When you think of treasure hunting, what comes to mind? Scuba diving, sifting sand below the boat, keeping an eye out for predators, human or aquatic, keeping GPS data? All of the above?
And what if you’re a landlubber and your idea of treasure hunting is on terra firma? Then there’s a place outside Kemmerer, Wyoming that just might make you dig out your dustiest clothes, because they’ll just be getting dirtier. Add in your gloves, sturdy shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, your wallet (yes, there’s a fee), lunch and plenty to drink while you chink and hammer and hope for treasure.
You may have seen them in your travels – fossilized fish. Depending on the specimen, they can be worth under a hundred dollars or several hundred dollars. If they’ve been incorporated into a dining room table or artwork, they can run in the thousands, especially if the fish is very rare, in great condition or surrounded by many other fish. Talk about fun!We met George A. Putnam Jr., the owner/ operator of the quarry, who couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. He also owns a shop in downtown Kemmerer called Creative Creations where he sells some fossils, gemstones and other gifts.
Turns out George was a former journeyman mechanic, worked in the oil field, and was an educator before operating the Fossil Safari quarry for 25 years. It didn’t seem to matter to George how many people were new to the fossiling process while we were there; he taught us all patiently how to tap the slabs of rock with the metal wedge and hammer and pursue the crack that forms. Eventually, if you’re patient, a 1-2 inch perfectly flat slice of rock separates from the bigger slab of rock, and that’s when you get excited. Are there fish in that slice? Are they complete specimens? Are there several or partial fish or no fossil fish?
To be honest, our zeal never wavered, we even ate our sandwiches with one hand and tapped with the other, or looked in the rubble for fossils that others had overlooked. There were many couples, families with children and return fossil hunters that seemed to know George pretty well. Each group stakes out a place by the “wall” where the fossil rock is tumbled down for them to hunt. The discouraging part was when someone close by yelled, “Wow, this one is perfect, check it out!” Don’t get me wrong, we found fossils, but we kept wondering if our spot was as good or if we were doing something wrong to not find as many. Or maybe they were just teasing us! It really didn’t matter; the intermittent reinforcement was enough to keep us going for hours.
George made frequent trips around the quarry, checked in with the fossil hunters and gave them advice about how to clean the rock still clinging to the fossil. Safety was his main concern and he wanted to be sure that everyone was doing their excavating in no danger. Sometimes, George came by with a giant crowbar and loosened more slabs from the wall for us to wedge and separate. A family nearby found a perfect piranha and were thrilled. Occasionally, George would bring in the backhoe and direct the operator to a spot where he thought would be more productive. More rock would come crashing down and we’d all go to work again.
We met people from all over the country there, friendly and eager to learn. Grandkids and grandparents working together, parents with kids, people who searched for specimens for their own stores and to sell to buyers. We met Ph.D. geologist Bill Rohrer and his wife, Sue, from Olympia, Washington who had traveled all over the country in search of great rocks and fossils.
Sue’s brother, Bruce Hiscock, wrote a children’s book about geology called “The Big Rock,” but the pictures in the book are actually of Dr. Bill. I hope to pick up a copy.
George told us that people come from all over the world to the quarry; some of the farthest, Slovenia and South America to name a few. George sells 40 – 50 partially uncovered fossils in shipments to high schools as far away as California so students can simulate the excavation process and experience the thrill of picking out and uncovering the completed fossil.
After several hours in the quarry, we decided that our backs needed a rest, but just until the next time. We’re already planning the next excursion and are confident that we’ll find bigger and better fossil fish treasures. Who needs water?
Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!