Dirty Work: Rockhounding in Idaho

Shovel in the garnet area

With the exception of a few moments to send a text or make a quick call, I have little cell phone reception from Glacier National Park through most of Idaho.  I choose to leave the radio in my Jeep off and the windows down, taking in the fresh country air.  I have a day-and-a-half to kill before I am due to be in Spokane, WA to stay with an old friend of my mom’s.  I decide to jaunt down into the Idaho Panhandle National Forrest from I-90 for a night.  A day or so before, I had read about a place where visitors can rockhound for garnets.

Without cell phone reception I have no GPS, so stop at the Idaho Visitor’s Center – it doubles as a miner’s museum – for a map and directions.  I have been impressed by the these information hubs in every state; the staff behind the counters have always been knowledgable and helpful.  In all cases they have given me too much information, but steered me in the right direction – mostly off the major interstates to smaller, more scenic byways.  The man behind the Idaho Visitor’s Center counter leads me over to a large pull-down wall map of the area where I plan to camp.  He traces the road I should take: State Road 3 through the town of Saint Maries to the Emerald Creek Campground.

By the time I leave the center/museum it approaches 3:30 PM and I still have to stop for supplies (which I find in St. Maries) and find bivouac for the night.  On a Sunday night, I am one of three campsites that will be occupied – the encampment is quiet and surrounded several varieties of evergreens.  I’ll gain an hour tomorrow (by crossing into the pacific time zone), so the sky stays light a little later than usual.  I set up tent and settle in for the night.  Again I am able to stoke my relationship with the with the stars, hold a conversation with the trees and watch as the fire dances in her pit.  I roast S’mores and recollect my youth.

Dry sifted earth and rocks

The next day I’m up early and prepare a camp-side breakfast of hash browns, eggs and hotdogs.  I drive two miles to the Emerald Creek Garnet Area, where, for ten dollars, I am given a permit, two buckets and a shovel.  I didn’t realize I was going to be doing hard labor.  The forest rangers explain the process: “fill the buckets, dry sift them in the sifting area, then wet sift them in the washing area.  Look for dark-dark red, almost black, glass-like rocks . . .  and keep anything else you like.”

The washing area

I love rocks and collect them from different places.  Occasionally, I will buy a semi-precious stone from a store.  But, there is something satisfying and fascinating about digging my own out of the ground.  As I work, I feel connected to the earth.  I love that my clothes are increasingly muddy and my hands and arms (and even face) turn yellow-orange from the clay I wash off the rocks I mine.  I love watching the faces of the children – both young and old – standing beside me asking “is this one?” or exclaiming “I found one!”

My prize for the day come in the form of a nearly perfect dodecahedral garnet crystal.  The rangers all agree: “very nice.”  Along with it, I take three grams of garnet (the rangers weigh everything that comes out of the site) and leave with a smile on my face, a song in my heart and stained yellow-orange clothes and skin.  More than that, I leave with the satisfaction that connected with mother earth, I know exactly where my rocks were born.

For pictures of Idaho, Washington State and Victoria, BC –> Click Here

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