I found a copy of Jewels; a Secret History by Victoria Finlay in a used book shop earlier this week and couldn't resist starting reading it right away (I'm about half-way through now and am enjoying it). My own efforts to find shiny stones have been confined to two afternoons many years apart. Once, as a teenager, I collected amethyst from a hillside near Thunder Bay, Ontario – the purple laced rock provided a unique back drop for my aquarium that competed with my fish for prettiness. Many years later, I went looking for opals in Northern B.C. In between, I made one gold panning attempt where I did find gold but, I was in a gold rush themed park (I think it was a set up for tourists like me).
On the mid-summer day I went opal hunting a hot sun dominated the sky. I set out with my mom and friend, Tracy, on a well worn path through the woods. Opals were said to be common at the end – an old river bed in the forest. Although it was a beautiful summer day, as far as we could tell, our group was the only one in the area. Hiking through the forest was nice – the dirt path wasn't too steep and the trees filtered the sunlight keeping the mid-day heat at bay. I don't quite remember, but, I think we reached the end of the path about an hour after starting.
Instead of a the rocky river bed we expected, a deep gravel-lined ravine extended as far as we could see in both directions before forest swallowed it up. It was a long way to the bottom where shrubs and trees hid whatever was down there. A rocky creek could have been beneath the foliage but, there was no safe way to get down to it. The ravine walls sloped with an optimum steepness where the golf to football sized rocks stayed put until one tried to step on them. A single footfall would start a gravel avalanche that threatened to take a person down the slope with it.
We clambered onto the slope careful to keep our footing while stones ricocheted down the slope, their sound echoing in the ravine. The rocks were all a uniform gray, but, on closer inspection some had milky white globules embedded in them. These smooth globules ranged in size from a gain of rice to a marble and every one was a oval in shape. Were these opals? If so, where was the fractionated interplay of colours radiating from within? In the end, we determined they were low quality opals – no doubt if this area had gem quality opals we wouldn't have been the only ones there.
Each of us slipped a few chunks of opal embedded rocks into our packs, got off the perilous slope and started the trek back to the car. Even though I'm fascinated by opals, the rocks I brought back that day have long ago vanished.