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The following is an Alaska/boat/stone/art story.  It is about the discovery of Jupiter marble.  This story was first published in the Northwest Stone Sculptors Magazine, and then in Sculpture Journal, Sept. 2002. It is now incorporated into the author's book Wanderlusting.

by Gary McWilliams of Stone Arts of Alaska



Not many people set foot on the west side of Dall Island.  Commercial fishing boats pass by but few fishermen take time to anchor and wander its craggy shores.  Pleasure boats seldom venture in the area, its waters too well known for high seas, swift currents, and hidden rocks.  The west side of Dall Island is not en route to any town, village, mine, logging camp or any other place regularly visited.  Only the open Pacific Ocean lies nearby.  Anyone who gets to the outside of Dall Island must really want to go there.

I really want to go there, to return to a certain spot I marked with an “X” on my nautical chart in 1992.  My charter boat, the M/V Hyak, was serving then as a floating base camp for four government geologists.  While at anchor in one of the many bays on Dall’s west side, I found an outcrop on shore of a beautiful colored marble.   I had opportunity then to only pick up a couple loose lying stones on the beach and to mark this “X”on the chart before me now.  Over the following winter, I cut one of the stones I found with my rock saw and polished it with diamond abrasives.  A sculptor in Seattle made a very attractive bowl from another stone I picked up.  A third piece went to a man who makes spheres with lapidary equipment.  The small sphere he made of the material, three inches in diameter, turned out beautifully.  The marble is brightly banded, with red stripes predominating.  Viewers of that first sphere commented “it looks just like Jupiter.”  The name stuck.  I called the stone "Jupiter Marble."


Tomorrow, finally, I head the Hyak south to that “X” that has enticed me for so long.  The time and place are finally right — my charter season is over and, having relocated my boat business to Craig, on Prince of Wales, I reside much closer to Dall Island.  Because the site is in the Tongass National Forest, I obtain a Forest Service “Special Use” permit for the collection of stone.  Mike Kampnich will take time off from his job as Craig’s harbor master to join me on the trip.  Mike is sure to be a great asset.  He is “boat wise.”  He loves beautiful stone, having caught some of the “rock pox” himself.  And, a muscular fellow, he won’t shy when carrying time comes.  I figure five days for the trip -- one day to get there, one day back, three days at the site.

September 12, 1997

The weather report calls for northwest winds, 20 to 25 knots.  For the mariner in southeast Alaska, northwest winds are a mixed blessing.  On the positive side, they mean clear weather.  The distant snow-clad mountains can be appreciated in all their glory, the whales and porpoises can be watched a mile off; the overall visibility is excellent.  On the negative, these winds can churn some very uncomfortable seas, often as a steep chop that is no fun at all.  The first twenty miles of the trip from Craig to the marble site at the south end of Dall Island is in protected waters, in the lee of other offshore islands.  While running, Mike and I secure everything on the boat that can go flying once we encounter the open ocean.  Entering the pass between islands that leads to the outside Pacific, we see rolling whitecaps ahead. 

On the outside, we turn southeast, running parallel and about a mile off Dall Island’s coast. The seas, out of the northwest, come from behind.  A long, cigar-shaped boat, the Hyak rides well a following sea.  But, shallow drafted, she is not designed as an open ocean craft.  The waves we encounter, about eight feet from trough to crest, push her comfortable limit.  The boat pitches up and down like a seesaw.   In the wheelhouse, we hold on with our legs spread apart for the stability.  When the boat is bow up, we see only blue sky out our forward windows; when she plows bow down, we see only green water.  Sometimes, the Hyak buries her nose as she descends from a crest, sending back a flood of water over the decks when she rises again.

The seas build as the afternoon progresses — we think to about ten feet.  We slow to half speed and discuss ducking into the next available anchorage and waiting until morning, when northwest seas are typically a little calmer.  We opt to keep going.  It is not much farther.  We make our anchorage shortly before nightfall.  We took our beating on the outside for five hours.

September 13, 1997

We tow a 14' aluminum skiff behind the Hyak, our means of going ashore.  Mike and I tie the skiff alongside the Hyak, mount its outboard, load my hand quarrying tools — a pick and a shovel, a variety of big hammers and chisels, long pry bars and wedges. 

On shore, we find the Jupiter marble where I had marked it.  Wet, with its colors highlighted by the morning dew, it is even more beautiful in place than in memory.  The five foot wide seam, covered with barnacles and seaweed, runs perpendicular to the lay of the beach, emerging from salt water at one end and disappearing at the other under the island's dense cover of rainforest.

Unfortunately, as we consider the marble in front of us, our appreciation of its beauty transforms into disappointment — we realize that the seam can yield little, if any, stone.  The marble stratum is vertically dipping -- lying on end, virtually straight up and down.  Relatively soft, the marble is eroded down to several feet below the harder non-marble strata enclosing it.  It is structurally walled in.  Warn smooth by water, there are no cracks to work in a bar or a wedge.  Nothing can be pried loose.  We don’t find any nice loose stones lying about the beach either.  I must have picked up the few there five years ago. 

Yet, hope to find beautiful sculpting stone springs eternal.   The marble stratum we observe on the beach has a very distinct strike, or directionality.  Perhaps by walking in the direction it runs, we can find the marble seam in outcrop somewhere inland.   I motor the skiff  back to the Hyak to get my compass.  I take the seam's bearing - 48 degrees west of north.  With compass in hand, we plunge into the woods.  

Most prospecting in southeast Alaska takes place on the beach or along stream beds, where bedrock is exposed and can be seen.  It is much more difficult in the rainforest.  There, great trees of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red or yellow cedar massively cover much of the ground.   Thickets of huckleberry, salmonberry, and devils club -- the forest's head-high second-level canopy -- are often so dense that you can't see your hand in front of your face.  Knee-high ferns, salal, and skunk cabbage further hide the ground -- you seldom can see either your feet or where or on what they might land.  Below the knee high stuff is a six-inches-deep mat of moss.  Below that are roots, duff, and dirt.  Generally speaking, you cannot find an exposed rock on a bet.  Yet, Mike and I have no choice.  If we are to find any Jupiter marble, it must come from some place inland. 

The strike of the marble seam leads us along a hillside that inclines at about 40 degrees.   The terrain, characteristic of limestone topography (marble is a metamorphosed  limestone), is wrinkled with ridges and gullies.  Climbing up and down, we examine a few moss covered outcrops protruding along the ridge sides.  When we peel back the moss, we indeed find marble at times, but it is all a dull, unhandsome grey/white.  No color.  No Jupiter.  Mike and I crisscross the hillside all day.  Unless the seam has been offset by some past earth movement, we know from our compass bearing that sometimes we must be walking right over it. 

Tired and discouraged by late afternoon, Mike and I begin our return to the beach where we left the skiff.  Off to our right, I see a well known and pleasing sight — the bright orange of “chicken of the woods” mushrooms.  (These mushrooms, which grow in shelves on the sides of decaying trees, are delicious when sautéed with butter, garlic, and a pinch of nutmeg.)  We veer off course to pick a few for dinner. 

Walking parallel to me, a hundred feet to my right, Mike suddenly shouts: “Forget the mushrooms, come here.”  He sounds very excited.  I beat through the brush to find him on his hands and knees.  He is bent over about the only bare rock we have come across the whole day.  It is Jupiter marble. 


                          First Find - Sept. 13, 1997  

Mike and I strip away the moss covering nearby rocks.  As we lay bare the beautiful body of rock underneath, we plainly see that we have an actual outcrop of the marble strata and not just a loose boulder or two moved there by glacial or gravitational forces.  We had walked by this outcrop, a twenty-by-fifty feet hump of rock, several times earlier and had missed this little window into its content that Mike had chanced upon.  It is visible only from its uphill side and only from the precise route that Mike had walked.  It would not have been seen at all if it were not for the beckon of the wild mushrooms.  The day has progressed too far to do more than simply admire our discovery, and pluck some tasty mycological supplement to our dinner.  Marking our trail with care, we return to the skiff.

September 14, 1997

Setting aside moss and dirt, we expose a ten foot long segment of the Jupiter marble stratum.  Most of what we see is quite solidly attached to mother earth but we need not try to break anything free -- there are plenty of loose lying pieces of Jupiter as well.  These stones, once part of the seam, are sloughed off and held in place only by the dirt and debris of the forest floor.  The erosional forces of nature have done the hard part for us. 

Marble (and limestone) has a characteristic manner of erosion, one easy to discern once known.  Most of its erosion results from chemical dissolution, that is, in the presence of water, its surface simply dissolves away over time.  The sloughed rocks that Mike and I find hidden under the moss and duff of the forest floor would eventually dissolve away to nothing if left in place in their water saturated environment.  If a body of marble or limestone also has an open fracture, due perhaps to an earth movement, the erosion can be accelerated.  Water enters the fracture, dissolves its walls, and widens the breach.  Freezing in winter, water in a fracture expands which contributes to the splitting process in a secondary, mechanical way.  Tree roots, finding a foothold in the fractures, grow and push, adding an organic component to the splitting  process.  Eventually, the fractured portions of the seam separate totally from the parent rock. 

Shaped by running water and dissolution, marble (or limestone) rocks can themselves be wonderful sculpture.  Smooth, rounded edges and holes passing through the entirety of the rock are characteristic.  Beyond improvement by the hand of man, many of the rocks we lay aside will be reserved as “natural sculpture”. 

By the end of the day, we have a nice group of stones set by our trail-head.  The most beautifully shaped stones - the "natural sculpture" - we lay apart from the others.  They get "kid glove" handling, carried one at a time and never piled against or on top of each other, all to prevent unsightly scuff marks.

September 15, 1997

Carrying day.  All together, there may be twelve hundred pounds to be carried to our landing.  The backpack loads range from thirty to one hundred pounds.  One of our backpacks is not a pack but a pack-board - a metal frame with ropes to tie in the object to be carried.  It is typically  used for game.  Our trail zigzags downhill, a distance of about one hundred yards.  There are logs to climb over, branches of wiry huckleberry to snare our feet, broad briar-laden leaves of devils club to rake our hands and faces.  There are several very steep sections that we sometimes, by intention or not, descend on our rears.  Always, the main concern is footing, not to twist an ankle or a knee. 

Taking our time, we get all the rocks to the beach but one last big one.  I think it is simply too big.  Yet I really love it.  Its natural shape suggests a whale’s head.  It has a perfectly placed eye, an eroded hole passing entirely through it.  I figure it weighs 250 pounds.  Mike says: “We can carry it.”   “No way,” I answer.  We sit on the hillside and think about it.  A plan evolves.

We return to the skiff and load the stone already carried to the beach.  We take the skiff to the Hyak and off-load the stone, then find a wood saw, a section of old rope, and some heavy seine net that I have stowed in my “might-need-someday” store of odds and ends.  Back at the marble site, we cut a small sapling to use as a pole and lash the net to it with the rope.  Mike is sure the two of us together can sling the big stone down the hill.  While I know he can carry his end —  I’d already seen him shoulder big bucks out of the woods — I doubt even more when I first heft mine.  “Come on,” he encourages, “We can do it.” 

Mike leads.  Having the downhill side, he packs the most weight, but he has the advantage of seeing where to place his feet.  The rock swinging between us blocks my view.  I often trip, dumping my end.  The steep portions of the trail bring welcome relief — we drop the stone and roll it down.  Still, by the time we reach the beach, my knee muscles are in spasms and my right shoulder feels like it may forever tilt an inch closer to the ground.   

We lift the big stone into the skiff but make no attempt to lift it out again onto the Hyak, to place with the rest of the marble now sitting on the aft deck.  I have towed the skiff well enough before with one or two big rocks left inside and I figure to do it again.  


September 16, 1997

We have had only blue skies and northwest winds since the beginning of our trip — excellent weather for our work, or dinner on the foredeck, or photographing the fine waterfall behind our anchorage but lousy for running a boat in open waters.  We depart our anchorage to confront the same eight to ten foot waves as before.  Our return run heads us directly into the oncoming seas.  Thinking we can slog through if we go slow enough, we beat into white blowing water for several hours.  The scenery on the Dall Island shore, now on our starboard side, radiates in its clarity and beauty, but we wish it would pass by a little faster.  The skiff towed behind us bucks wildly up and down, spraying water in big arcs from along its sides.

We prod on.  After two hours, the radar indicates only seven miles made good from our starting point.  We are taking more water than I like over the foredeck.  I am concerned about the rocks on the aft deck.  Although secured pretty well with lines and dunnage, they certainly would create an unwelcome havoc, and a dangerous instability, if they suddenly broke loose and started to slide.  I ask Mike to go aft to check on things.  I hear his bellow over the wind: “The skiff  is gone.”

“What!” I look behind the Hyak and see only white water and the untaunt tow line, its parted far end skittering over the waves.  The added weight of that big rock and the up-and-down seas’ snapping of the line surely caused the break.  We turn around, taking the invariable few licks on the beam as we do.  Through binoculars, we spot the little boat, when both it and we are on top of waves.  The skiff looks a mile or so behind.

I bring the Hyak to near alongside the bobbing 14' boat.  We use a pike pole (a long aluminum pole with a hook on the end) to pull it in closer.  With a replacement line in hand, Mike waits for the right moment to jump from the rising and falling Hyak into the rising and falling skiff.  I attempt to both keep the Hyak headed into the waves to minimize her rolling and to hold the skiff close-to with the pike pole.  Mike jumps, ties a new line to the skiff’s tow cleat with a quick bowline, jumps back. 

Having had about as much of this fun as we can stand, we decide to proceed south and return to Craig the long way, by going around Dall’s southern end and coming up its protected east side.  Doing so adds twenty miles to our return but it puts these unruly seas astern, where the Hyak can better ride them.  A five-hour journey going north in good weather, our round-about trip home takes us fourteen.


Prospecting for stone in the still wild areas of Alaska is the first great pleasure.  Finding a beautiful new sculpting stone, one that has never been worked, indeed never been seen, is the second pleasure.  Hand quarrying, while it resembles work at times, may be very exciting as each new stone is lifted for its first time ever from under its blanket of concealing earth.  Once the stone makes it home, it has to be cleaned with high pressure water to remove the dirt still embedded in its tiny holes and crevices.  I always look forward to this first revealing of the stone’s full natural beauty, a process that brings “oohs” and “ahhs” from spectators.  The ultimate pleasure comes in seeing my stone displayed and appreciated by people who love it as much as I do.    



Flowers by Nicki Oberholtzer


Torso by Michael Binkley


     Heart by Gary McWilliams                                                                



To see available raw stone, go to Jupiter Marble Photo Gallery.  To see fine and functional art in Jupiter Marble, go to Sculpture, Functional Art, Garden Art.   Also see Natural Sculpture


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