Sunday, June 11, 2017

Where To Dig For Opals In Idaho

Once in a while you take a summer vacation where everything just seems to work out right. This was one of those vacations. In addition to learning where to dig for opals in Idaho, we also learned where to dig for sapphires in Montana. In our travels, the opals came before the sapphires. I think I would recommend that sequence for just about anyone.

I have no idea of how many opal mines there are in the state of Idaho. When I think of Idaho I think of potatoes, which is not really fair to the people of Idaho, whose state is home to national parks, rivers, mountains, government research facilities, and more stuff than I can name or imagine. The Apollo astronauts trained for their moonwalks in Idaho’s Craters of the Moon park. You can hike through dormant volcanos. There’s lots to do in Idaho and I never really knew that.

Now, Idaho could be just another stop on the highway of life but it seems like a fair chunk of people chose to stay there and do a little bit more than just grow potatoes. I had friends who were staying in Idaho for a while and so I arranged my travels to allow myself time to commune, confer, and otherwise hobnob with my fellow wizards of the road. Let’s not get into the fact that I missed the mark by a couple hundred miles.

So there I was in Idaho Falls, surrounded by countryside and highways without a thing to do for a day or so. I decided to look up a few state activities and attractions to see what I could do — especially if there were something I could do that you really could not do elsewhere (or much of elsewhere at any rate). And that is what led me to opals.

It’s not like you can just go rock hunting and find opals lying around your back yard. You have to know where the opals grow and how to pick and harvest them. It might seem odd to speak of growing opals and harvesting them but that is truly what it is like. Opals, being minerals, formed deep in the Earth through millions of years of inanimate evolution. According to this site, opal is formed by silica deposits that are carried down by water to fill voids or gaps in the Earth.

The process continues today, and you can see that when you’re digging for opals.

After searching for places to dig for opals in Idaho, I chose Spencer Opal Mines, LLC. Located on Interstate 15 just south of the Idaho-Montana border, Spencer Opal Mines is actually not an opal mine. Yes, there is a mine but the mine is located elsewhere. What you find at exit 180 on Interstate 15 is the Opal Country Cafe and Gift Shop, which has a huge pile of rocks in the back. It turns out, that’s all you need if you want to dig for opals in Idaho. Now, I don’t know how the other mines do it but the Spencer Opal Mine digs up a huge load of rock, brings it to the pile behind the cafe, and dumps it there.

You then pay $10 per person to go look for opals on the pile of rocks. It’s that simple. In fact, it’s so simple many people feel a little sheepish by the time they finish their dig. Let me ‘splain.

You look up the Web sites for these gem-digging places and they tell you to “bring a hammer, a bucket, a chisel” or whatever. What they don’t tell you is how easy it can be (no guarantees) to find opals without cracking open a single rock. After all, the rock is already broken up by the mine owners.

Spencer Opal Mines, LLC is owned by A.J. Couture and his wife Claudia. A few days each year they actually open up the mine to the public and let you go dig out your own rocks. You might have better luck doing that but I’m not inclined to find out. Instead, we just went to the big pile of rocks behind the cafe.

It looks daunting. You see all these rocks, some black and some pink but most a whitish gray color, and you think, “I’m not going to find anything”. We asked the staff at the cafe how easy it is to find opals in the rocks and they said most people come away with something. There were a few happy, excited, tired customers weighing out their rocks when we arrived. It seemed like a promising venture.

So we joined another couple out on the rock pile. The gentleman was busily pounding away at rocks with a geologists’ hammer and his wife was scouring the rock pile for promising samples. We set to work beating our rocks with a hammer. What follows is my own personal experience and does not necessarily reflect in any way on others who may have thoroughly enjoyed themselves (not that I really had such a miserable time at all).

The sun was in the sky. The afternoon was warm. The rock pile was hot enough to bake cookies, but we weren’t baking cookies. I looked around the edges of the pile for the biggest rocks, thinking maybe no one had gotten to them yet. I had a nice little pile of rocks on top of the rock pile when A.J. came out to see how we were doing.

He’s a nice gentleman, bearded, tall, and a bit portly (I can say that, being somewhat pudgy myself). “How are you doing?” he asked us.

“Okay,” we said uncertainly. Well, actually, we were not doing okay. He came over to look at our rocks and said, “I’m afraid all you’ve got is some rocks here.”

Sweat was pouring down my face by this point and I’m not sure if it was due to the heavy labor of carrying 30-40 pound rocks up to the top of that pile or from shame and embarrassment. A.J. bent down, picked up a stone about the size of his finger, and handed it to us. “This is what you’re looking for,” he said.

It was that simple. The raw opal is not polished of course but it’s whiter and smoother than the other stuff surrounding it. I’m no geologist but I would guess that a lot of the stuff we were culling from the pile was either failed opalized mineral or pre-opalized mineral. Maybe in a million years or so those rocks could have been opals. Maybe in ten million years they’ll turn into something else we cannot imagine, since they are no longer in the opal mine. Maybe they’ll just be rocks that wear down and become part of a larger sediment deposit.

A.J. gave us a quick lecture on opal digging. I missed most of it because I noticed he had something we did not: a spritzer bottle. “I notice you don’t have a hammer,” I said.

“Nope. All you need is some water,” he replied. I ran into the cafe and asked the girl there if she had a spritzer bottle I could buy.

“Sure. Right on the wall behind you,” she said with such practiced ease I immediately felt like Ricky Ricardo driving through a small town. The staff looked at me with an odd, curious glint in their eyes.

“Is the water extra?” I asked half-seriously, and they all laughed.

“No,” said one lady. “There’s free water out back by the rocks.”

So I hurried out back, filled up my spritzer bottle, and began spraying rocks. By this time A.J. was teaching the other couple a few tips. I tried to listen as I crept around the rock pile spraying water on the dirtiest rocks nature had ever made. Let’s face it, I don’t do this for a living, so I’m bound to make a few mistakes.

We added a few wet rocks to our pile and A.J. came back over to see how we were doing. By some odd chance I had picked up a huge chunk of rock about the size of a baby’s fist and maybe half of it was opal. “That’s exactly what you’re looking for,” A.J. said. He bent down and picked up another small rock and handed it to me. “This is opal, too. But most of these stones have no color. If this one did I would keep it.”

I couldn’t understand what he meant by color. And it’s his rock pile so I guess he’s entitled to keep whatever he finds, but watching him harvest opals from the rock pile is like watching children pick strawberries from a commercial farm. He never misses.

Scampering across piles of rock in the hot sun is not the most fun I could imagine having, but finding some real opals is kind of fun. I went back inside the cafe and asked if they had a hammer or something (because I thought you still had to crack the rocks). “No hammers left,” the girl said, but she sold me a little three-pronged rake-like gardener’s hand tool. “You can use this to turn the rocks,” she said.

Now, I paid more for the spritzer bottle than I did for the hand tool. Take that into consideration. Nonetheless, our opal digging companions looked at my little rock turner with some envy and exasperation. They got a spritzer bottle out of their RV but they were mostly depending on the hammer. We were mostly depending on our hammer, too.

By this time the sun was wearing me out. Okay, lugging all those rocks, running back and forth between the rocks and the cafe (and walking the dog every now and then), and actually bending over to look at rocks was taking its toll on me. I finally gave up, bought some cold drinking water, and brought a folding camping chair out to the rock pile.

While everyone else hammered and turned rocks I sat there sipping on cold water, catching my breath (by the way — we were about 7,000 feet above sea level, so the air was a little thin), and recovering my strength, I decided to look at our rocks. We had a few in our bucket, including the opals A.J. had found for us. I picked up one of his opals and held it up to my eye.

For the tenth or twelfth time I noted how white and smooth the opal was compared to everything else. He kept saying to me, “What you have there is too gray — that’s not opal.”

Exasperated and feeling doomed to failure I held that opal close to my eye and looked past it at the rocks. I almost immediately spotted something similar a few feet away. Grabbing the spritzer bottle I cleaned off the whitest portion of the stone (which was about the size of my finger tip) and felt the surface. It was smooth. I held it next to A.J.’s opal. The minerals looked identical.

“It can’t be this easy,” I thought. Still, I took the spritzer bottle and the opal around the rock pile and just scanned for the whitest white I could find. I saw another stone almost immediately. Upon closer examination, I found I had another opal. “He’s just got a practiced eye and I got lucky,” I said to myself.

Nonetheless, within thirty minutes I had found another half dozen opals and probable opals with nothing more than a spritzer bottle and a rock turner. What are the hammers for?

Well, as it turns out, some of the larger rocks have a fair amount of opal in them. You need to chip away the non-opal portion of the rock to get to the opal. Sometimes you split the rock the wrong way and the opal breaks. You want at least as much as about a “finger nail’s size” of opal in order to get a good polished stone. Otherwise it’s just another pebble you can put in your fish tank.

Toward the end of our afternoon (we spent maybe 2-1/2 hours on the rock pile) the lady from the other couple came over to show us something. “This piece is too small,” she said, “but this is what we’re all really looking for.” She held up a stone the size of a small finger tip and at the very edge of the stone was the solid milky white opal. It was way too small, but this opal was different from the others. This opal had color. It glistened like a little rainbow was painted along its edge. I’m pretty sure you could see the full visible color spectrum in the stone.

Now I understood why people spend so much time digging for opals. If you could find a fair chunk of colored opal, someone will pay you good money for that.

We packed up our tools and took our bucket of rocks to weigh in. We had barely a pound of opals after throwing back most of our early finds and one huge rock with a big line of opal running through it. After some pounding and chipping we got the rock down to 2 pounds and I gladly paid an extra $8 for a nice paperweight.

All that work had made me hungry, though, so we stayed at the cafe for dinner. We ate simply, just a hamburger and cheese burger with fries. The burgers were good — very well made. Absolutely delicious.

But the fries — oh man, you know you’re in Idaho when you eat these fries. They were homemade french fried potatoes, cut long and thick and cooked to perfection. It was almost wrong to try to season them. They weren’t heavy and oily like a lot of fries. They were so much better than what you’ll get in your favorite steak house or 5-star restaurant. These were the real McCoy, the food that Idahoans don’t ship out of state.

If you visit Spencer, Idaho for nothing else, the fries are worth the trip from any part of the continental United States. Heck, they have a map in the back of the restaurant with pins from all over the world. People come from the far side of the globe to visit this place. I’m sure some of them dig for opals. I suspect a lot of them have taken home memories of the best french fried potatoes in the world.

The cafe is also part shop. You can buy opals there, jewelry, fossils, and all sorts of little knick knacks. I guess A.J. or Claudia like fantasy because they had some dragons on the shelf. I could not help but take as many pictures as possible. There were carved stones, stone mosaics, and things I cannot name or describe. If rock hounds turn their noses up at this stuff because it’s in a store, they are purists. The rest of us can stop and enjoy the beauty that nature and man made together.

There is nothing else to do in Spencer, so far as I could see. But if you have always wanted to try your hand at digging for opals, then mark this spot on your map. There may be other opal mines in Idaho, but I have no idea of how to find them. Frankly, I’ve about had enough of digging on rock piles to last me a life time, but at least I can now say I’ve done it. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who has to do this kind of work for a living, especially in countries where about all they give you is a pick axe, a hammer, and if you’re lucky a water pitcher.

How Minerals Form

Scientists have identified something like 4,000 natural minerals in the Earth and most of them were formed right here on Earth by decaying critters, plant-life, and microbes. Complex minerals may be the result of multiple processes. Silica and carbon seem to be the most common bases for many minerals.Inorganic minerals like opals are formed by silica (Silicon and Oxygen — aka Silicon DiOxide) or other elemental compounds. Organic minerals are formed from the remains of dead plants and creatures. They are composed of or include hydrocarbons. Organic minerals may have a crystalline structure and behave like inorganic minerals in other ways.
Stuff lives and then it dies, and dying this stuff leaves behind its physical husk and that husk goes into the ground. The process happens even in the ocean, where 65,000 whales die natural deaths every year and sink to the bottom of the ocean. Whether on land or in the sea the remains of once living things feed other living things but at some point in the process some organic material is lost to the cycle of life.

That organic material piles up, day by day, year by year, eon by eon. Water flows through it, over it, around it, bringing sediments from other areas that were once living things. And the Earth itself pushes up molten rock and lava that mixes with, surrounds, cooks, and processes the organic stuff. Somewhere along the way, water, heat, and pressure combine through millions of years to create organic minerals.