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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Summer Fun: rock hunting

If you are new to northern lower Michigan and Lake Michigan's shoreline you could be forgiven for mistaking the average beach scene for a clam digging party. It won't be clams that beach goers are hunting. Rock hounds, the popular moniker for a sub genre of tourist, hunt the popular yet elusive semi precious commodity stones: Petosky, Charlevoix, Agate and Leland Blue.

Rock Hounds range from casual hobbyists to rabid collectors and professional geologists. Many guidebooks aid the more committed hunter with identification, forming the foundation of a hobbyisttreats's knowledge base. And yet there will always be something beyond the known. Professional Rock Hounds generally enjoy engaging new comers to the sport, regaling the uninformed with a wealth of information. C&M Rock shop in Honor is a fountain of information. Bruce is always happy to sign a copy of his published works.

The beach is filled most days with curious eyes and hands. Serious collectors don't wait for the warm weather, they get to the beaches early in the Spring for the best of what Lake Michigan has churned with its ice floes. I am the average rock hunter, curious & looking for treats for the eyes. My housemate is a bit more serious. She reminds me very much of my mother's best friend, Eileen. Eileen was a professional lapidarist who initiated my passion for purple gemstones and beach combing. Eileen made her money traveling the country in a beat up yellow Datsun, from quarries to rock shows and home during Winter. In Winter her saws and tumblers ran constantly so she could produce finished pieces to ply her trade. My housemate is a hobbyist at the moment. She relates to rocks better than to people and doesn't think me the slightest bit strange for searching the surf splashed shore for "pretty things". I do not hunt for profit.

Agatized chert, fossils and perhaps some jaspers, with
chert, granite, maybe some gneiss and a quart piece in a
random photo of the shoreline from out first outing. 
I hunt for eye pleasing colors, patterns and shapes. I have since I was a kid. Contented for hours looking through the baubles on the shore. School taught me about fossils which is probably where all of it started. I've never had any belief that anything I found would ever be gem quality and net me millions. However, I always thought that the stones on the beach were precious to someone, even if only me. My mother didn't like me bringing home "the whole beach" because they were not valuable. I'm sure most mothers feel the same way. Many times in my life I have had a collection of stones in boxes or jars. And many times I have had to rebuild my collection.

The beach is a place of solace and energy. I always feel better in the water than on land. And I always feel better when my feet have been in the sand and tortured by the lake floor. If it is true that stones have their own energy that heals, soothes and imbues one with special qualities then the beach is just a natural rave. After our first trip out to the coast, I was so relaxed my blood pressure dropped below normal. This second trip I sunburned myself and didn't get the same effect though I did have a significant reduction in the blood pressure.

As if to prove it is about aesthetics and not value, this Summer I have been picking up a lot of Blue Chert. Only one geologist/gemologist acknowledges it as a specific kind of chert, separate from the common browns and reds... Bruce at C&M. He seemed amused that I was so enthralled by this worthless stone. Chert is not viable for commercial applications as it is a stone of surface color. When you slab chert you find a disappointing plain white interior of flint. Yep, that gorgeous blue stone that mocks sodalite is a piece of fire starting, arrow point flint. It's as common a mineral as you will ever find. But the blue apparently is found in few places around the world other than Northern Michigan. It can not be tumbled for the same reason that it can not be slabbed. It would have to be dipped or reside in an apothecary jar full of distilled water and sit on a shelf. What a shame. It truly does imitate the colors of sodalite. Which is perhaps why I find it so appealing.

Adding to the entertainment of rock hunting with the pros is the find that inspires jealousy. Hunting Petosky stones, agates and Leland Blue and finding bigger pieces or the first piece ahead of a true rock hound is especially fun. Especially when they are big pieces that are already well rounded by wave action. Petosky stones and Charlevoix stones are two types of colony coral fossil common to Lake Michigan. The Petosky is the State's stone, while it's cousin the Greenstone is the State's gemstone. Agates are a bit harder to find than the fossils. And the Leland Blue that rock hounds are currently obsessing over can only be found in Leland and Frankfort Michigan. And they are not even real stones.

Sitting on a piece of polished sodalite, chert (top) and two
pieces of Leland Blue (bottom). 
Leland Blue is slag that was dumped after iron smelting has been performed and before there were ever any environmental regulations regarding disposal of manufacturing waste. The slag glass makes for beautiful jewelry. The bluest of the blues with its foamy white bits is more a piece of the water than the earth. To me the best pieces are like picture jasper, they tell the story of where the piece has been. I haven't found yet any of what I consider the best pieces. I know other will argue, especially about the ones that mock agate, which seems to be the purple variety which is not common. Leland Blue goes for 30.00 a pound so my little collection from our second trip could get me a little bit of cash. But we will have to see how it polishes before parting with it.

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