Outdoors

A treasure hunt for agates

Wildside column: It takes a trained eye to spot these stones

A 3.6-ounce banded agate dominates a rock bar along an Eastern Iowa river on June 14. Of the 10 pounds of agates found b
A 3.6-ounce banded agate dominates a rock bar along an Eastern Iowa river on June 14. Of the 10 pounds of agates found by three rock hounds that day, it was the finest specimen. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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It takes a trained and disciplined eye to find some of nature’s hidden treasures.

After more than 50 years’ experience, mine is pretty good at finding morel mushrooms, which have a knack for disappearing into their surroundings.

Over the years I have learned to maintain a mental scan image that helps me focus on the shape, color and texture of the tasty fungi.

I also have learned a morel that’s invisible from one vantage point may appear obvious from another — an insight that has inspired me to hunt in a crisscross rather than a straight-line pattern.

Those same techniques have helped me improve as a hunter of Lake Superior agates, whose colorful bands and hand-pleasing texture still delight finders more than a billion years after their formation far to the north.

Two weeks ago today, my agate-hunting mentor, Mike Jacobs of Monticello, and I met fellow rock hound Clayton Avenson of Randalia for a hunt along an Eastern Iowa stream.

That stream, unnamed here in deference to the secretive and competitive nature of agate enthusiasts, was at the time receding from a recent flood that had scoured and rearranged rock bars, exposing agates pushed south over eons by glaciers and floods.

The stream also was still deep and swift enough to facilitate fast, almost effortless paddling from one rock bar to the next, enabling us to spend most of our time searching for the semi-precious stones.

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By my estimate no more than one in 100,000 rocks along an Iowa stream is an agate. You can’t look at them all, so you have to scan for key agate indicators: translucence, color and pit-marked texture.

The trained eye almost automatically looks past any rock that falls outside the pink-red-orange-maroon spectrum that encompasses most agates. It then scans prospects for the subtle glow of sunlight passing through translucent stone. A closer inspection for bands, eyes, tubes and other agate hallmarks usually provides confirmation.

Morel hunting and agate hunting also share a characteristic that is perhaps the most appealing of all the activities’ many rewards: They take place in the most remote, natural and scenic parts of the state.

At the end of the day, the three of us had found 10 pounds of Lake Superior agates and a few equally pretty specimens of petrified wood.

Our find of the day was a large agate that lay atop the rock bar with its classic colorful bands exposed for anyone who cared to look. Mike spotted it after I had walked near it at least twice.

Before Mike even touched the stone, he called me over to practice my developing agate-finding skills. I scanned the designated area for all the subtle indicators — color, glow and texture — but came up empty.

When Mike finally pointed it out, sitting alone, as if it were centered in an illuminated gem store display case, I instantly knew how it had eluded me. It was too conspicuous.

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