The Ring Finders: Sonoma County metal detector hobbyists reunite people with their lost items for free
When I tell Woodrow Engle I’ve secured access to search for treasure at two old wineries in Sonoma County, it feels like we’re embarking on a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequel.
“I’ll see if I can find some old maps of the area and do a little research,” he texts.
By the time we meet up on a Friday morning, as the sun rises over the Mayacmas behind Alexander Valley Vineyards, we’ve exchanged over 50 texts about metal detecting, including a few about rumors of Spanish gold hidden in Chileno Valley. That’s in addition to an hourlong phone conversation.
To say Engle is obsessed is an understatement. A video game artist by trade, he once moonlighted as a semipro poker player and competed on the “Magic: The Gathering” pro tour.
“Anything with a puzzle or a strategy or anything you can dive into really deeply and spend a lot of time maximizing your performance, I love all that stuff,” he says.
He’s not alone. Engle and fellow Sonoma County metal detectorists Kevin Tobin of Sebastopol and Demian Garcia of Penngrove are all devoted members of The Ring Finders Directory, a global network of on-call metal detectorists who will literally find your ring (or car keys or cellphone) if you lose it, which happens more than you might imagine.
“When it starts getting a little warmer and people start getting outside again, I’ll start getting calls,” says Tobin, who estimates he goes out on more than a dozen queries a year, many along the Russian River. His recovery rate is around 80%.
A former Marine and Graton Fire Department volunteer when he was only 16, Tobin has been in the hunt the longest, having bought a cheap detector at Wal-Mart around 30 years ago.
Garcia has been at it for 12 years. He was hooked immediately after he found a diamond ring on a beach in San Diego.
Engle took up the chase just before the pandemic and already has been featured in several news stories — one for finding a 1927 class ring in Petaluma and tracking down the owner, another for connecting a woman who lost her $10,000 Tiffany wedding ring with a metal detectorist who posted her ring on Craigslist asking if anyone had lost it — the same ring Engle spent hours searching for up and down Stinson Beach in Marin County.
So much for the weird guy in the floppy hat and sunglasses combing the beach with an electric divining rod. Metal detecting is surging in popularity during the pandemic thanks to devoted YouTube channels, a cheeky British TV series called “The Detectorists” and advances in technology that make finding lost treasure a very real possibility.
The biggest reward
Ring Finders founder and CEO Chris Turner, a retired soccer player who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, regularly updates the website (theringfinders.com) with tantalizing tales of gold and silver discoveries, big paydays and the time he rescued actor Jon Cryer’s lost wedding ring near a Vancouver seawall.
Sonoma County Ring Finders typically charge only gas money and maybe a little compensation for their time. But when they magically pull a miracle from the dirt, clients often feel indebted to pay more. They’ve received everything from a dozen fresh eggs to more than $1,000 in cash.
“The biggest reward is the satisfaction of seeing the smile on someone’s face after you find what they thought they’d lost forever,” Tobin says. “If you ever really want to see the most genuine part of a person, find something that they’ve lost that really means something to them.”
He’ll never forget the client in Sonoma who dropped to his knees in tears after Tobin found his wedding ring — a coupled set made from his mother’s and father’s wedding rings — that was lost during a volleyball game. He insisted Tobin “couldn’t take anything less than $1,000.”
Garcia estimates he’s racked up somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 in rewards over the past decade. “For me, it’s a hobby, not a source of income,” says Garcia, who specializes in underwater recoveries. “But it’s nice to have a hobby that pays for itself.”
The biggest reward Garcia was offered was $2,500 for a $100 ring with a lot of sentimental value.
“I wish I would have found it, because I could have used the money at the time,” he says.
The owner had him search her dog, because she thought it might have eaten the ring.
“Yes, it turns out you can metal detect a dog,” Garcia says. He often feels like a detective working a case, asking questions like, “Did you put lotion on at the beach?” and “When you were gardening, did you put on gloves?”