As cottage season kicks off this long weekend, legions of visitors will descend on a sandy strip of beach in Long Point, Ont., a peninsula stretching along the northern edge of Lake Erie.

Besides cottagers, the coastline also attracts professional treasure hunters like Steve Zazulyk, who sometimes dives through Erie's choppy waters searching for sunken riches: the coins and heirlooms from ships wrecked here over the centuries.

On a day in early May, he was looking for something a little more personal — but no less lost.

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Zazulyk, right, straps on his metal detector in hopes of finding the precious necklace. Zazulyk is an expert treasurer hunter who helps find lost items in return for gas money and the occasional reward. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Laura Weyland, who owns a cottage on this beach, had called Zazulyk to find her most precious possession: a gold necklace given to her by her husband 14 years ago. As she looked on in worry, Zazyluk strapped on his metal detector and slipped headphones over his ears.

Her husband, Mark Walker, bought her the necklace to celebrate the birth of their second child.

"I had a really rough time getting pregnant," she said. "Having children was a real challenge for us."

The couple have two daughters, but the necklace is a reminder of their struggle. 

"It was the end of a journey for us. It signifies so much," she said, voice quavering, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

Recovery experts to the rescue

This kind of search isn't unusual for Zazulyk. He's a member of the Ring Finders, a directory of about 400 "detectorists" — people who pride themselves on recovering wedding rings and other sentimental objects for panicked clients.

The week before arriving in Long Point, he donned scuba gear to pull a drone from the depths of a swamp.

Zazulyk explained his strategy as he swept the detector over the sand. He has created a grid of the area in his mind, starting with the most probable areas and moving outward, methodically, from there.

"If it's in the sand like you think it is, we have a good chance of finding it today," Zazulyk said after directing Weyland to retrace her steps.

Finding a drone

Success! Earlier this month, Zazulyk donned scuba gear to find a drone lost in a swamp in southwestern Ontario. (Steve Zazulyk)

"It's somewhere between here and the neighbour's house," she said, gesturing at a path across her sandy yard traversed only a few days before. "I was fussing with my scarf and had a glass of wine in my hand. When I got home I looked in the mirror, and it was gone."

"I'm devastated. I haven't slept since Saturday."

Meet the ring finders

Looking for hidden objects is an obsessive hobby for Chris Turner, a 57-year-old Vancouverite who has been scouring the earth for treasures since he was 12.

"I'd dig up old silver coins. I was hooked," he said.

Then Turner discovered the joys of helping strangers find things they'd lost.

"The first ring I ever found was my neighbour's," he recalled. "She saw me playing in the backyard ... and said, 'Do you think you could help me find my ring?'"

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The hunt at Long Point didn't turn up the lost necklace, but Zazulyk said he'd return another day and keep searching. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Turner scanned the garden, and after 20 minutes turned up the ring she'd lost years earlier.

"The look on her face was priceless. Her jaw just dropped," he said. "I didn't realize then that I'd be doing this many years later."

'We just love seeing the smiles," he says. "That's why we do this.' - Chris Turner, treasure hunter

In 2009, Turner launched TheRingFinders.com, a self-styled "metal detecting service" which lists treasure hunters in 25 countries. Turner runs the directory, but the ring finders are independent operators. Together, they've recovered over 3,000 items.

Turner estimates his website has returned $6.1 million worth of jewelry. But most ring finders on Turner's directory work on a reward basis, asking only for their gas to be covered if the hunt falls short.

Turner has walked away from successful finds with hundreds of dollars, but he says he's also done it for a loaf of banana bread.

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TheRingFinders.com is an online directory of professional metal detectorists like Zazulyk who offer their treasure-finding expertise to those who have lost valuable objects. (CBC)

"We just love seeing the smiles," he says. "That's why we do this."

Objects become part of 'extended self'

People tend to have what marketing researchers call "cold" relationships with objects, said Aaron Ahuvia, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan.

"Our brains essentially have two parts — the part for people and part for everything else," he said. 

'When we treat an object like a person, neurologically speaking, we shouldn't be doing that.' -Aaron Ahuvia, marketing professor, University of Michigan

Our large neocortex has given us a "social brain," with feelings of emotional attachment reserved only for humans, he said.

But sometimes, an object breaks that rule. This phenomenon "is much weirder than it first seems," Ahuvia said.

"When we treat an object like a person, neurologically speaking, we shouldn't be doing that."

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Zazulyk crouches over a metallic find in the sand of Long Point beach, but it's not the item he's looking for. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Weyland — and Zazulyk's numerous other customers — go to such lengths for a simple piece of jewelry because it can seem a part of them. 

The precious object "is a memento of your life story," says Ahuvia. "In a literal sense, it becomes a part of who you are."

Ahuvia lists three reasons we tend to warm to objects:

  • People might anthropomorphize a thing, projecting human qualities onto a toy or pet. 
  • People internalize their personal treasure, stitching it into their very identities.
  • The object might be associated with an interpersonal relationship.

In Weyland's case, the necklace is integral both to her life and her family.

In Long Point, tension peaked as Zazulyk's detector beeped. He kneeled, digging into the sand. Everyone watching held their breath.

"A tent peg," he declared, brandishing the rusted spike with a sad smile. There was a collective sigh of disappointment.

Zazulyk asked questions as he searched, trying to recreate the moment Weyland's necklace disappeared. But at the two-hour mark, he packed it in, vowing to return another day if the necklace remains lost.

Despite the disappointment, Weyland perked up. She had at least narrowed the search — now she knows it's not on the beach.

Weyland was asked if she'll ever stop looking. "No," she said. "No. Never."