KARKLE - After a strong overnight storm on Dec. 11, rumors about an amber-rush on the Lithuanian seashore quickly spread. I have heard stories about men fishing for amber with nets in the Baltic Sea a few times before, though I had never really believed them. But when I heard such rumors from what I took to be a reliable source, my curiosity got the better off me and I headed off to the coast.
When I got out of my car in Karkle, a small village which is said to be the best dispersal area for washed-up amber along the Lithuanian coast, my trust-worthy temperature indicator, otherwise known as a nose, was dangerously in the red.
I headed straight in the direction of the roaring sea. When I reached the beach I was genuinely surprised to see about a dozen or so fishermen trawling through the freezing shallows with nets attached to sticks.
The fishermen filtered through the water with their makeshift nets in a strangely unified movement, scooping up whatever sea debris they could. Once their nets were sagging with seaweed, pebbles and other flotsam, they dumped the contents out onto the sand and carefully looked through their piles in the hope of finding a little of the so-called Baltic gold.
I spoke with Algirdas Kurtkis, who was one of these brave and industrious men. Dressed in waterproof clothing and galoshes, Kurtkis seemed astonished that I was so astonished by the scene I was witnessing. "I've been doing this for years," he reassured me with a hardy smile.
I asked him if it wasn't too cold for him to be working out there, but he laughed and said that when you work in the sea the only thing you feel is a sweat. But he did concede to me that he was wearing two pairs of woolen socks to keep his feet warm.
But clearly, combing the coastline for amber is not work for the weak. The men usually undertake their grueling search after a storm in early spring or winter, when the sea is at its most manic. The severe Baltic storms stir up the seabed and toss up whatever's embedded there, including the occasional lump of unworked and untreated amber.
Kurtkis told me that his partner had been out there searching from before dawn and had gathered 2.6 kilograms of the precious stuff so far, with some chunks as large as a plum.
He also proudly boasted that a few years ago he had found hisrecord-sized piece of amber, which was as large as a fist. But just in case I didn't understand what he was telling me, he made a fist to illustrate his point, which was rather impressive in itself.
Most of the amber fishermen are also amber craftsmen and after a hard day spent wading about the freezing water, they then take their booty home where they grind, cut and polish it into shape to produce the amber products that Lithuania is so famed for. Some just stick to amber fishing though, and sell their catch to craftsmen.
But by this time my temperature indicator had turned dangerously scarlet and I couldn't keep up with the extraordinarily robust fishermen. So I decided to head back to Vilnius again. But at least the next time I see all those pretty little pieces of amber jewellery around the Old Town, I'll know exactly how they got there.