History’s Gem of the Month: Hints on Hunting Glacial Agate Article

July 2007

While looking through the museum’s archives to select this month’s history gem, I came across a draft of an article written by the museum founder, Axel Niemi. I’m not sure if and when he ever published this article, but I thought it worthy of sharing.


Grand Marais to Whitefish Point are gravelly for the most part. The glacial rocks leave the harder agates and other quartz minerals to be picked by the lucky hunter. There are a number of gravel pits scattered throughout the U.P., but the chances of finding anything of importance in these pits are slim. The author found only one large green jasper moss agate (1 pound), which was identical to a specimen found by a conservation worker on the high banks of the Sucker River. However, rockhounds will have better luck combing the beaches.

Many visitors examine the Gitche Gumee Mineral Museum collection every year and are amazed at the multiple varieties of agate, jasper, and other gem minerals that have come from the local beaches. That the collection was found within a few minutes walk to a couple hour drive from the museum seems unbelievable. To those rockhounds who understand the difficulty encountered in hunting these all but camouflaged mineral gemstones, it is apparent that a great deal of time is required to find these priceless rarities. Those who are willing to put in the time, though, are often rewarded.

The biggest reason beginners are not successful in finding glacial agates is the fact that they give up too easily. Since the agates have become worn to the point that they are rather indistinguishable from other translucent non-gem rocks and opaque stones, the problem of spotting a choice agate is readily understood. To add further to the confusion, until the rockhound becomes accustomed to spotting agate characteristics, it is easy for your focus to be diverted by a host of variously colored pretty jaspers, cherts, and granite pebbles that are thrown into the jumble. Even the experienced agate hunter must avoid being inflicted by “the pretty rock syndrome.”

Another reason why agates are hard to spot is that many are covered with dozens of tiny powdery fractures that may hide the true nature of the interior beauty. If you were more than a billion years old having to contend with the waves and ice of Lake Superior, as well as its predecessor lakes and oceans, you would have a few fractures, too. Thus to be successful it is important that you keep your focus, spend the hours required, and concentrate on looking for the agate characteristics. With such a variety of rocks on the beach, coupled with the need to look through or among millions of other glacial-worn stones, the task to spot the elusive agate is a challenge in itself.

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