In this article, I want to go over some things I’ve learned when I collect agate gemstones using a field guide.
I think I was in my mid-twenties and I was at the coast wandering through a gift shop that was situated on a hillside about 700 feet above the ocean. Great view, by the way. There was a small rock section and nearby was a display with a book in it. I took a second look and noticed it wasn’t just any book. It was a field guide to rock collecting areas all over my state. ‘Gem Trails of Oregon’ by James Mitchell, to be exact. First edition. Until now, the only places I knew about collecting agates and such was either at the beach or in the thunderegg beds in the central part of the state. I was blown away. To say I was excited would be an understatement. As soon as I got to some place where I could read it, I did. There were descriptions of the sites, the material that could be found, directions, and maps. Wow. There was even pictures of some of the material the author, or someone he knew, had collected. All I had to do was plan on how to get to the spots and then just pick up the stuff. And of course there would be copious amounts of specimens to be had.
Well, with all this information at one’s fingertips, what does one do? Plan a trip obviously. So I did. The book was organized into sections of the state so I started with the sites that were the closest. I plotted a course that would get me to the most number of sites with the least amount of miles traveled. Let me digress with a bit of a disclaimer here. It’s been a while since this happened and although my memory is really good, it’s not perfect so I’m not sure which sites I went to first but I do remember how I felt after I got there. That feeling was disappointment. I got to the spots expecting to be able to fill up buckets. Didn’t happen. I got to questioning what I had done wrong. Was I at the right place? I double-checked the directions. I got to the places indicated alright. One of the few things I’m actually good with is maps. I even knew what most of the material was supposed to look like. Didn’t see it. Well, didn’t see much of it. Occasionally one of the spots would pan out, so I didn’t get skunked and knew I could follow the directions in the book. I looked at the book again and became a bit deflated. It wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked.
So it became time for re-evaluation and a bit of research. My enthusiasm eventually returned but there were some things I learned about field guides. I’ll start with the bad then move to the good.
1. Sometimes the guidebooks can be wrong. Not often, but sometimes. It turns out that not all authors are really meticulous in the accuracy of their field notes. In one case what was in the book as one mile was really supposed to be one tenth of a mile. “One mile after the state line” said the book. Minor omission of a decimal point. One hour was spent trying to find the road. I eventually found the road and the site. I know because I saw the site where the picture in the book was taken. 2. Some authors overuse subjective adjectives like ‘fiery’, ‘vivid’, ‘colorful’, ‘exquisite’, ‘excellent’, ‘beautiful’, etc. When you get to the site all hyped up, it’s something of a buzzkill if all you find are dull chips of something. 3. Some authors may not have even visited the site but are simply relaying directions they have been given. At least the author usually indicates that this is the case. 4. The site may have been very productive once but has since been well picked over. Some sites have been known for decades and can still be good if you have time but some are just cleaned out. If the site is in a published field guide, potentially the site is now known by thousands. 4. Land ownership may change restricting access to a site or closing it for good. As the population continues to explode, this is going to happen more and more.
Now for the good. 1. First and foremost with whatever flaws this first book may have had, it got me out in the field looking. I rediscovered the treasure hunt. 2. Many sites have clear directions, a fairly unbiased description of the material to be had, and there is indeed material to be had. 3. The guidebooks I’ve been using have been updated for the better with second and sometimes third editions. They’ve certainly gotten more sophisticated. The maps are better and the site directions frequently include GPS coordinates. 4. While looking for a site, you may stumble on a better site that’s not listed in the book (score!) or you may find the source of the material for a site that’s not shown in the book (another score!!). Both these scenarios have happened to me. I’ve been to places where every rock you step on is the material you’re looking for. I’ve seen where a large section of a mountain is almost all agate. 5. Lastly, be prepared to have fun even if you don’t find anything. It’s an adventure so take a camera, learn stars so you can watch the sky at night, learn geology so you know what types of rock formations you’re looking at and what they may contain, and learn the history of the area you’re going to travel through. So what’s stopping you? Go rockhounding.
If you click ‘Field Guides’ at the top of the site, you can browse through my store to find a selection of the most recent guidebooks I could find. They’re organized by state. The store is through Amazon so you can shop with confidence. Purchasing through the links there will help keep this site going. Happy hunting!