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From Issue #25 September 12, 2013

Magnetic Fields

Metal-detecting enthusiasts discover buried treasure and community.

By Mary Catherine O'Connor Twitter icon 

Dave Davis, a retired San Francisco cable car operator, and detectorist friend.

As I walk into a monthly meeting of the Bay Area Searchers in the First Baptist Church in San Bruno, a bedroom community west of San Francisco’s airport, all the white-haired gentlemen gathered around folding tables turn and look at me. Their expressions range from incredulous to bemused. But they all flash a kindly smile.

The only two women in the room — younger than the fellows, but older than me — also greet me warmly. “I’m a hugger,” says Joy Walding, the group’s treasurer, as she wraps her arms around me.

I wound up in this room after years of half-jokingly telling my husband, whenever he asked for a gift suggestion, that I wanted a metal detector. He finally took me at my literal word. He gave me one for my 40th birthday, and it then gathered dust for months in a corner of my office.

With an actual metal detector at my disposal, I couldn’t summon the motivation to pursue what I saw as a lonely and quirky hobby. I only screwed around with it once or twice, finding nothing but foil wrappers and beer caps. Was I doing something wrong? I reasoned that if I started hanging out with people who are really into metal detecting, maybe I’d really get into it. So I did. And I did.

Better living through circuitry

Metal detecting is one of those peripheral pastimes that never disappear but also never become a fad. Metal detectorists are found randomly in parks — or maybe in the background of your beach vacation photos, whether those photos are from 1978 or from 2003. Who are these people? What are they finding? It became an obsession for me to get an answer.

The hobby also drew me in for the same reasons I hunt for vintage goods at secondhand shops. I know there are objects of beauty and value out there — things that others have foolishly or accidentally cast off — and that they’re mine for the taking. I can easily spend 30 minutes pawing through a musty thrift store. There is no guarantee of success. But the stakes are low, and the rewards are potentially high.

At my first meeting, everyone asks, nearly in unison, what kind of machine I have. “It’s a Teknetics,” I say, and their eyebrows shift from quizzical to pleased. “That’s a good brand,” one says. But when I utter the model name, the room ices over. It’s a low-end starter model. These guys are gear heads. They immediately recognize that I’m on the beginner’s side of the learning curve.

Though the exact interface varies, most modern metal detectors — from cheap to high-end — convey via an electronic display both the estimated depth of a metal target and its likely composition, such as iron, zinc, or gold. The machines also generate an audible signal that either fluctuates based on the proximity of the target, like a Geiger counter, or produces different tones for different metals. Searchers tend to listen to this through headphones, which makes the audio easier to hear and less annoying to others.

I know those facts, but I have no solid idea of how to put them together. Dave Davis, a retired San Francisco cable car operator, befriended me at my initial appearance at a get-together. On our first hunt together, he gives me pointers on how to swing the machine and monkey with its settings. My finds aren’t anything really exciting: a rainbow pendant and a handful of coins. But it’s enough to stoke my enthusiasm and make me fixate on what else is hiding under the sod.

I share my prizes at the regular meetings, which are show-and-tell sessions for members, who arrive with their previous month’s worth of loot in the kind of glass-topped wooden cases used by jewelry vendors to display wares at a flea market. Searchers I’ve met keep meticulous records of every item they find. But no one dwells on a single find, and no show-and-tell is complete until the speaker holds up a plastic baggie of money and states, “And I found 128 coins for a total value of $12.37.”

On my second outing with Dave, despite hearing my machine ping and reading the depth display, I have trouble zeroing in on where to dig. As a result, my divots are larger and deeper than they ought to be, and I’m wasting many minutes unearthing pennies and dimes. Davis tries to figure out why I’m having trouble. But he also says it’s up to me to learn my machine.

“Mike Walding has a Teknetics,” he says, referring to another club member, a retired cop who is arguably the best searcher in the Bay Area. Walding recently dug up an array of fine jewels, old toys, and valuable coins in a dried-up lakebed in Golden Gate Park. “His is way older than yours. In fact, yours is probably a better machine,” says Davis. “But Mike’s been doing this for so damn long. He just knows how to use it.”

With my coin collection growing faster than my skill set, I’m jealous of the special finds the elders exhibit at meetings: dog tags, a heavy silver chain holding an Oakland Raiders pendant the size of a drink coaster, and a one-and-a-quarter-carat diamond ring. I know they’ve all spent years honing their skills. When many of them started detecting, even the top-of-the-line detectors were far inferior to mine.

They also didn’t have the luxury of a newish invention called the pinpointer: it’s a handheld device that’s in essence a fancy stud-finder; it helps one quickly narrow in on a target after digging a hole. If I wanted better odds at digging up diamond rings, I’d have to invest in one more gadget.

The author’s early, modest finds.

Metal heads

We can thank Alexander Graham Bell for inventing the first electromagnetic metal detector. When he slapped together the first detector in 1881, he was looking not for booty but for an assassin’s bullet lodged in the body of President James Garfield. He failed to find the ammo, and Garfield died.

Skip ahead to the 1930s, when German inventor Gerhard Fisher patented the first portable metal detector and began selling them out of the garage behind his home in Palo Alto, California. Soon after, detectors were optimized for finding land mines during World War II. Then, in the ’50s, as Fisher’s patents expired, more manufacturers joined the growing industry. The hobby spread.

The company that Fisher founded, Fisher Research Labs, still makes detectors; in fact, the company owns Teknetics. But brands such as White’s and Tesoro are most popular among the detectorists I’ve met, all of whom are sticklers for machines that are produced in the USA, as the aforementioned are. Nearly everything sold by Greg Moscini, my local metal detector dealer, is made in the United States.

A retired cop, Moscini speaks quickly and authoritatively and can talk you through the specs of each model that’s hanging in his orderly suburban garage showroom. He demonstrates the ways to optimize a machine’s settings based on what you plan to hunt and even on the mineral content of the soil or sand you’ll search in.

I learn all this when club pal Dave and I head to Moscini’s place so I can buy my first pinpointer. I need a better way to zero in on my targets. If I hadn’t joined the Bay Area Searchers, I probably would have just picked up a pinpointer online. But that’s a great way to be scorned by local club members, who have universal distrust of any metal-detecting gear that is acquired from the Internet.

This distrust, it seems, is reinforced and was likely seeded by Moscini and Larry Manger, a dealer based near Sacramento. Both have been selling detectors for decades out of their garages, and each says online sales have significantly hurt his business.

However, the dealers find ways to remain viable. Moscini offers free lessons to customers who buy detectors from him, but charges others $100 an hour. Both Moscini and Manger also offer their services as professional metal detectors, helping individuals find lost items. There’s no hard-and-fast rule as to what they charge. The rates vary based on the distance they must travel and the difficulty of the hunt. Club member Dave Clark reports that $50 an hour is the going base rate.

Moscini is a bit of a curmudgeon, but he is earnest and seems to have his customers’ best interests in mind. He gave me a deal on my pinpointer, too, even a bit better than I’d have gotten online.

“I’ve had 16 different detectors,” Dave Clark tells me. “And I got ’em all from Greg.”

Dharma crumbs

For all the shoptalk and display of loot at meetings, not all detectorists focus on the value of their gains. “I’ve gone three months without finding anything but clad,” says Clark when I ask if he ever hits a lull. Clad refers to new US coins that hold only face value. Some quarters and dimes minted prior to 1964 and nickels minted during World War II contain high silver content. Depending on the current price of silver, these older coins end up being worth a few dollars each.

“I get a lot of birders and fishermen,” Larry Manger tells me when I ask who comes to his Sacramento shop. “Since we’re right on the edge of gold country, I tend to get more people who are interested in prospecting than Greg, who gets people looking for coins and jewelry.” Manger also says there’s a big overlap between the metal detecting community and the ham radio crowd.

What he does not say, but what I learned in just a few outings, is that there is also something meditative about the slow walk, the rhythmic swinging of the coil over the ground, and the pops and thuds of the audio indicator. Clark and some others I speak with say that the swing of the detector, the quiet, and the concentration have a calming effect on them.

Walking and rhythmic chanting are two vehicles for meditation practice. Walking meditation, in which one focuses on each step and might time each footfall with the beat of a drum, is a path to mindfulness in Buddhist traditions. Repetitive chanting, as a tool of prayer, is employed by Hindus, Christians, Muslims, you name it.

Metal detecting isn’t inherently a gateway to the contemplative life, but these aspects can aid in that journey.

Buried treasure

No one assembled on the beach in Half Moon Bay on a recent Sunday morning is talking about spirituality. They’ve come for the goods and their friends.

When I’d jumped in my car that morning and headed south for the beach hunt — a contest in which tokens and coins are scattered and buried in the sand and then detectorists race to dig them up — I’d known I was running a bit late. In the distance, I can see six club members already walking briskly and swinging their coils quickly around the course, which is marked off by little orange cones. I jog up to the table, filled with pastries and food for the post-hunt brunch, and see a smiling face already.

“You’re here!” exclaims Joy, Mike’s wife, the hugger and a real firecracker. She’s a great hunter, but she’s been sidelined by a bum kidney. She recently received a transplant, so she still runs the meetings and helps organize events.

Lucky for me, I’m allowed to enter the second round of hunting for half the $15 entry fee. I walk. I swing. Occasionally, I dig up a nickel or dime, but only later do I realize I should not have ignored the zinc targets my detector was showing, because each penny (marked and etched with a number) serves as a token for the raffle, in which silver dimes, quarters, and dollars are awarded. Joy pulls me aside after the hunt. “We had a meeting,” she says. “Because you didn’t dig any tokens, and since this is your first hunt, we’re not going to charge you.”

The hunt itself was uneventful, and the raffle prizes are nice. But I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the old-timers, like founding member Dennis Wilson, a retired firefighter from nearby Pacifica who’s been detecting since 1973, have hundreds if not thousands of silver coins. The hunts are really an excuse to hang out and talk about recent finds and families and vacations. These guys are buddies. And already, they’re starting to accept me into the clan.

After the raffle, Dave Clark ambles up and holds out a 1956 silver dime. “Why are you giving me this?” I ask. “Just because,” he says.

“I had a one-man cabinet shop, and I was pretty much a loner,” he says, noting how profoundly detecting has changed his life. “Now I have all these friends.” In fact, around five years ago, he shut down his own operation to work part-time for another carpentry shop so he’d have more time for detecting. It’s a solitary hobby, but Dave and I agree that it’s better to be alone and together at the same time.

The silver dime he gave me feels a bit like a patch from a biker gang or, at the very least, a merit patch from a scouting club. I’ve twice been formally welcomed to the club with mentions in the Bay Area Searchers monthly newsletter. I’ve even been asked to fill in for the vacationing secretary at the next meeting.

The detectorists are probably just glad to have some relatively younger blood to carry the torch — or rather, detector. But the hospitality and camaraderie is as genuinely valuable as any material prize we dig from the dirt.

Photos by the author.

An independent journalist based in San Francisco, Mary Catherine O'Connor writes about issues related to energy, technology, and outdoor adventure for a range of publications, including Outside and SmartPlanet.com.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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