Picking Pretty Stones

Rock hounds search for prized finds along Great Lakes shorelines
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An avid rock hound searches the Lake Superior shoreline for treasures at night, including the elusive sodalite (below). It’s often referred to as the Yooperstone, and glows under a UV light.

One cool July night last summer, my 11-year-old daughter, Clara, and I meandered along a Keweenaw Peninsula stretch of Lake Superior shoreline in Eagle River, carefully studying the rocks. We exclaimed over and over, “Is this it?” “How about this, is this it?” as the light from a small UV flashlight illuminated glowing bits on the rocks’ surfaces.

An older couple stopped to peer at our haul. “Did you find it?” the woman asked. We nodded with excitement. This had to be it!

Sadly, we later discovered, we had not found “it” — a fluorescent sodalite, the mineral that’s been causing a hunting frenzy along the Lake Superior shoreline since its discovery a few years ago. While sodalite looks like a normal gray rock in regular light, under a UV light, it glows. But, it turns out, so do a lot of things.

Under a UV light, “fossils will glow, synthetic fish egg bait glows, frogs glow, and even a left-behind water bottle will illuminate,” says Molly Reddish, an avid rock hound from Rochester who’s been hunting rocks since she was a little girl.

“I grew up pouring buckets of cold water from Lake Superior on the beach so my mom and grandmother could look for agates,” Reddish recalls. She’s more recently become enthusiastic about searching for fluorescent sodalite, which glows orange under longwave UV light.

Reddish now regularly finds herself on the Lake Superior shore near her Michigan summer cottage in Grand Marais, in the pitch dark, often alone in search of these glowing stones. She’s such an avid rock hound that she even invented a special UV display case she calls the “miniUVdisplay” so she can show off her prizes in the proper lighting conditions.

When asked how she’s developed such an eagle eye for the prized fluorescent sodalite — sometimes referred to as emberlite, Yooperlites, or Yooperstone — Reddish credits patience and experience.

“Like anything else, you have to know what you’re looking for,” she says. “When I take someone out (rock hunting), the first thing I do is carry a fluorescent sodalite down to the beach and shine my UV light on it so they can see the color. Then I drop it and have them find it on their own.”

Just like she did at first, she says, people tend to pick up a lot of fossils. “Everything that glows is so new and fun to see,” she explains, adding: “There’s nothing wrong with collecting fossils, either.”

While searching for glowing stones late at night is definitely an exciting way to hound, there’s also a lot to be said for the simple pleasures of collecting agates, quartz, Petoskey stones, and other Michigan staples by daylight.

Inspired by their mother and uncle, these youths have become enthusiastic rock hounds.

Like many Michigan kids, I grew up idly picking pretty stones along the Great Lakes coastlines and testing my skill at skipping them across the water’s surface. It wasn’t until I started traveling with Eric Neilson of Lansing (my brother-in-law) that I witnessed serious rock-hounding in action.

While my sister and I strolled up and down the shore, chatting and occasionally picking up an interesting-looking rock, he’d wander far away from us, down the beach, squatting, wading, and sometimes abruptly plucking out a treasure like a bird swooping in after a glittery fish. His contagious enthusiasm eventually caught on, which is how I found myself braving conditions such as high winds, whipping sand, drizzle, and chilly Upper Peninsula evenings in order to troll the shorelines the past two summers. Most of the rocks I find stay on the shore — in many protected areas, that is required by law — but as with anything else, often the thrill is in the hunt more than the harvest.

“I’ve been rock hunting for as long as I can remember,” Neilson says, citing how “dazzling and downright magical” even an ordinary quartz crystal can seem when pulled out of a pile of gravel. He recalls the pencil box where he stashed the rocks he collected in his grandparents’ driveway when he was little. On the box lid, small Eric had written “Top secrit, open and die.” He still has the box, but over the ensuing decades his hunting gear has gotten somewhat more sophisticated.

“Thick gloves are handy,” he suggests. “At the beach where the rocks tend to be smooth, it’s less important. But in a waste-rock pile or gravel site, digging your bare hands into chunks of rock can be painful.”

Neilson doesn’t limit his searches to the shoreline like most recreational hounds. He literally digs through piles of rocks at excavation sites and gravel pits to find his treasures (make sure to ask permission if it’s an active or private site, he advises).

Another recommended piece of gear is a squirt bottle. “Dusty, dirty, and dry rocks mostly look the same. A quick squirt of water can bring out colors and features that are otherwise difficult to see,” he explains. And a heavy-duty bag or backpack is “a must,” since the weight of your haul can easily snap cheap handles or straps. On bigger hunts, Neilson might bring a shovel or trowel, reference book, a bucket of water, or even a metal detector if he’s looking for copper or iron.

Patience and planning pay off. “I’ve found chunks of copper bigger than my fingers and strange minerals that are typically deep underground like chrysocolla, hematite, and epidote,” he says. When asked what makes him such a prolific hunter, Neilson says “it takes patience, plus a fascination with the rocks that you don’t intend to take with you. For each exciting find, there are three trips where I find nothing but ordinary rocks.”

By night or by day, rock-hounding has become one of my favorite ways to spend time on Michigan’s shorelines. Whether it’s the thrill of possibly finding a collectible stone or just the simple pleasure of strolling the coast, eyes to the ground, I’ve discovered that when you consider the beauty of the coastline, the meditative sound of the waves, and the tantalizing possibility of finding something really special, it’s always time well spent.

Read more about rock-hounding in this issue’s Studio Visit feature.

PLAN IT!

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