Fossil hunting with a preschooler carries a few risks.
It’s possible you’ll drive five hours across Wyoming only to have your child declare the quarry is entirely too hot or dusty or boring. You’ll need to hope her attention span lasts long enough to find something. And when she wields the hammer, it will be your hands underneath, holding the chisel.
The payoff, though, is big. For you: A chance to be the first person to gaze at a creature that’s been hidden in stone for 50 million years. For her: Bragging rights at show-and-tell.
Last month, I learned the hills near Kemmerer hold one of richest troves of fossils in the world. The site of an ancient lake, they contain the prehistoric remnants of fish, reptiles and birds. Some areas are protected, but a handful of commercial quarries exist where anyone can grab a hammer and hunt for their own piece of the past.
I’d been wanting to take my daughter, Sadie, to one of Wyoming’s dinosaur digs. But I doubted a scientist would let her anywhere near a valuable T-Rex skeleton. Fish fossils, in comparison, seemed perfect for a 4-year-old.
My wife was skeptical. Kemmerer is about 300 miles from Casper – a long slog for a family with two kids (we also have a 1-year-old). Thankfully, she’s a geology buff and the siren song of old rocks proved too much for her to resist. We packed the station wagon and pointed it west.
Southwest Wyoming is a dusty, dry affair. But 50 million years ago, it was wet and warm.
A large lake existed west of what is now Kemmerer. It was home to creatures you’d expect to find in the Everglades: crocodiles, stingrays and lots of fish.
The remnants of those creatures are now trapped inside the hills in the area. The rock is easy to split with a hammer and chisel. Crack open the right one and you’re liable to discover a fossilized fish – preserved so well that you can still see the fine details of scales and fins.
Finding a fish doesn’t require much more than patience and luck. At least that’s what we learned from George Putnam, who works at Fossil Safari quarry near Kemmerer.
Make a few hammer taps on the side of a rock. Place your chisel in the newly formed cracks. Gently tap until it splits open.
It was about 10:30 a.m. and the temperature in the quarry was nearing 80 degrees. A handful of early bird hunters were already pecking at the dusty, khaki-colored rocks. Sadie put on pink gloves and heart-shaped sunglasses. I grabbed a hammer.
“Let’s find you some treasures,” Putnam said.
We selected a rock and followed Putnam’s instructions, with Sadie on chisel duty. Within seconds, we’d split our first rock. Nothing.
“Let’s try another one, Dad,” Sadie said.
We kept at it, with Sadie becoming increasingly ambitious with rock selections. Within a half hour, I was pounding away at a stone that easily weighed twice as much as her.
We struck out at first. There was plenty of prehistoric fish poop – a hit with the 4-year-old set – and bits of fish. But no complete fossils.
Putnam returned to check on us. Persistence is key, he advised.
“It’s addictive,” he said. “You’re always wanting to do one more split.”
Our luck soon changed. We found a complete fish fossil about the length of my index finger. Then another. With new confidence, we took turns handling hammer and chisel. Sadie tried some swings and, thankfully, my fingers remained intact.
Suddenly, fish everywhere. One particularly large rock revealed several in a single split. Just like at a real lake, we tossed back the little ones.
In about 90 minutes, we’d collected about a dozen fossils. Content, Sadie celebrated with a snack of goldfish crackers. I loaded our best specimen into the station wagon, bound for show-and-tell.
“It’s like birthdays and Christmas,” Putnam told us just before we left. “You don’t know what’s in the rock.”