It may not be as exciting as Jurassic World, but a visit to the Clarkia fossil beds might be a close runner-up.
Guess what my kids said when I asked them if they wanted to go dig for fossils? Actually, it wasn’t words so much as a collective happy shriek accompanied by enthusiastic body movement.
Just to clarify, you’re not digging for dinosaur bones in Clarkia. Well, you can, I suppose — and the more optimistic and imaginative of us well may — but you won’t find any. What you will find are fossils of ancient plants and potentially even fish. And by “will find,” I mean you’ll find so many it almost gets old — no pun intended.
Digging for fossils is, admittedly, not quite as exciting as visiting a park full of dinosaurs, but on the plus side, it is real and decidedly safer. Here’s how to get the most out of your fossil-digging experience:
Step 1: Watch the video.
Digging at Clarkia will unearth more than just fossils — you’ll encounter questions too. In 2012, “Plants are Cool Too,” a video series out of Bucknell University, did a 15-minute episode on the Clarkia Fossil beds that explains what you’re looking at, how the fossils got there and why the site is unique. Not only does the information make your finds that much cooler, but it gives you a visual of what to expect.
Plus, your trip will not be complete without hearing the “Plants are Cool Too” theme song sung repeatedly from the back of your vehicle for an hour straight. I promise.
Step 2: Pack up and make the journey.
The dig site is in the sun and gets hot during the summer, but when you kneel on the sharp clay you’ll be glad you were wearing long pants. And you will get dirty, so dress accordingly. Consider bringing extra water or hand wipes to clean your hands from the skin-drying clays before you go.
Butter knives are available on site for prying layers apart to find fossils, but you might consider bringing a shovel or ax to dig out more of the hillside. Also, bring some newspaper and plastic bags to wrap up your finds. It’s a bit of a drive to Clarkia from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley so we brought along some friends to keep us company and, not knowing what to expect in the way of eateries, we brought our own lunch and plenty of water.
Step 3: Get digging!
This is a quiet operation. So quiet that we didn’t see a soul on the property when we turned onto it. There wasn’t a formal “entrance” or pay station, so we just guessed as far as where to go. Typically, I was told, someone from the Keinbaum family who owns the property will come out at some point and collect fees and help get people started.
Without direction, the kids’ idea of fossil digging was limited to chipping away at the clay wall with their butter knives. But if you’re looking for fossils, you’ll want to hack away big chunks of clay — skip the light colored layer of ash deposits — and then separate the layers with the knife.
When you pry open those layers, what you find are leaves that haven’t seen the sun for a long, long time. Besides leaf imprints, you’ll find actual biological matter from warm and wet-weather plants that used to grow in the area and are now not found until you get to the South.
The first 20 leaves you’ll find are astonishing, but after your 50th conifer leaf, the novelty can fade — at which point running around the nearby dirt-bike track became more appealing. Suffice it to say, this isn’t an all-day activity unless you have very focused kids.
Step 4: Pack up your fossils.
Gently wrap your fossils up in newspaper and place them in a plastic bag. Doing so allows the newspaper to slowly absorb moisture from the clay, which reduces its chance of breaking. Store your fossils this way until they’re completely dry, at least a month or so.
Step 5: Stop to cool off.
If you do it right, you’ll be dry, hot and dirty by the time you leave Clarkia. We stopped at Little Boulder Campground outside Helmer for a snack and some rock-skipping on the Potlatch River. Had we thought to bring our swimsuits, it’s certain that more than just rocks would’ve ended up in the water.