One Wednesday in late February, Stephanie Smipp and her dog were enjoying the cold novelty of a game of catch in the deep snow.
“I threw the ball with my left hand and it was a good throw, high and straight,” Smipp said. “I felt my ring lift right off my finger along with the ball.”
Smipp thought she might be sharp-eyed enough to track the ring sailing through the air, or to find the tiny crater where it disappeared, but she was wrong on both counts. Her white-gold engagement ring, custom-made in Celtic-knot style and accented with a blue diamond, was gone.
Smipp summoned her husband and daughter to start raking the snow in their Salmon Creek backyard. Her husband, Brad, had the bright idea of trying a controlled experiment to see what it looks like when a ring drops into the snow.
“He took his ring and dropped it into the snow,” Smipp said. It’s a matching Celtic-style ring with a green gem, and of course, it too vanished without a trace. Now Brad and Stephanie were down two precious keepsakes.
The trio managed to dig Brad’s lost ring back up, but Stephanie was shocked at how quickly and completely both rings had disappeared. She carefully marked the corners of the snowfield where her lost ring must be, and looked into renting a metal detector.
But Brad redeemed himself by coming up with a better solution, via a web-based clearinghouse called “The Ring Finders”: a metal detector wielded by an expert.
Search and rescue
Del Witters spent 17 years flying search-and-rescue missions for the U.S. Coast Guard. Search patterns and techniques linger in his head, but none of that really informs his retirement pastime as a detectorist, which he’s pursued since 2008.
Witters, who lives in the Columbia River Gorge town of Lyle, said he does about 20 searches a year — usually for jewelry, occasionally for a cellphone or expensive gadget. February’s snowstorm resulted in five calls, four of them successful, he said. (His rescue of a ring lost on a Portland street by a woman while she shoveled out her neighbor’s car also made local headlines.)
“Every ring has a story,” he said. And that’s often of greater value than any actual dollar amount. While Witters has found his fair share of pricey jewelry, rescuing and returning really irreplaceable, personal keepsakes touches his heart the most.
“People are so excited and so thankful, I’ve just been taken aback by the feeling of it all,” he said.
That’s why Witters has no set fee, he said, and negotiates prices largely based on the distance he has to travel from Lyle. A monetary reward is nice, he said, but Witters has been known to come away with cookies, home-canned goods, fresh eggs — or just a handshake and heartfelt thanks, if that’s what folks can afford.
“I have found rings on my own that I can’t return to anybody, and that’s sad. They sit in a tackle box at my house and they have absolutely no meaning,” he said.
“To be able to return a ring to somebody that lost it – to me that’s worth the dues I pay every year,” he said. He’s a member of The Ring Finders, a worldwide association of detectorists that maintains quality standards and spreads the word via its website. According to that website, the tally of returned jewelry now stands at upwards of 7,600 recoveries, valued at over $10 million.
Sound of metal
Metal detectors work by transmitting an electromagnetic field into the ground and listening for responding magnetic fields in metals hidden down there. Witters said he owns seven different metal detectors tuned to different frequencies, and usually wears headphones to listen for the signature beeping of the particular metal he’s after.
Silver is easy to identify, he said, but gold is tricky because its signature sound is the same as aluminum. When he hears that special beep, Witters never knows whether he’s about to uncover lost gold or just a discarded soda can, pull tab or bottle top.
“I can’t ignore any bit of that stuff. I have to find it all,” he said. “Otherwise I might miss the gold ring.”
Witters always starts hunting where people tell him to, but people can be surprisingly mistaken, he said, and he often winds up looking farther and wider. His overall success rate stands at 63 percent, he said. If he can’t find his quarry, he’s likely to drive home pondering the scene, looking for more possibilities.
“I think about it a lot. I think for days. I’ll call them back and say, ‘Have you thought about looking here?’ ” he said. “I’ve heard the story. I know how much it meant to them. I guess I’m still emotionally attached, too.”
In addition to yards, parks, sidewalks, beaches and even snow, Witters dives into lakes and rivers to detect metal there.
“Water is cold, hands shrink and get slippery,” he said. “People usually think, if it’s in the water it’s gone, but it can be found there too.”
Over or under?
Witters showed up in Smipp’s driveway at 10 a.m. the day after he was called. He spent time carefully surveying the section of snow that Smipp indicated but found nothing.
Then he returned to his starting point, where Smipp had thrown the ball, and on a hunch tried going in the wrong direction, beyond Smipp’s line, behind where her back would have been.
He found the ring. He wasn’t even that surprised, he said. Rings go rogue all the time.
“She either overextended her arm, or maybe it flew off when her arm came back down,” Witters said.
“It was 3 feet behind where I threw,” Smipp said. “It seemed impossible. He is extremely experienced and he really enjoys it. I had no idea there’s an expert you can call.”
Every ring has a story, and Smipp’s has even more of a story now.