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Rock On

Rockhounds seek treasure in the hills


If you're looking for some fun in the sun this summer, consider rockhounding.

Rockhounding is all about "the joy of getting out in the fresh air and the hills and finding good stuff," said Marge Conley, president of the Idaho Gem Club. That "good stuff" is gemstones-garnets, opal, jaspers, agates, thunder eggs, petrified wood and fossils to name a few. And it can all be found in and around the Treasure Valley

Conley's been rockhounding for over 50 years and believes joining a club is the best way to get started and learn the basics of the sport.

Beginners should also participate in rockhounding field trips. Terry Tomberlin, the field trip coordinator for the Idaho Gem Club, said a typical outing includes 20 to 40 people and lasts from morning until dark. His club's trips are open to everyone, not just members, and beginning rockhounds are encouraged to show up, bring a lunch and let the thrill of the hunt take over.

Most gemstones look like run-of-the mill rocks to the untrained eye, so beginners tend to walk right past them in the field. On a group trip, seasoned rockhounds will help novices recognize the valuable pieces and will also know which types of rock are mostly commonly found in the area being hunted.

Rockhounding requires just two pieces of basic equipment. One is a rock hammer, a two-sided tool with a pick for digging and a hammer for cracking. The other is a bucket or canvas bag used to tote the rocks. Conley explained that most rockhounders can't bear to leave a potential treasure behind. "You end up bringing out a lot of stuff that's junk," she said, "because it's so dirty and it kind of looks like it might be good so you don't want to leave it."

Many rockhounds enjoy turning their finds into jewelry and other decorative showpieces. The process is known as lapidary art, and involves sculpting the rock with specialized tools such as faceters, polishers and grinders. Several rockhounding clubs own this equipment and allow their members to use it at no charge.

Rockhounds adhere to a code of ethics that promotes respect for property and natural resources. In general, they avoid trespassing, close cattle gates if they open them and pick up any trash they find. Rockhound-specific guidelines include filling excavated holes, recycling unwanted rocks and resisting the urge to use blasting material in rock collection areas. Rockhounds should also be aware of a few complicated regulations, such as a nationwide law that limits the collection of petrified wood on public lands to 25 pounds per person per day, plus one piece. Some wilderness areas and national parks prohibit rockhounding.

Tomberlin has led rockhounding daytrips for crypto-crystalline quartz in Succor Creek and thunder eggs in Shell Hill. He plans to take a group to Silver City later this month, and said the group will hunt for quartz crystal and garnets but will not be restricted to "hard-core rockhounding." The hunters will also learn about the history of the mining town and perhaps visit nearby Ruby City, a town named by miners who probably mistook garnets for the red jewels.

Tomberlin gets a kick out of taking people on rockhounding expeditions. "What's really addicting is when there's people out there and they're standing in a hole and they've been digging and working and are all dirty or dusty or muddy, and all of a sudden you hear them let out a big whoop. And they yell and scream and hold up a rock and dance around," he said. "They've found a real prize."