Let’s play word association. I’ll go first. Opal. Did you say Vernon? Huh? Did you? Did you? Huh? Huh?
Yeah, I’d have said Australia too. It’s one of those universal geological facts that everyone learns as a kid for some reason. But opal is found in several other locations around the globe, including Canada. And in Canada, the lone producing opal mine is found approximately 25 km west of … Vernon, British Columbia.
You’ll be forgiven for not having the slightest clue about this obscure truth. I certainly didn’t know, only finding out about it in the past year. Having had such a fabulous time collecting fossils at American Fossil Quarry last summer, I immediately went hunting for more pay-to-dig quarries, preferably closer to home.
The lone result within sensible driving distance was Klinker Opal Mine near Vernon. So, when my son and I set our sights on a summer camping and rockhounding adventure through BC, I ensured we added a visit to Klinker to our itinerary.
Our trip schedule was tight leaving us a single day to do this opal dig so I wanted to ensure our place early on in the spring. The official website offers sufficient information for booking a dig spot, but there is no online booking portal. Instead, you are encouraged to email the proprietor with your contact information and date you wish to dig.
Openings are restricted to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday plus Mondays of long weekends. The website indicates that special accommodation for groups of six or more may be made on weekdays. We chose a Friday in early July and built our trip around that date.
Response was fairly prompt, and we were asked to e-transfer a deposit of $20 in June to confirm the date. I complied and again received confirmation in short order.
Further information remained rather secretive until just days prior to our scheduled dig when a meetup location was finally revealed. It’s a gas station and convenience store located on Westside Road along the west shore of Okanagan Lake. Not too sure why this tidbit of information is held so close to the vest.
We, along with another four (maybe five?) groups of eager opal diggers congregated at the gas station and awaited the arrival of Opal Bob, the mine’s owner. Bob soon arrived in his aged, white pickup truck with his trusty canine companion in the back.
Were you to call central casting and request “old-timey prospector” there’s a good chance they’d send you Bob. The white beard, disheveled dress, and gruff demeanor scream authenticity. He’s half Pete from Toy Story and half Jed Clampett without the oil strike. He even lives in a homemade shack made of rustic cabin coupled with last century travel trailer.
If he lives in that shack year-round, he’s a tougher son of a bitch than I’ll ever be. To say it’s out in the sticks is an understatement. Located at the opal claim, both Bob’s cabin and his u-dig operation are some twenty plus kilometres from the meeting point. And not just twenty kilometres down the highway. Oh, no. It’s twenty kilometres into back country, up a mountain via ill-maintained forestry roads.
This is all explained on the website, so it should come as no surprise anyone. Just take it seriously. It’s a bumpy, windy, rough gravel and dirt road imbued with large rocks and potholes to keep things interesting. You don’t want to show up in your summer roadster hoping to impress the new lady friend you just made at the beach in Kelowna. Although the first stretch of genuine gravel road would make the Duke Boys feel right at home.
Bob meets each group to collect the balance of fees and ensure a liability waiver is filled out. This could have been sent by email upon booking to perhaps speed things up, but ultimately it didn’t take too terribly long. We then proceeded to the Klinker Opal Mine following Bob in our vehicular conga line.
Whatever your vision of a mine is, it’s unlikely Klinker looks like it. There is no open pit nor any structures. Nothing more than an opening in the forest, there are loader bucket sized tailings dumps grown over with grass and weeds, some low-profile outcrops, and a beat-up gravel sorter the likes of which you’d see at a gravel pit.
Closer to Bob’s shack are some wooden tables strewn with “ore” and an abundance of accumulating junk. Not that actual mines are magazine worthy feats of architectural and landscaping beauty. There may have been dreams of a commercial mine here at one time, but it clearly never advanced beyond the arm-waving stage.
Our digging adventure began with a brief introduction by Bob describing how opal formed in this part of Canada. It wasn’t exactly a university thesis level presentation, but as a (sort of) geologist I found it interesting.
We were then told we would be spending the first half of the dig hunting for opals in old tailings piles that were dumped early in the development of the claim. These tailings are a mix of both processed and raw material compiled before they fully understood what they were doing. Or at least that’s what I think Bob explained.
The hope was that a recent rain might have exposed some new opal material. It was our goal to hunt around and find it, assuming it existed. Not exactly glamorous. And to be honest, not exactly what I was expecting.
We were then left to ourselves while Bob disappeared for about an hour. We really had no idea what we were doing nor were we given much direction on what to look for. Aside from some vague instructions that the opal would not be found inside big boulders, so don’t be wailing on them with hammers, and that the sunlight would help make the opal sparkle, our hunt began bathed in ignorance.
When Bob returned, he brought along a couple samples for us to look at. This, as you no doubt just said inside your head, would have been far more helpful at the start. Better late than never, I guess.
There are two types of opal at Klinker: common opal (the familiar white kind) and precious opal (the far rarer coloured kind). We would inevitably find far more common opal than precious but with some luck, we could stumble upon the desirable precious opal.
The tough part is that the opal resides in all sorts of different rock. There is no tell-tale matrix rock in which you’re sure to find either kind. It only forms in vesicles and fractures within the otherwise, hard, non-descript rocks of which the whole mountain is made.
Making it even tougher, unlike the pictures of opal you’ve seen in print media or online, you’re in no way going to find jawbreaker sized blobs of gloriously coloured rock at Klinker Opal Mine. There’s a reason nobody has ever heard of opal from Canada. Ours is small, obscure, and often nothing more than a glimmer along a fracture in a dull grey host rock.
Once properly calibrated, we and most of the others did find some opal in the old tailings piles. Much of it was tiny bits of common opal freed of its host by the processing of ore (I think). Some very tiny pieces of greenish almost crystalline-looking precious opal was claimed to have been found, but I remain very suspect that it really was precious opal. If it was, you’d be hard-pressed to make even a nose stud out of it.
Bob would spend some time talking with guests and answering any questions we might have. Amongst the tailings was a great number of pretty, dark green rocks that, while not opal, were still appealing to me. I asked what they were, but Bob couldn’t recall their actual name stating only that they were an altered clay mineral. The trusty internet informed me that they are celadonite.
I would also eavestrough as Bob and one particularly inquisitive hunter discussed the history of the mine and the current state of the operation. From the bits I picked up without outright imposing myself into their conversation, I started to sense a frustration, and with it, sadness, permeating the story.
The Klinker opal deposit was discovered well over 30 years ago. Work was done to verify viability as a commercial enterprise. There once was a storefront in Vernon selling opal from this very site. The website still shows an online sales portal, although most items are sold out.
The opal is listed by son, though none of these presumably adult children were involved in our dig. Online sources speak of a partnership between Bob and his wife whom I suspect may no longer be with us. As for the mine, well, I’m no expert but it’s obvious to most anyone visiting that it is far from a commercial enterprise. Like I said … there’s a sadness about all of it.
We were promised a different hunting location for the second half of our day. As noon approached and passed, the hot sun and warm temperatures begged for a pause. Eventually most of us took a break at our vehicles to feed and hydrate. A small, makeshift picnic area is set up in a grassy area with trees beside the parking lot.
Bob, however, had disappeared again. Some of us had a rough idea where he’d claimed the next dig area would be, but nobody knew with certainty. One group who had done this activity before, mentioned a spot up a grade behind what looked to be the main outcropping of the mine. They said it was a good to them on their previous visit. But without Bob, it felt wrong to simply go off collecting opal on our own.
A few attempts were made to find Bob. Some of us hollered into his shack from outside. Finally, after several fruitless attempts and well past an hour since he last spoke with us, he emerged from his “home” looking like he’d fallen asleep.
The new dig site would be a small outcrop immediately next to his cabin. There was both in situ rock and some piles of excavated material beside and on top. This was where the aforementioned tables of ore being sorted were located.
At first this seemed like we were finally getting to the holy grail of the u-dig experience, but results were as meagre as the tailings piles. Someone found a genuine, albeit thin, vein of common opal and began chipping away at it. At the far corner of the deposit, next to some shrubs I discovered a chunk of rock with some actual whisps of red and green precious opal in it. That was exciting, though it would be impossible to make anything jewelry-esque from. My son would find its other half, it too showed some green precious opal on the open fracture face. But that was the extent of our discoveries.
Attempting to literally mine the outcrop with rock hammers was a near pointless endeavour. This is hard, hard igneous rock. Unlike the easy splitting Green River shales in which we’d found plentiful fossils a year ago, this opal host rock requires heavy duty equipment and/or muscle to exploit in situ.
At this point, our small bucket of samples had some heft to it. There was plenty of celadonite, something we had not come for, but I think looks cool. We’d accumulated a modest sampling of small common opal bits along with a few rocks showing segments of the white opal. And, of course, we had our two bits of rock with precious opal.
The weather, however, was turning and looking potentially menacing. Bob had disappeared again and some of the guests were starting to leave. A couple of folks, with some indignation, had ventured to the spot they’d visited previously, but we didn’t follow. Worried of rain, we started heading back to our Pathfinder.
Along the way, we passed another series of outcrops. I wandered over to have a look around and quickly found a more substantial vein of common opal. It was the most exciting thing we’d seen all day despite just being the common stuff. I called my son over and we took a picture and attempted to remove some. Soon, a bellowing voice came from aways behind us. It was Bob, and we were in a restricted area. This was the main mine occurrence, apparently, and u-diggers are not allowed in it.
With that, we called it a day and packed up our belongings and left. Bob bid us farewell and apologized for yelling. No harm, no foul. I just wish we’d been allowed in an obviously quality area for opal hunting. In my estimation, the dream of a productive mine is long dead. Might as well let the u-diggers get something exciting out of the experience.
That was our Klinker Opal Mine u-dig adventure. We drove out of the mountain by ourselves and made our way to the campground where we were spending the night. Neither me nor my son had any of the post-dig high we’d carried with us for days after the American Fossil dig. I mostly felt an awkward sadness.
I really don’t know what to say about Klinker Opal Mine. Yes, you will find opal. How much you find, depends on a combination of your tenacity, your luck, and the whims of Opal Bob and where he allows you to dig on the day you go. Considering the relative dearth of exciting opal found in the tailings piles, I couldn’t help but wonder what the folks coming the next day could possibly find. Or the day after that. Hell, what had the visitors the previous week found?
It cost me $50 for the day and my son, 13, paid $30. Add in GST and it wasn’t an exorbitant cost, but neither was it inexpensive. The website states there’s a limit of material each customer is allowed to take home with them. Our collection was never inspected or weighed, and I get the feeling nobody will ever surpass the printed limit.
We obviously could have stayed longer. Leaving in the mid-afternoon, had the weather and hunting been better, I’m curious as to when we would have been kicked out of the mine. There is even an option to camp at the mine should you decide two days of hunting is to your liking. After our one day of hunting, I’m glad I didn’t bite at that offer. I contemplated it when planning our trip. I’d have lost my mind trying to haul our small trailer to the site. Yikes. Definitely for tenters only!
I’m still perplexed by the entire experience. Families were there but for much of the time I was thinking to myself, this isn’t really that great for little kids. They’ll bore so easily rummaging through tailings with only popcorn kernel sized common opals likely to be found.
Bob wasn’t exactly patient with the little ones either, particularly those wanting to wail away at big chunks of opal-less rock. To be fair, they wore on my nerves too. Guess I’ve got a future in the curmudgeonly prospector racket.
Perhaps comparing Klinker Opal Mine to my favourite u-dig experience, in the wildly prolific Green River Formation in Wyoming, is unfair. Maybe this is more realistic? It was more akin to our Montana Blue Jewel Mine adventure; Hard work in hot weather with middling returns for the effort.
In that case, is it all that different than just going out rockhounding by yourself? Why pay for the privilege of digging a known claim if it leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth? And yet, I couldn’t tell you where the hell to even begin looking for opals anywhere else in BC. Or sapphires in Montana, for that matter.
So, here I sit incapable of deciding whether to recommend Klinker Opal Mine or not. I don’t regret going but I’m not so sure I’ll make the effort to go again. That’s definitely not something I’d ever say about American Fossil.
If you do go, keep your expectations in check. You’re not going to get access to the best source rock and you’re not coming away with a small fortune in precious opal. Arrive in an appropriate vehicle. Wear durable clothing and proper footwear and gloves. Ensure you have lots of water, snacks, and sunscreen.
As for Opal Bob … he’s friendly but a little rough around the edges. Be patient. What at first comes across as gruff eventually starts to reek of broken dreams. I just can’t shake this sense of sadness. It must have triggered something in my geologist soul.
As for me? I can only wonder what will come out of my mouth the next time we play word association and opal is mentioned.