Traveling to Alaska travel blog

10 hour boat ride today one of the highlights was getting garnets from the kids on shore when we stopped in Wrangell for a hour to pick up and drop off people.

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Crowds of children meet almost every ship at the Wrangell waterfront, carrying their gems in everything from muffin tins to Tupperware. Some stand shyly and depend on tourists' curiosity to draw customers, but most warble, "Wanna buy a garnet?"

Tourists pay a quarter for a pea-sized purple gem, $20 or more for a golf ball-size garnet embedded in a chunk of the silvery schist from which it was chiseled.

Mountainside Lode

The garnets come from a mountainside at the mouth of the Stikine River on the mainland about 9 miles from Wrangell.

The property was deeded to the Boy Scouts of America in 1962 by the late Fred Hanford, a former mayor of Wrangell, a town of about 2,100 in southeastern Alaska. Under the terms of the gift, only Boy Scouts and the children of Wrangell have rights to mine and sell the garnets.

In reality, garnet collecting is a back-kinking, knee-scraping, thumb-smashing chore that falls to the gem sellers' parents.

"I don't know what's more work, the kids' homework or selling garnets," says Kay Jabusch, one of the self-described "garnet moms" who accompany their children to the docks.

About every six weeks, Kay Jabusch and her husband, Jeff, pilot their river skiff through the shifting channels of the Stikine to reach the garnet ledge and replenish their sons' supplies. They lug pails, chisels and hammers up the quarter-mile trail that climbs to the garnet ledge.

A few stones can be screened from loose soil and rock next to a nearby stream. But most must be chiseled out of huge faces of rock.

Power tools and blasting are forbidden. Adults who want to go to the ledge are asked to buy a $10 permit at the Wrangell Museum and turn over a portion of their take to the Boy Scouts. The Scouts also ask people to sign a liability-release form.

Old Wrangell newspapers say the ledge was mined from 1907 to 1923 by the Alaska Garnet Mining and Manufacturing Co. of Minneapolis, Minn., a company run by two sisters.

A geological study done in the 1940s says Wrangell garnets are superb for industrial uses such as sandpaper, but that few become jewels. The garnets have quartz inclusions that cause them to fracture when cut. Most buyers want them as curiosity pieces, though some say they will try to set the stones.

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