Entries by Marianne Graff

Ask an expert: Collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest

Those looking to try their hand at collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest will find a wealth of opportunities. From the North Cascades to the Columbia Basin, collectors can find everything from amethyst to agates.

Toby Seim, president of the Friends of Minerology – Pacific Northwest Chapter, has been an avid mineral collector for the past five years. Here, he shares photos, personal stories, and tips for those just starting out.

Toby collecting minerals in the pacific northwest
Friends of Mineralogy - Pacific Northwest Chapter President Toby Seim holds a smoky quartz specimen in Idaho.

Left to right: Collectors Brandon Boyd, Nick Valdez, Toby Seim, and Cory Torpin in Idaho.

How he got started

Seim’s path to collecting minerals arose out of a desire to get into the outdoors. “I was spending too much time on social media, watching too much TV,” he says.

He started hiking, but it wasn’t exactly the right fit. “I’d get to a destination and look at the view, but it didn’t capture me,” he recalls. So, he turned to a childhood hobby: collecting rocks.

After some research, he bought tools and set out on his own. While he originally did most of his collecting solo, he found like-minded friends through the Facebook group NW Rockhounds and later became involved with Friends of Mineralogy. Now, he often collects with four friends.

Seim says the goal of Friends of Mineralogy is to spread interest in minerals and related activities.

RELATED: What Lies Beneath: Minerals of the Pacific Northwest

Collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest

Those looking to start collecting minerals will need to gear up, research locations, and learn how to properly pack and clean what they find. Here are some tips.

Tools of the trade

First, you’ll need the tools of the trade. While some locations are fine for surface collecting, or simply picking through loose dirt and rock debris by hand, others will require some elbow grease.

Basic tools for collecting minerals include a hammer, chisel, shovel, gloves, and protective glasses. A sifter or pry bar can also come in handy at some locations.

Locations in Washington

Collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest can seem overwhelming. Where should you begin? In Washington, Seim recommends two locations for those starting out: Walker Valley in Skagit County and Hansen Creek near Snoqualmie Pass.

Hansen Creek is an easy hike on a well-maintained trail. It’s great for those who want to surface collect and find quartz, including amethyst.

Quartz is also found in Walker Valley, along with agates and calcite. Seim says this location may require hammers and chisels. “If you want the really, really good stuff, you’ll have to move rocks,” he says.

When looking for minerals, Seim says to look for signs such as iron staining (orange) on rocks or rock folds that could indicate mineral deposits.

“Often, you’ll leave empty-handed,” Seim says. “But you’ll still get something out of it because you now know where not to go.”

Some lands are off limits. Collecting rocks, minerals, and fossils is generally prohibited in national parks.

Collecting minerals in the pacific northwest
Quartz from the Snoqualmie area in Washington.

Man with pacific northwest mineral
Brandon Boyd holds a specimen collected from the Snoqualmie area.

Packing and cleaning minerals

After finding a specimen, it’s time to transport it. To protect it, Seim suggests wrapping it in bubble wrap, newspaper, clothing or even clean diapers.

Also, resist the urge to clean all the dirt off the specimen right then and there. A bit of dusting is fine, but you should wait to clean it thoroughly. The dirt acts as a protective buffer that can prevent damage during transport.

When you’re ready to clean it, you can soak it in muriatic acid, a strongly acidic chemical compound. Iron Out is good for removing stains.

Muriatic acid is best used for minerals other than calcite or to remove calcite from a specimen. It can be found at Home Depot.

“I’ve soaked something in the wrong acid before and it just dissolved the crystal,” Seim recalls.

Storing specimens

Seim says some minerals may need to be protected from light or they will lose their color or luster. An example is realgar, a red mineral that can be found in King County. Realgar also contains arsenic and is somewhat toxic. Seim says those who handle this specimen should thoroughly wash their hands afterward.

Collectors should also catalogue their specimens. A list will help prevent information from being lost.

Smoky amethyst
Toby Seim's favorite specimen he collected isn't from the Pacific Northwest. This large smoky amethyst is from Petersen Mountain near Reno, Nevada.

mineral in hand
Cory Torpin holds a Japan Law Twin quartz specimen from Washington.

Stories from the field

While Seim’s favorite specimen he collected from the field is a football-sized smoky amethyst from Petersen Mountain near Reno, Nevada, he spends much of his time exploring Washington.

Many collectors go to great lengths (and heights) to collect minerals, and Seim and his friends are no exception. On a trip to Mason County, he and his fellow collectors noticed a pocket of natrolite — a mineral that forms in clusters and resembles white, puffy balls — high up in a rock face.

“We could see this big, open hole, and we knew there was something in there,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a rope or ladder, so we improvised. My collecting partner stood on my shoulders.”

Their effort was a success, but not all outings go as planned.

Seim said rock collectors are no strangers to injury. On a trip to Devil’s Canyon in King County, his friend was injured by a flying shard of quartz that was dislodged during the collection process. The shard hit his friend in the eye, resulting in a trip to the hospital.

Moral of the story? Always wear proper safety gear.

Moving forward, Seim said his goal is to one day find his own locality in Washington. “I just want to find a really nice, undiscovered area,” he says.

A selection of specimens, including some collected by Seim, can be seen in the exhibit “What Lies Beneath: Minerals of the Pacific Northwest.” The exhibit runs through Feb. 2, 2020, in Old City Hall.

RELATED: Video of Cory Torpin extracting a specimen.

Man repelling down cliff
Lukas Ris rappels down a cliff in Chelan County.

Specimens on bubble wrap
Specimens ready to be packed.

Man standing on another man's shoulders to collect minerals
Cory Torpin stands on Toby Seim's shoulders to reach a pocket in Mason County.

Two men collect minerals
Cory Torpin (top) and Toby Seim collect quartz in the Middle Fork area of Washington.

Spotlight on Lummi glass artist Raya Friday

“People of the Fire” by Lummi Nation glass artist Raya Friday glows as if it has a life of its own.

The glass sculpture was recently installed in the lobby of the Lightcatcher building at the Whatcom Museum, and it commands attention as soon as you enter the room. With a series of flames standing between 3 to 6 feet tall, you’re first confronted with its size. Next, you notice the faces.

Raya used sand casting to create each flame, then hand-carved faces into the surface. She says the piece represents the spirituality of the elements. “The thing I really wanted to explore in my own culture was this idea that everything in the natural world has its own energy, its own spirit,” she says.

She decided to explore that idea through the elements, starting with a smaller sculpture called “People of the Water” to see if her idea would work visually and functionally. Once she committed to creating a large-scale work of glass, she went all in.  

“I mustered my courage, took out all the loans that I could and just set out to do this thing,” she recalls. “It felt very much like swimming out into the ocean and seeing how far you could get without knowing if you could get back to shore.”

She credits Italian glass artist Narcissus Quagliata, whom she met at Pilchuck Glass School, with inspiring her to take on her project. His determination to see a multi-year project through prompted her to think of doing something bigger.

SEE ALSO: “People of the Sea and Cedar”

Raya Friday cleaning sculpture
Raya Friday cleans her sculpture after installing it in the Lightcatcher building.

Raya Friday cleaning glass sculpture
Raya Friday puts the finishing touches on her piece "People of the Fire."

The process

It took Raya about eight months to create the 2,700-pound sculpture of glass and bronze set into a pedestal of stone. She completed the piece in 2007. Raya says the piece took a small village to create. “There were a lot of meals for friends, six-packs of beer,” she recalls.

Raya was involved with each element, from mixing the bronze to cutting the stone to pouring the molten glass. “The glass is like cold honey,” she says of how it slowly spreads into the casts. The flames get their color from frit, or concentrated crushed glass. This gives the unpolished sides a slightly rough appearance.

Her biggest challenge, she says, was cold working, or polishing, the surface of the glass. The size of the piece and high cost of equipment meant she couldn’t have it professionally polished until years later.

Now, she tries to tweak the piece a bit each time she installs it. “It’s such a beast, so changes are small,” she says. “I can’t make huge drastic changes.”

Her background

With nearly 25 years of glass experience under her belt, it’s no surprise Raya was interested in art at a young age. But her first love wasn’t glass. It was ceramics. She loved working with glaze — the more the better to achieve that glossy look. Then, at 11, she discovered glass.

“You take glass for granted, you don’t think about it,” she says. “You drink out of it every day and just live with it all the time. Then you actually see people manipulating it. I just had no idea.”

At 17 she started taking weekly classes but soon realized they weren’t enough. Before long she was moving on to production glass work in Seattle. Seven years later, she left for New York to continue her education at Alfred University. It was in New York that “People of the Fire” was born.

Recently, Raya was involved in the Tacoma Museum of Glass exhibition “Translations: An Exploration of Glass by Northwest Native Carvers and Weavers.”

Now, she’s turning her attention to pursuing studies in art conservation for indigenous art. “It’s important that we be stewards of our culture,” she says.

“People of the Fire” by Raya Friday will be on display in the Lightcatcher lobby through early October. The work is the first in our “In the Spirit of the People: Native Contemporary Artists” series.

Raya Friday with her sculpture
The artist stands with her piece "People of the Fire."

Orrery on Display for Moon Landing Anniversary

Written by Rebecca Hutchins, Curator of Collections An orrery from the Museum’s collection will be on display July 20, 2019 at the “Firsts in Flight: A Hidden History” exhibit at Old City Hall, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The mechanical model of the solar system shows the relationships between celestial […]