Treasure entices. That’s why when it came time to take my seven-year-old nephew on his first hike, I took him garnet hunting in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. The mission to locate abandoned garnet mines and discover garnet crystals in the backcountry transports the adventure and exploration of an ordinary hike into an outright jewel-seeking treasure quest.
The short trek to the abandoned Hooper Mine in North River is an amazing way to expose a young person to the joys of hiking. In much the same way unearthing garnets at the Humphrey Mountain mine is rewarding to those with navigation skills to find it. Hooper Mine opened in 1894, Humphrey Mine in the early 1900s, but the earliest is Barton Mines which commenced activity in 1878 and is still in operation.
Before heading off into the woods, we begin with a brief tour of Barton Mines, also in North River. Here for a small fee, visitors can explore the world’s largest garnet deposit in a large abandoned quarry. Bountiful exposed red crystals sparkle from the quarry walls. The January birthstone grows on boulders large enough to sit on, and can even be collected off the ground in small take-home sizes. The exposed dark red crystals are discernible everywhere often garnished with a dark black halo of horneblende.
“There is no other place in the world, where you can see garnets of this size,” Bonnie Barton told the bus group of senior citizens we latched onto while touring the quarry. Ninety-five percent of the world’s garnet comes from the Barton mine now in operation on the appropriately named Ruby Mt. with the site we toured left for historical and educational purposes. “We’re basically leaving it this way for geologists,” she said referring to the quarry as “a museum.” Given the number of bus tours and vacationers who visit the site, perhaps “classroom” is a better description. We learn that the durability of Barton almandine garnet makes it a perfect stone for use as an abrasive in sandpaper and road construction.
In fact in and around this central Adirondack town in the shadow of Gore Mountain many of the roads are made from locally produced gravel and local garnet crushed stone. As my nephew and I drive up a mountain road the streets glimmer ruby red in the sunlight.
We park at the symbolically-named resort, Garnet Hill Lodge. Here we start our treasure hunt. My sister also joins us as we hike up a dirt road and along a narrow trail. Gabriel is excited to be joining Uncle Mike on his first hike, and occasionally runs ahead. Lucky for me the trail climbs. When he tires, Laura and I have a chance to catch him.
The 0.5 mile hike leads to the entryway of the quarry. Tall pink walls resemble a stadium overlooking a football field of green now overgrown with young saplings of white birch, maple and pine. The open front provides a scenic view of mountains. I scan the horizon and point out the active Barton garnet mine visible across the way at Ruby Mt. We shift our focus back to Hooper Mine and the garnet hunt begins. We climb on top of a boulder where my sister observes the first of many gem-quality garnet flakes sparkling in the rocks beneath our feet. I teach Gabriel to shout “Eureka,” upon discovery in imitation of the California Gold Rush miners when they found gold.
From there, Gabriel becomes the garnet guru identifying the gemstone embedded in rocks all around, including one or two stones small enough that he pockets as a souvenir.
As we fan out in search of more garnets, Gabriel stumbles upon a dead snake in the path reminding us that nature is reclaiming the industrial exploits of mankind. My distaste for snakes prompts me to make a comment that in subsequent hikes my nephew will repeat, “The only good snake is a dead snake.”
We return to the entryway and discern a faint path that leads high up the quarry rim. Here the views are better. We take turns taking each other’s pictures before returning the half-mile to our car.
A month later I journey out alone in the nearby Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area on a treasure hunt of my own to discover the remnants of Humphrey Mountain Garnet Mine. This pit which operated during World War I is seldom visited and not widely known. At one time it was possible to take a blazed trail to view the mine but now it is accessible only to those with reliable navigation skills. It is a four mile hike from civilization with the final 1.4 miles off trail. After an easy cruise over the first 2.6 miles on marked and maintained trail I cross the trickling Humphrey Brook with a compass bearing set to south/southwest. I climb steeply up the shoulder of Humphrey Mountain. The terrain soon levels and the woods open at what I presume to be an old lumber camp.
I’m searching for a narrow vein through which a small stream flows. I experience some aimless wandering, backtracking and self-doubt. Then ahead in a rock wall I see the familiar glimmer of red. I move in for a closer inspection. Light refracts from a boulder on the ground. I drop to my knees and rearrange decaying brown leaves. Excitement mounts as I uncover fingernail-size nuggets.
Nearby is a stream with red speckles shining from the stream bottom. Like a California gold-panner I reach my arm into the water, grabbing a handful of sand from which as the water drains leaving glistening red pebbles in my palm.
Exuberant at my find, I feel like a 16th Century Spanish Explorer stumbling upon a garnet version of the mythic lost city of gold, El Dorado. I announce in an excited utterance, “Eureka,” even though there is nobody to hear it.
I was in a marvelous little secret place, made better by the fact that it required route-finding skills to discover. Leaving each garnet undisturbed I left anxious to return in a few years alongside Gabriel to rediscover it anew.
A licensed adventure guide Michael N. Kelsey also edits the Central Trails guidebook of the Adirondack Mountain Club that describes the above mentioned hikes in greater detail. Write him at AWAYAdventureGuide@gmail.com or visit his website at www.AWAYAdventureGuide.com.