Chris Jenkins heads to Folly Beach, Sullivan's Island, or IOP, about four times a week. He isn't sunning, walking his dog, or gazing into the deep blue sea. He's searching for treasure.
"I find a lot of trash," he laughs. "A lot of battle caps and pull tabs." Jenkins is a member of the Lowcountry Metal Detecting Club, a group of about 50 Lowcountry metal detector enthusiasts based out of Summerville.
"Everyone has their own thing," says the club's president, Daniel Wilson. Some people like to hunt for goods on the beach, while others prefer the woods, where the chances of finding a Civil War relic are greater. For Wilson, the beach is a fall-back location. "You'll find maybe $5-$10 in pocket change on the beach," explains Wilson. "The hope is to find jewelry."
The pocket change and hope are reward enough for Jenkins, who often finds himself helping beach-goers find lost items. "Probably once a month I return a set of keys," he says. Not all heroes wear capes, friends.
While most metal detecting guys and gals are simply doing their part by picking up litter, they're also serving another purpose, one perhaps they aren't fully aware of. These guys are the holders of memories.
"I found a metal tag with a lady's name on it, and the D.O.D. I think it's a tag that was on [an urn of] ashes," says Jenkins. He has searched for the woman online, trying desperately to find a family to return this small piece of metal to. He'll hold onto it until he does.
Jenkins also has several class rings in his memory collection. "I would like to return them to their owners," he says, reading off one ring's inscription, "His name was Kevin and he was in the marching band. He went to PHS, but there are a lot of PHS's out there." The metal detector enthusiast says that he has tackle boxes of jewelry, with pieces that he offers to his wife. "99 percent of the time she says, 'No,'" he laughs.
Like Jenkins, Wilson also collects memorabilia that may hold significance for a stranger. He says that he rarely sells any of the items he finds — not even a 2,000 year old piece of bronze jewelry he found when he lived in Germany, which he describes as his coolest item.
"We'll help find people's stuff," says Wilson. "We don't charge them anything and we don't ask for rewards." He does know of one metal detecting club member who found a handmade wedding ring on the beach and received more than gratitude for his good deed. "The guy wrote him a $1,000 check," says Wilson.
While most metal dectectorists — the guys use this word as well as "metal detector enthusiasts" to describe themselves — don't reel in thousands of dollars or ancient relics, they all get a little jolt of energy every time they find something. "My hands are shaking," says Jenkins of his reaction to the metal detector's beep of recognition.
This adrenaline-pumping sensation first hit Jenkins years ago when he was attending a friend's wedding in San Diego. He had six hours to kill, so naturally he went to a sports store and bought his first metal detector. The first thing he found on Pacific beach? A bowl. Like, for smoking pot.
Back in South Carolina, Jenkins gave metal detecting another shot. "I was on Sullivan's and found a gold ring with seven diamonds in it. I was hooked," he says.
Wilson, on the other hand, first got into metal detecting as a kid, when he and his dad would visit WWII sites and the trash dumps of people living in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was years before Wilson got back into metal detecting after his youthful foray into the sport, but when he and his wife moved to Germany, he revisited the habit.
And it's a habit anyone can pick up. Wilson explains that metal detectors, like any sports or hobby-related equipment, range in price depending on what you're looking for. A basic model will cost you $150, while a mid-range hits at $500, and the fancy one that Wilson has — the one he got to find cool stuff like that ancient bronze jewelry — hover around $1,700. Metal detecting enthusiasts usually carry a find pouch and a trash pouch, and you can imagine which one fills up more quickly.
And even potentially valuable finds can turn out to be nothing more than trash. Jenkins talks about the disappointment associated with seeing gold in the sand. "It usually just turns out to be the foil from a wine bottle," he says. Unless, of course, it's actually gold.
Last fall, after October's 1,000 year flood, Jenkins got the thrill of a detecting lifetime. About eight inches under the sand he found a chest. A treasure chest on the beach? This is like the Holy Grail of metal detecting. "I ran down the beach holding it above my head to show the guys I was detecting with and it brought in a bunch of curious beach-goers who wanted to see what was in it. My hands were shaking with anticipation because finding a treasure chest on the beach is on the bucket list of every metal detector enthusiast," he says.
Jenkins opened the chest, a crowd looking on, and ... everyone started laughing. "The chest was filled with goodie bags for a little girl's birthday party. Each of the purple bags had a 'Frozen' sticker on it and were filled Skittles, Starburst, and little plastic toys," he says.
He buried the treasure chest where he found it, figuring it was for a birthday party later that day.
Once again, the Lowcountry's metal detectorists save the day — one beach at a time.