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Coos Canyon
(Marty Basch for the Boston Globe)
DETOURS

Coos Canyon riches lie in its glittering scenery

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / September 10, 2006

BYRON, Maine -- Coos Canyon is a golden rest area. There are picnic tables, including a couple protected against the elements. There are grills . Need a bathroom? There's a wooden outhouse.

On any given day, there may be motorists, bicyclists, sunbathers, anglers, swimmers, and picnickers all gathered in the area. Coos Canyon is on Route 17 between Rumford and the Rangeley Lakes area , one of western Maine's most scenic drives, and it's a place where travelers can rest, soak up the sun, hike up a trail, or cool off in the local swimming hole.

And then there's the gold.

The canyon is a beautiful rocky gorge formed over time by the rushing Swift River. It flows below evergreen-capped cliffs that are nearly 25 feet high. A fence keeps most visitors a safe distance from the precipitous drop, but there are those who venture beyond it.

The canyon is a stone's throw from the Coos Canyon Campground and Cabins and the Byron town office, located behind the volunteer fire department. Byron, established in 1833, is so small (population 121) that the town office is only open twice a week, for a total of eight hours. The one-room school house hosts the annual Town Meeting.

Maine's Department of Conservation maintains a list of brooks and streams where gold has been reported found. The Swift River and its tributaries are on that list, and you can see some of that gold across the road from the rest area at Coos Canyon Rock & Gift.

Run by the mother-daughter team of Mary and Rosey White, the shop offers sandwiches, drinks, and souvenirs, along with gold-panning equipment rentals and instructions for using the gear. The ``Big Nugget Photo Album " has pictures of smiling visitors who struck gold.

If she has time, Rosey White might pop in the 10-minute video that gives first-time prospectors the lowdown on using a pan and trowels. She might even fill you in on some good prospecting spots nearby. But she will also remind you that you need landowner permission in some places, not to dig into the riverbanks, and not to disturb any vegetation.

One wall in the shop is dedicated to local legend Carl Shilling, who lived in a cabin along the East Branch of the Swift for 40 years with no running water or electricity. He owned two pans, and one hangs on the wall.

To be entered into the photo album, a prospector has to bring in gold that measures at least three grains, about the size of a match head. Some people are proud to have their pictures in the book, but White figures not everyone comes back to report. The biggest nugget ever found in Byron was an ounce and a quarter, she says.

``You get out of it what you put into it," White says. It costs $2 a day for a pan and a buck for the trowel. She asks for a $5 deposit.

Try your luck for a few hours. Who knows? Coos Canyon might turn out to be a 14-karat pit stop.

Contact Marty Basch, a New Hampshire-based writer, at marty@martybasch.com.

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