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Northlandia: Agate pickers ‘always looking down’

The glimmering rocks, hundreds of millions of years in the making, can hold a special place in Duluth-area hearts.

An agate sits on a pile of rocks.
An agate sits on a pile of small rocks Oct. 13, ready to be picked up by an eager agate hunter.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — About 1.1 billion years ago here, fissures opened in the surface of the earth, depositing lakes of molten rock near what would eventually be the Twin Ports and Lake Superior.

Postcard aerial scene of Duluth
This is Northlandia: a place to bring your curiosity, because you will find curiosities. In this series, the News Tribune celebrates the region's distinctive people, places and history. Discover the extraordinary stories that you just might miss if you're not in the right place, at the right time, ready to step off the beaten path with no rush to return.
Adelie Bergstrom / Duluth News Tribune

Gas bubbles in that lava froze in place when the lava cooled, leaving scattered negative spaces in the volcanic rock layers.

Over hundreds of millions of years, water running deep underground deposited layer after layer of minerals and other geologic detritus inside those spaces. Glaciers, advancing southward, then ground up that rock, shoving it like a bulldozer and planting the layered mineral deposits as far as what would eventually be Nebraska.

Now, those deposits — “agates,” generally, and “Lake Superior” ones, specifically — are strewn across the Midwest, nestled in gravel pits and along Northland roads and beaches, where people like Kim Caruso pick them up and add them to their ever-growing collections.

“When you’re an agate picker, you’re always looking down,” Caruso said Oct. 13. “It’s the most irritating thing in the entire world for your friends when you go on a walk. If you’re on a dirt road, you’re looking down. If you’re walking into a restaurant and there’s landscaping rock, you’re looking over into that landscaping rock.”

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Agates can glitter or glisten in the sunlight, making them “glow” and stand out from “normal” rocks that are the remains of that billion-year-old lava, especially when they’re wet after a rain or after a picker licks them to double check their find. The moisture and light can make it easier to pick agates out from their surroundings. They can also sport a distinctive, rind-like texture that sets them apart.

A woman sits next to jars of agates.
Kim Caruso, avid agate picker, on Oct. 13 shows jars of agates and other rocks she has collected over the years.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

The iron embedded in the Duluth area means rocks around here are often a dusty-red or mustard-yellow color. Collectors often clean and polish their agates to burnish or reveal the rocks’ brilliant patterns.

Combing a beach or trail for agates, Caruso said, can be therapeutic — meditative, even — and pickers’ collections can take on a deep personal significance, even if the circumstances under which they found one of their hundreds or thousands of rocks muddies over time.

Piles of agates spread out on two cooking sheets.
Kim Caruso lays out two jars of agates on baking sheets Oct. 14. She remembers how she found several of them as she sorts through her collection.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Still, Caruso was quick to name the crown jewel of her collection: “Monica’s Rock,” a red-, blue- and white-striped rock named after Monica Cardinal, a dear friend who died from brain cancer in 2014 at age 26.

Timberlake Lodge has become the site of an annual pilgrimage for Minnesotans who are on the trail of Sasquatch. Numbering in the hundreds, Minnesota Bigfoot Conference attendees are convinced that giant bipeds are afoot in the Northland, just out of sight.

Caruso found that rock while agate hunting with her mom on what would have been Cardinal’s 27th birthday. She said she found the rock in almost the exact state it’s in now, and that it was the only one they found that day.

“To see all the different layers that are involved in this, and all the different colors,” Caruso said, holding the agate. “If you look deep, deep at it. …There’s something about it where it’s like there’s so many lines, there’s so many items that are, like, something over time that’s just built up.”

A woman holds an agate.
Kim Caruso holds her favorite agate. She found this agate on the one-year anniversary of a friend's death, and Caruso says the agate reminds her of that friend.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Collectors interviewed by the News Tribune sometimes joke about the fervor with which they or others hunt for agates.

Caruso and her boyfriend, for instance, used a pair of backpack chemical sprayers usually reserved for lawnwork to wet down large piles of rock left out by a landscaping company and make it easier to find the agates within. They’ve also agreed not to search too close to one another.

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“Just to save lives,” Caruso said, mostly jokingly.

Other pickers have tipped her partly in agates when she works her side gig at a West Duluth bar.

A woman sorts through her agate collection.
Agate picker, Kim Caruso, holds up one of her previous finds above her collection Oct. 13.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Some pickers use knee pads or other supports to preserve their joints while they use garden tools to sift through piles of rocks for hours on end. Others DIY buckets with PlexiGlas bottoms to minimize the interference from waves and light refraction while they search for agates submerged in lakes or rivers.

Still others join vast online communities where they show off their finds and guess whether a given agate will reveal itself to be a “stud” when cut in half, uncovering ring after multicolored ring inside, or not, making it a “dud.”

A sign stands in front of a pile of rocks.
A view of Get Pickin, an agate farm, in Cloquet. Piles of rocks are brought here for agate and other rock pickers to come and search for new treasures.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

And some pickers have even been dinged for trespassing at gravel pits after hours, when the workers and machinery have stopped for the day and left swathes of freshly churned dirt and rock for collectors to pick through.

That’s partly why Beckie Tikkanen started "Get Pickin," a home business at the house she shares with husband Graham on state Highway 33 near Cloquet.

“We just really liked picking rocks, and then we wanted to make a safe, legal place for people to be able to pick,” Beckie Tikkanen said. “We wanted to make it so people could actually access good rocks and find some agates.”

Tikkanen has truckloads of rock dumped onto her front yard every few weeks, and customers pay $15 plus tax for a collection bag and access to those piles. The business’ offseason, so to speak, is the fall and winter, when it’s often too cold and snowy to be outside for very long and too cloudy for agates to sparkle in the sun and catch a picker's eye.

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A woman crouches as she searches through a large pile of rocks.
Beckie Tikkanen, owner of Get Pickin, searches for agates in her rock pile in Cloquet on Oct. 13.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

The Tikkanens first got into the hobby-lifestyle after a few friends brought them to a lake after the couple moved to the Duluth area about 15 years ago. They cleaned and sanded some of the first pea-sized agates they found, turning them into Mother's Day gifts.

Several agates are spread out on a table.
Several agates, found at Get Pickin.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

“We just got hooked on it,” Beckie Tikkanen said, “and liked the adventure of treasure hunting and finding an agate.”

John Swenson, an associate professor at the department of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth, pegged the appeal more matter-of-factly.

“They’re beautiful,” Swenson said. “Plain and simple. They’re gorgeous.”

He found his first agates on the East Duluth beach near his childhood home, and his collection has since blossomed into thousands of rocks stored in boxes and buckets in his basement.

A man holds a large agate.
John Swenson, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth, explains the formation of agates using one of his agates from his collection Oct. 13.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Swenson also suspects that most people have a “latent” interest in geology that’s sparked by agates.

“I think most people when they pick up their first agate, they want to know — OK, it’s pretty, but what is it?” he said while rolling his favorite agate — a brown, white, and black one he found in Moose Lake years ago — back and forth on a table in Heller Hall. “Where did it come from? Why? Why is it so rare? Why don’t I find them every day?”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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