My first survey of the Bear Lake Diggings was as twilight cloaked the woods in deepening mauve. There was only Josh and I and the gloomy, darkening trenches that disappeared like giant tractor ruts over the rise, off into the shadowy forest. The site is spattered in mud and overhung by torn, ragged trees. Numerous lesser quality apatite crystals lie all around. Badly fractured and of inferior colour, they have been discarded by the more discerning collectors. Scattered over humps of reddish soil it was a desolate picture, as though two armies had waged a desperate battle over this wasteland and now, with everyone dead, nature was reclaiming what was rightfully hers.
Compare that dismal experience to an afternoon’s visit in early October. In truth, I feel it is the only time to go. You will find yourself alone in fickle patches of sunlight that float across the trenches. Sometimes you are blessed with a warm amber pool of light. On other occasions, like roving spotlights, the illumination wanders across the upturned earth eluding the crouched rockhound in his dripping trench. The colours of Fall float down in a leafy-yellow drizzle that eventually blankets the forest floor. There are no bugs and you roam across this glorious medley of colour, sensing that the approach of the first snowfall will not be long in coming.
Two trees rub together in the wind. The sound is like that of a squeaking mouse. Mushrooms grow in profusion in the trenches and on the fallen maple logs. These growths impart a nutty odour to the woods. It is a fragrance that will forever remind me of fall leaf collecting expeditions in Horseshoe Valley. It was a family tradition that we all looked forward to as children.
Despite man’s delving, the cavities between the rocks are natural in origin. As Chris Fouts writes in the Bancroft and District Mineral Collecting Guide Book, the trenches follow what is left of calcite-filled dykes that have cut through a far more durable, hornblende syenite gneiss. Soil now fills where the calcite once was. All manner of less easily eroded minerals pepper the accumulated dirt like raisins in a bun. Left to nature’s processes the crystals that have dropped out of the eroded calcite will slowly settle down within. With a strong shovel and an equally sturdy back, persistent collectors will be well rewarded if they dig away the overburden. This exposes the surface of the rock in the bottom of a previously unexcavated trench. The best quality and highest density of mineral specimens are found within 18 inches of the unweathered bottom of the dyke. There are lots of apatite logs, some large feldspar crystals and the occasional specimen of titanite.