Most of us have been intrigued with the idea of discovering a rare and beautiful gem. While not as valuable as precious stones, agates have drawn thousands of rock hunters to the beaches along the Keweenaw. Although there is no hard evidence as to when agate hunting became a popular pastime, it appears the search began in earnest in the early 1900s. At that time, a lapidary industry existing in our area engaged in the manufacture of agate beads for jewelry and marbles, known as aggies, used in childrens games.
If you are new to the hunt for this unique stone, the first thing you must learn is what to look for. Your basic in the rough agate bears little resemblance to the beautifully cut and polished examples seen at local gift shops and jewelry stores. My best advice is to check out examples at one of our area mineral shops or the displays at the Seaman Mineral Museum on the campus of Michigan Technological University. Here you can examine specimens and get some pointers on what to look for in prime picking spots.
In the beginning you will pick up many stones in the water that are attractive, but not agates. Few beach agates are obvious, so the beginner must pay attention to several distinguishing characteristics that separate the agate from other pretty stones found along the beach.
The first of these characteristics is translucence. The quartz quality of agate allows light to penetrate a short distance into the surface producing a soft glow. This optical quality, along with telltale color, shades of red, brown and orange, give the agate its distinctive appearance.
The lined pattern, called banding, is the feature most people look for in identifying agate. It is this banding that makes the agate so sought after by collectors and craftsmen. Be careful, however, in relying too heavily on this characteristic. Agates are covered by a thin, outer layer or matrix that obscures the banding unless the stone has been broken or chipped. Fortunately, most beach agates have been weathered enough to expose these bands.
Although a few specimens have been found of quite large size, the average agate is under three inches in diameter. However, because of their dense composition, they feel heavier for their size than do other stones of similar dimension.
Agate hunting is a slow and deliberate activity that requires a keen eye and good back muscles to hold up to hours of bending and stooping. Sturdy shoes are required to traverse the pebble beaches, and a warm jacket or sweater will be required as Superiors cold waters usually provide a chill in the air or a mantel of fog even on warm, sunny days. You will also need a small pack or deep pockets to hold your loot.
The most important ingredient of a successful agate hunt is locating a good agate beach to explore. Although agates are found all along Superiors shoreline from Grand Marais to Two Harbors, Minnesota, the Keweenaw Peninsula offers more great hunting spots than anywhere else. The following spots are areas I have prowled successfully and should prove productive spots for your treasure hunt. They are all accessible for the traveler and yield fine specimens year after year.
Misery Bay: Walk the large stretch east of the picnic area. It is located 9.5 miles west of U.S. 41 near the village of Toivola. Signs mark the route to the beach. Fine agates are found here.
Calumet Township Park: Take M203 west out of Hancock along the Portage Canal. Access the beach at McClain State Park or continue along the highway to the first road to the left. This is Lakeshore Drive. Follow this road along the shore to Calumet Township Park (also called Waterworks Park) identified by the picnic area surrounded by white birch trees.
Five Mile Point: Take the county road between Ahmeek and Eagle River. There are both public and private access points to the beach along this route. If in doubt about public access be sure to ask permission! W.C. Veale Park is fronted by a good agate beach.
Great Sand Bay: Between Eagle River and Eagle Harbor on M26, this large expanse of scenic beach is a favorite agate hunting area. Conditions vary from easy walking on packed sand to stepped layers of beach pebble that make for a strenuous hike.
Keweenaw Point: For the adventurous rock hounds who want to get off the beaten path and work less picked over beaches, this area is worth the effort. Many businesses in Copper Harbor have maps and helpful advice to guide you to some prime agate ground. Horseshoe Harbor has been one of my more productive spots and is one of the more readily accessible beaches along the points rugged shoreline.
Remember that many stretches of beach are someones front yard. Common sense and regard for private property is an essential part of agate hunting. You will enjoy the combination of fresh air, exercise, beautiful scenery and the thrill of finding beautiful agates. It is a Keweenaw adventure you will cherish for years to come.