Precious gems may be all around
By BETH ALTENA
Rockford residents may be familiar with the annual Cannon Area Business Association (CABA) Treasure Hunt—underway right now—which has intrigued and challenged hundreds of seekers to find a copper coin hidden in Cannon Township and worth $1,000 in free gas. Some may even recognize the name of organizer Dennis Spitler as one of the fine folks who organize the hunt. It is doubtful, however, that many except Spitler’s friends know that he is also a real-life treasure hunter who pulls gems and precious metals from the earth.
Spitler said he was introduced to the hobby by friend, Matt Smith, an attorney with offices off Plainfield Avenue. After just one hunt together, Spitler was hooked on the idea of searching for precious objects from old mines, state lands and even high in mountains. For years the two have traveled Michigan and to many other states plying a hobby that often pays for itself.
Smith said he became hooked on treasure hunting as a young boy of perhaps five when his family visited the Champion Mine in Champion, Michigan. His mom was taking a geology class and thought it would be fun to visit a mine. “It was my first trip; the ground was flat like a big parking lot. Everything was sparkling like gold, to a five year old it was a fantasy come true,” Smith described.
Now there are few states where the two sometimes accompanied by other family members haven’t traveled for treasures. They have found copper, quartz and silver at the Caledonia mine near Ontonagon Michigan, geodes and peridot in New Mexico, opal in Oregon, Lake Superior agates, quartz, copper, perilite, turquoise, emerald, selinite, coral, fossils and more. Tools of the trade are surprisingly simple, a metal detector for some objects, such as copper, good eyes and sturdy boots for others.
“There aren’t too many states I haven’t mined in,” said Smith, although a trip to far locales is not necessary for success.
This summer the two stayed here in Michigan where they sought copper, quartz and silver. At the Caledonia mine, three cubic yards of dirt and rock costs about $100 dollars and it is impossible to know what might be found. You can just look and see some of it, explained Spitler.
Geodes are a popular find and easy to sell because many people find them beautiful and are interested in the crystal formations and bands of color and shape. They are tricky, though, because it is hard to tell without cracking the stones open whether they will have the hollow, crystal-lined interior that makes them special. Spitler said a practiced eye and experience helps, as old-hand hunters can tell by weight if a stone is likely to be a geode.
The geologic oddity has its formation from a time when the earth’s surface was in a state of bubbling lava-like material. Bubbly lava has lots of air pockets and as bubbles rise up they become larger. Hypothermic activity (hot water gets into it) introduces dissolved minerals into the air pockets. This results in the bands of color and crystals later found in the stone. The crystals and colored bands are also dependent on the temperature of the stone at the time the minerals are introduced.
“If the stone forms with a hole in it, it’s a geode,” described Smith. If it fills solid it is an agate. The hole in a geode is called a vug, and whether it is filled with copper, silver, crystals or colored bands, it was formed millions and millions of years ago.
The historic significance of this area is one of the parts of mining that both Spitler and Smith find interesting. They noted that mines are dug the way they are as a result of the geologic activity all those many years ago. “Think of the Upper Peninsula as covered in lava from Keewanau to Canada,” Smith described. He said as the lava cooled, it sunk in on itself, forming a deep bowl as it hardened into an angle of about thirty degrees. Over time the surface filled in to a more or less level angle. This is why mines are dug at a thirty degree angle, to follow that sunken former surface of the lava field and trapped minerals.
Other places have their own historic background behind the treasures to be found underground. In Arizona the two have dug for volcanic glass, also known as Apache’s tears. The local story is that the United States Calvary chased the Apache warriors to the top of the mountain, where they chose to jump to their deaths rather than be captured. The black stones of the mountain are said to be the dried tears of the warrior’s wives.
In reality it was volcanic glass that formed them. If it cooled quickly, it became a gray rock called Perilite. If it cooled slowly, it became Apache tears, said Smith. Interestingly, depending on the rate it cooled, it became a gemstone or a dull gray rock. Once Perilite is heated it pops like popcorn, and can be added to potting soil to help hold water for the plants referring to the white, light substance added to potting soil mixes or sold on its own as a soil additive. That same rock can become beautiful jewelry or something that helps your garden plants thrive, depending only on how quickly it cooled.
The pair have fun with the spoils of their efforts, either selling the stones, copper or other finds or, in Dennis’ case, creating art and jewelry with it. Smith said his own grandson is now getting into that part of the hobby by making Christmas present jewelry under Spittler’s instruction.
“It’s always been our family tradition for the kids not to buy Christmas presents but to make something for others, whether it is jams, jellies, candy or Christmas ornament,” said Smith. So now the hobby of mining and treasure hunting has become part of the family tradition of making something with your own hands.
Spitler said his hobby of crafting items—earrings, rings, necklaces, pendants and more, is just a hobby. “When it becomes work I won’t want to do it anymore,” he joked. They have a building in Grand Rapids where the work is done and material is stored.
When the two do go out West to hunt in the mountains and desserts, they make it a point to try to schedule to stop by the world’s largest gem show which is held in Tucson, Arizona. There, 2,300 gem dealers take over the town. Smith said he treats the annual event like a family reunion and his extended family will stay several weeks. The show is a great opportunity to purchase whatever gems may be desired if they aren’t obliging enough to be found.
Spitler said the actual, outdoor gem hunting rarely leaves them skunked and sometimes is quite good. He remembers one trip where Smith and his group went down the mountain from the parking area and he went up because he finds it easier to end the day with a downhill trip rather than an uphill one. Part way up the mountain he noticed a crevice carefully hidden by a rubble of sticks and rock. He pulled off the rude disguise and found a crack with a vein of turquoise running 15 feet along the wall of a narrow canyon.
Spitler said nearly anyone can take up the hobby, either by buying stone from an active mine or asking permission to dig an abandoned one. The whole industry of mining is fascinating to him and he loves finding artifacts from 100 years ago when miners worked before the days of the carbon light. He thinks of the men working ten hour days in the dark, often sharing one candle between many because they couldn’t afford their own. When striking hammers to steel, they signaled when to quit hitting by covering the head of their spike with a thumb. The man hammering would stop hitting when he saw the shining at the end of the spike disappear. This practice begs the question how many men lost thumbs during the long, dark days of work.
Books can still be found that tell people where to look for different types of gems, as well as where abandoned mines are located. Spitler said the important thing to do is ask permission first. “Even an abandoned mine is owned by someone,” he advised.
Residents may take up Spitler and Smith’s passion for finding gems in the rough, or they may look for found treasures that have been made into something new. Now is the time—the Cannon Coin hidden in Cannon Township that will net its finder $1,000 is made of copper Spitler found and re-purposed into its current forms.