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History’s Gem of the Month

September 2009: Hints on Hunting and Finding Agates

While looking through the museum’s archives, I found this article drafted by the museum founder, Axel Niemi. I’m not sure if he ever published the article, but it is worthy of inclusion as this month’s history gem. I’ve also added a few pointers, so actually this is a joint article written by Axel and me.

Axel With Big Agate

Hints on Hunting and Finding Agates
By Axel Niemi and Karen Brzys

Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula (Alger, Luce, and Chippewa Counties) is home to unique agate and jasper rocks. For the past 30 years, the author has picked pretty objects called quartz family minerals. This article presents an interesting view on how you, too, can assemble a collection of unique quartz treasures.

This Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan is covered for the most part by enormous sand-gravel-clay deposits. Few areas have yielded so wide a variety of quartz minerals, as well as other rocks. Few areas also show such promise of steady and continuous yields. Each year, ice bergs break off shore, move around the lake, get pushed up onto distant beaches, collect rocks from that beach, break free only to get pushed by northwest winds to their final resting spot on the beaches in the Eastern Upper Peninsula to melt and dump their loads. After 8,000 years of this happening, our local beaches truly are a melting pot of all the rocks found around the lake, as well as a new supply of agates each year. This combined with the till deposits left by the glaciers makes our local beaches a rockhounders paradise.

Many friends have examined the multiple varieties of agate and related quartz minerals on display in my agate shop. After telling them they that the specimens had come from gravel-sand deposits within a few hour’s to a few minute’s ride, I have sometimes been called a liar. Yes, although my success has resulted from patience and many hours of searching, I admit to the difficulties encountered in hunting these all but camouflaged mineral stones.

The difficulty in finding these gravel deposited elusives, arises in keeping one’s mind on finding not one but any of the host of varieties of quartz minerals. The average picker would be quite happy to find a nice banded agate or red carnelian. After examining what I had picked and finding them beautiful, tourist friends say they had thrown oh so many good specimens away. This I have learned is unlikely. One of the faults of most beach combers is that they are ignorant of the existence of these quartz treasures, and they usually cannot tell the difference between the different types of quartz rocks. Another challenge to looking for quartz minerals is the tremendous amount of tiny powdery fractures that camouflage the true nature of the mineral. Finally, while on the beach you are challenged by the fact that very few agates are scattered amongst billions of other iron-bearing red rocks and want-a-be agates. To be successful, you must be prepared to pick up and examine all the possible quartz minerals, while trying to avoid being distracted by other pretty rocks.

Agate hunting is a real challenge to those with good eye sight, and not recommended for those with eye defects. Of course, those with eye problems may have to resort to sitting and digging, rather than walking erect – which usually allows you to examine a larger quantity of rocks. As more and more pickers hit the beach, the supply of agates and related quartz specimens will be impacted. However, the wave-water action as well as moving ice will continually move the piles of rocks, wear new material into view, or transport new rocks to the Grand Marais beaches each year.

The area that is best for looking for agates runs from Au Sable Point in Alger County, across the northern edge of Luce County, to Whitefish Point in Chippewa County. This stretch of beach contains some areas that have easy access by car, as well as some remote sections not often explored.

The tips on how to successfully find agates are listed below.

  1. Walk and look, scanning the rock piles as thoroughly as possible.
  2. Look closely at every stone. You never know which one is the agate treasure.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. At first, your neck, leg, and back muscles will be sore and tired. The more you look for agates, the more your body will be up to the task.
  4. Read books and acquire samples of agates so that you know what you are looking for.
  5. Look near the very edge of the water. The water will help accentuate the banding.
  6. Also look in the dry rock. When dry, the shiny waxy luster and the conchoidal fractures will be more apparent.
  7. If you have hip boots or are willing to walk in the water, it is possible to spot agates – but the water must be calm. Also, agates are denser than other rocks and sometimes they tend to work their way below the surface of the rock piles located out in the water.
  8. If there are multiple rows of rocks on the beach, left over from surf with various wave heights, look for the related gold cherts and red jaspers. They are also microcrystalline quartz with the same density as agates. Thus, as the waves return back down the slope, agates, cherts, and jaspers will “fall out” of the wave at the same time.
  9. Look where others have not looked. The farthest you walk from road access the better.
  10. Be the first on the beach after a storm. This is when the gravel is moved around exposing new material.
  11. Do not cover too much territory too fast. It is better to look over one section carefully. Nothing pays off better than careful looking. Sometimes I’ll even walk over the same section 3-4 times, only to be rewarded by finding an agate that was previously missed.
  12. Concentrate on picking up only agates and other quartz rocks. Avoid the pretty rock syndrome. Let’s say you pick up 500 rocks in an afternoon of looking. If 400 of those are just pretty rocks that are obviously not agates, then you have only a 1 in 100 chance of finding an agate. If all 500 of the rocks you pick up are agates or want-a-be agates, you have a much higher chance of being successful.
  13. When you see an agate candidate – you must pick it up; even if your back tells you that you don’t want to bend down. Of course, the use of an agate scoop can also help. For what ever reason, the obvious banded sections of specimens are very often facing down, out of view. Thus, if you don’t pick up the rock, you may miss that it is an agate.
  14. Most agates have some apparent banding showing, or have some translucency. Usually if you are not sure it is an agate – it is not.
  15. Use proper protection for your eyes, such as a Visor cap. Although some may have success wearing sunglasses, I find that it is harder to spot agates while doing so.
  16. Use a bright flashlight, or carefully use the sun, to check specimens with backlighting. Sometimes backlighting will expose banding that you cannot otherwise see.
  17. Walk toward the sun (east in the morning and west in the evening). The translucency of agates will cause them to “glow” at you.

Some of the mineral treasures you can find on the beach, in addition to banded agate, include: red jasper, banded jasper, gold silicified fossils, banded chert, red translucent carnelian, water-level onyx agates, eye agates, sagenite agates, moss agates, tube agates, and shadow agates. You can also find some red, pink, and green unakite, limestone fossils, and feldspar.

Happy rockhounding!

History's Gems Archives

May 2007
(The Telescope Story)

June 2007
(The Story of the Grand Marais "Meteor")

July 2007
(Hints on Hunting Glacial Agate Article)

August 2007
(Lake Superior Origin from 1957)

Fall 2007
(Tourist Information from the 1920s)

December 2007
(Lake Superior Editorial)

January 2008
(Grand Marais Tourist Signpost)

February 2008
(Unusual Wedding Invitation)

March 2008
(1915 Rules for Teachers)

April 2008
(Cedar Stump article from 1962)

May 2008
(Old Postcards)

June 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal Proposal-Part 1)

Summer 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal-Part 2)

Summer 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal-Part 3)

October 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal-Part 4)

November 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal-Part 5)

December 2008
(Agate Leaflet from 1927)

January 2009
(Old Postcards)

February 2009
(Snowstorm Article from 1988)

March 2009
(Lake Superior Agate Poem)

Spring 2009
(History of M77)

July 2009
(Axel Niemi Photo)

August 2009
(Ship Travel on Lake Superior)

September 2009
(Hints on Hunting and Finding Agates)

Fall 2009
(Hints on Hunting and Finding Agates Part 2)

February 2010
(The Story of Grand Marais Part 1)

February 2010
(The Story of Grand Marais Part 2)

April/May 2010
(The Story of Grand Marais Part 3)

June 2010
(Box of Rocks Gets Diploma)

July 2010
(Shipwrecks at Agate Beach)

August/September 2010
(1958 Detroit News Article about Axel Niemi)

Fall 2010
(Reprint from the Douglas Houghton Expedition)

Winter 2011
(Old Postcards and Pictures)

Spring 2011
(1905 Grand Marais Article)

September 2011
(Michigan Log Marks)

March 2012
(John Keating)

January 2012
(Axel Remembered)

March 2012
(John Keating)

June 2012
(The Shark: Post 1)

September 2012
(The Shark: Post 2)

March 2013
(The Shark: Post 3)

August 2013
(All That Glitters. . .)

November 2013
(Excerpts from The Grand Marais Herald)

April 2014
(Souvenir View Book of Sault Ste. Marie)

September 2014
(Michigan Beach Stones)

February 2015
(Michiganís Mystic Dunes)

June 2015
(Vintage Grand Marais Photos)

November 2015
(Gitchee Agomowin)

June 2016
(Grand Marais Poems)

March 2017
(Logging Era Photos)

July 2017
(Jonas Hill Letters)

December 2017
(Seagull (Lost) Island, Grand Marais Bay)

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Gitche Gumee Museum.
E21739 Brazel Street
Grand Marais, Michigan 49839


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