Fossil Digging With Kids in Republic WA

I fashion myself the Daytrippin’ Dad (one of my many delusions), and I try to make it a rule to keep my daytrips within a two-hour drive from Spokane (saves answering the question, “when are we gonna get there,” more than twelve or thirteen times in a given day).

Stonerose, located in Republic, Washington is the only public center in the state dedicated to amateur paleontology, but it’s almost three and a half hours away (124 miles), so if I wanted to go fossil huntin’ with my kids, I’d either have to turn a day trip into an overnight trip (though Overnighttrippin’ Dad just doesn’t have the same ring to it), or bend my rules.

Somehow three and a half hours didn’t seem that long with the promise of finding fossils at the end of it, for me or for the kids, so I decided to risk it, and bring their best friends along to take some of the pressure off of Daytrippin’ Dad.

And it worked. The drive up was pleasant, with only one bathroom break, and when they eventually did ask, “how long until we get there,” and I answered, “twenty minutes”-even though we still had nearly an hour and a half left in our trip-nobody seemed to care. We were gonna hunt fossils, and that’s all that mattered.

At Stonerose Interpretive Center you register and receive your instructions. For a small fee ($5 adult, $3 kids 6-18, free under 6) you become a paleontologist. You can bring your own tools (which we did), or rent them at the site for $3 (which we ended up doing because my tools were more appropriate for chipping rather than opening rocks). The Boot Hill fossil bed is a short walk up the hill, so the five of us (ages 4, 5, 7, 8 and 39) checked in, grabbed our gear, and set out.

During the first hour and a half, we found exactly nothing, in part because of my hacker tools, and in part because-despite the very specific instructions given us at the interpretive center-we had no idea what we were doing. So we broke for an early picnic in the park across from the interpretive center, and gathered our strength for a second assault on Boot Hill. I rented new tools, including sharpened chisels, and we had a refreshed attitude.

I also reviewed our instructional materials (I like to equip myself with knowledge, even if I have to equip myself several times because I too often lose my equipment). We were searching a lakebed from the Eocene era (nearly fifty million years ago) for evidence of plants, fish and insects.

Good to know, yes, but this gave me a bit of a pause. Fifty million years ago? Heck, I can’t even find the library book I checked out four weeks ago, much less a pre-historic mosquito.

But, never mind. When I did find something, it would be fifty million years old. And that’s cool. Also, there are thousands of fossils here, and we know where to dig. That library book could be under the sofa for all I know. So I’d focus. On the rocks. Somewhere inside this stone is… is a… is a leaf, and all I have to do is allow the leaf to reveal itself. I’m no Michelangelo, but come on. It’s not David. It’s a leaf.

While I practiced Zen meditation over the largest slabs of shale I could carry, the kids were discovering their own methods. The oldest two found that if they overturned enough abandoned shale, they could find fossils. The four-year-old discovered (or exploited what he already knew) that pounding at stones with a hammer is great fun, whether he actually found anything or not. My five-year-old daughter used her leadership abilities and monitored the rest of the day, making sure everyone was doing what it was they were supposed to be doing. Everyone was having a good time. Even me.

And then it happened. One rock. One chisel. One mind. Beginner’s mind.

The rock opens and inside the leaf reveals itself.

This is a warning. Once you find your first fossil inside your first rock, you will go from “having a good time” to “gotta have one more fossil,” and likely have to be dragged out of a pile of your broken shale (Stonerose closes at 4 PM, even though there are something like, six hours of daylight left, and you still have half a canteen of water…and no those aren’t your kids …you didn’t bring any kids…why do you ask?).

When you’re finished, the Stonerose center gets to examine your work and keep anything they deem of scientific value or important to the Stonerose collection. Which means they kept my “possible rose leaf” and another “unusual leaf” and my son’s “possible insect.” That may be a bit of a bummer for some, but a point of pride as well. We still went home with fifteen fossils between the five of us that the kids simply couldn’t stop talking about and showing off, and our names will be attached to the fossils that Stonerose kept for the permanent collection.

So Daytrippin’ Dad says that fossil hunting, three and a half hour drive or no, is cool.

By Terry Bain

For more info on fossil diggin’ in Republic visit: Terry Bain reads from his new book, We Are the Cat, at Auntie’s Bookstore on September 8 at 7:30 PM.

From Spokane, head north on US-395 SOUTH, go 74.8 miles. Turn on WA-20, go 39.6 miles. WA-20 becomes CLARK AVE S., go 0.2 miles. Arrive at the center of REPUBLIC, WA.

Stonerose Interpretive Center is located at 15-1 N. Kean Street, on the corner of Kean Street and WA-20, across from the city park. The fossil site is just a short walk from the Interpretive Center.

[Feature Photo by S. Michael Bennett]

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