Merry Band of Geologists go to Sweet Surrender Mine

geologists

Or, how Geologists get Down and Dirty:

On our second full day in Arkansas, the camp woke early in order to prepare for a full day of digging. The destination for the day was the Sweet Surrender Quartz Mine in Story, Arkansas. The title of the mine proved to me that geologists have a particular sense of humor, as I made several jokes about it to Delany on the way. We gathered buckets, rock hammers, gloves, sledgehammers and shovels and crammed into our convoy to make our way to the mine. The drive into Story was scenic and summery. The trees were already showing their leaves, and the air was sweet with the smell of a spring that had yet to arrive in Wisconsin. Our convoy only made a few wrong turns before we found the right dirt track, and we followed it as it twisted through the woods.

After just a few minutes of worming our way through some pines and firs, the ground suddenly dropped off on our right. As we drove on a bit more, we saw the people that run the mine and their lively dog companion, Bubba. As we parked our cars and clambered out, we were greeted by Bubba, Randy, Becky and Mike. Randy owns the mine and he’s helped out by Becky, his wife, and Mike, in order to run the mining tours and dig the quartz crystals.

Randy and Mike took us through the mine safety as we played a little fetch with Bubba, and then we were off! We scampered down a slope into the mine. It was an open pit mine with orange-pink clay and trees all around, and it stretched a good quarter mile along its length. There was one mostly empty end where the quartz vein had been almost tapped out, and then a deep pit on the opposite side of the mine where Mike and another miner were working on exposing the quartz vein with a digger and their hands.

After surveying the mine, the actual geologists (and Drew) got quickly to work, scanning the mine for the best places to dig and find quartz. I meandered along behind them, completely out of my element. I did find a choice piece of quartz that I got to keep, however. It’s a clear crystal with two distinct points and a bit of iron in the grooves so that it shows a bit red in the sun.

geologists

We stayed in the mine for most of the morning and afternoon. During lunch, the geologists had conversation with Randy, a veteran of quartz mining. Randy bought the mine from an old partner of his and is actually making quite a success out of it. People from different countries have visited the mine, and one couple actually comes back every anniversary of theirs to celebrate their marriage with a day of mining. Randy, aside from letting groups mine and keep all that they collect, also sells baskets of unwashed quartz and clusters of cleaned quartz crystals in delicate boxes. We stayed with Randy, Mike and Bubba in the mine for the entire morning and most of the afternoon. (Unfortunately I had gotten too much sun at the mine and had to retire to the shade as though I had a bad case of the ‘female vapors’) After most of the club was done digging, Kyle dug out the drone to take footage of the mine in its entirety. Bubba took particular interest in the drone, and barked at it whenever it got anywhere near to landing.

geologists dog

After our busy day of digging and talking rock shop, the geologists from the club had even better success than I, and they were able to gather buckets and buckets of quartz crystal that they were eager to clean back at camp. Indeed, as soon as we all traveled back to Denby Point (taking the right turns this time), all of the crystals were piled on our picnic table and were being vigorously washed in water from the camp pump. It took quite some convincing on behalf of everyones empty stomachs to get them to stop washing their rocks and actually eat dinner.

Rock On

How to Enjoy Geology:

When someone jumps out of a car and runs at a rock with a bottle of acid, most people would be concerned. However, there is nothing to fear. This is a typical experience for a geologist.

Kyle Vernon was on his way to a weeklong dig in Arkansas when he stopped for gas. Filling up his tank, he spotted a rock that looked like coral, and grabbed some hydrochloric acid. Even though Vernon and his friend Devin Last discovered the rock was not coral, both geologists got valuable field experience. The geology club that they both belong to is dedicated to field experience and camaraderie between club members and fellow scientists.

“Our entire department is like a family and I am really privileged to get to do all this,” said Vernon, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee geology club president. “I like the micro vs. macroscopic thing geology has going on with maps and stuff you can see around you.”

The UWM Geology Club goes on a spring break trip every year, with notable past destinations including the Mammoth Caves, Graves Mountain and the Little Pine Garnet Mine. This year, the group went to three mines (Sweet Surrender, Coleman’s Quartz Mine, and the Montgomery County Quarry) in search of quartz and wavellite. Arkansas was the desired destination because quartz is quite common there.

The club participants consisted of 14 geologists, one biologist and one journalist, all crammed into 5 cars, along with all of the rocks they could carry.

This year’s trip got off to a rocky start because of an EF1 tornado. According to Arkansas Online, three condominiums, four homes and six docks were damaged by the winds and falling trees.

The club didn’t let the storm get in their way, however. Early the next morning, they readied themselves and drove to Sweet Surrender, a small quartz mine run by Randy Skates. The group swarmed over the rose-colored open pit mine, eager to find samples.Delany Digging

The geologists used a variety of tools to gather their samples including rock hammers, sledgehammers and shovels. They had to get down and dirty in order to surface dig and find good samples.

“It was just really cool and really special to be able to get in there and wander wherever we wanted and dig around and find things for ourselves,” said Delany Bopp, a geology club member and geology major at UWM. “It was a great experience overall!”

The biggest find of the trip happened on the second day, when Emma Rebernick found a quartz crystal the size of an infant and clear as glass. The find was made at Coleman’s mine, when previous hours of digging were thought to be futile after hours of prior searching.

“It’s my baby,” Rebernick said on the trip. “Her name is Big Bertha!”

Big Bertha

Later in the trip, the geology club was looking for a way to find some wavellite, a small green mineral. Luckily, when the group had visited the Sweet Surrender mine, they made friends with the owner, Skates. He offered one of his miners, Mike, to give them an off the books tour of a large local wavellite mine run by Montgomery County. Wavellite is rather unique because of the radial patterns it has when broken, and its bright green hue.

The geology club jumped at the chance to dig for Arkansas’ second most famous mineral. Wavellite is rather unique because of the radial patterns it has when broken, and its bright green hue. The wavellite mine isn’t open for public access, but the possible misdemeanor didn’t stop any of the members on the trip- nor did the 80 degree temperatures and direct sunlight. The club eagerly dug for the unique mineral, some staying in the quarry until well after sundown to find samples.

Students Searching for Wavellite

The next day, the group woke up early and drove seven hours to The Garden of the Gods Campsite. The last stop of the trip, The Garden of the Gods is on the top of ancient rock formations that used to be submerged in a shallow ocean that covered much of America’s heartland. The primary interest to the group was the iron bands that formed strange ripple marks on the sandstone. The club members were extremely satisfied with their spring break, and it concluded with a peaceful hike through the rock formations at Garden of the Gods.

“In the classroom and even on field trips we are very heavily science oriented and it’s good to see the other non college bubble side,” Vernon said.

If any Iowans want to see the “non college bubble side” of geology, Vernon recommends the northeast corner of Iowa, near Decorah. Around 470 million years ago, a meteor fell there during the Ordovician meteor event, and the effects on the local bedrock can be seen in the earth around the impact crater. The evidence is buried deep though, as there is no indication of the meteor on the surface.

A geologist’s version of a fun spring break may be strange, but the group made valuable memories. They traversed the country, spent time with their friends and had a good time. Maybe geologists aren’t so strange after all.

How We Survived a Tornado… in a Tent

It wasn’t a Big Tornado, but it Totally Counts:

On the first day of our stay in Arkansas, we mostly explored the campsite that we had set up in the dark and went to get groceries and other supplies. (Grocery shopping with a bunch of college students is neither the most organized nor the most efficient way to buy supplies.) However, shortly after we got back from the grocery store, we all received tornado warnings on our iPhones -despite the trip being an effort to ‘unplug’ on my behalf- and subsequently blew off the tornado warning.

When we started to feel raindrops around four o’clock though, we were a bit more concerned. We immediately took precautions to keep our things dry and tack down the tents, and packed the things we wanted to stay dry in our cars. A few of us started getting antsy because the wind started howling through the thin pine trees surrounding our camp. Our scared little butts were in our cars faster than any of us could say ‘falling branches’ and 13 out of the 16 of us took to the road to find shelter. Three brave souls remained behind to make sure that our tents didn’t try to make their own colony in the middle of the lake.

The rest of us drove for about ten minutes on the road heading East, and we only stopped at an antique shop lovingly named Burl’s County Smokehouse because Emma, the driver of the car Delany, Melissa and I were in, really had to pee. Even though we were only a few minutes from our campsite, there was hardly any wind, no rain, or any hint of a tornado, and only distant rumbles of thunder threatened our safe sojourn.

Outside of the shop there were a multitude of attractions, including an old, stand-alone jail cell, train cars that were converted to motel rooms, an inert tractor and mill wheel , and the ‘Arkansas $&!#house’ outhouse. There was also a tabby tom cat named Smokey who magnetized to the legs of anyone willing to come close and pet him.
Smokey
Inside, the shop held even more wonders. The fragrance of handmade soaps, moonshine jelly, deli meats, and the unique must that always clings to old places permeated the air. We snapped up some soaps and cinnamon apple jelly, and briefly considered claiming one of the antique prostitute licenses for our own; however, the proximity of a skeleton foot in an old boot threw us a bit too far off, so we went outside to visit Smokey again. While we briefly considered kidnapping Smokey for our own, we didn’t want to deprive the owners and future visitors of his purr-ticular kind of hos-paw-tality, so we clambered into our vehicles with our new finds and headed back to the campsite.

We saw some slight devastation as we drove in. Sticks, small branches, and wooden splinters littered the roads coming in, and the sky was still a dark, swollen looking gray. Things at the camp were looking marginally better though, only a few tent pieces had flown astray. After we righted the tent flaps and put our vital equipment back in our tents though, more rain and wind arrived and forced us to huddle in our make-shift village.

In my own tent was the same group that had accompanied us in the car to the antique shop plus one lovely addition, Shelby. We all gathered around the meager light of Delany’s flashlight that we had tied to the apex of the tent. I attempted to teach the group a card game, but Delany, tense and suspicious of my motives, wasn’t having it. Outside, the weather was about as volatile as Delany’s mood. The wind tore at our tent flap, and water dripped in the temporary openings provided by the loosened rain-cover. After the consistent dripping got to be too much for our strained wits, we MacGyvered a solution. In a truly collegiate manner, we jury rigged a plastic garbage bag to the mesh ceiling with hair pins. Surprisingly, it held the water for the rest of the storm, and our tense card game continued.

After about an hour and a half of continuing on in this way, the storm passed, and we emerged into the dying light of the day. Greeting us was one of the most stunning sunsets of my life. The angry purple clouds were marching intently to the East, and the vermillion sun was slipping below the horizon, reflecting a flaming palette of colors onto the backs of the cloud formations.

Later I found out that an EF 1 tornado had passed right by our campsite, and had proceeded to wreck some docks and condos farther down the lake. Luckily though, our tents held us safe, and we were able to continue to enjoy our trip.

The sky over Lake Ouchita after the tornado
The sky over Lake Ouachita after the tornado

All in all, it turned out to be an intents first day in Arkansas.