After a string of bad luck, the Munney family of Winnemucca, Nevada, is hoping to find a brighter future in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They're part of what may become a modern day Gold Rush.
Two weeks ago after reading several reports online that gold-panners were having unexpected luck in the U.P., the Munneys drove their 1983 Winnebago 2000 miles northeast to the banks of the Manistique River in northern Schoolcraft County.
"I figured, what the heck," Edward Munney, 31, explains. He goes by the nickmane E.Z. "Our house got foreclosed on, I busted my arm and I got laid off, so we just packed up--including our dog Sparky--and here we are. First day, I'm out there up to my knees in water, and I find a nugget! Big as your baby finger!"
That first nugget, E.Z. has learned, was worth $2700. He's since found two others, worth $1300 and $900, respectively.
Michigan's metallurgy chief, Dr. Cecil Nurdbaum, confirms that state geologists have recently discovered some promising veins of gold in the southern U.P. "Our tests have shown it," Nurdbaum says. "The gold's there for the taking. I'd venture to say that some folks are going to get very wealthy."
Gold is currently selling on the international market for more than $1600 an ounce.
"This is the best job I ever had," E.Z. says. "I'm outside all day with my pan, I got no time clock to punch, and I'm gettin' rich!"
Meantime, his wife, Honey, 30, is homeschooling their seven-year-old son, "Sonny," in the Winnebago. "The boy wants to get out there with his daddy and look for gold," Honey explains with a laugh, "but I tell him no, he's gotta do some learnin' first."
The Munneys aren't alone in their search for riches.
Just up the river, Les Willin, 23, and Bob Inweeve, 22, set up a tent and staked their claim four days ago. The two young men, who worked as baristas in Portland, Maine before heading to the U.P., have so far found only two tiny nuggets and some flecks of gold, along with a rusty 9 iron--total value: $250--but they're hopeful and determined.
"We're living off the land, man," Willin says with a sunburned smile. "We're a couple of happy dudes, I'll tell you that."
Longtime resident Matias Krookid, 66, may be even happier. He owns 40 acres on the river and he's now discovered that he may be sitting on a gold mine. Literally.
"I mean, this is just a bunch of scrub land," Krookid explains. "I got a few gravel pits here, some jack pines and poppel, but lousy soil. I was tryin' to raise a couple of dairy cows right out back here, but they both croaked. Now they tell me there's gold here and they wanna buy my land!"
"They" are actually two international mining conglomerates, Morin-Moore Gold Associates from Canberra, Australia, and Ching Ching Metals LLC, out of Taiwan.
Morin-Moore officials have rented out the entire west wing of the Yooper Inn in northern Schoolcraft County while they negotiate for mineral rights to Krookid's property.
Morin-Moore spokesperson Bill Pholde had no comment on the negotiations.
Krookid says his starting price is $20 million and he's already got plans for his windfall. "I wanna go to Branson, Missouri and see Mel Tillis and Tanya Tucker," he says. "That's like a lifelong dream. And then I'm comin' back and buyin' me a whole herd of dairy cows. Cows that won't croak!" He lets out a big guffaw. "And I also wanna get one of those big screen TVs, one of those 56 inchers."
Could these recent discoveries trigger a 2012 gold rush in the U.P.?
I.B. Fibbin, the director of Michigan's Tourism Control Board, says there's no doubt about it. "We're getting 20 to 30 calls a day, people asking about gold in the U.P.," he explains. "I tell them, come on down, try your luck. We got a bus load of people coming in from Boulder, Colorado next week. They're coming in with tents and pans and dreams of striking it rich."
Fibbin's eyes are smiling. "You know that Pure Michigan campaign we have? I think we ought to rename it Michigan Gold."