Down East 2013 ©
This is our lucky day, Seabury Lyon informs our small group, which has gathered under a picnic shelter in a grassy area cut out of the woods of Albany, four miles south of Bethel.
The shelter’s dirt floor is littered with small sheets of mica and chunks of sand-colored feldspar that Lyon has been using as props while relating the story of the Bumpus Mine, whose twin tunnels await us in the trees. The property’s manager happens to be here today, Lyon says, and he’s got something in his pickup that we have to see.
Lyon reaches into the truck’s front seat and backs away, his arms weighed down by the basketball-sized piece of quartz in his hands. “Oooooooooo!” my companions exclaim. Lyon sets the rock at our feet, the better to admire the aquamarine crystals poking from its surface in all directions. Cameras click and flash.
Back in the 1930s, the Bumpus Mine yielded one of the largest beryl crystals ever found. It was an incredible 27 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, and it weighed 26 tons. The mine is inactive now, but its owners, Larry Stifler and Mary McFadden, allow educational tours of the sort Lyon leads for Maine Mineralogy Expeditions, 121 Mayville Road (Route 2), Bethel (www.rocksme.biz ).
Rock hounding is a uniquely Oxford County way to enjoy summer in Maine. The area is riddled with retired quarries for feldspar and mica, two minerals that occur in pegmatite, the lumpy oatmeal-colored granite known for hosting gemstones like aquamarine, amethyst, and tourmaline.
Phil McCrillis’ Mount Mica Rarities, 1805 Roxbury Rd. (Rte. 17), Roxbury (mainetourmalineonline.com ), and Jim Mann’s Mount Mann Jewelers, 57 Main St., Bethel (mtmann.com ), are good places to start. Both men mine, cut, design, and set the gemstone jewelry that they sell, and their shops double as museums with hundreds of crystals and mineral specimens on display. Of particular interest is McCrillis’ replica of the history-making tourmaline pocket that his father found at Dunton Gem Pit in Newry in 1972. He also has a fascinating collection of exotic artifacts — Asian giant cicadas, meteorites, even some fifteen-million-year-old turtle dung.
Mann, a partner in Maine Mineralogy Expeditions, is working with Stifler and McFadden to create the Maine Mineral Gem and Mining Museum, scheduled to open in Bethel in 2012. Specimens that have resided in the Mineralogical Museum at Harvard University and the American Museum of Natural History, including a section of that giant Bumpus beryl, are being returned to Maine to join the new museum’s collections.
The Bumpus Mine tours last about three hours. Everyone gets a flashlight and follows Lyon into the tunnels to look at walls glinting with mica and veined green and pink. Afterward, the group can dig in the mine tailings and keep any interesting rocks they find. Tours leave from Bethel Outdoor Adventure on Route 2, which has a sluice for sifting through tailings from Mount Mica, where Gary Freeman has been aggressively mining for tourmaline for eight years. Also nearby is Songo Pond Mine, in Albany, where owner Jan Brownstein often allows visitors to try their luck with a chisel and hammer. Songo Pond Mine (songopondmine.com ) has been consistently producing aquamarine and other gems for years.