Rockhound at Spruce Mountain, near Seattle, Washington 2006

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My prize haul of crystals at Spruce Mountain

My prize haul of crystals at Spruce Mountain

I first got interested in collecting rocks when I was only 6 and we stopped at a rock shop in Arizona on our way to California. The variation and beauty of the rocks on display fascinated me. My mom bought me a small souvenir box with calcite, gypsum, lava, quartz, flourite, mica, agate, selenite, even gold ore! 50 years later, I still treasure that box and its contents.  When given the chance, I’ve collected myself: quartz crystals in Arkansas, fools’ gold in the Rockies, amethyst in Morocco, and phantoms in Russia. The below trip report I wrote up in 2006 after a trip to the Spruce Mountain Mine owned by Bob the geologist (geologyadventures.com):

Quartz crystal on matrix of iron pyrite (fools gold)

Quartz crystal on matrix of iron pyrite (fools gold)

Last year [2005] I went to a green fluorite crystal mine (owned by Bob the geologist) in British Colombia, Canada with my brother John and my Pop, a trip we greatly enjoyed. I decided to visit Bob’s other mine this year, near Seattle, a mine of quartz, calcite and pyrite (gold-colored, multi-sided) crystals, but John couldn’t go because he was in Iraq, and Pop couldn’t go because you have to climb half a mountain to get there. So I loned it.

Bob the geologist at his Spruce mine

Bob the geologist at his Spruce mine

The owner of the mine is Bob the geologist. As a student in Seattle in 1976, working on his master’s degree in geology, doing a paper on brechia plates (where crystals form), he met some geologists working in the mountains on public land who told him about areas with the best brechia plates. He visited one, and in a half hour of digging around, found a nice specimen. He took it back to the university, and was surprised that one instructor offered him $2,000 for it. He decided then and there to quit school and mine the crystals (quartz, pyrite, barite, anchorite and calcite) instead. He applied for a special permit/claim to work the mine (a patent that cost about $4,000) which allowed him to own the mine and land after 10 years if he made a profit every year (the government stopped giving this type of mine patent in 1992). This was the first U.S. patent/claim ever for a crystal mine.

So Bob spent the winters as a geologist, and the summers mining his mine (later he would be offered the Rock Candy fluorite mine in Canada). In the 90s he started offering tourist trips to his mines, especially for kids but advanced trips as well for adult rockhounds.

After an hour’s drive on 90 east, I turned off on 56 (exit 34), a wide gravel road that runs alongside a river, and heads into the mountains. After 10 miles on that road, I turned off on a narrow, rocky logging road. I was thankful for the wide clearance on the rented Toyota Highlander, as I’d never driven on a road as rough as this. Even going 5 miles an hour I was tossed back and forth in the car, and kept cringing as large rocks hit the underside of the vehicle.

Looked like a road to nowhere

Looked like a road to nowhere

After another 6 miles I reached Dingford creek and waterfall, and took a short break. It was 8am and I needed to arrive at 9 — I had another 6 miles to go so I thought I would be on time. The road narrowed and worsened — I passed several washout areas where the logging company had dumped in fistsized boulders to keep the road passable. On my right no shoulder existed — only a dropoff of several hundred feet. On my left the mountainside. Over me the trees formed a canopy of green. I drove on, 8:30, 8:40. I reached a steep, rocky incline, and thought — I’ve come too far, somehow I missed the stopping place. And anyway, I can’t go any farther on this bad road, so I might as well give up and head back.

I wanted to turn around, but there was no room, so I carefully started to back down the mountain on this treacherous road, no fun forwards, ten times worse driving backwards. A white truck came up behind me. Since there was no way for him to pass me, I got out and walked down, saying, “I’m lost. I was looking for the Spruce mine.”

The young couple, David and Diane, nodded and said, “We’re headed there too. Dhould be an eighth of a mile ahead.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “The road gets pretty bad. But I’ll try again.” I sighed with relief — for at least I didn’t have to back any farther down the mountain. Sure enough, just over the ridge, an SUV was parked in a wide place in the road, with an older couple, Ed and Trudy. I asked if this was “the place.” They said they’d driven all the way to the end of the road, and back to here, so they thought this was the place. We waited.

Crystal cluster I chipped out at Spruce Mine

Crystal cluster I chipped out at Spruce Mine

Trudy said they were retired and Ed had just recovered from cancer treatment, whereas her heart had gone crazy fast a couple years ago and the doctors had had to burn out some of the anodes. They took trips like this into the wilderness, trying to enjoy every day left to them. David and Diane, the couple in their thirties, were fit. They routinely went on week long hikes in the wilderness, and occasionally went on rock hunting trips like this. 9am came. Then 9:15. We began to doubt if we were indeed at the right place.

Finally Bob the geologist came pulling up in his small red truck with his wife Carol. “You know you guys are in the wrong place,” he said. “The spruce trailhead is a couple hundred meters down the hill.”

Bob purposely did not mark the trail, as in the summer he and Carol often lived on the mountain next to the mine, and did not want uninvited visitors. We parked, Bob got a load of dynamite, yardlong yellow sticks wrapped together in blue tape, and a roll of fuse wire, and loaded his backrack (which worried me, as I had never hiked a mountain with someone carrying dynamite). The rest of us got our stuff, and followed him up a steep incline. Bob’s wife Carol followed behind, intending to stay with the older couple, Ed and Trudy, as they had explained previously they would have to take it slow.

Hiking to mine. At this point we are fresh, though surprised how steep the trail is. At places we had to climb up tree roots.

Hiking to mine. At this point we are fresh, though surprised how steep the trail is. At places we had to climb up tree roots.

So Bob led me, David and Diane at a quick pace up the mountainside. I climbed as much as I hiked, grabbing hold of exposed roots and rocks, and then using those same places for footholds as I ascented. We came to a small cliff, with a knotted rope hanging down. Bob explained how to use the rope, leaning away from the rock, pushing against the wall with your feet as you walked up. We took turns going up the rope, then continued, climbing over and under fallen trees, walking on 3 inch ledges. Occasionally I looked down — hundred foot dropoffs. This was a serious climb. We stopped a couple times to catch our breath.

Climbing rope to mine - its all in how you lean out from the ledge

Climbing rope to mine – its all in how you lean out from the ledge

600 feet higher, we reached a small camp, with a tiny house (14×14), where I was surprised to learn Bob and Carol spend several months a year. Imagine the walk to your house from your parking lot was a 600 foot climb! Three black labs met us at the camp, and a caretaker, a young college student, who Bob pays to help haul things up the mountain, and watch over the place when he is not there. We took a short break, looking out over the valley and the surrounding mountains, then continued another 200 feet to the mine, a wide open ledge similar to the Rock Candy Mine. Bob worked the mine by occasionally dynamiting off a slab, then using sledges, chisels and pry bars to mine the rock. “You guys are lucky,” he told us. “3 of the people cancelled, so we have 8 vugs for the 5 of you.”

I worked this large crystal vug with fool's gold as well

I worked this large crystal vug with fool’s gold as well

I followed carefully behind Bob as he made his way across the ledge, pointing out the vugs. I couldn’t believe what I saw — sure there were large cracks and holes with crystals and large chunks of shining gold pyrite, looking like 6 sided pyramids of solid gold, but there were also visible veins of quartz exposed across the rock face. The rockhound in me had finally found his heaven.

Me chiseling quartz crystals and large fool's gold cubes on Spruce Mountain near Seattle

Me chiseling quartz crystals and large fool’s gold cubes on Spruce Mountain near Seattle

I set to work on a large vug at the very edge, where Bob had strung an orange plastic “catch” fence. “If you slip, catch the fence, it will hold your weight,” he told us. (Later, Ed would test this theory.) I worked the stone with my heavy hammer and wide chisel, knocking off crystals, trying to get whole formations of them but this was very difficult — the iron pyrite seemed especially fragile. Bob and Carol showed me how to pry off small slabs that looked promising. Time passed quickly as I worked my area, saving away interesting finds.

IMG_0912

Beautiful small iron pyrite crystals and a quartz crystal with a pyrite crystal embedded

The sun beat down on me, draining my energy as I worked. Finally I decided to pack up what I had gathered so far, and take a break in the shade. It was only about 2, but the others, equally exhausted, and with full backpacks, were ready to call it a day. Bob told me I could stay until 5, but I would then have to travel down by myself. “No, I’m about ready to go too,” I said, tired and worried that I might get lost going down the mountain alone.

Spruce 070a

This broke my heart a little, as there was still so much more to collect, but my pack was already jammed with rocks, 40 pounds heavy, compared to the others whose packs were maybe 25 or 30 pounds. Bob took us down to the house, then another 50 feet down. “I’ll get you started, then I’m going to head back up. Carol and I are going to stay here,” he told us.

“You’re not going to help us down the mountain?” I asked, incredulous, teetering with the load on my back, and wishing I’d paid more attention to the path on our way up. “You can’t get lost,” he said, studying me, wondering at my emotional reaction. He kept an eye on me then as I hesitantly sought footing down the mountain, with the heavy pack on my back and my right foot hurting from some earlier misstep. I suspected Bob went farther down with us than he had intended, because of me.

Going down with packs full of stone with crystals and iron pyrite

Going down with packs full of stone with crystals and iron pyrite

“Are you going to make it?” he asked me as I sat huffing and puffing on a log with Ed and Trudy, whereas David and Diane moved down more quickly on their own. “Yes. I just need to stop a lot and take it slow. I’m 51 you know.” “I’m 63,” said Trudy, and smiled. “Yes, but I have a desk job,” I said, kidding with her, but hurting and exhausted and feeling sick. The pack straps pressed down on my chest, compressing my lungs, while the muscles in my legs screamed for air. “I have a bad heart,” Trudy kidded back at me. I had no reply to that, just cursed myself for being overweight and apparently more out of shape than I realized. We continued down another 100 feet, climbing down tree roots and rock ledges, moving down the switchback path that was, really, fairly evident. We stopped to rest again. I didn’t know if I could continue. I didn’t know how much longer I could trust my legs.

“Let me carry your load,” Bob offered. “I do this all the time. You’re not used to it.” I considered his offer, as my heart beat loud in my ears, remembering how my thighs and knees, with each step down, had threatened to collapse. “No,” I told him, “that wouldn’t be fair.” I struggled to my feet. “Okay, then, I’ll leave you here. The rest is easier,” Bob said. “Thanks, Bob,” we told him. I shook his hand goodbye. As he headed back up the trail, I followed Ed and Trudy down the mountain. “You can pass us, if we are too slow for you,” Trudy said. “No, I’m fine with you guys. I need you to show me the way down.” They laughed, but I wasn’t completely kidding. Finally we reached the last rope climb, and could make out the road below us. Filthy and exhausted, my fingers, toes and thighs cramping, I drove slowly over the killer road, then faster on the wider, tree-lined gravel path, with the sun’s rays spotting the road and creating dust ghosts. sun ghosts 2   Arriving at the hotel, I lay out my sparkling treasure on the bed, drank a bottle of gatorade, and thought, “Wow. I made it.”

Categories: rockhound, travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Rockhound at Spruce Mountain, near Seattle, Washington 2006

  1. Cyndy Harris

    Ray, I was so nervous for you. It was so beautiful there, but so dangerous. I didn’t realize you had to rope climb. I guess you should have let Bob carry down the load after all…;) Just kidding, you did good. It was quite an adventure

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