Day Two – Monday September 13: Helena and the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine

Day Two – Monday September 13: Helena and the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine

They call Montana Big Sky Country, but it’s also known as the Treasure State, and on Monday we were going to see if Montana would live up to its name and share a little treasure with us.  Seems my wife, Irina, got this idea several months earlier that it would be fun to dig for our own gems.  She heard about this place near Helena where anyone could come and either dig your own stuff or buy one of their bags of pre-sorted material.  So we researched it on the internet, talked to the owner on the phone, and made it the first destination on our trip.

I was glad we wouldn’t be driving much that day anyway, as I had a lousy night’s sleep in Missoula, for no particular reason that I could discern. By 8:15 we were on the freeway. I kept hearing Willie Nelson in my head every morning on this trip – “I’m on the road again” – and I don’t even like Willie Nelson. We left I-90 at Garrison and headed due east to Helena on U.S. Highway 12, another beautiful mountain drive.

Along Highway 12 east of Helena

(Along Highway 12 east of Helena)

Along Highway 12 east of Helena

(Along Highway 12 east of Helena)

Helena is by no means a big city, but it proved a little more complicated than I expected finding my way through town and eight miles out to the “mine” mostly due to  the cursory nature of the directions I’d been given. The quotation marks around “mine” are only there because when we eventually found the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine near the shores of Lake Hauser, it didn’t fit any conventional picture or mental image I had of what a gem mine might look like. It basically consisted of a ramshackle wooden building, some picnic tables set up to use for picking through your gravel, water troughs, a couple of porta-potties, two wandering hounds, and off in the near distance a backhoe. All in all a much smaller operation than I’d envisioned.

Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine near Helena, Montana

(Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine near Helena, Montana)

Inside the building there is a jewelers case with polished and cut sapphires, quartz, emeralds, and garnets for sale. Rattlesnake skins are mounted conspicuously on the wall behind the counter.

When I pointed to one and asked the heavily-bearded proprietor if he’d caught it himself, he said, “Yep. He got me first, but I got him last.”

“He bit you?”  I asked.

“Oh, yeah.”

“Lucky it didn’t kill you, huh?”

He squinched up his face – this guy could have come straight out of a Hollywood casting call for “grizzled old prospector type” – and shook his head.  “Naw. I been bit so many times it don’t bother me much no more. Stings a little is all.”

Now I don’t know if this was western tall tale b.s. or the unvarnished truth.  But he told it well and if it helps sell a few more bags of sapphire gravel, then why not?

If you want, they will give you a pick and shovel and you can walk out to the digging area and go for it. But since he likened this experience to picking and shoveling through hardened cement, we passed on that idea.  Instead we opted to buy one of their two types of pre-sorted bags of “sapphire gravel”, the fifty dollar Sapphire mine bag, which is from this location, or the seventy-five dollar bag from the El Dorado mine a bit further up in the hills, which supposedly has a higher sapphire content in the same amount of material. Well, I figured what the hell, we’re on vacation, we’ve come this far, why be a piker now? We bought the $75 bag and headed outside to find our treasure.

One of his helpers showed us the ropes.  The gravel comes in a tubular white sandbag and weighs about forty pounds. You open it and scoop out three or four heaping double handfuls of pea-sized rocks and gravel onto your square washing screen. You take that over to the trough and dunk and sift it up and down in the water right at surface level, rock it back and forth and side to side for a couple of minutes. This is supposed to concentrate the gems, which are heavier than the rocks, down on the bottom center of the pile.  Then you take it over to your table, put a big square sponge over it, a flat board on top of that, flip the whole thing over, remove the screen and there they are, dozens and dozens of brilliant, sparkling sapphires, rubies, and emeralds gleaming in the sun.


Honestly, if the guy hadn’t shown us where they were at first, I would have never noticed them. To me it all looked like the rocks in my driveway, only smaller and wetter. First of all, the gems are few and far between and second, they are for the most part tiny. Not microscopic, but quite small. You need a pair of tweezers (which they will sell to you for an extra six bucks) to comb through and pick out the good stuff. We spent about twenty minutes on that first pile of washed gravel, meticulously examining every rock, certain we would find that one spectacular, elusive, giant gemstone big enough to make the Queen of England choke with envy.

Digging for treasure

(Digging for treasure)

It didn’t happen. We did, however, have a lot of fun sitting there in the windy sunshine sorting and washing and sifting through our bag o’ rocks. Well, to be honest, Irina enjoyed it more than I did. After the first three piles of gravel all my efforts had produced only one jagged, milky-blue sapphire about the size of Lincoln’s ear on a penny and a monumental case of eye strain with accompanying headache. I moseyed off and wandered around the property, taking pictures while Irina continued to pick through the gravel, enjoying every minute of it. A couple times I came back and helped her until tedium set in again – about three minutes. She got quicker with practice, especially once she realized there wasn’t that much to find and that we could always take our bag home with us and sift through it a second time at our leisure.

In all we ended up with four gem quality sapphires – meaning they could be cut and faceted – totaling about two and a half to three carats, a dozen or so other sapphires of lower quality, and a few other small stones such as garnets and quartz. No, we didn’t strike it rich, but overall it was a pleasant way to spend a few hours outside in the perfect weather, and we hit the road again feeling relaxed and ready to drive for a while, if not independently wealthy.

Spare tires?

(Spare tires?)

Hills of Helena, Montana

(Hills of Helena, Montana)

We took I-15 south to Butte, yet another ridiculously scenic mountain drive, and then briefly west on I-90 before I-15 continues south towards Idaho. It begins to sound redundant reporting on the quality of the scenery in this part of the world. If there’s an ugly, non-scenic drive in western Montana, I’ve never found it. Of course I’ve always agreed with whoever said the only thing better than mountains is more mountains.

The land flattens out some as you leave ranch land behind and cross into Idaho farm country. Just before Idaho Falls we saw a plume of dust or smoke off in the far distance. It grew and grew as we approached and soon we recognized it as smoke from a crop fire.  I have a vague recollection of something similar from my college days in eastern Washington where the farmers would burn off the stubble in the wheatfields after harvest. Maybe this was the same type of thing. Whatever, it made for a towering cloud of smoke and something more interesting to watch for a while than the endless miles of dusty, golden brown fields.

Sunset along I-15 near Pocatello, Idaho

(Sunset along I-15 near Pocatello, Idaho)

This smoke also contributed to a spectacular and protracted sunset as we sped south toward Pocatello.  The colors were great but what really set this one apart was the cloud formations spread all across the western sky, edged with gold and burnt orange, with shafts of sunlight radiating through the broken clouds like the spokes of some celestial bicycle. It seemed to go on forever, and the last color had only just faded completely when we pulled off the freeway at about 8 o’clock in Pocatello, home of Idaho State University. In fact, the campus turned out to be only a few blocks up the street from our motel, the Thunderbird Inn – fifty bucks and 3.5 out of 5.

Just behind the motel was the Jacalito Mexican restaurant and upon recommendation of the motel manager we went there for dinner. For some reason I’ve yet to fathom – a sudden burst of road-fatigue-induced madness? – I ordered my Pollo Cozumel with “ala diabla” sauce rather than the customary rancho sauce. I remember enough high school Spanish to know that diablo means devil, so what did I think an “ala diabla” sauce would be like? Cool and refreshing as an alpine stream? Foolish gringo that I am, I then made my second mistake by asking our waiter, a pleasant Mexican gentleman, if the sauce was not too hot.

“Oh, no, senor, ees just a leetle bit spicy.”

“Alrighty then, bring it on.”

In retrospect, I now picture the entire staff standing in the kitchen laughing like hyenas as they dumped an extra half bottle of jalapeno sauce over my dish before bringing it out to me.

Immediately upon taking my first bite, I knew I was in trouble. On the second bite my lips were tingling. After that it was half a gallon of ice water down the throat and buckets of sweat streaming down my face, through my scalp, dripping off my nose. At first Irina laughed. Then she wanted to call 911. I said only if they send a fire truck and hose me down.

But I was too stubborn to send it back. No, I had to be macho man and not give them the satisfaction of knowing the gringo couldn’t hack it. And I was hungry. Soon I was patting down the chicken chunks with my napkin – and Irina’s napkin, and a napkin from the vacant table next to us – to soak up the extra sauce in a vain effort to alleviate some of the fire before it got inside. After a while you’d think my lips – not to mention mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach – would have gone numb, but no, that didn’t happen. For some odd reason, the phrase “fire in the hole” kept jumping into my head.

I did manage to finish most of it, and just to prove my obstinacy, I even took the remainder in a doggy bag and put it in our cooler. It melted all the ice and burned right through the cooler, unleashing a toxic cloud of radioactive death that wiped out half of Pocatello. Or maybe I just dreamed that part.

And in the morning, well, let’s just say it stays ala diabla all the way through.

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