It’s late night, the television is on, and a commercial comes on showing someone, usually an older gentleman, walking along the beach with a metal detector. He starts talking to the camera about the benefits of his new hobby, especially the exercise.
Obviously, metal detecting isn’t for everyone. But, for those who know what they’re doing, it can be a rewarding — and sometimes lucrative — pastime.
Darrin Gray of Waconia is one metal detecting enthusiast who definitely knows what he’s doing. Gray has been a self-described treasure hunter for several decades and his success and interest in the craft led to the creation of his company in 2007, Team Finders, which is associated with the internationally known company Ring Finders.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said Gray, whose family, wife Michelle and their children, Dustin and Ashley, are also involved with Team Finders. “What I do, I metal detect on land and I scuba dive with underwater detectors.”
Over the years, Gray has found many lost items ranging from wedding rings, bracelets and other pieces of jewelry to the dog tags of fallen soldiers.
“That’s what it’s all about, what’s next? It’s the thrill of the hunt,” he said.
Gray works on a reward/donation basis and sometimes, he is hired to find lost items. When people contact Team Finders, they usually have a good idea of where they lost their item.
Gray uses a description of the lost item and clues about the general location of where the item was supposedly lost to set up the parameters of those searches.
One great find was recovering a three-karat diamond wedding ring that had been insured for $62,000 from the bottom of a lake in Wisconsin.
Gray searched the bottom of the lake for nine hours (and filled three 60-gallon trash bags with metal trash) before finding the ring. Team Finders earned a sizable reward for finding the ring.
“Insurance companies are willing to reward you if you can save them from having to pay a sizable claim,” Gray noted.
While the reward was nice, it was only one of many memorable finds.
“My best find came when I was looking for a ring in Eden Prairie,” Gray recalled. “I found a chain with two dog tags. It turns out they were from a soldier who had passed away. I located his family and returned the tags to them — (they were so appreciative). I knew how important it was for them to have those tags.”
Other times, like a true treasure hunter, Gray comes across lost items — and similar to the fallen soldier’s dog tags — he feels compelled to find their owners.
“When I started finding things, some had engravings and I started to look for the owners who lost them,” he said. “I know how important it is for people to be reunited with their lost things. After all, it’s theirs, so I try to find them.”
Gray acknowledged that he could pawn a found ring for a couple hundred dollars but he would rather find its owner and be rewarded with their smiles (his blog features many photos of people being reunited with their lost items — see end of article for website).
“It’s just such a great feeling to get things back to people,” Gray said. “Their eyes pop open and they’re so happy to get it back. That makes it worth it right there.”
It’s not easy tracking down the owner of a ring that was found in a lake, for example, but that’s exactly what Gray was able to do a couple of months ago.
“We recently recovered a 1944 class ring from Kimball, Minn., and found the owner (with the assistance of the Kimball Historical Society),” said Gray, who recently returned the ring to its 87-year-old owner, Don Elliot. “He purchased the class ring his junior year and went into the Navy to serve in World War II before he got to graduate. He lost the ring back in 1943 while swimming.”
Elliot, who had given up on finding the ring years ago, was amazed it had been found.
“It was so surprising to me when they called to say they had found my ring,” Elliot said. “I’m not sure how you find something that’s been at the bottom of a lake for the past 70 or 80 years. After I lost it, I figured I’d never see that ring again.”
Elliot isn’t wearing the ring as it doesn’t quite fit on his fingers anymore but he is pretty protective of it. He currently keeps it in a book bag for safekeeping.
“I can put it on my little finger but I don’t want to chance it and lose it again,” he said. “Even though I’m not wearing it now, my wife says it will mean something to the children as times goes on.”
Elliot was touched by Gray’s effort to return the ring to him.
“He is very respectful, thoughtful toward people,” he said. “A very honest personality.”
Gray works in the telecommunications field but treasure hunting is his true passion.
“Like everybody, work gets in the way of fun,” he said. “I use a lot of vacation days to do this. Fortunately, I am close to retirement so I have a lot of vacation days. I want to retire out in Florida and look for ships.”
Gray said the peak treasure-hunting season is summertime, or when people start going back into the water. In the peak season, Gray spends one or two days a week and the occasional weekend looking for items lost both underwater and on land.
“As long as it has some metal in it, we can find it,” said Gray, who has hunted in Lake Waconia many times and has found many items, including anchors, fishing poles, and even a hearing aid.
Gray noted that wherever people are, you can find things, and likewise, finds can be anywhere, even in places you might not think to look.
“If you own a home that is from the 1940s or earlier, people buried caches on their land,” he explained. “People didn’t trust the banks or couldn’t get to them. That’s what I love to do, go and look for stuff.”
When he’s not finding lost treasures, Gray enjoys spending time with his family, including watching his daughter dance and his son play baseball. Gray is also known in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) community for training fighters, including the well-known fighter Scott Ferrozzo of Shakopee back in the early 1990s.
“We definitely stay crazy busy,” said Gray, who added that he’s seen those same metal detector commercials. “When I was younger, I’d see someone with a metal detector and think, who’s that old guy looking for pennies? But that’s not what they’re looking for. Ninety percent of the time, you’re finding pop tabs … the next time, it might be a ring.”
So the next time you see one of those metal detector commercials, don’t scoff — “there’s gold in them there hills,” if you know where to look.
• To learn more, visit www.theringfinders.com, click on the ring finders directory, United States, Minnesota, Minneapolis, Darrin Gray and click on the blog.