Rockhounding

Where we live in Maine, we are surrounded by several mountains that are known for their bounty of gems and minerals. Our land abuts the White Mountain National Forest, and three old mines are located there:  Lord Hill, Deer Hill, and Melrose Mine.  The latter produced the largest amethyst specimen ever found in the United States; it is in the permanent collection of the Field Museum in Chicago, IL.  While you cannot enter the mines, one can do some rockhounding in the rubble leftovers outside Lord Hill and Deer Hill, known as the “dumps,” and hobbyists and hikers have walked away with some valuable specimens.  More about this below.

Amethyst found in an area close to my home

Amethyst found in an area close to my home

20140713_133148_resized

 

 

Figuring that we could be sitting on a proverbial goldmine, so to speak, my husband signed up with a local rockhounding company to go on a field trip to Mt. Mica mine, located in Paris, Maine.  Mt. Mica is the oldest gem mine in the USA.  This is a fully operational mine and one of the few still in active operation in Maine.  Mt. Mica is famous for its gem-quality pink, green, watermelon, blue and black tourmaline, used primarily for  jewelry, along with garnet, beryl, quartz, and many other gems and minerals that you’ve probably never heard of and that I cannot pronounce.

The entrance to Mt. Mica mine.  The inside is not open to the public.

The cave-like entrance to Mt. Mica mine. The inside of the mine is not open to the public.

Using dynamite, they blast the inside of caves found within.  The resulting demolition rubble is removed and is loaded into dump trucks.  The miners are looking for “pockets” where large crystals and mineral deposits may be concentrated.  There are many underground tunnels within the mines made from these controlled blasts; these are off-limits to outsiders for safety and proprietary reasons.

20140713_151333_resized

The rubble is emptied from the dump trucks outside of the mine in many big piles.  These, fittingly, are known as “the dumps.”  Although the public is not allowed into the mine itself,  for a fee, many private mines allow rockhounders to sort through “the dumps” on weekends when the mine is inactive.  Grabbing shovels and proceeding to an area where it looked like others had not yet ventured, the rockhounds (collectors) shoveled the rocks from the dumps into 5-gallon plastic containers.  The buckets were filled only halfway, since practically speaking it was too heavy to carry a full bucket to the screening/wash area.

Piles of rubble (dumps) outside the mine

Piles of rubble (dumps) outside the mine

People looking through the dumps for hidden treasure

People looking through the dumps for hidden treasure

A sorting table

A sorting table

Some of the rocks in the bucket were then poured out onto a screen, which is actually a tray of one screen inside of another screen.  The upper screen is 1/4″ mesh; the lower screen is 1/8″ mesh.  Shaking the double screen tray hard, back and forth, much of the loose dirt is removed from the rock.  Then the screen tray is put into a tub of water, shaken again, and removed from the water bath.  The upper tray is dumped out onto a white table, and then you spread out the rocks and begin picking through it, deciding which rocks look interesting enough to keep and discarding the others.  Shovel, load, empty, shake, sort, collect and discard . . . shovel, load, empty, shake, sort, collect and discard.  My husband did this for 5 very long hours until he was too stiff and sore to continue further.

Does this sound fun?

To me it sounded like something chain gangs would do in striped uniforms, toiling away under the relentless sun, rarely taking a break for water as their sweat mingled with the dust and grit.

So what is the allure?  Just 3 weeks ago at Mt. Mica, a woman who had never done rockhounding before found a mulit-carat blue tourmaline crystal that was worth $10,000.

Alas, my husband was not so lucky.  He came back with an impressive pile of . . . rocks.  Yes, there was some smoky quartz, some black tourmaline, mica, beryl, feldspar, clear quartz, and garnet amongst the pile, but nothing large or fine enough to have cut and polished.

Some of my husband's "finds."

Some of my husband’s “finds.”

The black rectangle in the upper left corner is black tourmaline.  In the middle is smoky quartz.

The black rectangle in the upper left corner is black tourmaline. In the middle is smoky quartz.

 

While he was busy picking through rocks, I went to the Maine Gem and Mineral Show located in Bethel.  With no labor involved I could have bought all sorts of interesting raw, sparkly uncut gem and mineral specimens (albeit without any sense of a “Eureka!” moment) for as little as $3 (many specimens were priced in the hundreds of dollars).

Watermelon tourmaline, so called because of its bicolor red and green

Watermelon tourmaline, so called because of its bicolor red and green

watermelon tourmaline

watermelon tourmaline

a huge piece of watermelon tourmaline

A huge piece of watermelon tourmaline.  It was found in the 1940s in the same mine where my husband searched for treasures.

20140713_133234_resized

 

 

 

20140713_133329_resized

Smoky quartz

Smoky quartz

Amethyst found in a mine in the White Mountain National Forest,  not far from where I live

Amethyst found in a mine in the White Mountain National Forest, not far from where I live

This beautiful polished and faceted amethyst jewerly was made from the larger raw stone at left

This beautiful polished and faceted amethyst jewelry was made from the larger raw stone at left

 

more beautiful gem jewelry, quarried from a local Maine mine

more beautiful gem jewelry (garnets, quartz, and green tourmaline), quarried from a local Maine mine

 

But my husband was glad he had tried his hand at rockhounding, because there are some very interesting potential areas on our own land that are worth exploring, and now we know what to look for.  At the very least, it’s worth the price of a geologist’s hammer (around $35) to see for ourselves.

Tired and covered with dirt and dust after a long, hot  day of rockhounding

Tired and covered with dirt and dust after a long, hot day of rockhounding

 

For an extensive database which helps one to identify different rocks:  www.mindat.org

For more information about commerical and hobbyist rockhounding in Maine:  www.digmainegems.com

A woman rockhounder’s excellent resource page for Maine:  http://www.gatorgirlrocks.com/state-by-state/maine.html

For more information on mining in the White Mountain National Forest:

http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recreation/rocks-minerals/recarea/?recid=79453&actid=73

http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5382891.pdf

http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5382890.pdf

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: