Rockhounds in the thrill of the hunt

By Rick Steigmeyer, World staff writer 

MATTAWA - Six vehicles filled with rockhounds snaked up the steep, dusty gravel road to the top of Saddle Mountain. A herd of cattle looked on with little interest. A group of offroad motorcyclists did the same. Yellow balsamroot and daisy, purple penstemon and white candyruft added splashes of color to the drab sagebrushed hillsides high above the Columbia Basin town of Mattawa and the Columbia River's Wanapum Dam. 

It made little sense that this caravan of travelers was heading up in the desert to find rocks that were once a trees in a boggy lowland forest. Just one of many mysteries that keep rockhounds fascinated. 
Membership in Wenatchee's Ginkgo Mineral Society had dwindled in recent years. Up until two years ago, most of the members left in the rock club were in their 80s and 90s. But more than 20 eager rock gathers signed on for a field trip to Saddle Mountain Saturday, signifying at least a small resurgence in the club that once had more than 100 members. It was one of several field trips the club holds each year. 

"Club members have been building back up in the last couple of years with more retirees moving to the area," said Larry Shaw, a retiree himself who joined the club two years ago and is now its vice president. His wife, Wanda, he said, has been a rock hound for years. In their early 50s, the East Wenatchee couple is among the clubs youngest members. 
"It's such a great way to get outdoors and see the country," Shaw said. 

The senior member of the group is Gayle Savage of Wenatchee. She said she stopped counting after 26. That was some time ago because other members say she's in her 90s. Savage said she's been collecting rocks since she was a teenager. Her husband, Parker, now deceased, worked on the Hoover, Grand Coulee Dams and and others in South America. Their free time was spent gathering rocks that they sliced, tumbled and polished. Gayle, an accomplished silver smith, would make jewelry to sell using the gems they would find. 
After her husband became disabled more than 20 years ago, the couple decided to sell or give away most of their rock collection and downsize to a smaller home. They wrote the Smithsonian Institute, which now houses their collection of gem quality actinolite found near Lake Wenatchee. 
"You can't tell what you have until you get home," said Maxine Anderson, a member of the gem club for more than 40 of its 48 years. She's in her 80s. Members take their booty of jasper, garnet, opals, petrified wood, soapstone and amethyst home after each outing and slice them and tumble them to beautiful gems. 
"We used to fill grab bags and give them to kids at our gem shows," she said. The club would hold gem shows each year at shop their kept at the National Guard Armory building in Wenatchee and at the Chelan County Fair. They gave up their shop at the armory after a fire several years ago and don't do the fairs any more because most of the members are too old to host a big display, she said. 

Jill Timm, Wenatchee, said new members like herself hope to revive the club. "We're hoping more young members will join and carry it on. The old members know where the good stuff is," she said. The club has a new
shop in East Wenatchee where members can use equipment to cut and polish their rocks. Timm, an artist who makes miniature books, plans to use her petrified wood fins to create covers for a new book she making on minerals. 
Maurice Smith, 78, Wenatchee, said the Saddle Rock area is one of geology's great mysteries. The petrified wood to be easily found there is the remnants of a low lying forest and peat bog that existed probably 20 million years ago. A geological uplift brought the forest up to the top of a 2,200-foot mountain. The wood was replaced with mineral and compressed over millions of years to create rock that when cut and polished result in beautiful gems. 
"It's a great hobby," Smith said. "It gets you outdoors where you can get some exercise and you have something to show for it."