BC opal Wulfenite

Rocks & Minerals

This article appeared on 6 pages with many color photographs in Beautiful British Columbia Magazine,
Summer 2000.

Sorry, the photographs here are nothing like the amazing ones that BBC put together for this spread.

Rick Hudson

The sun is slanting in low over the western horizon, flooding the Hat Creek valley with that soft upland light that makes the ranching country one of the most beautiful areas of the province. It has been a long day, under a hot sun, and the group is tired, moving slowly down the slope. Thoughts of a warm shower and a cold beer cross my mind and, I suspect, most of the other minds too.

Then the shout goes up. "Over here! Over here! Come and look at this!"

The old timer next to me chuckles, and puts down a heavy canvas bag. "Guess we'd better look!" He shakes his head as we cut across the grassy slope to where a small knot of people are forming. Bodies obscure what they are looking at, until we are right up close. Then, there it is.

"It's a beauty," says one.

"Look at the reds," says another. "Those are great reds."

"... and orange. And blue! Look at the blue!"

Everyone is grinning, and I bet you're wondering what we're all getting excited about. Well, the fact is, we are all rockhounds, and what we're looking at is a two metre long piece of fossil tree. Only, it's not just a fossil tree; it's a beautiful fossil tree. The bark is clearly formed, just as it must have been when it grew on those slopes, millions of years ago. Buried by some ancient eruption or flood, those fibres were slowly replaced with exquisite agate and quartz.

Hound and rockhounds

Summers came and went. Ice ages rose and fell. Slowly the tree, buried deep below the surface, rose towards the sun as the hills weathered away. Today, the tree lives again, only this time in stone. The colours are vibrant in the rays of the evening sun, and the bark seems to glow. Who says we only pass this way once?

Backs straighten.

"Too big to move."

"Leave it there. It's a great view," says another, as though this tree from 40 million years ago is somehow still living, and can appreciate such things as a panoramic view of the Clear Range to the southwest.

It's the annual Lapidary, Rock & Mineral Society of BC's Rendezvous. This year it's centred in Cache Creek, where the mighty Thompson River turns south, soon to merge with the Fraser River. In May, the weather is perfect. The snow is off the lower peaks, and the bugs and rattlesnakes have not yet arrived. An ideal time to hunt for rocks.

Rockhounding is one of those nearly invisible hobbies that just about everyone does regularly. Is there a house in BC that doesn't have, somewhere, a line of pretty stones on a window sill, collecting dust? It's hard to explain, but just about everyone pauses occasionally to pick up something attractive from the ground. Rockhounds just take that passion to its limit.

* * *

It's Day Two of the meet, and we are visiting a famous collecting site on Scottie Creek, a few kilometres up from its confluence with the Bonaparte River. Here, generations of prospectors have searched a short, steep bluff that stands right on the forest service road. You can step out of your truck and onto the slope. Everywhere there are people chipping away, looking for amethyst. Purple quartz. The February birthstone. Found in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia. And here, at Scottie Creek, BC.

Inevitably, there are those who say the claim was picked clean years ago. Today, the Brown-John family from Port Moody are disproving that proposition. Spectacular crusts of druzy purple crystals are being pried out of the steep rock face. Sweat pours off father Steve's forehead. Nephew Doug Arkinstall eagerly searches through the loosened material, picking out small crystals. Daughters Abigail and Erin bring up empty buckets, and clamber down loaded with brilliant material.

Further up the track, old-timers Ben Beutler and Herb Johnson from Shuswap are digging into a coal face that has been cut by the road. Close by, young David Singleton from the Surrey club is digging too. Within the black strata, brilliant clear selenite crystals as long as your fingers are being collected. The excitement mounts to see who can find the biggest one. David wins, with a 10cm monster.

"You're filthy," his mom calls up to him, knee deep in coal diggings.

"But happy," he shouts back, a huge grin on his face.

That's what it seems to be all about. There is much pleasure in finding something beautiful in the earth, just for the effort of digging for it. That's why over 1500 people belong to some 30 lapidary or rockhound clubs around the province, and spend their weekends and vacations hunting for minerals. Thousands more enjoy the hobby on a more casual basis. British Columbia has a feast of material waiting to be found. There is a century of mining tradition, but for every successful mine, there are probably a hundred sites which were never viable financially, but will still yield interesting specimens.

The Fraser Canyon is known for its gold, jade, garnets and jasper, but there are other great places too. Texada Island in Georgia Strait produced gold, marble and that delight of rockhounds, 'flowerstone' (a gabbro porphyry). Until the 1970s, iron, gold and silver mines operated within a ski pole's length of Whistler Village, and there are still lots of interesting sites near Alta Lake to hunt over. In the Salmo Valley there have been recent discoveries of blue sapphire. There is precious opal near Vernon. Beautiful pink rhodonite can be found in Keremeos and on Vancouver island. And in Scottie Creek, micro-sized diamonds have been found.

Cache Creek is central to many interesting locales, which is why the Rendezvous is being held here. There is amethyst, of course, but amber, agate, jasper, fossil trees, travertine and opal are all to be found within a few hour's drive. Back at the camp site in the evening, newspaper bundles are carefully unwrapped and their contents discussed and commented on. That's where experience comes in, and the 'pebble pups' can learn from the seasoned prospectors. Win Robinson is here. She staked the Jade Queen mine in central BC in the 60's, and probably owns the best collection of Spences Bridge agates anywhere. Cam Bacon wrote a book on rockhounding. He's here. Don Rotherham, Doug Dixon, Alice & Elmer Clarke and Bill Wardle are all here, and their combined mineral expertise is available to all those who can't figure out what they've found.

The following day sees parties heading out in several directions. Some are looking for 'easy' stuff at well known areas. Others are trying their luck in new territory, or attempting to find a path to some ancient outcrop. Roads disappear, of course. Forests grow up. Even lakes appear or disappear. And agriculture spreads across what was previously wild country. It all adds a challenge to the rockhound.

A couple of us are trying to figure out where an old copper mine must be. You see, all geological discoveries that are staked in BC (see BOX2 for more details) are registered with the provincial government. The records usually include some sort of site description, or even a map. These maps can be pretty interesting reading, and are about as misleading as the glowing descriptions of the site's future potential, as described in some ancient geologist's report.

The forest service road peters out into a swamp, and we start hiking, using a compass and an old 'map'. Close to a prominent hill which is shown on the chart, we stumble across a new road, coming up from the other side. In a road cutting, a flash of bright blue catches my eye. Kneeling down, I see it's a band of azurite. A copper mineral! We must be close. Working back up the newly excavated road, a bank reveals a tell-tale splash of green. Chunks of malachite (a brilliant green copper mineral) are just visible under a layer of road mud and clay.

Two hours later, soaked to the skin from a steady rain, we reach the vehicles on the other side of the hill. A bucket full of great samples stretches my arms to their maximum. Another great day rockhounding!

BOX 1: How can you learn to rockhound?

There are about 3500 different minerals in the world, with new ones being discovered annually. The sheer amount you need to know may appear daunting to the newcomer but, in reality, if you can recognize 50-100 different rocks and minerals, you are well on your way to being a competent rockhound.

The best way to learn is to join one of the 30 lapidary clubs in the province. Most have meetings with guest speakers, and many have workshops, where members can learn how to cut and set stones, work silver, and much more.

Addresses change as club officers change, so if your local Chamber of Commerce or information centre doesn't know where to find your closest club, the best way is to contact The Lapidary, Rock & Mineral Society of BC. The LRMSBC publishes a quarterly magazine The BC Rockhounder, and is affiliated with the Gem & Mineral Federation of Canada, the national body. See also on-line magazine The Canadian Rockhound for club names and addresses.

There are clubs in the following BC towns: Abbotsford, Aldergrove, Burnaby, Campbell River, Chase, Courtenay, Creston, Delta, Duncan, Golden, Kamloops, Kelowna, Logan Lake, Maple Ridge, Masset, Nanaimo, Nelson, Parksville, Penticton, Port Alberni, Port Moody, Powell River, Prince George, Qualicum Beach, Richmond, Surrey, Trail, Vancouver, Vernon, Victoria, and West Vancouver.

BOX 2: Where can you go to rockhound?

What rights do you have when crossing other people's property? Much of BC is still Crown Land. As a citizen you can pan for gold in most creeks, or rockhound on most slopes, with the exception of the following:

  • in parks
  • on a Placer Claim or Lease (where someone has staked a claim),
  • on an Indian Reserve
  • on land occupied by a building and up to 75m around a building,
  • on orchards and cultivated lands.

The law treats hand activities differently from mechanized ones. The minute you have an electric motor or gas engine involved, you are in a different category. Hand digging and hand panning are generally accepted everywhere. Common courtesy means you should ask permission when crossing private lands. Respect gates and live-stock. Fill in holes, don't use weapons, leave the dog at home, don't make fires, etc.

Rockhounding requires very little equipment. A sharp eye, a large hat in summer, sensible boots, bug cream, the same clothes you'd go fishing in, and a tough canvas bag to store your samples, are about all you need. A $40 rock hammer (don't use a carpenter's hammer) and a $10 plastic goldpan are the only expenses. For Father's Day, hint to get a X10 loupe (magnifying eye-piece) - about $40.

Avoid other people's claims. They get jumpy. For the latest information, check the BC blue pages in the phone book for the nearest Regional Geologist's or Gold Commissioner's office. These public servants can supply you with the most up-to-date information on what areas are staked, and what areas might be interesting.

If you wish to stake an area yourself, you will need to buy a Free Miner's Certificate ($25) from the province, which entitles you to stake as many sites (at about $2 per site) as you like. Consult your local Gold Commis-sioner for details.

BOX 3: Access closures and parks

The recent increase in the number of parks and wilderness areas in the province comes as good news to many, but there is a downside too. Well known rockhounding areas, that have been dug by generations, are now closed. Rockhounds are sensitive to the needs of others, and for the preservation of the wilderness, but there should be a balance. Hand digging causes minuscule damage to the environment. Indeed, the foundations for a single park building cause more upheaval than a decade of hand diggers.

Rockhounds are limited as to where they can collect, by the natural distribution of the province's geology. In the USA, both the National Parks and the Department of Environment recognize the interests of rockhounds, and have set aside well known sites for digging, usually on a fee per day basis. The sites are monitored, and with the use of earth-moving equip-ment, new zones exposed, and depleted one covered up and landscaped in an environmentally reponsible way.

In BC, the Preservation Of Rockhounding Areas (PORA) was formed to lobby Victoria for similar facilities.

BOX4: Mining and the province

Gold mining started the province of British Columbia. Before the gold rush of 1856-58, BC was just Vancouver Island, with the capital, Victoria, having a population of less than 500. All that changed when gold was discovered on the Fraser River gravel bars.

Miners who had missed the riches of the California '49 rush headed north in their thousands. Governor Doug-las, alarmed by the influx of foreigners, and afraid that the province would be absorbed across the poorly defined US border, unilaterally decreed that all prospectors required a Mining License. That established the British Crown's jurisdiction, and avoided the lawlessness that characterized the Californian gold development.

Huge quantities of alluvial (river) gold were found as the prospectors pushed north. The selling price was $12 per ounce. In 1860, the Cariboo fields were found; in 1862 the Stikine followed, then came Leech River (near Victoria) in 1864, Big Bend in 1866, the Peace-Omineca in 1869, and finally Cassiar in 1872.

Behind the miners came the Royal Engineers, the Gold Commissioners, the law, ranchers, merchants and the foresters. Many of today's towns were built on the wealth that was hauled out of the ground: Yale, Barkerville, Gold Bridge and Atlin grew on gold; Nelson was silver mining; Rossland was copper-gold; Kimberley and Kaslo were lead-zinc; Britannia and Greenwood were copper; Nanaimo and Fort St John were coal.

BOX5: Further reading:
  • Famous mineral localities of Canada. Joel D Grice. Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd., Markham, ONT, 190pp, 1989.

  • Fieldguide to gold, gemstone & mineral sites of British Columbia - Volume I - Vancouver Island. Rick Hudson, Orca Book Publishers, Victoria, 214pp, 1997.

  • Fieldguide to gold, gemstone & mineral sites of British Columbia - Volume II - South West BC. Rick Hudson, Orca Book Publishers, Victoria, 256pp, 1999.

  • George's guide to claimstaking in British Columbia. Ministry of Energy, Mines & Petroleum Resources, Mineral Titles Branch, Victoria, BC, 1989.

  • Guide for weekend prospectors - Easy tests for rocks and minerals. S.F.Wayland. Hancock House Publishers, Surrey, BC, 1997, 96pp.

  • Guide to rocks and minerals of the northwest. Stan & Chris Leaming, Hancock House, N.Vancouver, BC 1980, reprinted 1992.

  • The guide to gold panning in British Columbia. 2nd Ed., N.L.Barlee. Canada West Publications, Summerland, BC, 192pp, 1979.

  • The identification of common rocks. Information Circu-lar 1987-5. E.Van der Flier-Keller, W.J.McMillan, Mineral Resources Division, Energy, Mines & Petroleum Resources, BC 1987, 17pp.

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