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Great Canadian Roadtrip: Amethyst Mines of Northern Ontario

A transcontinental road trip across Canada is a great way to slow travel this vast county. An awful lot of that road trip will be on Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway. The Trans-Canada Highway is a federal–provincial highway system that travels through all ten provinces of Canada, from coast to coast. The main route spans 7,476 km (4,645 mi) coast to coast. I have driven portions of this road many times over the years but in the summer of 2019, I drove all those kilometres (plus!) both ways during an epic 9 week Great Canadian Road Trip. There are many kilometres of rocks, trees, and random lakes with very few settlements along the way. There are long stretches of the highway where there is little of anything beyond the wilderness and the pavement ahead. Much of the land is sparsely populated indigenous lands or parks/Crown Land, especially in Northern Ontario where the ugly cities burst from stunning natural landscapes, announced by tall industrial smokestacks.

The geography of the area around Thunder Bay and along the shores of Lake Superior is ideal for the formation of amethyst. Amethyst is semi-precious quartz crystals. It's the iron content in the soil that creates the beautiful blue-purple tones.

Thunder Bay amethyst has been known since the 19th century, and is remarkable for its variety and colours. I first read about the mines on the handy website TransCanada Highway and was immediately determined to visit and try my hand at picking amethysts. I admit I thought it would be a more challenging task than it turned out to be.

There are three mines that welcome tourists in the Thunder Bay area. About 60 km east of Thunder Bay is Amethyst Mine Panorama. I chose this one because it was the first sign I saw on the side of the highway. The long 8 km road up to the mine is fairly steep and unpaved. There were several encouraging signs along the road with this one appearing at the top of a particularly daunting 12% grade hill. The signs really did help when I began to question whether I needed a 4 wheel drive!

Once at the top, parking was found outside of the visitor center and gift shop. I had a private tour from a lady who was very passionate about the formation of amethyst. She explained the amethyst was uncovered when this radio tower was being built. As supplies were dragged up the hill, the top soil was scraped off enough to reveal a large amethyst vein.

This is a producing mine, so tourists are not allowed where operations are located. Amethyst mining is open pit digging, using high velocity water hoses. No chemicals are involved in this operation, just water. The commercial quarry work is being done just around the bend, out of sight of tourists.

This vein is estimated to be 150m deep. In the 70 years this mine has been in operation, they have gone down 30m.

Amethyst is quartz. During some seismic event(s) the iron rich granite split and liquid quartz ran into the cracks and spaces. Sometimes the liquid quartz bonded bits of chipped granite together, and sometimes it created pockets where it crystallized into “vugs” or geodes. These vugs and geodes are what we recognize and value. The colour is a result of the bluish tones of the quartz mixing with the red of the iron in the soil. All quartz is a bunch of crystals and every quartz crystal is pointed and 6 sided.

Yellow or brown crystals were heated several times, leaving them a little more “cooked”. Dark brown crystals are very rich in iron.

The tour included many examples of amethyst, from large pieces to small, from pretty purple to deep brown. The guide's enthusiasm and passion for amethyst was contagious and thoroughly delightful. I had no idea I would be so totally fascinated by the whole geology. I thought I was going just to be dazzled by pretty stones.

My guide was very animated as she indicated this massive stone. This is the biggest single piece of amethyst found at this mine. They took 2 years to chip and wiggle it out of the surrounding granite. The owner is so proud, he has vowed never to cut it until a larger one is found.

Visitors have several choices as to how to procure some amethyst for themselves. The simplest method is enter the gift shop and buy some of the best quality amethyst which has been skillfully turned into something artsy and chic. These completed pieces are lovely and very beautiful. Outside, a less expensive option allows visitors to walk along the rows of washed rock and select favourites. The final choice is to grab a bucket and pick chunks from the dig area. I, of course, grabbed a bucket and went to 'mine' my own... which means I walked to a big pile of rock dumped there by a huge bucket truck.

There is amethyst literally everywhere. I had a bucket and got started, carefully turning rocks this way and that to make my choices. I spent several delightful hours becoming almost as enthusiastic as my wonderful tour guide. I highly recommend "picking amethyst". The whole bucket cost me $10.00. My (not-so) hard work also earned me an honourary title of "Associate Miner" at the completion of my adventure.

It was great fun to be able to offer chunks of amethyst to hosts and friends along the way. I arrived home with just enough for my daughter and myself.


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