It’s a crisp and clear February morning as we make the trek to Frankfort’s Point Betsie Lighthouse. Lake Michigan was a familiar backdrop for my childhood. I spent hours building sandcastles and pressing my feet into the warm sand until my toes found the cold underneath. I often left the beach with a rock—one that I would place on the windowsill in our kitchen until my mom returned it to the outdoors. Even though I think I was always drawn to the colorful rocks that decorated the lakeshore, I never knew the stories behind those treasures until I picked up a copy of the “Lake Michigan Rock Picker’s Guide,” co-authored by the godfather of rock hunting himself, Kevin Gauthier.
Kevin has been drawn to rocks since he was a kid. He would spend hours searching for treasures, a hobby he would turn into a business as a teenager, selling his creations out of a local shoe store. Forty years later, a framed newspaper clipping hangs on the wall of his shop, Korner Gem, in Traverse City. It features a young Kevin smiling next to a small display case. “That was taken right around the time J.R. Ewing got shot on Dallas,” he tells me. “Everyone wanted a belt buckle.” After college, Kevin continued his passion for rock hunting and jewelry making, although his career sent him to Chicago to work for NutraSweet. After a few years of commuting to Traverse City on the weekends, Kevin decided to leave his job and open his own business. In 1996, he opened Korner Gem in Traverse City and a second location in Frankfort in 2020.
Michigan—Rock Hunting Capital of the World
Thanks to a few billion years and massive glaciers, Michigan has more varieties of stones than anywhere else in the entire world. As the glaciers moved south, they picked up stones from Canada and the Upper Peninsula and dropped them along the way, leaving rock enthusiasts a prehistoric treasure hunt. Kevin says only half of the rocks we find on the beaches of the Great Lakes are actually from here; the rest are glacial stowaways from the north.
Show & Tell
Earlier that morning while rock hunting at Point Betsie, I took Kevin’s advice and chose the ones that caught my eye. “Really, I think the rocks choose you,” Kevin says as I start pulling rocks from my bag for him to examine.
Among my finds are Petoskey stones, chain coral, and slag.
“The slag is most often called Leland Blue, but it can be found in Frankfort, Elk Rapids, and Marquette,” Kevin explains while inspecting a greenish chunk of slag.
Before Kevin heads to the wet saw to cut and polish a few of my rocks, he asks me to look through once more and choose the one I like best. I chose the first rock I picked up that day, a small pinkish/greenish unakite that had traveled from Lake Superior. Kevin returns 20 minutes later with a polished stone set in a lovely sterling silver ring, and I gasp as I try it on for the first time. There’s an immediate connection. Kevin clearly understands that connection. “That rock has been around for, let’s say conservatively, 4 billion years,” he tells me. “In 4 billion years, you are the first person to pick up that rock. That is special.”
It really is special. For as long as I have this ring, I will remember the day I found it—or, more accurately, the day it found me. It was 25 degrees, but the wind was calm. The air smelled like fresh snow and each wave that crashed around my rubber boots brought a slightly changed beach, as thousands of rocks, some older than dinosaurs, moved ever so slightly around me.