Scott's Blog - Scott's Rock and Gem

Join us, as Scott recounts anecdotes and shares photos of gem shows and rock hounding exploits.

 Editor's note:For 2020 and perhaps longer, the obsidian sites mentioned in this blog, which are in the Modoc National Forest in Northern California are closed to collecting, while the Forest Service and other stake holders in the area decide how to best manage this resource. The Forest Service writes:

"More recently, commercial mining impacts have increased as overseas purchasers sought large quantities. This led to a number of unsustainable impacts to the resource, surrounding forest and nearby communities. Theft and illegal mining activities have increased substantially with evidence of heavy equipment, unauthorized roads, wildfire ignitions, unsafe mining practices, impacts on other forest users and an overall unsustainable removal of this non-renewable resource.

“We have the responsibility to insure this resource is available to tribal members for traditional cultural practices for generations to come and we appreciate providing this unique recreational activity for those who can use the resource sustainably,” said District Ranger Lisa Spahr. “We know it is a small percentage of users causing most of the issues, but the current situation has become unmanageable and we are forced to make the tough decision to put a moratorium on all collection until these issues can be addressed.”


My old rockhound buddy, Rollie Emerson, out of Susanville, California called me up out of the blue, and asked me if I wanted to go digging. I hadn't heard from him in about eight years. "Well, let's get one in for old time's sake", I said. "We aren't getting any younger!" We chose to hit the Davis Creek Obsidian area in Northern California. Prior to arriving at the dig sites, Rollie and I stopped at the Davis Creek Store to get our free forest service permits. The casual rockhound is allowed to collect and keep 100 pounds per year. That's roughly two 5 gallon buckets full - more than enough to play with. 


At the Davis Creek rainbow area today, commercial mining is on the decline. Large, established commercial digs like the Broken Pick Mine above are a thing of the past. As always, it's hand digging only at Davis Creek. No mechanization is allowed.


For safety reasons, the tall bank that you see in the back in this old photo has today been terraced by the Forest Service to cut back any dangerous overhangs.

Many trees were removed in the process of re-contouring the bank, so the area is much more open today and can get quite hot in the summertime. 

According the the clerk at the Davis Creek Store, a few bad actors have been disrespecting the rainbow area, acting recklessly, and pilfering. In response, the Forest Service has installed a gate at the bottom of the spur going into the collecting area. I lucked out in 2018 - the gate had been opened for a gem and mineral club, and was not yet locked when I visited the site. So I could drive in, but apparently the gate is now usually locked which means you will have to carry out any obsidian you collect. The carry out is approximately two tenths of a mile, so it might be beneficial to bring a wheel barrow, or hand truck to carry out your obsidian (up to 100 lbs. only) unless you just like pretending you're one of the characters in Dante's Inferno!

A road that was illegally cut into the obsidian collecting area has been blocked by the Forest Service. This type of thoughtless behavior can only result in the area being closed to everyone. There are more and more land closures every year, so we all need to be responsible to help keep open what precious few opportunities to collect still remain. Please do your best to respect the land here and maybe our children and theirs will still be able to come here, collect material like grandpa and grandma did, and be enriched by the beauties of the natural world.  



In this archival photo of the old commercial diggings, you can see about 6 feet of soil overburden has been cut through to get to the obsidian layer. An old obsidian miner friend of mine reported that they once got a 750 pound rainbow obsidian boulder out of the mine. How do you load a piece like that without any mechanization? "Brute strength and ignorance!" the old miner says.


Days gone by. In the past tons of obsidian had been transported by bucket load out of the area. Commercial miners would sell this material to rock shops, and cutting houses needing bulk amounts. I have gotten several calls from Chinese sourcers, looking to buy container loads of the coveted Davis Creek obsidian, but I have to tell them that I am a hobby digger, not a commercial miner, and the days of container loads are over. 


Anxious to get digging, Rollie and I park at what used to be the tree covered separate public digging area. As noted earlier, this entire area has now been stripped of trees, and is a sun drenched, terraced bank about 30 feet tall.  In this picture you can see one of the old tailings piles, at the far right. 


Here, Rollie and I set in on a wall that has about 7 feet of exposure, getting us down through the soil overburden and putting us right on top of the obsidian layer. Not too bad! Rollie checks a piece of obsidian. We look to see if we can see visible striping on the outside of the rock, which indicates the presence of the rainbow flow bands within. 


I work at the juncture of the floor and the wall, since that is where the zone turns from mostly dirt, to mostly obsidian cobbles. 


Rollie mentions that there is obsidian in the soil overburden also, and sure enough, he soon uncovers a nice sized boulder. 


Being more fluffy, the soil layer is easier to dig in, and Rollie quickly pulls down the boulder. But we're not sure if it's the prized rainbow or not. There is a mixed bag of obsidian present in this pit, and while some is bright rainbow, some is more black, some silver or gray sheen, and some is mahogany. 


We're in luck! A stroke of the rock pick flakes off an edge, revealing some nice banding of rainbow colors. We have to hold the rock at an oblique angle to get it to fire, but this can be helped by cutting, or doming the rock at a more parallel angle to the striping of the flow banding. An ideal angle is probably about 10 or 15 degrees offset from parallel. Please note that chipping or cracking obsidian is inherently dangerous. Obsidian breaks with razor sharp edges, and tiny needle sharp fragments can fly up into your face with great velocity. Always wear protective glasses when chipping or breaking obsidian. 


Meanwhile, my dig looks like it's going to produce a big rock!


I pull it out, and can see the color from a flake off the end. 


Rollie holds a rock showing lovely pastel banding. 


There are some awesome purple sheens coming out of this pit. 


This rock had marvelous stripes of rich, vibrant color. 


Here's one that has purple stars that dance around on the surface. 


The colors at the Davis Creek rainbow pit are electric. This is a premier gem obsidian. Rollie and I get a full bucket of great material.  

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A Davis Creek rainbow obsidian piece after windowing into a dome shape to capture the bullseye effect. Almost any piece you work on will yield an exquisite piece of natural art! 

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Interestingly, this and the previous piece are cut from the same rock, showing the color variations that come within a very short amount of space.

Because of pulses and movement in the original lava flows, you get these rippled banding effects that look like the Northern Lights.

Golden rainbow of light!

Beautiful teals and golds with a textured look.

Peppermint stripe.

 The patterns are endless, and it ends up that there is not enough lifetime to get all the lapidary work done that there is to do out here!  


On the way up to the Pink Lady mine, which is about another 8 miles uphill, we pass the famous Needle Hill digging area. This hillside yields intersting, long, thin shards of black and mahogany obsidian that look a little like knitting needles. Generations of rockhounds have dug here, but there is still material available. The needles have a tone when struck, and are often used by crafters to make nice, musical sounding windchimes. 


The ground at Needle Hill is absolutely littered with black and mahogany obsidian cobbles. But there is no sheen obsidian here. There is one commercial pit on Needle Hill, but the hillside is big enough to accomodate a bus load of diggers, so there should be no problem finding a spot to dig. Rollie and I move on up the mountain however, anxious to locate the Pink Lady Mine. 


It turns out that the Pink Lady is not so easy to find. It's not visible from the Forest Service road, and you have to spur off on an unmarked dirt road that takes you back a few hundred yards to the digging area. After a few false chases down the wrong spurs, we finally find the area, which looks a bit like a moonscape with numerous craters. Obviously, a lot of work has been done here by generatons of rockhounds. There are good sized trees growing on some of the tailings piles. Rollie and I try to decide where to dig in. 


Driven by some instinct that can't be fully explained, Rollie burrows into the ashen white soil.


He's got something, and it looks big. Tightly keyed into the rocky soil, it's not moving. 


But Rollie prevails and the Pink Lady yields up a boulder of pink sheen! 


The thing I like about Rollie is the thing I like about most good rockhounds. He's a generous person. Here, he lets me into his hole, since my luck seems to have run out, but his is running strong. You can see the large cavity that his boulder left, and there's another good sized rock right below it. 


You did say I could have this one right Rollie? Friend...old buddy...old pal?


I pull out a significant boulder. Not quite as big as the first one, but that's OK, because I need my back to stay in one piece!


Nice soft pastel pink and gold sheens in the boulder from the Pink Lady Mine. Most certainly, there is more down in the pit, but it's getting late, and it's been an awesome day of beautiful sheen obsidian collecting.



Besides that, we have to leave something for the next person - That's you! Yes you. So go ahead and turn off your device, Go get your permit, and get out there (Once the Forest Service decides to re-open the area). It's waiting for you! Happy rockhounding!





As detailed in Eastern Oregon Rockhound Ramble, Part 1, I was out in the field, thoroughly enjoying the first part of a three week rockhounding tour, organized by some Seattle friends. I joined the group at the famous eastern Oregon Glass Butte obsidian grounds, where we collected rainbow, fire, midnight lace, and other beautiful obsidian varieties. 

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Then we moved on to a white plume agate site, in the drainage of Stinking Water Creek, near Juntura, Oregon. Here's a large boulder of luscious white plume agate that I discovered while collecting at this prolific site. The persistent rains that had hung in the skies the whole time out, finally abated as we left the white plume site, and we decided to take a look down the Warm Springs Reservoir road. Norma McDonald, our trip navigator had some GPS coordinates for points along that road, and the area was also listed in the Gem Trails of Oregon guide.

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Probably we were due to strike out, after the last two awesome sites. Half of rockhounding is figuring out where things aren't! There were some small sized, plain white agate nodules in some of the open fields and low hills adjacent to the road, as the photo shows, but nothing of any size. It was a beautiful day, transitioning out of the rains. The bright sunshine and big puffy white clouds were much appreciated after so much wet gray weather. One member of our group did find a nice little obsidian arrowhead while wandering around, so the area wasn't completely without reward.


We only got one day of transition from the rains. The next day was full strength sun, with temps shooting up into the high 90's. Norma had some GPS coordinates for a picture jasper site, out on the Rock Canyon Road, south of Vale, Oregon. We arrived at the spot, and our group fanned out, hiking up, and combing the sides, top, and back of this good sized hill. 


As foreshadowed in Part 1 of the Eastern Oregon Rockhound Ramble, we were skunked again. Here, I mercilessly rate the site, clutching my meager collection of incredibly scarce, leaverite style jasper, with no pattern!


From the "Picture No Picture Jasper" site, it was about another 10 miles to the base of Negro Rock, a remote landmark, and reportedly home to some colorful, though scarce petrified wood. I had one piece of literature in my rock collecting folder that indicated that the Model A was the best vehicle to make the trip out to Negro Rock, so you get an idea of how many years this site has been on rockhounds' radar. 


On the way out, we encounter two creek fords with water depths of up to about 20 inches - too deep for my passenger van. For a precarious moment, it looks like I am going to have to walk in - the logical consequences of bringing a low clearance vehicle out on these roads! But happily, the group softens to my plight, gear is shuffled, and I park my insufficient rig, and  jump into a higher clearance, more "submersible" vehicle.


The printed guide indicates that the digs here are hard to find and that the wood is deep, at least 6-7 feet. I circumnavigated the entire hill, changing elevations up and down along the traverse, looking for any sign. Others in our group struck out in different directions, but when we reunited, the story was the same. There was no sign of any digging in the area, no real sign of any float, save for a couple chips of jasper-like material that were too small to be recognizeable as wood. I think this might be an area that you would need to plan on staying at, and digging in deeply, hoping to get lucky. Those guys that drove the Model A's probably got most of it. Today, with heat close to 100, and no obvious sign of any sort to encourage us, except the entire bleached skeleton of a cow on the hillside, we weren't sure we were up to it.


Several months later, I came across this slab in an old rockhound collection. It was marked as "petrified wood from Negro Rock" - beautiful material with its golds and subtle lavenders. I guess it must still be out there somewhere, in the sun baked emptiness of Malheur County, far eastern Oregon. 



With guides, and GPS coordinates turning out to be less than optimal, we decided to rely on the good ole fashioned tribal knowledge of our rockhound friends Ken and Jeanine Metz, shown here at Negro Rock. The couple had visited a pink plume agate site in the Owyhee country, out of Nyssa, Oregon, years ago, and they said material had been abundant. In the morning, they would attempt to guide us to the site, using only their memory. This conveyance of knowledge using the rockhound oral tradition proved to be a valuable asset. 


Now this is more like it! A rockhound longs only for the bright sky, the yielding earth, and the clang of steel! Ok, maybe a little Taco Bell thrown in there somewhere (wink).  As we neared the base of the low "Pink Plume" hill, we saw the first signs of agate float in the road. Again, almost magically, I was only on site about 30 minutes before I discovered a big agate mass just under the soil, and it wasn't moving. On the way back down to the rigs, to get bigger tools, I found another large chunk, poking out of a small drainage channel on the hillside. 


Meanwhile, Carol Rust had discovered a large knob of Owyhee jasper over on the hillside across the road from Pink Plume. Now the rockhounds had work to do! In the photo, the knob is only partially cleared off. It eventually yielded several hundred pounds of material. 


Would you put down the camera and grab a pry bar already? Here Kevin McDonald works the jasper hole, while the whole group is happily digging up the hillside in various spots. Temperatures are climbing, and nearing 100. But the fun of finding seams of agate and jasper allows the rockhound to somehow transcend physical limitations - at least for a time.  We drink lots of water, and manage to stay productive and ignore the long slow build of roiling heat.

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At my hilltop pink plume hole, I pull out a very nice looking 5 pound chunk with pastel pink plumes arising off a greenish base, and dancing into snowy agate. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of this nice rock comes out, and it's a 20 pounder! The hole continues to yield good sized chunks of rock, and then the fantastic happens. Ken and Kevin dig in and pull out a giant agate boulder well over 100 pounds! 


Here's a smaller piece from the same hole, that polished up quite nicely. 


Here's a dome-polished, hand sized piece from the Pink Plume hill float, showing some nice colors.  

Pink Plume road piece

 A very nice pink plume agate, with excellent patterning, representative of the best that the site had to offer. 


A short gallery of some additional pieces from the Pink Plume Hill site, that I worked on when I got back from the Owyhee country. 





Pink Plume Parfait!



 Owyhee Country! After collectively loading hundreds of pounds of material, we drive some rough roads to the canyon rims, where it's a few degrees less sweltering, there's an awesome "forever" view, and a nice breeze blowing. Interestingly enough, there's a little pink plume float even way up here. 

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At sundown, we make camp at the bottom of a four wheel drive track that ascends to a nearby mesa where Owyhee jasper can be found. At night, temps lower a bit, to sit in the 80's and the canyon rock and walls stay radiant with heat. 

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In the morning, we'll ascend the dirt track, which pops up in the saddle to the left of this flat top mesa, and leads into jasper country. 

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To inspire our tired group, and renew the desire for the chase, Norma McDonald brings out a color flyer she has, that features some very juicy pictures of varietal Owyhee jaspers. Here's an example from my personal collection that I call "The Ascension"

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Another specimen that should be illustrative of why rockhounds comb this rugged country, in search of elusive, beautiful jaspers. 


The sublime beauty of even the simple toned Owyhee jaspers.


Can you spot the Owyhee Jasper dig in this picture? Hint: blue backpack marks it. 


In the words of Norma McDonald: "Now that's an Owyhee jasper seam"!


Owyhee jasper color. This seam yielded material that looked a little bit like the famous Australian mookite. 

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By evening the heat builds, and with it thunderheads, that threaten rain. In the middle of the night a large bank of clouds moves in, and I can see it's filled wth lightning. I'm about 15 miles back in the rugged Owyhee country, over dirt roads that will quickly turn to mud, should the true force of these rainclouds cut loose. Reluctantly, I decide that I had better get back to pavement, rather than risk getting stuck out here, and causing the group to be delayed.

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On my way out: A gorgeous sunrise, and some rain does fall. In the next couple days, a heat wave hits. Little did we know, it had been cool at 100 degrees. The daytime highs climb to a near record 113, and warnings go out in town to stay inside. Our group retreats to a hotel in Nyssa, and holes up, until things cool back down to a nice, comfortable 100!

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I Head for home, back over the shoulders of the Cascade Mountain Range, past the amazing ramparts of Mt. Thielson.


After the heat wave and thunderstorms, lightning set off fires in the Succor Creek area of Eastern Oregon, which burn right up to the road, and cause the rest of the group to abandon collecting plans in that region. 


 The group heads for camp in snakeskin agate country, near Rome, Oregon. 

snakeskin agate tub

Collecting is still good, as you can see, even though this area has produced quantities of the whimsically shaped snakeskin agate for generations of rockhounds. 


Snakeskin agate has very little to no color or pattern inside. It's simply the fantastical shape that rockhounds can't resist. Kevin Rust poetically comments that, "When I hit one big one underground, it was like hitting into a swarm of weiner dogs! A whole bunch showed up."


A visit to the Purple Cow hole, near McDermitt, Nevada. This pit has produced a variegated jasp-agate that has some nice purple, amethystine areas. 


Kevin McDonald finally finds some McDermitt petrified wood!


A Disaster Peak jasper hole, McDermitt, Nevada. Note the weird giant picasso concretion, leaned against the pit wall, to the right and up behind Kevin McDonald's head. 


At the Davis Creek, California obsidian area, claim owner Frank Newman shares some shade that was produced "miner style". 


Carol Rust nicknamed this large boulder of Davis Creek rainbow obsidian "The Birdbath". 


Another Davis Creek rainbow obsidian in the Kevin and Carol Rust collection. The great color and fantastic swirling pattern of the flows, really does make this material some of the best rainbow that you can collect. 


Spectacular play of colors in Davis Creek rainbow obsidian. 


Beautiful purple sheen moves across a Davis Creek obsidian slab like the Northern Lights. 


Captain, she can't take much more! Maximum capacity has been reached. Lifespan of vehicle suspension at this rock load level: dubious. At some point, you know it's time to head for home. I'll hope to see everyone again on the rockhound trails!

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Some friends of mine from the East Kingco Gem & Mineral Club, out of Seattle, Washington, invited me to join them on an Eastern Oregon rockhound ramble. Sounded like a great idea! I met them at Glass Buttes, 77 miles east of Bend, Oregon. The area boasts a variety of different types of obsidian, and has been a favorite locality of rockhounds for decades. We decide to check out the Midnight Lace pits where rockhounds can dig for the prized double flow obsidian, which shows a whimsical pattern of alternating black, and clear flows. 

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The weather was wet and the only thing better than a good rain coat was a pair of dry shoes and socks! Here, Kevin Rust lays into the wall on one side of a trench, while his wife, Carol, goes through material above. There's much more obsidian than dirt here, so the practice becomes one of paying attention to picking only the nicest pieces that show good potential to cut with the sought after banding. 

our group

I'll briefly jump forward in time, so I can introduce the rest of our group. Here we all are together in the sunshine that would not materialize for about another week. That's me on the far left. The back row consists of Ken and Jeanine Metz, excellent rockhounds out of Mukilteo, Washington. In the front row are Carol Rust, Norma McDonald our tireless navigator, and "Captain" Kevin McDonald. Kevin's holding a scant shard of supposed picture jasper, after we just fanned out and searched a mountain in the heat of the midday sun. Kevin Rust called this the "Picture No Picture Jasper site". But we won't talk about getting skunked. (wink)

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Back at "Rain Buttes" (another Kevin R. moniker), after a good afternoon of prolonged digging, Teensy the dog personifies the rest of the group's ambitions. She beds down on a pile of obsidian, and won't be moved. 

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We head back to "Knappers Camp", one of a series of wide, accomodating dry camp pullouts, which are close to several nearby obsidian digs.

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I see that these Seattle folks are serious! Kevin McDonald has hauled a trim saw out into the field, and he fires it up with Kevin R's generator. Here, he & Norma advise, while first timer rockhound Tyson Rust slabs off a piece of the freshly dug obsidian. 

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 It shows the wonderful, crazy ribbons of Midnight Lace!


Dramatic bands of double flow obsidian (Midnight Lace) originating from flows that are smooth, and not pulsed like the previous slab. 


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The next morning, I move over to the Aurora Borealis Pit, where I have dug out some nice rainbow obsidian in years past. The pit was in-filled a few years back, and while other shallow pits have taken shape right next to the main one, nobody has gone deep enough to get at the best and largest rainbow obsidian, which is about 6-7 feet deep here. Somebody's got to do it, so I set about mucking out the pit.

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After a few hours of digging, I clear out enough rubble to gain access to fresh digging in the prime lair. A closer look into the maw of the pit shows some niced sized obsidian boulders hanging out on the walls of the deepest part, though a little hard to make out because they are covered in dust. This dig site yields a potpourri of obsidian, including gold sheens, silver sheens, and plain black, but it's highly likely that there will be some of the sought after rainbow in here.

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I pop out my first boulder!

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Each time I think I'm just about done, another boulder pokes its nose out of the dirt, and I assemble a very nice collection of rocks, some in the 30-40 pound zone. Most all of these boulders have the subtle tell-tale striping on the surface that indicates that they have varietal flows inside of them. 

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I shear off a chunk from the side of one of the boulders, and sure enough, it is rich with the lovely pastel colors of rainbow obsidian. Most all of this rock is good, and even the small pieces can have surprising color zones. Please note that chipping or cracking obsidian is inherently dangerous. Obsidian breaks with razor sharp edges, and tiny needle sharp fragments can fly up into your face with great velocity. Always wear protective glasses when chipping or breaking obsidian. 

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Here's a hand sized chunk that I polished up, once I got home. Initially, it just showed a dim gold sheen on the surface, but as I ground down on it, and domed it, I was able to work out layers of the pastel blues and pinks. 

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As you roll this piece forward, it develops some startling, and wonderful golden hues. Really quite a nice example! 


Another Rockin rainbow from the Aurora Borealis Pit, Glass Butte. 

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Back out in the field, our group heads out to a well known white plume agate site in the drainage of Stinking Water Creek. The hills in the foreground are scattered with abundant small pieces of agate. The rains show no sign of letting up, but sometimes, wet conditions can tend to help at an agate site.

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 We find a flat camp at the base of the low hills, and I start exploring eagerly, noting that there is actually agate everywhere - on the dirt road leading in, in every drainage channel large or small, and also up on the tops of the hills, as you can see in the picture. A lot of the agate is nondescript, and nothing much larger than 4 inches appears at first, but there is a significant amount that shows white plumes of good, to quite nice quality. After only about 20 minutes out, for some reason, I use my rock pick, to pull at one small piece of agate, among the thousands of small pieces of agate,  that have been washed clean by the rain. It doesn't move, and I realize I've got something big. 

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 How big is hard to tell, but I've pulled back so much dirt that Teensy thinks I'm going after a gopher, and she comes and joins me at my ever enlarging pit. I split off a little corner of the rock, just to check it...

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It shows a marvelous white plume! 

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I get the rock out all the way, and it's pushing 100 pounds - really too big to carry downhill safely, so I use a long handled hammer to break it down into more manageable chunks. 

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It yields several lesser sized boulders, but still nice sized, and just ripped with beautiful white plume!

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A nice, quiet pastel evening sunset follows the day's excitement The group is starting to comment that it might need to stop raining soon - nobody's got any dry clothes left.  I don't know, but I think that when folks from Seattle complain about rain, it's truly getting bad. The rain does lighten up at times, but it is never far away.  

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Morning. I wander the hillsides looking for the nice little pieces of botryoidal and angelwing type agate that occur here. Lovely, but sparse little purple flowers are sprinkled here and there. I see one rattle type snake, but can't positively ID it, as it quickly backs down into a hole in the rock, and I only get a glimpse of it's wide open pink mouth with needle teeth threatening me as it disappears.

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As I mentioned before, every draw, and wash, and steppe between basalt outcrops, seems to hold potential for finding something special. Here's a lovely little piece of angelwing agate, very reminiscent of the famous McDonald Ranch near Ashwood, Oregon. But it is small - only about 3 inches across.

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Another beautiful little botryoidal agate cavity with a pearly luster. 

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There seem to be any number of great, small sized pieces with sweet plume, just waiting to be picked up. This piece worked up very nicely. 

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What follows is a short gallery of some of the polished pieces of beautiful white plume that I worked on when I got back from the field. 

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There was also a scant amount of petrified wood in the area. Not enough to call this a pet wood site, but a dilligent search will probably turn up a piece or two. 


And hold on a moment! About one piece in several hundred chunks of that dull, brick red jasper that is lying around in some of the draws, actually cuts with some interesting pattern, and takes a mirror polish. 

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 Back up at the pit I started, the two Kevins and Ken, who are all great diggers, are hard at work. The two Kevins have pulled out another major white plume boulder, that is close to 100 lbs. Ken is following the seam. 

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 Kevin McDonald takes a turn at splitting the giant plume agate boulder, so the two Kevins can each have a 50 pound chunk to take home. Miraculously, the boulder does split almost perfectly, after a lot of work was put in to carve out a cleft in it. 

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Ken continues to pull pretty good sized rocks out of the pit, that would make fine centerpieces for anybody's collection. 

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 Almost everything that comes out shows great potential to cut beautiful white plume! 

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 We get so many rocks that we make a "commons pile" for anybody in our group to pick from. Everybody gets a great collection of fine quality plume agate. Now that's how a rockhound trip should be! Cow skull and rock pick for scale. 

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 In my next blog installment, I'll follow the further adventures of our rockhounding group, as the rains finally lift, and we head into the Owyhee region of far Eastern Oregon, for some pink plume agate, Owyhee jasper, and, unknown to us at the time, right into a major heat wave!  





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Light and shadows easily slide together on my annual pilgrimage to the world class halite digs, and the gem show, in Trona, California, during the second week of October. The southern terminus of the Inyo Mountain Range comes alive as hillocks and peaks flare in the sun, and subside. Geology is laid bare here, but what you may not catch on a cloudless sunny day, is the depth and three dimensionality of the range. This aspect is strikingly apparent, as big cumulonimbus clouds travel the skies above, like stage hands clearing the set, after a patch of winter weather left snow in the high Sierras just a couple hours ago.

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Backing up a few hours, to a time just before the winter storm hit, I'm driving past an abandoned cabin, about 6 miles up Hwy 108, from its junction with Hwy 395. An obscure book I picked up years ago in a Lone Pine, California rock shop, titled "Where to Find Rocks and Minerals in the Owens Valley, CA", by Irma Kittle, advises that an area called Leavitt Meadows, is a "good area" featuring "agate w/black dots & sunbursts, Cinnamon obsidian, Sagenite". I see from my map, that the meadows are about 7 miles up the Sonora Pass Highway, so I'm on my way to take a look, but can't help stopping by this iconic little cabin, perched on a small hill overlooking the Walker River. 

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 A stone's throw from the cabin is this interesting structure - possibly a storage facility of some sort? As I understand it, there was once a vacation lodge up here, with housekeeping cabins. Now there are only these small, derelict buildings to speak of the former golden age of tourism to the Sierras. The varying elevations of the rockwork foundation suggest a real homemade style of construction. The initial groundwork migrates from using the rounded river stone which is abundant in the immediate area, to using hewn flat slabs for better structural strength, but more laborious to bring in. 

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Today, during the second week of October, the tourists are absent, and the placid Walker River passes quietly by a small campground that is closed for the season. A horseback riding facility that is just upriver, is also battening down for the winter. The main meadowland looks to be on the other side of the river, so I rock-hop over, across the bar to the right in the picture, heading for some talus slopes on the other side. My rockhounding instinct tells me that if I were an agate, I'd probably hang out over there. If you have children with you, there is a footbridge that crosses the river out of the lower end of the campground. 

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The very first place I check, at the foot of the talus slopes, shows a crystal lined vug in the vessicular volcanic rock. Other small pockets show up nearby, with some tell-tale white stringers in some of the matrix rock. 

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Some of the amygdules are filled in with either agate, quartz crystal, or in this case, a little of both with some interesting reddish golden fine haired sagenite. 

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Here's a sweet little banded agate, with alternating layers of gray, blue, and white. I didn't see any pockets that were very large, everything seeming to come in around one to four inches in size, but there's enough material here to make a good outing for beginning rockhounds, or families with children. Besides the possibilities of finding some interesting collectibles, you are in beautiful country, and there's plenty of open space to explore. 

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The air starts clouding up, and what appears to be the first rain of the season begins to dampen the ground, falling on the summer's dry, cracked mud, and putting up that indescribable smell of wet rock, and earth. Unknown to me, winter is taking a first crack at the Sierras, and before I get down off the Sonora Pass road, the snow will be flying!

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Here's a look at the nearby agate bearing talus slope, from back on the road side of the river. I only walked along the leading edge, at the bottom of the slope, and saw a reasonable amount of little agate tidbits. I'm sure there is more material for the climber, who wants to search up the talus, or even climb to the top, where the monolithic boulders of agate bearing rock are gradually letting their treasures tumble downhill. Caution should always be used, as loose scree can cause sudden loss of footing. 

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The rain chases me out of Leavitt Meadows, and I high-tail it down the road, through falling snow. But the storm doesn't really last, and as I head down to Bishop, there are already starting to be sunbreaks, with incredible freshly snowcapped peaks appearing and disappearing through the swirling clouds, like fleeting visions of Olympus.

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Surely, this must be where the Gods live!

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I drive down the east side of the Sierras every year, on my way to the gemshow, and field trips at Trona. Each year, my amazement is rekindled by the sheer dimensions of this mighty range. Tremendous granite peaks do an abrupt and soaring rise, off of the floor of the Owens Valley, and the younger man in me begins eyeing out routes on the mountain walls, half toying with the idea that it might not be as hard as it looks to climb one of those mountains, if you could just find the right approach. Then I look higher, above the formidable ramparts, above the clouds, to where the supreme citadels stand, unassailable in their icy raiments, and I have to concede that I am peering into the rarified, thin-air realm that only the very experienced mountaineer will ever know first hand. Alas, to be a younger man! And to climb one more glorius peak! 

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Instead of scaling a lofty summit, I keep on schedule, and drive lower into the desert valley. Here, there are colors with no names. Hills seem to undulate, like rollicking water, frozen in time. It occurs to me that landscapes, cloudscapes, rivers - these are all flows, with varying degrees of time. While it is often said that our lives are just a blink, still each moment gives a view of an infinity. 

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The winter storm seems to sense that it can go no further, as it drags its belly on the peaks of the southern Inyos, pummeling them with rains, but balking at stepping out into the sun dappled desert. 

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I head over to Trona via Panamint Valley, because it's empty, loney, and beautiful that way. Just before dropping down into Panamint Valley, The first stands of joshua trees begin to crop up, waving their weird arms at a stunning sky. 

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The sun flares on the furrowed slopes of the Grapevine Range, on the east side of Panamint Valley. Joshua trees stand in silent witness, as that special, peaceful time of late evening unfolds, and the western flanks of the desert mountain ranges redden in the long, low light.

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The next morning, after thunder and lightning played through the night in Panamint Valley, to the beat of soft rains, I take the Quarry Road, at the northern end of Searles Valley, which climbs to the ridgeline of the Slate Range. From the top, you get a good view of the Briggs Gold Mine, an expansive, and conspicuous open pit operation that has drawn fire from environmentalists. The mine has produced over 550,000 ounces of gold since production began in 1996.

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After setting up my show at the club building in Trona, I head for the hills behind the town, to scout for a route that will take me close to Argus Peak, where locals have reported smoky quartz outcroppings. Here the red blush of evening stops my explorations for the day, and I get a view of Searles Dry Lake, where we will be slaving away, collecting halite in a couple of days.

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Ahead of me, and looming tantalizingly close, yet still so far, are the ramparts of Argus Peak. The quartz crops out high up on the shoulder of the peak, and the Argus Range is roadless wilderness. All forays into this country must be done on foot through steep and treacherous terrain. I've tried several years in a row to get up there, but my attempts have been thwarted. Tonight, I stand in the deepening dusk, and peer at that shoulder, another year older, but still desirous of my chance.

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Up the large wash that comes down along the south flank of Argus Peak, I can see Christmas Tree Spring, about a half mile or so distant. It's tempting to think that one might find a route to Argus up this wash, but it is said that the Navy has sensors in the area, and if you are picked up beyond Christmas Tree Spring, you will be taken to Barstow, and detained for three days. Not a good way to finish a rockhounding expedition!

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Jim Fairchild, of Searles Valley Chemicals, is the Searles Lake field trip leader. He, along with his wife, Bonnie, and a handful of others, are pretty much solely responsible for the outstanding collecting opportunities that have been offered to rockhounds during the 2nd weekend of October, for decades. Jim begins and ends the timed field trips via instructions over the megaphone. I've lost count of the number of times he's yelled at me with that darned contraption, telling me that my time is up, and I need to GET OFF THE LAKE!

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Out on the lake, the first field trip has begun. Stan Esbenshade, an Arizona mineral dealer uses a unique trowel to search for rare sulfohalites, scraping through the piles of salt, mud, and brine that were spewed out of the blowpipe for the 600 rockhounds that attend this outing. Another Arizona dealer approaches Stan and advises him that he is only scratching in "gibbely gravel". Stan raises his mud encrusted trowel, protecting his turf, and makes a grim reaper style swing through the air. The encroaching dealer backs off. (wink)

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In one of the most unique field trips that a rockhound could ever take, the Searles Valley Chemical crew uses a drill rig complete with blowpipe, to jet brine and crystals out in a 360 degree ring, onto the flat pan of the lakebed. Before they can pump, a hole must be drilled in the salt crust, and explosive charges must be detonated under the salt pan, to loosen up the hanksites and other crystals. Then the blowpipe is inserted in the hole and pressure is pumped under the surface, firing a gushing stream of crystals out into the air, to land about 30 feet away from the pipe. Collectors rush in to scoop up the newly deposited treasures.

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A closer look at the drill rig shows how the pipe is inserted into the salt crust, down to the reservoir of hanksites, halites, and boraxes below. 

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A look at the rigging of the drill truck. You would not want to have to do a field repair on this baby!

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Getting off the lake, we pass by some prime lakefront real estate! 

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On Sunday, we all get to have at it again. 600 rockhounds spread out quite well in the expansive pink halite collecting area. This year is exciting because we are collecting at a brand new area which Jim calls "the pond effluent area", but which I have come to call "the rose petal area" because the halite that comes out here has a lovely rose pink color that is delicate and beautiful. Halite is abundant, and nobody goes home empty handed. 

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A gorgeous example of pink halite that was collected from the "Rose Petal Area" during the field trip. Note the botryoidal area just right of center, below the cubic hopper crystals. I pulled up some salt plates that were just covered in this interesting bubbly formation, and I had not seen this before in the old traditional collecting zone. 

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At the north end of the Rose Petal, or Pond Effluent area, some diggers cross over the service road, and begin pulling up some very nice clusters of dark pink, to red halite. Before long they are joined by others, and in no time at all, it's "ants in the sugar bowl" over there. Note the large culvert style pipe in the foreground. A network of these monster pipes is used by the company to manage solution flows out on the lake bed. 

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On Monday, after the show, I have some time on my hands, and I am still itching to try to get to the quartz deposits up on Argus Peak. I approach from the Great Falls Basin route, as there is a trailhead here that gains some elevation, before giving out in the upper granite wilderness, below the shoulder of Argus. I take the trail up out of the Great Falls Basin wash, and when it ends, I rock hop through the wilderness for a mile and a half or more, gaining as much elevation as I can, and trending in a generally southward direction. 

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All of a sudden, I start seeing quartz! Here, a partially exposed knob of white rock quartz has been dug out by either rockhounds, or early miners who were up here in search of gold. 

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Multiple quartz veins are present in the host granite here, some of them over a foot thick. The quartz seems to be located within an area that is about 1/4 mile wide, and 1/4 mile long, and is weathering out, high up among the granite domes. I don't find any large crystals here, and there is none of the rumored smoky quartz in this particular area, but there is a lot of nice druzy quartz, much of which has a high degree of sparkle in the bright sunlight. 

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A nice botryoidal druzy quartz, pleasantly colored by iron oxides, is alive with sparkle, though my camera doesn't convey this very well. 

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Some of the druzy quartz had a nice peach-purplish coloration. 

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I spot one mine shaft in the quartz area, plunging at least 40 feet straight down, following a massive quartz seam, visible on the far wall. Those early miners in this area had strong willpower, and perseverance. Imagine hauling 100 cubic yards of material up out of a hole, using only a bucket lashed to a timber at the top of the hole. There were no roads, and no machinery in the early days of prospecting the Argus Peak wilderness. A Trona local, who worked in the early days as a "powder monkey" and later as a prospector, told me that all the old mines in this area are hand dug. 

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A lovely, large botryoidal quartz with marvelous coloration proves too big to conquer with my backpack. I'll have to come back with my helicopter! (wink) There is lots of druzy and botryoidal material here, and the area is largely untouched by rockhounds, due to the remote location. If you have a chance to get out here, this is a fun trip. 

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One thin cloud in the sky is not enough to cut the still 90+ degree temps of mid October. Creamy granite knobs begin to bake in the afternoon sun, and my water is mostly used up, having gained 1500 feet of elevation in a couple of miles, and having done a couple more miles of bouldering. Looks like I'm not going to gain another 1000 feet of rugged elevation on up to the smoky quartz area on the high shoulder of Argus Peak. For 2013, My plan is approach that zone from Indian Joe Canyon (slightly more direct, but straight up with no trail), focus on gaining the el, and not get too distracted by druzy quartz. Next year, I'm going to make it! 

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There is precious little time in a year, to wander these desert wilderness areas, and this years trip was made possible through the kindness of a Trona neighbor, Gail Austin, who did me the big favor of lending me his 1940's jeep. It's the best rig I have been in for navigating the deep sandy washes. Back at the bottom of the Great Falls Basin trailhead, looking due west, the mountain wall forms an amphitheater of sorts and juts abruptly from the soft sandy floor. Seven waterfalls cascade down through the notch in the wall, during a rain, giving the place it's name. 

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A view into the interior of the jeep. Note the custom made howlite stick shift knobs. If there is a rockhound heaven, it might look something like this! Happy hounding!



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