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From trash to treasure: Luminescent beach glass draws searchers to Lake Superior’s shore

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Anne Gorham of Duluth found this large piece of glass on the beach in Duluth recently. Gorham has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 13
Odin Gorham climbs on the back of his mother Anne Gorham as she builds a small cairn out of beach glass on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth. Gorham has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 13
Beach glass collected by Duluthian Anne Gorham that she arranged in a cairn. Gorham has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Anne Gorham photo)4 / 13
Beach glass collected by Duluthian Anne Gorham. Gorham has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Anne Gorham photo)5 / 13
Beach glass collected by Duluthian Anne Gorham that she arranged in the shape of Lake Superior. Gorham has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Anne Gorham photo)6 / 13
Beach glass collected by April Witzke, who owns Sweetwater Jewelry Designs in Duluth. (April Witzke photo)7 / 13
Anne Gorham of Duluth searches the beach for glass with the help of her daughter Signe, 7, and son, Odin, 2, in Duluth recently. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)8 / 13
Anne Gorham of Duluth holds her favorite piece of beach glass. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)9 / 13
Anne Gorham of Duluth built this cairn of beach glass on the shore of Lake Superior recently. Gorham collects beach glass, and has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)10 / 13
Several of the pieces of beach glass that Anne Gorham of Duluth has collected. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)11 / 13
Anne Gorham of Duluth searches for beach glass on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth. Gorham has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)12 / 13
A beach glass marble collected by Duluthian Anne Gorham. Gorham has a large following on Instagram for her Lake Superior beach glass photos, which she composes with the lake as a backdrop. (Anne Gorham photo)13 / 13

The romanticism of beach glass, tumbled and tossed by waves for decades, is what gets Duluthian Anne Gorham: how bottles thrown away long ago break into pieces over time, becoming smooth and luminescent.

Deposited on shores amid rocks and wood, the glass leads people like Gorham to devote hours to finding it.

“This is trash; this is something someone threw out,” Gorham said. “But the lake takes it and turns it into something really beautiful, and something that looks natural. And it takes a long time to make them perfect.”  

The hours that Gorham, 32, spends poring over the Lake Superior shore looking for beach glass are as much about sharing her finds with the world, though, as they are about collecting. She has an Instagram account devoted to her finds, where she posts photos of beach glass composed in shapes of animals or flowers, piled in artful cairns next to the lake or placed with other elements along the shore. She has more than 6,000 followers.

It’s a creative outlet for the mom of three kids, ages 7, 4 and 2, who often are part of the hunt. The lifelong Duluth resident has been picking beach glass on Lake Superior since she was a child living six blocks from the lake.

“My mom used to call it ‘mermaid tears,’ ” she said.

Gorham began her Instagram posting last year, and her hunting habit became more prolific. She guesses that her Instagram account is so popular because most of her photos are composed. She shoots with an iPhone, usually wetting the glass first. Gorham marvels at the glow that filters through regardless of the quality of light and without more advanced camera gear.

Beach glass is similar to sea glass, except it comes from freshwater lakes rather than saltwater seas or oceans. Collecting both types is extremely popular, with many people creating and selling jewelry or other pieces with the glass. There are lots of pickers in Duluth who make up an “intense” community, Gorham said. No matter how early she arrives at a certain beach, people usually already are out searching.

April Witzke, 31, is another lifelong hunter. She now has a business, Sweetwater Jewelry Designs, where she sells pieces made with beach glass and silver, for example.

“A lot of people don’t get it,” she said. “They walk into my booth and say, ‘This is garbage. We’re not paying money for something we can find on the beach.’ They really don’t understand it.”

Witzke’s prized pieces include a brown piece with the name “Fitger’s” still readable, intact bottlenecks and a purple piece she put on a necklace. Gorham’s include a larger grapefruit shade that might be Depression glass, and a citron piece. But her favorites are common clear pieces, made frosty white over time.

Good search spots in the area include the beach in Canal Park along the Lakewalk, Park Point, Wisconsin Point and Flood and Burlington bays in Two Harbors. The Lakewalk beach is a good spot because of northeast winds, Gorham said.

“I try to think about where people would have thrown stuff 30, 50 years ago,” she said.

Beach glass colors run from common to very rare. Clear, green and brown are easy to find, pickers say, followed by various shades of blue. Much more difficult to find are red, purple and yellow. Witzke and Gorham both said orange is the hardest to find. Gorham doesn’t have it, and Witzke only has one piece.

The pieces come from old Coke, wine, medicine and poison bottles; car parts and dishes and glasses from shipwrecks. The original form isn’t always glamorous. A true aqua color, Gorham said, might be from old power line insulators.

“Those are really pretty,” she said.

The pieces also are graded on quality. Gorham separates her “perfects” or A-grade from the rest for photos. The highest quality is what jewelry makers use, for the smoothness and lack of blemishes.

But Gorham, who says she is a novice compared to more serious collectors, picks up everything.

“I don’t care how small it is,” she said, noting that most sea and beach glass hunters are not just in it for the finds; they’re in love with the process.

“You can get super deep and think about how, like, you can be broken by this world and be made (beautiful),” she said.

Hunting tips

  • Go after a storm with large wave action
  • Wear rubber boots
  • Try winter and spring hunting, when beaches aren’t picked over by tourists
  • Follow the surf lines for deposits
  • Dig into rock piles and push piles with your feet
  • Bring a separate bag to clean up trash

To see more

Find Anne Gorham on Instagram at lakesuperior_beachglass, which includes a link to where you can buy prints of her photos.

Find April Witzke at www.sweetwaterbeachglass.com

Share your finds

Do you have any prized beach glass finds? Share photos with us at news@duluthnews.com, or on the News Tribune’s Facebook page.

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