Haida Gwaii :: SEP -- OCT 2002

Subject: Pretty Stone Beach
Date: Thursday, September 26, 2002 3:15 PM

21:28 Agate Beach Campground; Naikoon Provincial Park, BC :: SAT 21 SEP 02

Offshore, the night-time running lights of crab boats are on the move. The crabbers remain busily at work after a full day sailing up and down the coastline, checking their trap lines. The tide is out, way out, and down the beach, the light of a nearby crab boat reveals the sandy, muddy flats like the light of the moon might, were it not rising behind, partially obscured by clouds. A few tall spindly spruce rise toward the illuminated clouds, little more than trunks sporadically sprouting horizontal boughs of random length. Below them, windswept scrub pines emphatically describe the wind's predominant course, as if caught stop-motion on film during a gale-force storm.

Earlier, during the high tide, the breakers beat against the high shore, a band of drift wood and loose, smoothly rounded rock. Beachcombers walked in their characteristic stoop, bending to pick-up a prize of agate, for which the beach is named. They conferred with partners, and kept the stone as promising, or flicked it aside, pretty but worthless. From time to time, they would skitter like sandpipers, evading an onrushing wave.

I asked one husband, dutifully awaiting his wife's return from foraging, "are they worth much?"

"Not really," he replied. "They're considered semi-precious, so a few cents or perhaps a few dollars for a particularly stunning one."

"Oh," I replied, and showed him my small, amber-coloured find.

"Yep. That's an agate."

On a kilometres long beach strewn with millions of prettily rounded and coloured stones, agates are lumpy, irregular, pocked. Translucent when wet, their surface dries powdery and opaque. Some combers will show you an agate or two, or half a handful of agate-like stones the patient husband refers to as "sugar agate." I asked him, "like fools gold?" And he nodded.

On a beach piled high with pretty, colourful stones, the agate can be hard to pick out. Its colour varies from a clear-white, to ambers and greens and even the rare fiery red. But these colours abound in other stones as well, many of which are translucent. The key is to find an irregularly shaped stone with pock marks.

It's a bit of a visual paradox. My eyes seem tuned for smooth, regular shapes with pretty colours and patterns. I never do find a proper agate, but I do collect a small handful of pretty stones, and discard buckets of others. All combers, whether they've found a genuine agate or not, will also produce for inspection a handful of prettily shaped and coloured stones, with perhaps a nice shell or piece of driftwood.

Perhaps this should be called "Pretty Stone Beach." Just leave it at that.

The sky has cleared and the harvest moon appears between spires of spruce silhouetted in glowing broken banks of cloud. Moonlight illuminates the foaming waves, the driftwood, the white stones and rocks and pebbles piled above the tide line. And I realise I am drifting off. It's been a long day. A dry tent and warm sleeping bag await me.

I look at my smooth amber stone. Agate? I think it's not, and even if it is, a fellow in Massett has paved his driveway with them. I put it in my pocket anyway, a future reminder of a perfect moment on a crescent of pretty stones.