Carlton County rock hounds have plenty of places to search
Beckie Tikkanen was kneeling on a rock pile in her front yard, looking for the ones that "glow."
She owns Get Pickin, a rock-hunting business just north of Cloquet on Minnesota Highway 33. The business gives patrons the opportunity to search through giant piles of rock in her front yard for agates, quartz, amethysts, fossils and other rare stones found in northern Minnesota.
Over Get Pickin's five seasons, Tikkanen has learned some strategies for spotting agates and other translucent stones. Use a small spray bottle to get the stones wet and position yourself where the sun is on the opposite side of the rock pile, she said.
"When it catches the light, the translucent stones will sort of glow," Tikkanen said.
For $10, customers at Get Pickin receive a bag for collecting rocks and are allowed to roam the piles for as long as they want. Tikkanen has the piles separated out into different sizes of rock, ranging from approximately 0.75 to 4 inches.
"People will come for five or six hours at a time," Tikkanen said. "They'll bring knee pads or rakes — sometimes they even bring weed-sprayer bottles."
While agates can be found throughout Minnesota, Carlton County has become a destination for "rock hounds" and others searching for the uniquely banded rocks. Moose Lake's Agate Days in July brings visitors from across the state for the two-festival, where loads of gravel are dumped along Elm Avenue for the public to pick through.
Carlton County has three inactive gravel pits between Moose Lake and Barnum that allow residents to search for agates. Free permits can be obtained through the Carlton County Transportation Department website, where a map is also available. The permits serve to ensure rock hunters are courteous and safe while at the pits and to limit the county's liability if someone is injured on the property.
"We just want to make sure everybody is safe," Carlton County engineer JinYeene Neumann said.
Transportation Department clerk Marie Luther estimated the county grants at least 150 permits per year.
Tikkanen said the county gravel pits are a great resource, but can be a little daunting for beginners. The pits aren't maintained or refreshed like the piles at Get Pickin, which receives deliveries of new rock a few times per month. Each load contains up to 1,000 agates in each load of 0.75-inch rock and up to 30 with each delivery of 4-inch rock.
"A lot of people don't know what they're looking for," Tikkanen said. "That's why we started this, to give people a safe place to pick and to make sure that it's not over-picked. A lot of the lakes have been picked over by tourists."
Luther said while the pits aren't maintained and refreshed as regularly as the piles at Get Pickin, the county does "stir up" the rock once a year, typically just before Agate Days each summer.
Tikkanen said she first started picking rocks when she found agates in some landscaping near a Twin Cities apartment where she and her husband, Graham, lived before they moved to northern Minnesota.
She held up a 1-inch agate to the sun.
"That's the appeal — when you find a nice small one like this," she said. "And then you just want to find that pounder."