Arcata, CaliforniaOn a drizzly December morning, Damien and Michaela Beauchemin trudge along a redwood trail with their Portuguese water dog, Maui, scanning the duff and listening intently for the sound of a creek. Maui whines and attempts to race ahead, but Michaela holds the dog back. If they move too quickly, they might miss something.
The Beauchemins glance at clues they’ve saved on their smartphones: a riddle about rubbing a belly for luck, a warning about heights, a photograph of ferns. Another saved photo depicts the coveted prize: a large orange-and-white marble nestled amid pebbles in water.
The ornate, glistening sphere is a score in the world of marble hunting, and the Beauchemins—who search for these treasures nearly every weekend—want very much to add it to their collection. The relatively new pastime has attracted tens of thousands of people around the world who have been engaging with other participants mostly on social media due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marble hunting is a bit like geocaching, another hobby that sends participants on wild treasure hunts guided by GPS or mobile devices. But marble hunting doesn’t rely on GPS, and its loot is highly specific: Marbles must be handmade by glass artists. The artists sell the marbles to enthusiasts who then hide them in public spaces, snapping photos to post as clues within Facebook groups. Once the posts go up, marble hunters venture out to find the treasure, facing untold obstacles and fierce competition.
For the Beauchemins and others in Northern California and beyond, it has become a way of life. They have been hiding and hunting marbles for about six years, and with the pandemic they’ve become obsessed. Both work with vulnerable populations: Damien as a clinical psychologist and a supported-living aide, Michaela at a nonprofit serving families with preschoolers. On their off-time, marble hunting offers a relatively safe and intriguing reason to leave the house.
But it is not without risk. In their pursuits, Michaela has contracted poison oak that required steroid shots. Damien once fell down the side of a cliff. At the top of an extinct volcano, the couple discovered a box they were sure contained a marble. It was ashes, presumably from human remains.
Michaela keeps journals with drawings of the marbles they find—320 round pieces of glass art so far.
History of marble hunting
Humans have been playing games with small, spherical objects for centuries, according to Topher Reynolds, a wizard-bearded artist who manages the Glass Garage, a cooperative art studio in Eureka. “There have been marbles since there's been solid materials,” he says.
Unlike ancient wooden, stone, and clay marbles, or mass-produced glass marbles from the early 1900s, the ones used in marble hunting are one of a kind.
Some are designed to look like dragons’ eyeballs. Others have gold or silver fumes trapped inside—or tiny opals—and appear to contain galaxies. Some have flower patterns or little bubbles called air traps. Shine a UV light on certain marbles and they’ll glow neon.
“With glass, failure is always an option,” Reynolds says as he rotates a lump of molten glass on a rod over a 3,000-degree torch, which allows him to design a complex interior before finishing the marble in a kiln. “I can work two days and throw it in the garbage … If you think you’re important as an artist, the glass will argue that point. And glass is always the arbiter.”
Collectors usually pay between $20 and $1,000 for a marble, but a highly desirable one can fetch upwards of $5,000. Many, however, are given away.
The closest thing marble hunting has to a father is Josh Simpson, 72, a renowned glass artist who creates miniature planets. About 50 years ago, he started hiding them around the world for strangers to stumble on.
“I love the idea of giving a little gift to somebody, without knowing who it's going to or what they'll do with it,” he says.
In the 1990s Simpson built The Infinity Project website, inviting anyone to message him with ideas for hiding spots. Each month, he sends someone two marble planets: one to hide, one to keep. Photos show thousands of Simpson’s planets getting “lost” all over the world: at Everest Base Camp, in a Panama Canal lock, under Antarctic ice. Because his wife is retired NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, he even got a few into the International Space Station.
“Glass is, after all, just silica,” he says. “It’s melted sand. It will last for thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years, but it doesn’t pollute anything.”
In the early 2010s, Facebook groups for “Art Abandonment” emerged, and people started hiding artworks—including marbles—so that others might find them. Then a 2016 event called The World’s Biggest Marble Hunt brought the game out of obscurity.
Led by Missouri glass artist Will Stuckenberg, a coalition of marble makers organized the event to expand the market for their work. The event’s Facebook group amassed more than 30,000 followers, and the grand prize was a treasure chest hidden on Pikes Peak in Colorado. It contained $13,000 worth of marbles.
The color in this marble created by Miles Parker is made with a micro thin layer of pure gold and silver that has been super-heated to a gaseous state, and then sprayed onto the glass before being manipulated into the design.
In Humboldt County, self-described “marbleheads” bought carrying cases and decorated their homes with hundreds of marbles, placing them on stands and in golf ball display racks. In 2017 Reynolds launched a local marble convention that’s been held every year until COVID forced a temporary halt. Honoring the event, Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman proclaimed the first weekend in February “Humboldt Marble Weekend” in 2020. She displays a marble on her office bookcase and another on her living room shelf.
“My collection is small, but priceless,” she says.
Facebook groups dedicated to the hobby have multiplied. Each has its own rules, but all prohibit digging, burying or vegetation destruction, and many disallow hides on private property or sacred land. Rule breakers have been removed from groups, Reynolds says, and volunteers have gone back to clean up damage.
Many groups require those who find marbles to then hide another of similar value, which keeps the game going and the artists busy. “People here like the idea of paying it forward,” Reynolds says.
Hiding a marble
Lori Logan, a mother of two, works as a fire apparatus engineer and a personal trainer. As a way to share her passion for fitness and outdoor challenges, Logan often hides marbles in difficult-to-reach places, like mountain tops.
“I like to push people and make them work for it,” she says. She’s done hides at Yosemite National Park’s Bridalveil Fall and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, but also in small towns like Wikieup, Arizona. She likes that when people look at their collections, each marble links to a memory of a journey.
It was Logan and her two sons, 15-year-old Ivan and 11-year-old Levi, who hid the marble that the Beauchemins were after: an alluring dot-patterned orb created by noted marble maker Eric Spinney.
The day after the Logans left their treasure, the Beauchemins hike to the top of Buddha Head Rock, in the Arcata Community Forest. Because the couple has become so skilled at finding marbles, the hunt takes less than 45 minutes.
A few days later, Michaela draws the marble in her journal. For the pay-it-forward hide, Damien selects one with air traps created by his friend Kim Trett. Before work, he drives a flooded road to a remote beach and leaves the marble in some driftwood.
“There’s a feeling of wanting to share art with other people,” he says. “And who doesn’t get a little thrill out of being able to go find a treasure somewhere?”
Ashley Harrell is based in Northern California and serves as associate editor for SFGATE covering California’s parks. She also is a Lonely Planet guidebook writer. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyHarrell3.