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Hunting for agates in the northwest

I don't like to admit it but I am a true and certifiable addict. I like many others am hopelessly addicted to rock hounding. I will go far out of my way to get that mondo dose of excitement delivered every time I go treasure hunting here in the great northwest.

One of the treasures I like to go and dig for is agates. Agates abound all through the northern states, including Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. I have on occasion even traveled down to Arizona, California and Nevada in search of some real beauties, but my favorite places are here in the Northwest.

I think that is true because I'm partial to the scenery that the Blues, Bitterroots, Cascades and the Rockies have to offer, and also because my searches have often allowed me to incorporate some of my other passions like rock climbing.

I also discovered that one doesn't have to drive far to find treasure. My wife and I typically start out on our adventures by reading up on locations that are known to contain agates. Let me tell you, there is no shortage of reference material that can point you to the right place.

Most books on rock hounding give precise directions and many even include GPS coordinates. After getting your hands on a good book you'll find that there are two basic types of locations.

The first is the public domain area. These are locations that are open for public access and are usually identified with road signs and location markers.

A good example is Red Top Mountain in Washington state. This place is well known for agates and potentially contains that all elusive Ellensburg Blue. The "blues" as they are called are very highly valued and certainly worth the effort to find.

I myself have never found a blue but I am sure there are still some out there. The other type of location is the pay mine. These are privately owned mines that are usually loaded to the brim with treasures. I have visited many popular mines in central Oregon near Madras.

One of my favorites is the Lucky Strike Mine just outside of Prineville, Ore. Here I've found some outrageously beautiful moss agates and jasper. The owners are really friendly and the fee is extremely reasonable (free to dig and about $1 a pound for anything that you want to keep).

Digging equipment is usually supplied free of charge. The owner will usually throw in some of the smaller stones (less than 3 inches diameter) for no charge.

Private mines are usually a good bet because you're guaranteed to find something of interest. I can't tell you how many times I've gone out to public areas and spent days digging only to come up empty handed. In those cases I try and look at the experience as an equal success because I had an opportunity to get some exercise, enjoy the scenery and just forget about my day job for a while.

On the other hand I spent one day at Richardson's Rock Ranch outside of Madras and came away with more agates than I could count. And if you're not into digging, then Richardson's has a great little shop where you can purchase some of the very nice Priday agates at a reasonable price.

There is a word of caution that I should point out and that is that there will be a learning curve. The very first time I went out I didn't find anything. Then I realized I was probably standing right on top of the booty. I just didn't know what I was looking for. It will take some time to learn to identify the treasure when it's covered with dirt or embedded in rock.

One of the tricks is to look for the right kind of dirt or rock. It's usually identified by color, texture and mineral content. Geodes are usually found in perlite (rhyolitic lava flows). Find the perlite and you'll find agates.

Also, rock hounding is the one activity that your kids are sure to enjoy. I have taken my own kids as well as groups such as the Boy Scouts on several rock hounding trips to look for all sorts of minerals. One thing that never fails is that they love it! This is the one field trip that your kids will want to take over and over again.

The biggest issue I had to face when I take kids out rock hounding is that they want to bring everything home. My challenge is to explain that not every rock we find is the one we want to keep. It's always worth a little of my time to explain what we want beforehand.

My best advice is to get a couple of books at your local library or bookstore (one with photos). Do a little research and then go for it! Take the kids and the dog, bring the correct supplies (food, water and safety gear), and just start searching.

If you anticipate breaking rock then remember to bring an appropriate rock hammer, gloves and eye protection. I usually carry a couple buckets as well, one to put my treasure in and one to sit on.

I guarantee you'll have a blast. Your kids will never forget the experience and they'll always have the mementos to remember for a lifetime.

The agates you find also make great show and tell items at school. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me through my website at www.pappgems.com. I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have and advice is always free (I've got a lot of it). Good luck and good fortune.

- Ivan Papp is the co-owner of www.pappgems.com

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