Not long after we returned to the Yukon this past spring, Nancy and I took up prospecting. One would think that with gold prices at record highs, over $1000 an ounce, we might have started the search long ago. But no, it was not gold we were after; we were looking for another rock. In our world at the Outpost, the rock had no name. Though I took a semester of geology in college, any knowledge on the subject has weathered away long ago.

We wanted rocks with strength and beauty for replacing the steps down to our river deck. The steps were beams salvaged thirty years ago from the old Annie Lake Road bridge. The foot high steps were too much of a leg lift and they were rotting. We wanted hefty rocks that had flat surfaces for stability and smooth, or mostly smooth, treads. We had been told by a long time Yukoner that flat rocks are a rarity in the Whitehorse area and that the best flat rocks are found several hours north. We began by searching the area close to the Outpost. We drove down a remote road, past the terminus of road maintenance, to some outwash areas that resemble deltas of rock spilling down off the mountains.

In our search we discovered a particular kind of rock that had an intriguing color and pattern, though it is rarely flat. The rock was black and splotched with irregular white to cream colored splats. The color like a reverse Dalmatian dog: white spots on black. All the specimens were rounded and smooth, indicating that over the millennia they had been tumbled in water.

Over the course of three or four trips down that part of the valley we would stop and pick rock for the truck ride back to the Outpost. Eventually we had a fair-sized rock pile on the riverbank. These included a couple of very flat rocks we had collected up in Keno. Keno is an old mining town, mostly deserted now, nearly six hours north of our place. I had also grunted a couple of reasonably flat stepping stones into the truck that I had spotted along the Alaska Highway.

The old beam steps mostly crumbled apart as I dug them up. Then I dug another three steps into the bank so that the rise was more gradual. Two days later I nudged the last flat rock puzzle piece into place. I spilled washed gravel into the joints of the placed rocks and danced up and down the steps to check for stability. While I had used some of our speckled rock in the treads and risers I still had quite a few left so I placed them down along each side of the steps to serve as sloping retaining walls.

Visitors commented on the fine workmanship and the pattern of the rocks. No one seemed to know what the speckled rock was called. One friend suggested I bring a small sample to Whitehorse to the Yukon Geological Survey staff.

So the next time we went to town for supplies, I took a golf ball sized sample rock and made my way into the sunlit foyer of the downtown building. I figured I was in the right room when I found the reception counter bearing a worn bumper sticker reading, “If it can’t be grown it’s gotta be mined.” This proclamation is to remind us that most everything we have and everything we use comes from our natural resources. And there are only two basic industries and those are agriculture and mining. Whether you like it or not, the economy north of sixty degrees is primarily driven by tourism and mining.

Luckily one geologist was on hand while all the others were at lunch. The well-tanned, strong looking woman, named Daniele, had an easy smile and was eager to see what I had found. Her first question was going to make her job easier. “Where did you find it?” Rocks can be like a signature to a particular locale.

She pulled out her small magnifying loupe to peer more closely at the rock. She began by explaining some simple geology, “Well this is clearly an igneous rock.” She peered over the loupe at me to see if I understood. I nodded and she continued. “It is a granitic rock that formed deep in the crust and slowly cooled under the crust of the overlaying material. These are called plutonic rocks.”

Scanning the surface of my sample rock with the rock held inches from her eye and magnifying loop, she continued. “You can see the large crystals. That is a good clue that tells of a slow cooling process.” She handed the lens to me for a look. Sure enough the small rectangular crystals were very evident. She went on to explain about the iron rich and dark colored blend of minerals called hornblende and the more abundant blend of minerals called feldspar.

And then I learned that over 700 types of igneous rocks have been formally described. How can I possibly retain the little bit that Daniele explained about my pocket sample when I am surrounded by a landscape of rock hard questions?

So if you come by our place I will gladly show you my new steps made up of a handsome collection of what I will continue to refer to as “no-name rocks.”

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