As a child growing up in the Detroit area, Karen Brzys looked forward to her family vacations in the eastern Upper Peninsula village of Grand Marais, where her Finnish ancestors had settled in the late 1890s. Throughout the years she came to know Axel Niemi, a local legend whose parents were also early immigrants from Finland. Niemi was a fisherman with a knack for storytelling and a folk musician with multiple interests, from studying the starry skies to rockhounding. He favored agates, the semi-precious gemstone found along the Lake Superior shore.
In 1954 Niemi opened the Gitche Gumee Museum to display and share his mineral collection. It was Niemi who sparked Brzys’ love of geology and agates. Legally blind until the age of 10, Brzys says agates were the first things she recalls seeing. In 1998, she left her corporate career to purchase, refurbish and reopen Niemi’s long-closed building as the expanded Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum. (Gitche Gumee is the Ojibwa name for big water, Lake Superior.) She incorporated her mineral collection and artifacts, photos, and logging and fishing tools to tell the history of Grand Marais, the eastern entrance to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Brzys, known as The Agate Lady, makes stunning decorative art from the ancient and elusive igneous rock, prized for its layers of color. “People have to understand that agates are rare,” she says. “You have to know what you’re looking for, and have patience and confidence to find them. It’s difficult.” Through her books, DVD and classes at agatelady.com, she helps hunters to find agates. The main reason people fail in that quest, says Brzys, is the “pretty rock syndrome,” the distraction of picking up anything that looks appealing. She says you must “think like an agate,” and shares techniques for understanding agates and training the eye and brain to spot common characteristics such as their pit-marked husk, translucency, banding and coloring. In seeking the agate, she says, “You have to believe you can find it because you open up your senses. It’s a new way of looking, so that the agate finds you.” In addition to Grand Marais, Brzys suggests agate hunting at Whitefish Point and along the western Keweenaw Peninsula. The best time is following wave-churning storms and in spring, after melting icebergs deposit new materials at the shore. The rewards of rock hunting are many, says Brzys. Besides the possibility of finding treasures, “It’s a good family activity and good for couples. It gets you outside. You get exercise, recharge your batteries.” And, she says, “As the craziness of our lives has increased, it’s good for a little while to get away from your hectic life.”
The state’s 3,200 miles of Great Lakes coastline yield a bounty of treasures besides agates, notably Petoskey stones. About 350 million years ago, when what is now Michigan was covered by sea water, the coral hexagonaria percarinata formed reefs that, eons later, were broken up by glaciers that moved across the land. Pieces of the petrified coral were pushed and polished into distinctively patterned fossils now known as the Petoskey stone. Unique to the region, Michigan designated the fossil its state stone, and it is a prized find among both casual rock pickers and serious collectors. It’s found along the Lake Michigan shore, mainly in the northwest Lower Peninsula near its namesake city of Petoskey and at Fisherman’s Island, Petoskey and Wilderness state parks.
Individuals are allowed to gather a maximum of 25 pounds of rocks per year. Rock collecting is prohibited in national parks.
WHAT TO BRING
- Rock specimen field guide
- Bucket for collecting
- Containers to segregate delicate specimens
- Flashlight to check translucency
- Magnifier to see detail in the rock
- Water, lunch, snacks
- Blanket to sit on
- Clothing that protects against bugs and sun
- Water shoes for rocky shores
- Tools such as sifter, scoop, trowel
WHERE TO EXPLORE
A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum
Located at Michigan Tech University in Houghton, this is home to a 19-ton native copper slab, minerals of the Great Lakes region and quality specimens from around the world. museum.mtu.edu
Gitche Gumee History and Agate Museum
LaFarge Fossil Park
Hunt for Devonian Period fossils in a simulated limestone quarry at Alpena’s Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan. bessermuseum.org
This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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