Lakeview, Oregon lies at the center south of Oregon, very close to the California state line. The region is mineral-rich, and the terrain varies from majestic pine-covered mountains to wind-swept stretches of prairie grass and sagebrush. It is the home of the fire opal in Rio Grande's new American Mined™ gemstone collection.
The Rio crew and I had spent the previous day with Dave and Tammy, owners of the Sunstone Butte Mine. Theirs was a rugged life style, and honestly, I was a bit relieved to return to civilization—Lakeview—after my day out in the sun with them. (You can see the full story about our trip to the Sunstone Butte Mine over here.)
Our second day of touring mines started right in Lakeview. Troy Newman and the Outlaw Rocks crew welcomed us to their shop/headquarters. We enjoyed touring their operation, and saw a lot of opal ready for processing. In short order we piled into Troy's big pickup, and started on our journey up into the mountains. As we rode, Troy explained that he uses a very low impact approach to mining. Instead of heavy equipment he mostly uses hand tools, perhaps escalating to a jack hammer when the going gets tough. He also explained that he mines on Forest Service land, and works closely with those authorities to attain all the needed permissions. "They like me, because I only ask to work on previously used sites," he says.
As you might imagine, the Forest Service isn't necessarily keen on mining. But over the years, mines have sprouted in various places throughout lands that now fall under the Forest Service's purview. Mainly, these old sites were simply abandoned. So when a miner asks permission to revisit these old sites, the Forest Service is quicker to agree to the needed permits.
After driving by a beautiful mountain lake, we eventually arrive at the site Troy wants us to see. "They mined here years ago," Troy says. "They sold the opal to Tiffany's. They zigged, when they should have zagged." As we poke around the old digs, I see very little opal. But Troy has me walk a short distance away from the old digs, and tells me, "Look at the ground … It's called ‘float.'" Turns out that there is so much opal in the ground, that over time the wind and the rain erode the land, and the underlying opal "floats" to the surface. And now with my eyes, trained for what to look for, I realize that the whole slope is covered with opal rough.
Troy hops down into a small trench he has cut into the hillside. "When we dig, we mostly use shovels and picks," he says. "We just throw the dirt behind us, so the trench stays small." I can see how this will go, basically, a slow moving hole moving across the face of the hillside.
He scrapes at the exposed side, and quickly exposes some opal, and holds it up into the sun for us to see. I can tell by the excitement in Troy's face that he loves this. So do we.
Lake County fire opal is now available from Rio Grande in faceted stones, cabochons and beads. The American Mined™ gemstone collection continues to grow, so stay tuned for more visits to mines around the country in the months to come.