Mining In Challis: Working The Rock
Challis, Idaho

By John Cornish
December 19, 2006

Headlights cut through the dark
as the engine belches smoke and the
rocks and dirt groan under your treads.

The air is heavy with smoke,
a controlled fire with a mind
of its own.

A' top the hill,
bursting with a smudgy view,
the equipment rumbles to life.

I've been on the road fifteen days already and I've just finished participating in our nation's second largest mineral show, the Denver Show, in Colorado (click here for 2006 report). A far cry from home for this Port Angeles boy, but finally, my truck is loaded and I'm back on the road. I won't make it though, at least not right away, I plan to make a small side trip over to Idaho where I'll soon conduct another crystal mining operation at my Rat's Nest claim near the small town of Challis.

For this newest adventure, I decided I'd travel several new sections of back road highways and as soon as it seemed prudent, I split off the main interstate and headed northwest towards Idaho's wild central interior. I'd planned to enjoy some spectacular new scenery while traveling but soon realized the approaching banks of low storm clouds were only getting thicker and more ominous looking until finally I hit thick sheets of falling rain.

The miles past by uneventfully to the sweeping beat of my windshield wipers and after a full day, I finally arrived in Challis and checked into the hotel. Outside it was thundering rain and whipping winds and nothing seemed even remotely desirable about setting up camp with all that fun going on and so, my bucks now warming someone else's pockets, I turned the key and entered into my room for the evening... and just as quickly turned around and headed right back to the front desk where I re-rang the manager and asked for a new room, one that hadn't already been slept in. Disgusting. This place, the Northgate Inn, has been heading downhill over the several years I've been coming to Challis and I'm just about fed up.

A quick shower in my new room soon revealed a new, re-energized me emerging from the steam. After dressing and spiffying up, I headed out the door, on my way to dinner.

If the Northgate Inn continues to depress, the Challis Lodge and Lounge, under the care of new owners (and these guys seem to really have it going on), is a bright and shining star, welcoming me back to town. I ordered up the ribeye special and settled in with a full glass of mirror pond pale ale and readied myself for a fine evening. After that yummy meal, I brought out my journal and caught up on everything that had happened since I'd left Denver. That done, I said my thanks and paid my bill and headed back to my room for a bit of t.v. before finally, I called it quits and shut everything down for the evening.

On the morn, I worked through my routine and then grabbed a spot of breakfast, did my shopping, gassed up and headed off to the claim. I said my hello to the folks whose property I cross before hitting the outback and caught up on the goings on since last I was through. Afterwards, I headed over to the shed and off loaded my truck of everything I'd not need on the hill. As I worked, half a dozen ranch dogs made themselves known and my feet were constantly tangled as everyone sought a bit of love or closer to the truth, a scrap of food!

Finally, everything unloaded, I again turned the key and fired up the ol' S-10 and off I went. With all the clay in the soil hereabouts and all the rain that had fallen the day before, I knew it'd be a fun ride up the hill and I wasn't mistaken, even in 4-wheel drive. I swung a bit over this way and then waddled back, sliding over the other way until finally, I shifted into reverse and backed up onto the flat pad I'd call home for the next thirteen days.

Lots of prickly little scrubby plants had taken root and had obviously flourished since my last visit and removing the worst of them from my immediate camp area was my first duty as I began transforming the wilderness into a home away from home. With that accomplished, I began unloading the truck, first off loading the poles I'd use to make the frame work from which I'd stretch my tarp, creating a nice roomy independently standing living area. And so, first the poles came off and then the duct tape came out, followed by my bungee cords and ropes and then finally, I finished up with the actual tarp and after a bit of unfolding/stretching/pulling, etc., fanfare please, an instant camp! And unlike my last extended trip where the winds almost blew me off the mountain, things were perfect and not a breath of wind stirred camp during the entire time I was setting up; what a blessing!


I slept soundly that night all huddled under my sleeping bags in the back of the truck lulled by a steady rain that began soon after I'd gone to bed. In the morning after I'd finished a dozen little chores and with the sun shining, I decided to take off and explore. When last here, I'd found a wild horse trail leading off and into the hills. This super highway was clean of brush and made a great access route leading into new areas to explore. With everything packed and loaded, I was off, walking poles in hand. I took several photos of the scenic areas I walked through and was quite thrilled that in all my journeying, I did not encounter a single rattlesnake. However, washing down a small gulch, I did find several disarticulated horse bones from an animal that had died somewhere on the ridge line up above me. They'd not been there when last I'd passed through and were startling evidence, reflecting how harsh and cruel this wild area can be.



Last year while exploring, I'd found an area (click here for 2005 report) that had a fair bit of treasure scattered about and figured I'd give this same area another try and soon angled off the beaten trail and headed cross country towards this small hidden spot. This would be my first serious exploration and I wanted to take my time. I set my pack aside and began griding off the area sweeping up and down and then side to side covering everything and everywhere. There were lots of goodies strewn about and I soon began accumulating a pile. There were little geodes, (and one over eight inches in diameter and slightly amethystine with associated calcite!), some wonderful, small orange skinned agates (I suspect the coloring to be a thin lining of heulandite-Na), a couple of really cool golden colored complex calcite crystals, some massive dull, earthy-toned chert-like material and even a small petrified wood limb cast (found by our friends Fred and Amy several days later), a true mix of goodies combining the treasures weathering from two separate geological environments, one igneous and the other sedimentary.


It was great fun and I idly passed several hours while enjoying this simple wonder filled pursuit. And then I found treasure, cool treasure! I was looking far down the hill among some groups of big gnarly old sage bushes and spied a massive chunk of banded blue and white agate from which protruded a huge six inch wide, four inch tall crystal spray of some unknown mineral coated by a clear blue-gray agate and white drusy quartz. The piece was really cool looking there all half buried and covered in lichens and I was after it. As I pulled it out from under that bush, I was impressed by how much it weighed, twenty pounds easy. It's a weird thing, the agate is easy enough to figure out, but those long crystals, they were something else, or maybe more accurately, they had been something else. There's something about them that just doesn't look right and I have the sneaking suspicion that these are in fact pseudomorphs of some other, earlier formed mineral. As I looked closer, it seems like a monstrous, perhaps zeolite mineral had formed in fantastic sprays up to six inches long within the voids of quartz, both agate and crystal, lined cavities which have been replaced with what appears to be a combination of both quartz and calcite. I'll definitely have to spend some more time looking closer at this material and the dozen other less impressive examples I found later. Indeed, one specimen of agate upon closer scrutiny was found to have hollow chambers perfectly mirroring the external shapes of these sprays in a soft bluish colored three by three inch specimen. Heck, I'm having fun now!


But not for long! I'd been way too focused on that hillside and its treasures and over the course of the last several hours, I'd hardly looked anywhere else, when I did, it was definitely time to go! The sky was black and huge hanging sheets of wet, wet, wet were sweeping up the valley head-on towards me. Expletive here! Time to go! I quickly wrapped the delicate things and threw everything else recklessly into my pack, pulled it on and grabbed my poles and like a horse, I was soon hoofing it out of there, and at double time to boot! I boogied and never slowed down for a second and that storm, it was breathing down my neck like some old jaded pervert and it was 100% time for me to get the heck out of there!

Thankfully, like a blessing, I made it to camp before the storm hit... by ten minutes! And when it hit, it was just like old times, the roar of the thunder and the screaming wind, the rain, the hail and the snow and bam, bam, bam, like a clenched fist, that storm did its best to destroy my camp. The wind came in huge whooping gusts that ballooned up the tarp like a parachute and threatened to send it flying. I had to race, grabbing more ropes and bungees and in that slashing maelstrom of whipping rain, pounding hail and blinding snow, I laid the lines that would hold everything in place. Later, everyone who visited laughed about my spiders web of support lines but heck, I didn't mind, it was from the confines of a secure camp that they teased me and inwardly, I felt quite warm and fuzzy knowing I'd survived another round on the hill!

Report continued . . . . . . .

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