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Helicopter Prospecting For Jade

In The Trinity Alps


Told by Sam Gitchel and edited by Fred Ward, Charlotte Ward and Maria Goodwin

Jade is one of the most prized gemstones in the world. The Orient has traditionally been the world’s primary source for jade, but California’s recent botryoidal jade finds are astounding the jade, suiseki and viewing stone world. As Sam Gitchel can tell you, helicopter prospecting for rare California jade is the adventure of a lifetime. Gitchel is a veteran jade prospector and businessman who, by a stroke of luck, became part owner of a remote piece of rugged land in the Trinity Alps.

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The now dry Eel River
Photo by Heron Nelson

The recent botryoidal nephrite finds have been described as the most important since the discovery of imperial green jade. Naturally figurative nephrite jade nuggets (river blossoms) are left high and dry after massive winter rains in the Trinity Alps in Northern California where, several times a year, Gitchel, with a small, select crew of family and friends, prospects for jade.


The Lady Heron, Sam Sr. and 3 sons, L. to R.-- Heron, Tim, Sam Sr., Sam Jr., Andy
Photo by Michael Reilly

“Jadeland” is accessible only by hiking in or by helicopter. Those who have traversed the long arduous hike describe the gauntlet as “killer.” Local residents laugh and say, “You may be able to get out of that gorge, but you won’t be carrying much jade by the time you reach any road.”


The helicopter carries out their recent “finds”
Photo by Dael Keplinger

Describing a typical trip Gitchel says, “We are very careful not to trespass on neighboring private lands including nearby Native American land. Other than annual erosion, the jade and the land have remained unchanged for thousands of years. It will remain the same after our departure––we’ll leave not a trace.”

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Sam points to the high-water mark over the past year
Photo by Heron Nelson

Where the road ends and trucks can go no further, Gitchel and his crew all eagerly await the distant rumble of the helicopter. As the sounds of the rotor gets closer everyone watches to catch the first glimpse of the chopper–-within moments the aircraft is silhouetted against the morning sky like a giant dragonfly. The noise is deafening as the gravity-defying beast comes to rest just in front of them. After many trips from rendezvous spot to campsite, ferrying equipment and supplies, the copter carries the crew into the gorge. The prospectors unload all the gear and set up camp.


Sam calls this botryoidal find “The Brain”
Photo by Tim Brahm

Searching for jade in this wilderness is always exciting and often dangerous. Some of the crew has fallen into the river while trying to scale the steep cliffs of the gorge and scrambling around rocks and boulders can result in a broken finger or sprained ankle. Gitchel says he and one of the group, Michael, are both ex-firemen, trained in emergency medical care. They carry a well-stocked first aid kit as well as a satellite phone.

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This beauty is named “Jade Ram”
Photo by Tim Brahm

A trip of this kind requires a huge output of energy–––Gitchel makes sure everyone eats well. “The food is good, if I do say so myself, “ he laughs. (He’s the chef!) Their week’s stay feature evening meals to keep everyone's strength and spirits high––cioppino with prawns, scallops, and rock fish, caught by Sam, Jr., with homegrown broccoli, chard, kale and garlic from the Gitchel’s garden. A birthday celebration during a recent trip included buffalo meat tacos.


Sam thinks of this one as “Candy”
Photo by Tim Brahm

On a typical day, after an on-your-own breakfast, everyone sets out looking for that special magical stone. It is very expensive to haul stone out by helicopter so the group is quite picky about what is selected. They look everywhere for possible pieces worthy of being loaded into the nets. The massive seasonal erosion to the cliffs re-exposes a fresh annual supply of stone and all new finds are carefully examined for quality.


This is a favorite Sam named “Wonderful”
Photo by Tim Brahm

The final trip of the season before winter sets in turns out to be the most spectacular. Gitchel discovers what turns out to be the elusive “Giant Gem,” and he is determined to remove it. He enlists some of his crew to help move two huge non-jade stones to fully reveal the top of this beauty. The size and weight are just a guess as the behemoth was never totally uncovered or moved at all. Gitchel estimates the exposed area as 2.5x3x4 feet and weighing at least half a ton, but…”there’s no telling/ /how much is below the sand. We tried and tried to move this mega-stone, but without success,” says Gitchel. The stone will not yield.


Here’s the huge boulder Sam has been wrestling with for days
Photo by Dael Keplinger

Humbled by the strength, power, and size of this unmanageable and uncooperative boulder, the crew spends most of the evening around the campfire, plotting their next move. Through the night they compare finds and revel in the glory of the wilderness. Some have found beauties and others have had no luck yet. They trade stories of bear and mountain lion––scat and tracks abound––but talk always returns to the Giant Gem. They devise a new plan to crack the Giant Gem on its fissure and remove at least part of it.

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And this one has already made the trip to Sam's shop
Photo by Heron Nelson

Gitchel relates: “Next morning several of us armed with various chisels, hammers, picks, and bars, eagerly head for the Giant Gem. “Oohs” and “ahhs” quickly turn to grunts and groans and screams of frustration as we re-learn how tough and heavy true jade actually is….we beat and pry and push and pull, then we kick and holler. After a lengthy struggle, one by one, each member of our group loses confidence in the face of this immovable and magnificent stone, the object of both our admiration and frustration.

On the evening of the last full day, one of the group discovers the most beautiful botryoidal jade of the trip––a green and white bumpy football sized nugget, but more irregular and interesting in shape. It is already nicely polished by years of weathering. Everyone wants to touch and rub this beauty. An impromptu digital screening of Dael's work reviews pictures of wildlife as well as jades and jaspers encountered along the way, but all too big to carry home. Everyone brings out favorites finds to show and compare.


Natural beauty like this is worth the wait
Photo by Sam Gitchel

Gitchel and the group’s photographer, Dael Keplinger, make one last trek to visit the Giant Gem before their departure. Keplinger, with his artist’s eye, takes a stunning collection of pictures. On this last sweep Gitchel discovers yet another huge beauty. He hopes it breaks up into manageable pieces this winter. For now, too large for capture, he can only admire it with a promise to return in spring.


Botryoidal necklace waiting for a home
Photo by Sam Gitchel

Last day––no one wants to leave, but pack up they must. The helicopter arrives and makes many trips carrying out stones and gear. Gitchel says the group is very fortunate to have a helicopter pilot with a long and illustrious global resume. His polished skills are evident in his experienced handling of his Robertson-44 which he describes as the Honda of helicopters––well built, fuel efficient and extremely maneuverable. The stones, which have been carefully selected earlier and packed in protective material, are loaded into cargo nets for airlifting to the waiting truck.

Via the winding mountain road, the crew travels the five-hour drive back to headquarters in Mendocino County where jade is sorted and cut, beginning the long process of transformation from rough stone to finished product. Everyone is already anticipating spring and a return to the Giant Gem––the one that got away––for now.

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And this beauty also is now safely in Sam's shop

Sam Gitchel's Rock Stop features California jade (nephrite) for collectors, botryoidal jade, nuggets, jewelry, carvings, gemstone beads, boulders, both cabinet and pocket specimens, viewing stones, suiseki and cabochons. Gitchel creates his own unique designs and says he has seen his designs reproduced elsewhere by others, something he considers a compliment. Due to the shortage of bead makers in the U.S., some of his stones are sent to China for final cutting. A necklace made in the U.S. selling for $2,000 to $3,000 is sold for substantially more than one made in China. The Chinese will copy from a necklace already made or from sketches, or they’ll make a sample necklace in another stone and reproduce it in jade if Gitchel likes the design. Others styles are modeled after tribal designs, but with a more finished look.


This beautiful necklace is one of the rewards
Photo by Sam Gitchel

Jade is a metamorphic stone meaning it changes (morphs) from another stone into jade. This change takes place over time and these metamorphic conditions are not always equal throughout the stone. In places with less favorable metamorphic conditions for jade formation, stone may not always fully become jade––that is some stones have portions that do not polish. These partially metamorphized areas are generally a softer semi-nephritized stone, sometimes referred to as partially nephritized “greywhacke”. Gitchel uses a diamond saw, cutting the rock to see what’s inside ––he can tell by testing the interior of the stone if it has totally nephritized (completely turned to jade). The finest of these fully “Jaded” stones are what we work with.


This stunning botryoidal necklace features a fossil ivory monkey
Photo by Sam Gitchel

A one-man promoter of publicizing jade deposits in California, Gitchel is circulating a letter requesting Gov. Schwarzenegger to initiate a bill to change the California state stone from serpentine to jade at: www.californiajade.com

I'd like to thank Charlotte and Fred Ward for their constant words of encouragement, tireless help and endless patience.

For more information view www.RiverblossomJade.com, www.botryoidaljade.com, www.suiseki.com. See the fantastic Arts of Asia article in the Jan/Feb 1999 issue.

Visit the Rock Stop 1804 Highway 128 , Philo, California USA 95466 707-895-2388 or contact Sam@riverblossomjade.com.

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Reader Comments (14)

Dear Sam!
Thanks for this important update on this "weird" but beautiful form of our preferred stone. If you have the chance try to interest a Geologist & Researcher to give us an explanation about the formation and growth mechanism of this botryoidal form of jade.
As for convincing the Gubernator to declare Nephrite Jade as the California State Stone you can throw in the argument that in the Mur River near his birthplace in Austria one finds also the famous "Mur Nocklern" or Nephrite Pebbles. See also my past FOJ contribution on this subject.
Best regards and try to raise the Giant Gem boulder as a single unbroken piece for the admiration of all of us.
January 11, 2007 | Registered CommenterHerbert Giess
Sam, Thanks for the FOJ info. It's a great sight. I enjoyed seeing Marias' "Wonderful" pice in your section, witch I also enjoyed. Keep up the wonderful work and sharring your awsome gifts.... Hal
February 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHal
I hope this knowledge is shared for the good of the people and not the greedy.
September 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElbert Freisch
Heron! Miss You and Thinking of you! Remembering good times at Grant High School! E mail us! Love Jennie and Joan!!!!!
December 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennie Silver/Joan Anzelon
Read this article in the morning make me realized that we should make a change in our neighborhood. We should do that right now.
April 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterseo forum
Jade Cove is now protected and it has numerous regulations regarding the prospecting for jade that are strictly enforced. No tools are allowed, no collections above the high tide mark
April 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbluehost coupon codes
I want to thank you for this informative read I really appreciate sharing this great post. Keep up your work
The differently colored strata represent different geological rock layers that were welded on to each other to form the diverse geology of the Klamath Mountains region.
April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbluehost promo
This is a really good site post, im delighted I came across it. I’ll be back down the track to check out other posts that
April 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWrite my thesis
Great post.Now I know the way to set up perfect plan for my family's holiday
am really enjoying reading your well written articles. I think you spend numerous effort and time updating your blog. I have bookmarked it and I am taking a look ahead to reading new articles. Please keep up the good articles!
Thanks for reading this article about our jade adventures. For the most recent information on what I'm doing with jades from California and all over the world visit my Blog http://wwwcaliforniajade.blogspot.com/
April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSam Gitchel
I am delighted to know about this network. I worked in a SF Bay consulting firm building Pomo Housing in Point Arena in 1987-8. Now a Jade miner and retired Nat'l Park Ranger/Interpreter.
The botys you like here mean = geothermal waters.

A sand pebble was push up and down in the silica rich waters creating the Botys for you today. They were in original sedimentary rock now metamorphized to jade for you today! Earlier someone commented about wanting to know how Botys are created in nature. I hope this helps?
February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave Sandersfeld
Norcal people should invest in and work with local resources to get the most benefit of them. Jade could put a lot of people on their feet and secure their futures. We should make sure the main economic benefit is local. Jade could put a lot of our homeless people in their own homes and take better care of our people and country. We have to do it ourselves and help each other.
January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark W. Laszlo

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