made it into a necklace and presented it to his wife on her birthday.
"I had to keep it a secret until then . . . and I had a heck of a time," he said.
The quest for gold is not reserved for old Gold Rush states such as California, Colorado and Alaska.
Because of prospecting's popularity, eastern states such as Ohio, Michigan and Maine have become popular spots over the past five years, said Perry Massie, president of Gold Prospectors of America.
The Temecula, Calif.-based prospectors' group tells prospectors where and how to hunt for gold. It also owns a growing, nationwide 24-hour cable television channel called the "Outdoor Channel" that promotes prospecting and other outdoor activities.
In Ohio, prospecting is popular in creeks near the northern town of Bellville, said Ken Rucker, national gold claims manager for the organization.
In Michigan, particularly popular spots include the White River near White Cloud and creeks near Ishpeming, just south of Lake Superior, he said.
Maine has become an increasingly popular prospecting state, with activity on the Swift and Kennebec rivers in northern Maine and on the Penobscot River between Milford and Lincoln, said Jack Duggins, Maine's coordinator for Gold Prospectors of America.
"It's just amazing where people are showing up," Massie said.
A growing number of prospectors are visiting Wyoming.
The federal government estimates that at least 28 million ounces of gold still awaits in the Wind River mountains, which is about $8.26 billion worth of gold, said Dan Hausel of the Wyoming536870914Geological Survey.
"Compared to most other states, that is quite a bit," he said.
But Wyoming has long been overlooked by prospectors. One mining company tried but failed to find the source of the gold in the Wind River mountains, he said.
There are plenty of success stories from weekend prospectors. One prospector found a 7.5-ounce gold nugget last year in central Wyoming, he said.
Another "had a briefcase full of nuggets," he said.
Reminders of former attempts to strike it rich are everywhere.
A few miles from where Kinderknetch worked, abandoned mines jut out of the landscape. Atlantic City is now a summer getaway where prospectors often stop for lunch before heading into the hills.
"Inside of every human being there is an extreme fondness for gold," said Jake Hartwick, vice president of public relations for the Gold Prospectors of America.
"It has been that way since the beginning of recorded history and it will be that way until we're dust," he said.