The Best Of Both Worlds
By: Andrew Burdick
Living on the coast of northwest Florida affords me many opportunities to hunt some of the nicest beaches available. But as much as I enjoy combing the sand and water for modern coins and jewelry, I really like to add some history to my detecting whenever possible. And while I never wish for seriously inclement weather, I know that Mother Nature and the Gulf of Mexico are going to conspire on a regular basis, and in the process, occasionally provide me with some very interesting detecting. Last fall was a prime example.
The forecasters had predicted a below-average hurricane season, but started to change their tune about halfway through. While we were fortunate to avoid any actual hurricanes, we did experience three tropical storms in a relatively short period of time. Two of those, Tropical Storms Hanna and Isidore, play a role in this tale. As T.S. Hanna made landfall last September 14, T.S. Isidore was already forming in the Atlantic.
While Hanna provided me with only an average amount of modern coins, I did find several silver rings, and a nice 14K gold herringbone necklace and pendant. The rings came from the shallow water, and the rest from the wet sand. The Gulf was still very choppy the day following the storm, and the water beyond ankle depth was still unsafe for the most part. Although I've never been in quicksand, that is the best way I can describe how it felt. So, I gladly stuck to the shallows and sand, not knowing just how soon things would shift once again.
T.S. Isidore was a much larger and long-lived storm that fluctuated between hurricane and tropical storm status before reaching Florida as a tropical storm. Twelve days after Hanna, Isidore made landfall, covering much of the Gulf coast. Packing winds about 20 mph faster than Hanna, it stirred things a bit more on the beach, as well as the home front. We sustained some minor property damage, but fared far better than most affected by the storms. My first hunt after Isidore was at the most heavily trafficked beach in the area. Modern coins were plentiful, with a much higher percentage of nickels than usual- often a good indicator when looking for gold.
After chatting with some fellow detectorists and making a quick battery change, I was back on the wet sand, where my very first find was a 14K gold engagement ring. Even the fact that the stone was missing could not put a damper on a hunt that just kept getting better. The coin total had gone well past the 100 mark, so there was no lack of digging. As I reached a spot a little off the beaten path, I received a signal that sounded promising, but still I prepared myself for the inevitable pulltab.
Sifting through the scoopful of wet sand that contained the target, I saw the edge of what appeared to be a gold crown-type bottle cap- not just gold in color, but solid gold! What sort of jokester would make such a thing? However, the real shock came when I brushed off the sand. My first thought was, "Those just can't be real!" The 10K marking on the heart-shaped pendant somewhat reinforced that idea in my mind, but I found out a week later that the pendant did indeed contain genuine diamonds... all 46 of them! It wouldn't be Isidore's most interesting gift to me, but it was certainly the most eye catching.
Even though I'd received quite a workout on that hunt, by late afternoon the following day I was determined to have another go. It's very rare for me to start detecting so late in the day, but I really felt compelled to try an area that I had neglected too often. A beautiful sunset was not far off, and I had my coil swinging as soon as I stepped off the access ramp. Within seconds I had a dime in my hand, but something didn't seem quite right about it.
It's that odd phenomenon that many of you may relate to... when you find something in an area where you really don't expect it, and your brain sort of shifts briefly into neutral. Then I realized that not only was the dime silver, but it had also retained some of the original mint luster. Older coins are not frequently found on the beaches here, so even though we'd just had two tropical storms, I still thought it might be a fluke. Needless to say, I became pretty energized when the next three targets turned out to be another Mercury dime, a Buffalo nickel, and a silver ring.
Not being very familiar with the physical layout of this spot, I didn't immediately recognize just how much sand had been removed from the dunes and dry sand. Then I noticed the cement foundation of a light pole that is normally totally hidden by the sand. Now it was exposed enough to sit on without even crouching. Trying not to act too much like a kid in a candy store, I picked an area clear of the few remaining sunbathers and started gridding with the daylight that remained. There was no shortage of signals, and roughly half of them were older coins.
The amazing sunset was even better with the finds I was making. Knowing that I'd be able to return early the next morning, I was finally able to tear myself away from what seemed to be potentially the best beach hunt of my detecting "career." In just two hours I had dug ten Wheat cents, a Buffalo nickel, and 12 silver coins (including a Standing Liberty quarter and a Barber dime), in addition to four pieces of silver jewelry and about $3 in modern coins.
Arriving at dawn the following day, I liberally applied the SPF50 sunblock and prepared myself for some intense gridding of the sand. I was not disappointed, as the spot began producing even better than the day before. Knowing it was going to be a breezeless and hot day, I had brought along plenty of water and packed a lunch. Late in the morning I reached a spot where some of the heavier coins had settled, and I was very glad to see a large black disc surface. Although very dark, it had little wear, and I happily pocketed my first Franklin half dollar. Within the next 30 minutes, I recovered two Walking Liberty halves as well, and had nearly forgotten about the 95° temperature. In nine years of detecting, I'd never found a silver half. Now, in less than an hour's time, I had three.
Knowing I could easily overdo it in the heat and humidity, I wisely stopped for lunch. Deciding it would be a good time to try the water, I switched machines and gladly waded into the eerily calm Gulf. However, it soon became apparent that I'd better return to the beach, as Isidore had created unfavorable condition for hunting the water anytime soon. The finds from this brief foray consisted of a great deal of aluminum can pieces and an occasional corroded zinc cent.
Switching machines once again, I expanded my gridding area and continued picking up old coins and relics. I later learned that this had been a popular spot in the 1940s, and the finds seemed to support that fact. I believe the storm washed many of the older objects out of the dunes, which could explain why several of the silver coins still retained some mint luster. While the coins were washed out along the beach, the sand (as well as sand pushed in from deeper water) had filled in the shallow water, creating a boggy and aluminum infested environment. On a side note, a week or so later when the currents moved some of that sand out of the shallows, a few colleagues of mine found some older gold rings.
After wrapping up ten hours of tiring but rewarding detecting, I knew I'd return for at least a few hours the next day. The finds rapidly tapered off during that final hunt, but it was well worth the effort. In a total of 15 hours, searching an area about half the size of a football field, I had recovered 41 silver coins, 39 Wheat cents (including a clipped planchet mint error), 16 older Jefferson nickels, one Buffalo, and many interesting jewelry/relic items.
My favorite find was a mystery until several days later. What had initially appeared to be a crude pendant of some sort turned out to be a lead Spanish trade token from the 17th century!
Tropical weather is something we'll always have to deal with here on the Gulf coast, but every now and then it can provide those of us in this great hobby with metals both precious, and with a tale to tell... the best of both worlds!