Sunday, September 7, 2014

"What the Hay"; a celebration of culture in Central Montana

     It started years ago as a friendly competition between two neighboring ranchers to see who could be the most creative.  Within a couple of years this rivalry blossomed into one of the largest events in the State of Montana.  This year they celebrate their 25th Anniversary with the event stretching the 22 miles from Hobson to Utica to Windham.  Anything is permissible as long as the theme centers around the agricultural hay industry.  All sculptures must be made of straw or hay.  You can stop at the Midway Caf-Hay for an Indian Taco, soda, and visit the Hay Zoo or challenge the 250 bale Hay Maze.  Tens of thousands travel here to tour the Montana Bale Trail each year.
     It is the centerpiece of a fall celebration of culture weekend with Chokecherry Festival Saturday in Lewistown and Sunday celebrating What the Hay and the Utica Days Festival.   This year featured nearly 60 entries.  We had beautiful weather (low 80s) as we arrived in Hobson, picked up our ballots and set out for our country drive of fun and adventure.  The drive took us about 2 hours considering photography, traffic, and a stop for lunch at the Oxen Yoke Inn.  We took nearly 40 shots of the art that intrigued us.  Here is just a sampling of those. 
        It was a fun day overall....except for the 1 pound burger my eyes told me I could handle for lunch in Utica.  It was inevitable, but tomorrow we turn the wheels and head towards the Kalkaska Ponderosa......not in any hurry though.  

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Philipsburg, Montana: Sapphire Mining

     Barb and I got into ‘rockhounding’ about 5 years ago.  It’s another one of those hobbies we found that we can share after retirement.  We have spent some time chasing the agates in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, and the Yellowstone Valley of Montana.  We have collected our hammers, tumblers, pans, shakers, and polishing supplies as we have learned.  We have polished samples of agate, unakite, pudding stone, jade, and petrified wood to name a few.  So far, our grandchildren have loved the samples as presents.  Barb’s passion is undoubtedly prospecting for her birthstone, the Sapphire. 
      The Gem Mountain Mine is located about 22 miles SW of Philipsburg, MT on Skalkaho Pass Road.   Barb and I first visited this place 3 years ago when she was interested in finding a place she could mine/pan for sapphires.  She was fairly lucky our first visit with her booty of 6 sapphires totaling nearly 2 carats.  Even though none of these stones were gemstone quality, she was hooked nonetheless.  
     For our return trip we chose to boondock at the mine’s on site campground located about 175 yards from the mining area.  It consists of a cleared area within the gulch and timber with 6 level, gravel campsites with fire pit w/grate and picnic table.  It is first come, first served; cost FREE.  With Labor Day weekend drawing to a close there were only 2 other people camping so we chose a good site with plenty of sun.  Since we were staying for 4 days with no other plans I left the truck hooked to the RV.  Much easier packing/unpacking when you can do it.  I also watered up in Philipsburg prior to arrival.  I had the Honda and 6 extra gallons of gas on hand, but we were in a choice spot to enjoy solar panels and the battery bank.  The area was full of downed trees and plenty of firewood lying around as well as a stack of split pine left behind so we were set!  The plan was to let Barb mine/pan for 2 days while Bodhi, Dharma, and I played ‘Camp Critters’ and kept Mommy fed and happy.   Arrival night consisted of Fire Pit Angus Blue Cheeseburgers with Corn on the Cob. 

    This mine has been open since 1891 and has produced over 180 million carats worth of gems.  Gem Mountain and Spokane Bar (near Helena) are the two largest operating sapphire mines in the state.  This facility consists of mine trucks bringing loads of gravel down from the mine to their own processing facility where you can buy a bucket for $20 to sluice box yourself.   They have a sluice box set up for people to wash their gravel a bit at a time then sift it through a shaker box, and finally hand sort through looking for sapphires.  Surprisingly, most sapphires are a variety of colors, ranging from light blue/green, pink, peach, and yellow.  The only naturally true Blue Sapphires in the world are mined from Yogo Gulch about 260 miles NE of here.  All other sapphires are heat treated to achieve the blue color with which everyone is familiar.
      Barb really hit the ground running on Day 1.  In 2 buckets she found 55 sapphires, 4 of which are gem quality cuttable with the largest weighing just under 3 carats.  The 51 others total 25.1 carats including one very nice pink!  I have to salute the staff, they really enjoy their work.  They teach you what you need to know, stop by often to chat, and there are jewelers inside the office that will assay and certify your booty for you when finished.  They even have a station and service for handicapped.  They also offer faceting service if you desire to have your gem cut for mounting.  One of the buckets we worked on Day 1 was a free bucket they awarded me for my 22 years of career Air Force service to our country.  After nearly 3 hours in the sun Barb took the afternoon off, claiming that well deserved nap.  Later, we dined on Tuscan Halibut with tomatoes, cannelloni beans, carrots, and pesto. (

     Day 2 arrived with Barb picking up right where she left off Day 1.  In 3 buckets she got 5 more cuttables totaling 5.66 carats and 92 more that weigh 38.69 carats.  Her total for the 2 days of mining/panning = 143 sapphires totaling 75 carats with 9 gemstone quality totaling 11.42 carats.  She is having those 9 heat treated and faceted at their facility.  A very exciting time for Barb the last two days.   Honey Mustard Grilled Pork Steaks, Green Beans, and Orzo completed the Day 2 menu.  You can visit the mine online on Facebook at ‘Gem Mountain’ or at 
     Next up for us is visiting a friend in Bozeman then the Choke Cherry Festival at Lewistown and “What the Hay”, a celebration of hay sculpture in Central Montana.