It takes awhile to learn the slow story of geology covering eras, eons and epochs. The world’s seven tectonic plates spread over time from volcanic seams in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Within those plates are stratigraphic terranes, large masses of rock with related histories. The names and times of geologic events become more twisted and tangled as you dig deeper. Northeast Washington is one of the most complicated geologic areas in North America. There has been a lot of deep digging here but most people just want to find pretty rocks.
That’s where the Panorama Gem and Mineral Club comes in. On March 11th and 12th they held their annual rock show in the Northeast Washington Ag and Trade Center. This year’s theme was Earths Treasures. Along the sides of the show are vendors with jewelry, beautiful rocks, fascinating fossils and mysterious geodes that you can buy and have split open to see crystals inside.
Down the middle of the show are display cases filled with treasures from the club members. They hold interesting and beautiful rocks that are often found here in Northeast Washington or nearby. The rocks include crystals, metals, fossils, agates and rocks that glow under ultraviolet light. Each kind gives us a little insight into the geology that formed it.
We have a lot of crystals nearby. Most are either quartz or calcite. There are still a lot of smaller quartz crystals in the Horseshoe Mountain area of Ferry County. They grow in vugs (hollow spaces) in volcanic rocks where hot silicon-rich water has filled the space and the quartz crystals form over time. Larger crystals have been found in Pend Oreille County buried in sand and clay where the crystals washed into alluvial deposits.
Calcite crystals form from calcium carbonate in limestone deposits. Cliffs of limestone line both sides of the Columbia River going north from Evans and into Canada. Limestone comes from shells and skeletons deposited at the bottom of an ancient waterway, the Windermere Rift, which wound through the center of Stevens County. Calcite crystals can be found in limestone quarries used to make lime for cement along that route. Cement hardens as calcite crystals form binding the aggregate rocks together. If you drive that route, you might try to envision how all of that rock was once part of living creatures.
When limestone caves are under warm seawater, calcite crystals are not the only thing that forms in them. Zinc, lead and silver adheres to the sides of those caverns, which themselves have been dissolved by acids from plant roots. Since this column is often about microbes in the soil. I’ll note here that microbes often play a role forming mineral deposits. There are even bacteria that weld powdered gold into nuggets.
East and north of Chewelah the Kaniksu Batholith has rare blue and green Beryl crystals. The club sometimes collects yellow barite crystals on Flagstaff Mountain near Northport where they formed on the edges of a skarn deposit which some believe also involved microbial life.
Not far away is a fluorite mine. Fluorite gave its name to fluorescence, the characteristic of some minerals to glow when exposed to ultraviolet light. The most common blacklight color for fluorite is green. Some calcite deposits along the Columbia fluoresce orange, red, green and dark blue. Some near Usk glow bright pink and in tungsten ore near Hunters Scheelite crystals fluoresce a light blue. (That mine, the Germania, has a fascinating history including German submarines and an alcoholic manager who fought the allies in the Argon forest during the First World War.) The mine was eventually abandoned because deep in the mine radiation levels were too high to be safe. Stevens County has two large uranium mines further south than the Germania. They are also abandoned but there are others in the north. Uranium ore glows bright yellow under UV. The rock club has a blacklight cave at the show where these and even more spectacular colors can be seen.
Like the Germania, most mines have a combination of minerals and metals. Most are mined out of valuable ore but still have interesting rocks in their waste piles. (The Panorama Gem and Mineral Club does not encourage exploring inside of mines.) Every metal has some interesting features for rockhounds. There are several large iron deposits where you can throw a magnet and it will stick to the rocks. On the other hand, many rocks in an iron deposit will themselves be magnetic and metal will stick to them.
One of the first metals found here was copper near Chewelah. But Ferry County also has old copper mines in the north. Chalcopyrite, a copper ore is heavy and shines yellow and green. It decays into green malachite and blue azurite. Those colors cover many rocks in the waste piles. Even more brilliant colors are found on Bornite, an iridescent rock also known as peacock copper. It is a real prize on a rockhounding trip to an old copper mine.
Many mines also have pyrite, also known as fool’s gold. Pyrite comes in a big variety of shiny yellow crystals, some of which also have real gold. Speaking of which, the first gold discovered in Washington was in the mouth of the Pend Oreille River near the Waneta border crossing. The club often pans for gold along the Columbia River downstream from there. Gold mines abound in Northeast Washington. The biggest were the Knob Hill near Republic and Buckhorn Mountain near Chesaw. You can learn to pan for gold at the rock show from Dave Paquette, aka Prospector Man.
Northeast Washington also has two world-class fossil sites. The Stonerose Interpretive Center makes fossil digging east and foolproof. It exposes new layers of its large fossil bed each year. The site opens in May but members can go the weekend of April 22-24. You can find fossils of the earliest rose, Dawn Redwood and occasional insects and fish. The center keeps extra-special specimens but credits them with the finder’s name. They ship to research centers all over the world. Don’t worry. There will be plenty of specimens for everyone. (https://Stonerosefossil.org)
The second great fossil site has trilobites, 400 million year old ancestors of the horseshoe crab. The quarry near Metaline Falls is open by permission only. The club tries to visit every year. Kids love it and so do adults. There are other fossil locations but these are the best.
Agates, opals and petrified wood can also be found nearby. Rocks that can be cut into slabs and polished provide beautiful colors and patterns for jewelry and other pieces of art. Rock club members share experience, outings and sometimes equipment for the hands-on side of rockhounding. You can see their handiwork at the rock show once a year. But every monthly meeting is a little rock show in itself. You can find out more at https://panoramagem.com/.