The Michigan Country Lines magazine is published monthly (except August and December) by the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association. Subscriptions are authorized for members of Alger Delta, Cherryland, Cloverland, Great Lakes, HomeWorks Tri-Country, Midwest Energy, Ontonagon, Presque Isle, and Thumb electric cooperatives. The assistant editor, Cindy Zuker, contacted me several months ago and asked if she could interview me regarding an article about agates. Her grandfather, who lived in Munising, was an avid collector of the elusive gem and even had a small rock shop in Munising when Cindy was a kid. The article is reproduced below:
Lake Superior Agates Rockby Cindy Zuker
"With the help of the "agate lady," the world is a better place."
Rock hounding and Lake Superior go together. And, if you’ve ever walked the beach, picking up pretty stones and found an agate, you’re hooked on “the hunt.”
True rock hounding, according to Karen Brzys, owner/curator of the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum in Grand Marais, is more than amassing a collection -- its sharing the experience. And, sharing her love and knowledge of agates has become her life’s work.
Fueling her passion and fascination for agates, Brzys credits Axel Niemi, who lived most of his 86 years in Grand Marais until he died in 2004. Niemi founded and operated the museum from the early ‘50s through 1978. As a young child, Brzys summered in Grand Marais and spent countless hours listening to Niemi’s stories, songs, and jokes, all the while learning about agates and life. In 1998, she acquired and [later] re-opened the museum, closed for nearly 21 years. She continues Axel Niemi’s legacy -- that the world would be a much better place if more people had the opportunity to search for and appreciate rocks, and other aspects of nature.
With this in mind, Karen developed a class for museum visitors, and other interested groups, to increase the likelihood of their success in finding agates by improving their understanding of them. She helps people to “think like an agate.”
Learning About Agates
Agates are found worldwide, but Lake Superior agates are the oldest, dating back about 1.2 billion years. They formed -- molecule-by-molecule, layer-by-layer, from microscopic fibrous quartz crystals forming concentric bands and other patterns from the outside in -- in the steam-vacated pockets of lava rock that flowed up through the cracks in the Earth’s surface.
Later, erosion and glaciers broke apart the host rock and the forces of nature scattered the freed agates. The windy nature of Lake Superior, and its iceberg flows, continues to distribute them.
Sharing this background, Brzys advises agate hunters that along with combing Superior’s shores, they look in the root balls of uprooted trees, along beaches, creek beds and rivers, in piles of rock left from cleared farm fields, in gravel pits, and even at construction sites after a cleansing rain or along old railroad tracks.
How to Find Them
A semi-precious stone, agates are the esteemed find of rock-hounding along Lake Superior shores because of their elusive nature, characterized by their few numbers and sometimes drab outside appearance that hides the gem-quality beauty inside.
“Given that Lake Superior agates are not plentiful, to be successful in finding them, along with some luck, you must have patience, persistence, and focus, “ Brzys says. “And your chances will improve if you can keep from being distracted by all the other beautiful rocks.”
Here are some of the basic characteristics (which refer to the picture above) she teaches to help you “think like an agate”:
- Look for rocks that show evident concentric banding [or other self-organized patterns].
- The majority of Lake Superior agates are stained with iron, so keep a keen eye out for this reddish-brown color.
- Look for often “quartzy”-looking channel openings that allowed the solution to enter or escape the pocket in the host rock when the agates formed.
- Specimens will often have a pit-marked surface, possibly from molding to the rough lining of the host rock.
- Look for pseudo-bands, or evidence of banding indicating there may be self-organized crystal structure on the inside.
- Look for clam-shell shaped fractures that may serve as a “window” to the inside, revealing banding you cannot see on the surface.
- Look for a waxy gray luster indicating chalcedony, a microcrystalline version of quartz. Some are comprised of carnelian, a red-stained version of chalcedony.
- Not all, but most agates are translucent (you can see light through it). When the angle of the sun is low, walk toward the sun and look a distance in front of you for the translucent red carnelian agates.
Learn more about agates and how they were formed in Brzys’ book, “Understanding and Finding Agates.” She has also taken to the road with “Gitche Gumee Gatherings,” where she conducts private shows and workshops on rock hounding and agate hunting for any size groups. Contact her at 906-494-2590 for more information, or visit www.agatelady.com.
At the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum in Grand Marais, owner/curator Karen Brzys (above) offers rock cutting and polishing; classes on rock-hounding and basic agate hunting, a gift shop with Lake Superior agates, other minerals, handcrafted agate products, and other unusual items; mineralogical displays featuring agates from around the world; and historical displays of what life was like in Grand Marais a century ago.
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Gitche Gumee Museum.
E21739 Brazel Street
Grand Marais, Michigan 49839