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Panning for a little safe haven

Marketplace Staff Aug 25, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There are plenty of ways to figure out how people are feeling about the economy. You can watch the stock market. You can keep your eye on surveys and statistics like consumer confidence and leading economic indicators. Or you can just check out the price of gold. It’s what’s called a safe haven. Price goes up when people are feeling uneasy. Gold held steady in New York today. About $622 an ounce at the close this afternoon.

Maybe it’s just a kind of market zeitgeist, but Americans are getting a different kind of gold fever these days. They’re heading to places like Alaska to get it the hard way. Weld Royal reports.

WELD ROYAL: It’s a damp, chilly summer afternoon in Juneau, and about 25 people are panning in Gold Creek. They’re not far from Joe Juneau’s strike that ignited the first Alaska gold rush.

Recreational prospectors are rushing to Alaska to seek that precious yellow metal. Their journeys are less arduous than Joe’s. They arrive via cruise ship and jet, and between digs eat gourmet food and drink fine wine.

These luxury packages can cost up to $7,000 a week. Bruce Lundy stands in hip waders and holds a black plastic pan and a pair of tweezers. His shovel’s stuck in the creek bed and his colander sits on a nearby rock. The Dayton, Ohio, native and aerospace consultant is spending his eight-day vacation panning. It’s his second time here.

BRUCE LUNDY: I am finding what is known as Placer Gold. It is 22-, 24-karat pure.

Last year more than 25,000 people tried their luck gold panning in Juneau. Rutgers University economics professor Michael Bordo is a gold specialist. He says there’s an historic link between gold and irrational human behavior.

MICHAEL BORDO: Gold had these mythical qualities. It’s beautiful. It’s easy to work with as jewelry. It had special properties as money.

The Last Chance Mining Museum overlooks Gold Creek. Manager Renee Hughes says she’s getting between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors during the summer season.

RENEE HUGHES: Well, I’ve had a few people who were financial advisors and such around the world — New York, Wall Street — that have come in here and they speculate, because of the war we have going on, that the price of gold is going to continue to rise.

Many entrepreneurs are taking advantage of Juneau’s popularity as a cruise destination. Jerry Harmon targets cruise-ship passengers and says business is booming. He started AJ Mine/Gastineau Mill Enterprises six years ago when the town’s gold mine where he was working shut down. He leases land from his former employer for his gold tour business.

JERRY HARMON: We started out very slow. If you want a number of tourists that we get here this year, it’s hard to say. This is our best year. We should have somewhere around 10,000 visitors here this summer.

Harmon says panning’s been a hit with tourists.

HARMON: I think it’s a treasure hunt. There’s always the excitement of finding that first piece of gold.

That excitement is helping Alaska to strike gold of its own. Tourism is the state’s second largest industry, bringing in about $2 billion a year.

TOURIST: No, we didn’t find that much. But we did find that. . . . It should be my fortune, for my retirement.

In Juneau, I’m Weld Royal for Marketplace.

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