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Beacon Senior News

Turning up gold in Western Colorado

May 25, 2021 10:55AM ● By Melanie Wiseman
Wes Morlang panning for gold in the Colorado River

Retirement is panning out well for these seniors

Many boys dream of following in their father’s footsteps. Although it took until his senior years, that’s exactly what Wes Morlang, 64, did after retiring—he followed his gold fever.

Morlang was born in Uravan, Colorado, where his father worked as a uranium miner. Nothing remains of this once bustling mining town south of Gateway, except for mining remnants and a sign where it once stood. His family eventually settled in Silverton, where his father was a gold miner. His father would even prospect for gold during his free time, his young son at his side.

When Morlang was just 9 years old, his father died in a tragic mine explosion. The family relocated to Delta where he spent the rest of his growing up years. 

In adulthood, Morlang joined the military, started a family and drove a truck cross-country until retiring four years ago. 

Never forgetting the passion he shared with his father for gold prospecting, Morlang decided that’s how he would stay active both physically and socially during retirement. 


Where to pan

Equipped with a gold panning starter kit and plenty of enthusiasm, Morlang struggled to find places to prospect legally. Fortunately, he wasn’t alone. 

Kevin Singel, a gold prospecting hobbyist from Silverthorne, was also frustrated. Thus began his research on where to prospect in Colorado. He traveled extensively, crisscrossing the state and compiling a list of legal mining sites in historic, urban and remote locations. He shared his gold panning finds with others in his book, “Finding Gold in Colorado.”

With the help of Singel’s book, Morlang’s passion was set in motion. He bought two claim sites near Uravan, which he travels to three to five times a week, prospecting in an area he loves for its beauty and isolation. After years of being on the road for his job, Morlang makes a point of being home every night. But he’s also delighted when his wife, Sandi, and his daughter joins him.

Morlang doubted there were any gold prospecting sites closer to his Fruita home, but was thrilled to find the Colorado River in Fruita State Park listed in Singel’s book. Located just miles from his house, that in itself was like striking gold.

Sporting rubber boots and carrying peculiar equipment, he often gets asked what he’s doing by others using the park. While some see dollar signs at the mention of gold, for Morlang, it’s not about the money.

“Many people see the ‘Gold Rush’ TV show and think they’re going to make a lot of money,” he said. “I work hard at it as a hobby, and last year, brought in about an ounce. If you’re in it for the money, it’s probably not the hobby for you.”

Finding gold is just a bonus for Morlang. Getting outside, enjoying nature and meeting people is what it’s about. 

He has mentored and shared his passion for gold prospecting with hundreds of people, hoping his outreach will inspire them.

“I’ve prospected with drug and alcohol addicts, veterans with PTSD, and people with Parkinson’s and COPD. It soothes and relaxes them being outside and near the water with a purpose in mind,” said Morlang.

His friend John Schoonover loves that it’s something he can do with other people, especially his 4-year-old grandson. 

“We find commonality when we’re out together,” said Schoonover, 62.


Plenty of gold

Morlang’s gold findings for the month of April compared to the size of a Mercury dime.

 

Some people are really secretive about where they prospect, but Morlang isn’t worried that inviting people to join him will give away his best spots.

“I suppose if I was finding thumbnail size nuggets, I might be a little more secretive,” he said. “There’s so much ground left to prospect, I can always find a new ‘best spot.’”

Morlang said there’s plenty of gold on the Western Slope for everyone. Gold from big mining towns such as Ouray and Telluride is carried downstream all the way to the Grand Valley via the Gunnison, San Miguel, Dolores and Uncompahgre Rivers. It’s referred to as “flood gold,” with floodwaters replenishing gold to areas annually. As a result, digging in the same spot each year uncovers new rewards.

One common misconception about prospectors is that they don’t care about the environment. But that’s not how Morlang and his friends operate.

“When we’re finished with an area, we reclaim it to the way it was before so you can’t even tell we were here,” he said.

Another misconception is that you have to be at the river’s edge to find gold. One of Morlang’s Uravan claims, “Ruthless,” lies 1-200 feet above the current river, where the river bed once was. 

Because gold is 19 times heavier than water, it and other heavy sediments settle in the grooves of the sluice box as river water is pumped over the diggings. At the end of the day, prospectors go home with a concentrate to pan. 

Morlang’s belief that there’s gold in every shovel full of dirt proves true.

“Every piece of gold, no matter how small, has incredible detail and character,” he said.


Catching gold fever

The price of gold is about $800 per half-ounce, but for Morlang and those who’ve learned from him, it’s not where the value’s at. 

When friends ask Seth Salsbury of Rifle how much he makes gold prospecting, he responds with, “Millions!” 

“Millions of memories, friends and experiences,” Salsbury explained. 

Morlang has never sold any gold he’s found. Instead, he trades it in for new equipment. 

“I’ll talk to anyone about gold prospecting, and teach them how to do it,” he said.

Don Hill added gold prospecting to his bucket list from watching TV westerns. He met Morlang at Fruita State Park and now prospects with him as often as possible.

“It doesn’t pay the mortgage,” said Hill, “but when you see that first flick of gold, you’re hooked.”

Wes Morlang, right, takes seniors like Don Hill, left, to pan at one of his two claims in Uravan, Colorado.


FINDING GOLD

Get started with gold panning with just a few basic supplies. 

• Buy a shovel and a basic gold panning starter kit: pan, classifier screen, snuffer bottle and magnifier ($13 on Amazon)

• Get “Finding Gold in Colorado” by Kevin Singel to learn how and where to prospect legally

• Watch videos on YouTube

• Connect with Morlang and other prospector hobbyists on Facebook: “Finding Gold in Colorado” and “Ruthless Boys Mining Company” 

For gear and recommendations, visit www.findinggoldincolorado.com.