Rockhounding Alaska will reveal treasures like this photo of cobble with crinoid fossils on the Noatak River. Photo courtesy NPS/J. Schock
In a place gripped by gold fever since long before statehood, looking for rocks is hardly ever just a hobby. Call it a passion with materialistic notes. The line between science and commerce also is porous here, like subsurface gravel over nuggets. Geologists, prospectors, and rockhounds at heart seek the same: Earth’s innermost secrets.
Devotees of all ages and fitness levels come from varied economic and professional backgrounds. Beachcombing for the strange, the rare, and the unexpected entices them.
“I can’t wait to cut or break any rock I pick up to discover what it is made of, and its history,” says Joe Turnbow, the retired owner of Nature’s Jewels, an Anchorage rock shop. In his prime, Turnbow, who named one splitting maul “Baby,” would drive his truck for hours, straddle an ATV for a few more, and then walk 20 miles to a site—or helicopter in. “There isn’t much difference in packing a hindquarter or 200 pounds of rock,” this former hunter believes.
The shop, selling to serious collectors and hawking “minerals with metaphysical properties” to New Agers, schedules visits for school classes and amateurs. Imparting knowledge and seeing others, especially youths, catch the bug matters to Turnbow and fellow Earth science buffs.
It’s shaped careers for others as well. Paul Burger from Eagle River became stone-struck at about nine after inheriting a small collection that had been his aunt’s. Each subsequent outing, informed by a tattered paperback guide, led to pockets or backpacks bulging with specimens, to the detriment of the family washer and dryer. Now a geologist and the Chugach Gem and Mineral Society’s second vice president, Burger organizes its shows. The Anchorage-based club of 100 members hosts one during the Fur Rondy winter festival and another in the fall. To Burger, geologizing alone or in company is “a great excuse to get outdoors,” which “allows you to uncover the story of the landscape that surrounds us.” This avid hiker happens to be a caver who loves the chambers’ museum ambience, though removing anything is an absolute no-no.
While eager to share, rock nuts hoard favorite regions and treasures freighted with memories. They sometimes value a prize more as a token of a topography or experience than as showpiece or possession. Burger recalls a “very nice” White Pass quartz node roughly 40 feet up a cliff. It wasn’t rare or spectacular, but he’d never hounded hanging from a rope before or simply scooped handfuls of crystals from the ground. And, “the amount of work it took to get them was very satisfying.”
If not always easy to reach, the state’s geological riches rival its scenery in thrills and diversity. A Dalton Highway road-cut yields chalcedony, which, sawed and polished, makes lovely, red-and-white striped bookends, sculpture, or jewelry. Copper mines harbor rainbow-splashy “peacock ore”—bornite—and malachite ranging, like tropical seas, from turquoise to ultramarine. Lavender and pinkish amethyst—a coveted quartz gemstone—singly or clustered, dots granitic uplands outside Northway and Tok. There’s a jade mountain on the Kobuk River and, north of Coldfoot, one of marble. There are ammonites, corals and ferny dendrites, brachiopod shells, dawn-redwood chunks, coal-leaf imprints, watermelon tourmalines, beach agates, and bead-size Cache Creek pyrite or “fool’s gold” cubes. There’s Matanuska Valley amber (hardened tree sap) enshrining insects, Bering Sea amber old as the dinosaurs, and one verified meteorite, a nickel-iron lump dredged up near Council, presently at UAF’s museum. Disguised river cobbles, geodes or “thunder eggs,” sparkle bisected, cupping crystal, mini Aladdin’s-caves. Garnet Ledge near the Stikine River’s mouth north of Wrangell, gouged since the 1860s, provided Victorian baubles—watch-fobs, brooches, and hatpins. Nowadays owned by a church, it’s closed to adults. Kids, however, chip schist for free. They spread their “Alaska rubies’” reputation, peddling to passengers when cruise ships and Marine Highway ferries dock in town.
So, grow your sock-drawer or desktop collection armed with a pointy rock hammer or sledgehammer and chisel, or merely curiosity and a strong back. Rockhounding is legal on large federal tracts (national forests and BLM), but not in national parks, monuments, and most refuges. Some state parks allow it. A permit may be needed, and restrictions apply, protecting vertebrate fossils and stone artifacts. Private or Native landowners must give permission. If in doubt, check at a ranger station, visitor center, or tribal office. Staff might divulge motherlodes. Pocket a sample or two. Sites are quickly depleted. Don’t bring your backhoe or dynamite or go selling your spoils, except gold panned recreationally. Commercial operations—mines that supply many rock shops—require special licenses.
Those legalities shouldn’t deter you. “What better way is there,” Burger rhetorically asks, “to take a break and catch your breath on a hike than to stop and pick up a cool rock?” You don’t even have to keep it.