Agate hunting 101

MARQUETTE – If you look too hard for some things, you might not find them.

That’s one of the rules for the successful hunting of agates, those distinctive, translucent, lined rocks sought by many rockhounds.

In fact, many tips would come in handy for people scouring Lake Superior beaches or elsewhere to find those rare rocks.

Sharing those tips was Karen Brzys of Grand Marais, “the Agate Lady,” who talked about her passion Wednesday at the Marquette Regional History Center. She also is the author of “Agates: Inside Out” and runs the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum in Grand Marais.

What is an agate?

An agate is a variety of quartz, but not just any type of quartz.

“To be an agate you’d have to be a certain type of microcrystalline quartz called chalcedony, and you have to self-organize to fill in what was previously an empty pocket,” Brzys said.

Agates develop as secondary deposits in hollow cavities called vesicles, with most of the world’s agates developing in ancient molten lava. However, she said nobody knows for sure how agates formed, although there are several theories.

For Lake Superior agates, it is believed an aqueous solution was carried into vesicle pockets, which was how silica got into them to form an agate. Fusion is another way agates could have formed.

Some agates have husks, which means you can’t see what’s inside them until you cut them, she said.

“The beauty of looking for Lake Superior agates on our beach is those husks have worn off, so in most cases on the beach, the Lake Superior agates are showing their stuff, at least on one side,” Brzys said.

How does the neophyte – or even experienced – rockhound find agates?

The trick is to “think like an agate,” Brzys said.

But like many hobbies and pastimes, agate hunting is a challenge

“Unsuccessful agate hunters, they think it’s easy,” Brzys said.

Time spent on the beach also must be used judiciously.

“When you’re on the beach, agates are so rare, you know, you try to look at every rock because you don’t want to miss that one lonely agate that’s down there,” Brzys said. “Or what happens after a few minutes, is your brain gets completely overwhelmed with all that color or all that detail, and actually shuts down to protect itself. It’s called perceptual blindness.”

That leads to “pretty rock syndrome.”

“You get desperate, and so you start picking up pretty stones,” Brzys said.

That’s OK, but if you want to find agates, you might have to “retrain your brain,” as Brzys called it, to collect the rare rocks.

She suggested examining beach sections and walking fairly fast, because the slower a person walks, the more likely the collector is going to suffer from perceptual blindness.

Focus, patience and time – at least half a day – are parts of a successful agate search, she said.

A little confidence can’t hurt either.

Brzys related a story that involved a man who came into the museum, bought three expensive agates and then left. The next day, he returned to the museum to tell the rest of the tale.

It turned out he and his wife had been hunting agates in Grand Marais for 20 years. The husband had a good deal of success while the wife never found a single agate.

She was about to give up, which might have cut into his agate hunting if they were to continue hunting together, Brzys said. So, he planted those expensive agates at the beach in the next search.

“She didn’t find them, didn’t find them, didn’t find them,” Brzys said.

Eventually, she found all three. A year later, he came back to the museum to say his wife had been finding agates ever since.

That’s a testimonial to the power of positive thinking, and maybe a little superstition.

“Start with an agate in your pocket for good luck, if it makes you feel good,” Brzys said.

Starting small with pebble-sized agates, or “chippers,” helps because that makes for a successful agate hunter, she said.

Of course, a collector has to look out for what Brzys called the eight basic characteristics: translucency, dense gray color, waxy luster, red iron oxide staining, pit-marked husks, conchoidal fracture, yellow limonite coating and organized structure.

Translucency is the most important characteristic, said.

“Almost nothing on the beach is translucent,” Brzys said, although once in awhile milky quartz pebbles, a pure piece of chalcedony or a red carnelian with no structure are found.

Because of this translucency, beach agates will glow.

“Whichever direction you’re looking, you want the sun coming through the rocks so to show that translucency,” Brzys said.

When looking for agates, Brzys recommended looking east in the morning, south during mid-day and west in the evening for the best lighting.

“Don’t be afraid to dig, especially late in the season,” Brzys said. “Spring is the best, especially in a year when we do have floating ice on the lake.”

For example, a family from Brighton went to Lake Superior beaches with large rock piles, and dug for five days.

“They found 300 agates,” Brzys said.

Once beach agates are found, most often no extra work needs to be done to display them.

“Well over 90 percent of beach agates, you don’t have to cut and polish them,” Brzys said. “They’re showing their stuff.”

Collectors can store their agates in a water-and-bleach solution, but oils are not recommended since it damages the rocks, she said.

Her Wednesday presentation included photos “to inspire you” of a variety of agates, including one with an unusual red marking.

“It looks like a heart,” a boy in the audience exclaimed.

Nancy Gold of Marquette attended Thursday’s event, acknowledging she’s found a few agates in her day.

“I don’t know if I’m good at it,” Gold said.

Like with many hobbies, though, it’s not always about the end result, and for Gold, agate hunting is about going to the beach and taking part in the collecting process.

Brzys’s process seems to be tried and true.

“When you do this new method, then, you let those agate characteristics attract your attention, because you’re not looking at the rocks, you’re looking for the characteristics, and then the agate finds you,” Brzys said.

For more information about agates and the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum, which is open seven days a week from Memorial Day to the end of September, visit www.agatelady.com, call 906-494-2590 or email karen@agatelady.com.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.


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