August 31, 2010

Dig-Dig #8: U-Dig Fossils, Utah

Delta has a big green park in the middle of town. A picnic table was the perfect spot for a quick breakfast. Not so quick that we couldn't enjoy our espresso, of course. We were looking forward to a day of fossil digging, out in the Utah desert.

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We followed the clear instructions to U-Dig Fossils, about an hour west of Delta. The dark "C" shape to the right of the dirt road is the quarry.

A smattering of wind and rain-damp shale made a refreshingly cool start to the morning, but the sky cleared quickly. By the end of the day we could feel the heat radiating from the black rock.

Aya got right to work, splitting slabs of soft shale with the chisel end of a rock hammer.

What's inside?

Trilobites! Extinct sea-bugs!

The rock splits at all kinds of unpredictable places, quite unlike the fish fossil site in Wyoming. Hearts were also broken many times as one hit too many resulted in unrepairable smithereens.

But there were many sweet victories!

This little sea bug was lost for millions and millions of years until... now. Each time a layer peeled back to reveal a treasure, it was like a sudden connection with an extinct era; a time capsule, opened at last to reveal a ghostly memento mori.

Yet still lively! This, our biggest find, popped out of its carbonite and disappeared into the rubble around us, leaving us with only the negative impression. That could mean two things, but it only means one.

Here's one that came out of its hiding place with a gentle poke from our new shale-splitter (old paint-scraper).

Aya came prepared with a carrying-case, which she managed to fill with trilobites and other small fossils. Bevan, the very friendly and educating host of U-Dig Fossils, helped make the day even better with his gentle guidance and advice.

Some of the ones that managed to make it home. We are going to take our Dremel tool to them and polish them up a little, as demonstrated by Bevan.

August 30, 2010

Dig-Dig #7: Utah Hotspring

The Utah desert in a hot, dry wind and smelling of ozone; sharp curls of lightning and rolling booms without source.

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It took over an hour of driving on empty dirt roads in the Utah outback, under crackling clouds and intermittent washes of dusty rain, to track down Baker Hot Springs. With only a pencil-drawn map copied from the internet, we looped far off course. Chasing one last road until it dissolved into ruts we dared not follow, we gave up and turned back towards our nasty little motel, frustrated at having come so close to our goal and yet to be denied.

Then the landscape revealed subtle changes and a colouration, a stain, could be glimpsed beyond the rise of blackened roadside scrub: the red dirt beside the road, so dramatic in the map above, was roughly obscured at ground level.

A short walk revealed pools, with no tell-tale scent of sulfur.

They were warm but large and shallow, coated with slime and as uninviting as the crunching salt-crusted dirt around them.

And then we found this one. Bathtub-shaped and bath-water warm, with a dock from which to slip in. An unexpected paradise.

If the town of Delta can be said to be an oasis in the desert, then our dirty little motel was a desert within that oasis; to be endured rather than enjoyed. The rain poured down, which was nobody's fault, and the people were largely charming.

A pot of hearty meatballs with tomato sauce and a pack of tasty Shock Top beer, with its bright orange and coriander notes, capped the evening pleasantly.

Up next: sea bugs!

August 29, 2010

Dig-Dig #6: Americana

When staying at Gem Mountain, the closest town for showers and groceries is Philipsburg, Montana.

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A beautifully kept town, maintaining a robust balance between historical preservation and modern standards. It is refreshing to be able to easily imagine life a hundred years ago while lacking for nothing.

The Club Bar is the perfect spot for a drink on a hot afternoon. Very friendly staff and patrons, and we lucked upon "happy hour".

The locally-made Dump Truck Bock was light but full of flavour. Highly recommended.

Delicious thick beef stew at the Gem Mountain campground that night, accompanied by an adequate Zinfandel from Ravenswood.

The view from the dinner table.

On the way to Wyoming.

Afton, Wyoming: home of the world's largest elk horn arch.

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If you are driving down Interstate 15 in Utah with a trunk full of fish fossils and think you feel your front left wheel wobbling and start to fear that your '94 Escort Wagon with 205,000 km on it is telling you the trip is taking a bad turn, you could do a lot worse than to take exit 279 into Lehi and turn right. Big O Tires is there and ready to take a look while you wait.

It is hard to overstate how friendly, polite, professional and speedy the Big O crew were. Taylor, Blair and the whole team made the process painless and eased our worries, finding no mechanical faults in their thorough inspection. Someone around Lehi is bringing their kids up right. And someone knows how to generate a positive impression of a big-chain business, too. Big O charged a big 0$ for this greatly-appreciated service. Highly recommended.

Up next: an oasis in the desert, and a desert in the oasis.

Dig-Dig #5: Fossil Safari, Wyoming

The long drive of the previous day paid off in that we were within a couple of hours of the next destination: Fossil Safari, near Kemmerer, Wyoming. The white spots on the map below are the actual quarry sites. Three huge antelope, looking very African, skipped across the dirt road during the last mile.

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This was really, really fun. The big slabs of rock pop open with a satisfying, dry crack after a few whacks with a hammer and chisel. By carefully pursuing a split along the edge, you can peel off sheet after sheet like thumbing through a book with very thick pages. The fish are all within, having been gently pressed like flowers over millions of years. Revealing them is truly an exciting moment.

One of Aya's early finds: a little herring, previous tenant of the ocean that was here before the desert came.

One classroom from our little school of petrified fish.

Chris, the very friendly, helpful and informative host, used his robotic arm attachment to cut our bigger finds into transportable pieces.

This caused a stir. One of the regulars, who hunts for fossils to sell, cracked open an average-looking slab to reveal this monster. Looking at Fossil Safari's website, we think it might be a mioplosus, but that's only because we think we know what we're talking about and we don't. The arrangement with the quarry is that you get to keep smaller, common fossils while they keep the big, rare finds. This one was instantly claimed by the quarry, which might have put a bit of a damper on the elation the finder felt at the biggest hit of his career.

Here's a video of Keith splitting a large slab to reveal...

Here are some of the larger, complete ones that we brought home:
The lower piece was part of a "mortality layer" where it appears that many fish died at about the same time, probably due to a landslide or other natural disaster. There were eight whole fish and a few pieces on this one slab, which we cut up for transporting.

A fantastic double-sided fossil, with the split going right down the center of the fish. Perhaps history's first kipper.

This, our largest one is still partially covered by a fine layer of rock. We will use a Dremmel tool to gently reveal its petro-ichthystic glory.

August 28, 2010

Dig-Dig #4: Wyoming Hotspring

Aya researched natural hot springs before we left. This one wasn't exactly on the list, but we could smell it while we were looking for a different one. Though it was on private land, there were no signs warning against trespass and the road had no gate.

Here's the Google Maps link.

The large pool was lukewarm, but the white mineral deposits on the far side suggested something better.

Lovely hot water bubbling out of connected pools, from about a meter to two meters deep. We quickly became accustomed to the light sulfur smell and enjoyed a long, glorious soak, listening to the gurgling sounds of the springs echoing under the hollow rock formations.

We saw pools like this in Yellowstone NP many years ago but of course they were off-limits. It was amazing to be able to gently slip into one and enjoy the hot water.

Lightning flashed in the sky around us and the sun set behind storm clouds while we set up our tent without a drop of rain.

Dig-Dig #3: Sapphire Video

Don't believe it's really that easy? Watch Chris, the very friendly owner of Gem Mountain, demonstrate the wash routine:

And now the flip:

August 27, 2010

Dig-Dig #2: Sapphires in Montana

Google Maps link to Gem Mountain.

Arriving at Gem Mountain in the late afternoon, we set up camp and made a great big dinner of pork cutlets and a Beringer White Merlot. It is hard to go wrong making a bright, flavourful rosé from well-ripened grapes, but this is where Beringer shows real determination. We can recommend this wine if you like sugar and hate your tongue. The pork was excellent, however, and we fried up some extra for the next day's sandwiches, hoping to eat them from a gunny sack by the crick, or something equally rustic.

Aya could hardly sleep in anticipation of the next day's activities: pulling raw sapphires from the pure Montana dirt.

Here's how it works:

You buy a bucket of alluvial gravel.

Pour a manageable amount into your screen.

Take the screen of dirt to the washing trough, which is filled with warm Montana river water. One of those adjectives is not accurate.

Using the two washing techniques demonstrated by the Gem Mountain staff, get the small pebbles to the center and the larger ones to the outside edge in a circular pattern. Heavier sapphires will sink to the bottom.

Flip the screen over in one smooth motion.

There. There. There and there. At least four sapphires of different colours in this batch. Did you know that rubies are rare red sapphires?

Sunday afternoon at Gem Mountain.

We looked through seven buckets of gravel before taking our collection into the office to have them assayed. A total of 95.56 carats on the first day!

First the sapphires are sorted by size.

Those above a certain size and without flaws are considered "cuttable". Heat treating will enhance the colour.


The first day's cuttable sapphires, averaging almost one carat each.

We only went through three buckets of gravel in the morning of the second day but managed to find almost as many as the day before. Only one less cuttable gem and another eight that are "flawed but cuttable". We left them all to be heat treated and cut into whatever shape best suits each one. They'll show up in the mail in a few months after we have forgotten about them, bringing joy into a rainy winter's day.
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