Mining For Star Garnets

Post Register September 5, 2013

I really didn’t think I was susceptible to gold fever, but even now, as I clean the stones I collected, I can feel reason begin to dim and that craving for more swells like the tide. I shine a bright light through each gem, admiring the plum color and hoping to see the semblance of a star reflecting from deep inside.

It all started when my wife and I were looking for one last activity to do before leaving north Idaho. We read about Emerald Creek and the opportunity to mine for garnets there. Now, garnets can be found in many places, but those at Emerald Creek are star garnets, only found in one other known location in the entire world.

We were intrigued, so we drove the 40 or so miles from St. Maries and walked the quarter mile to the site on US Forest Service land. We bought our temporary mining permits for $10 each and listened carefully as the young ranger explained how to find garnets. We intended to try it for an hour or two and then explore somewhere else.

The “quarry” was really a pile of dirt and rock excavated from the true quarry and deposited by dump truck. I quickly filled two five gallon buckets from this pile and sifted them, removing fine sand and large rocks. So far, this mining stuff wasn’t much different than yard work.

Then we moved to the sluices, where silt-laden water rushed down wooden channels. A handful of the sifted dirt and rock went into the screen-bottomed sluice tray and I washed dirt from the sample. I wasn’t sure I would know what I was looking at so I beckoned to a ranger for help. He encouraged us to look for the color purple and showed me how to orient the tray to best catch the sun and expose the garnets.

After a few washes in the brown water all that remained were pebble-sized rocks, and right in the middle a large purple one glinted in the sun. I was hooked. One or two hours turned into six. Lunch was forgotten and sweat rolled down our faces as we worked feverishly in the hot sun and bantered with fellow miners. I dug, screened, and carried bucket after heavy bucket of dirt down to the sluices.

We reluctantly gave-up only after the rangers warned that the water would be turned off in five minutes. We replaced our tools and weighed our “take” at the kiosk. My five ounces didn’t come close to the five pounds I was allowed on one permit, but it was enough to stoke the fever.

The garnets we found weren’t worth much, but we wouldn’t sell them anyway. It was the experience we wanted. I found garnet mining to be less like gardening and much more like life: a lot of hard work, but if I sift and wash enough gravel, there are gems in every bucket. I just have to know what to look for. And that keeps me coming back when reason says to quit.

It was easy to get hooked on looking for gems among the gravel at the USFS Emerald Creek garnet mine.