Field Trip Preparation

It's a Field Trip Day!

To rockhounds, field trips are pretty much like water to a fish or air to a bird. We thrive on them! We eagerly anticipate them and when the day finally arrives, we can’t wait to finish breakfast and get on the road. After all, those future gemstones may not wait for us to get there--or someone else may claim them while we’re still working our way up the hill!

Oh, I Forgot...

Often, at the end of the day, we realize that we were not properly prepared for the trip. We didn’t have the right location, the right tools, the right directions, or the right automobile. Many times I have heard a rockhound say, “I don’t know if there were any pretty rocks up on that mountain or not, but I sure didn’t see any!” A trip report from a club trip will often sound like this, “One club member got really lucky, but the rest of us didn’t find much.”

Experience has taught me that the keys to success on any given day are (1) the preparation I do before I turn the ignition switch, coupled with (2) careful observation on the day of the trip, and (3) a willingness to work hard enough--and get dirty enough--to achieve my goals.  Let's take a look at these one at a time.

Pre-Trip Preparation

How am I going to get there? Will we be taking the trailer? Staying in a motel? Up & back in one day? What are the roads like? Can I take a sedan or do I need a pickup--or a 4-wheel drive?  Will the weather be hot? How much water will we need? Will we be working close to the vehicle or will we be hiking to the spot with just our buckets and tools? These are preliminary questions which help me select a vehicle and guide my preparations. When someone says, "Yeah, I think you can make it with your car" (or that famous variation, "You should be able to make it through that mud hole..."), I always switch to my 4-wheel drive pickup.  Then, once I decide on the vehicle, I proceed to check tire pressures (including the spare--flat tires are almost always caused by under inflation), battery water, and fill up with oil, water & gas (I take 4 extra quarts of oil in case I develop an oil leak or hit a rock). Since it will often rain on a field trip, I also make sure the windshield wiper system is working well and everyone has a rain poncho. I proceed with these assessments for all the vehicles I will be taking, and I add fire wood if I am taking the trailer.

Next, I try to find someone who has been to the site before to find out as much as I can about the locale and the geology. I want to know if we will be digging in an old mine dump, working on a vertical face with seams of the good rock, or using hammer and chisels to break out small pieces from an outcropping of rose quartz. Next I assemble my rock chisels, sledge hammer, short hammer, rock picks, shovels, pry bar, leather work gloves and safety goggles for the big day. Then I decide how I’m going to transport the tools and the rocks--usually by 5-gallon paint bucket (I add a Snappy Grip" handle to the wire bail of all my rock-carrying buckets, so my hands don’t get so sore when carrying goodies back to the car.

I can also use a backpack--I usually take two liters of water (4 quarts) for each person in my party--I add more if the weather will be hot or humid, and frequently carry an extra two gallons of water in case I should encounter radiator problems. One of the new electronic tools rockhounds just love is a GPS device, preferably a waterproof model which can be loaded with latitude and longitude readings. Even the rockhounding books are now being published with these coordinates so any of us can enter the data and find the place, plus or minus 6 feet! That can be a terrific benefit when you’re trying to find Turquoise Canyon on Moose Mountain.

Next my thoughts turn to clothing. I usually pack a jacket for cool mornings and dress in layers so I can shed warmer clothing as the day warms or my workload increases. I either wear boots or tennis shoes--I opt for the boots when climbing up & down hills. Rubber or felt-covered soles are best to keep you from slipping when wading. I prefer long pants (usually denim for good body protection) and long shirtsleeves so I can moisten them in hot weather and enjoy the cooling effects of evaporating water--the lightweight cotton fly fishing shirts “breathe” really well and are super comfortable. An inexpensive wide brim cowboy hat keeps my neck and face from heavy sun damage, and I use lots of SPF 45 lotion on my neck, face and hands. I also make sure I have an inexpensive rain poncho packed away just in case the heavens open up for awhile. Lastly, I take a lawn chair and a jumbo umbrella for each person--a large golfer’s umbrella--when I rest, I want my whole body in the shade so it can cool down properly.

After my tools and clothing are set aside, I prepare the food I will need. I usually eat in the shade at the car, but if it’s a long or arduous hike, I will often pack a “fanny pack lunch” which I can easily carry around my waist--meat, cheese and fruit work for me, with a snack bar, gum or a candy bar for desert. During the day, I drink water only, to make sure my body remains hydrated and heat-healthy.

I also try to go to the gym three times a week to make sure my body can handle the stress, heat and hard work of a field trip. I love to swim and use the treadmill for lung health, the bicycles & step-climbers for leg strength, and I use several upper body development machines for my arms and back muscles. I want my body to be ready to climb the hill and dig for two or three hours in the sun.

I think you are getting the idea that I try to think ahead and anticipate what I will need to make each particular field trip successful. This meticulous pre-trip preparation counts for 33% of my “luck” on the day of the field trip.

Observation Skills

I learned long ago that the best way to learn to catch fish in a new place is to observe someone who is actually catching fish there. It’s the same with field trips. For starters, if there is a leader, I hang out with the leader. Many times I watch the leader’s best friend, who almost always gets dropped off in the “glory hole”. I often get pretty rocks just by watching this little friend-planting activity while the others have fallen behind or rushed ahead. If I am alone on the hill, I look for holes where others have spent considerable time--I also look at the tailings pile of material they threw out of the hole. Does it look like what you have driven four hours for? Learn to “cruise” these holes for the first hour or so. Keep your brain engaged--for example, I like to spend extra time in hard-to-get-to holes & those surrounded by brush--no one would dig a big hole in the brush if it wasn’t yielding some pretty good treasure. I also like to stop and ask people what they are finding--rockhounds love to show you their best stuff and the method by which they obtained it. You can learn an awful lot that way. Many times they will leave their spot and you can do the same thing they did. If they return, I always give them back their spot--they are often so grateful that they tell me something else I always wanted to know.

We rockhounds are so predictable! For example, we just love to cover up our hot spots with dirt and rocks before we leave an area--you see this phenomena a lot at the opal walls in Virgin Valley, Nevada. I will often select a spot which has loose dirt covering up the area at the base of the wall--then I shovel it bare and try to find out what my predecessor thought he or she needed to hide. By now, many of you are getting the idea that you need to keep your wits about you and use your head. I remember a trip several years ago to Stoney Creek in California to look for Jasper. The leader sent everyone off in various directions to hunt for Jasper. Some walked for miles that day and found almost nothing. My partner and I looked at the brush-covered hills and I asked him, “If I were a piece of Jasper, where would I be?” We both looked down at the stream winding below us and found some dirt-bike trails leading down the hill. We spent the entire day evaluating high-quality Jasper blocks which had slid down the mountain over a period of many years and finally ended up in the creek at the bottom, where the stream had stripped away the weathered portions, leaving only the choicest morsels. We spent the hot day in the cool water, while everyone else exhausted themselves on the scorched hillside. And in the end, we had way more high-quality slabbing Jasper than anyone else. Everyone thought we really knew what we were doing, and my partner and I let them believe it--yet, this was the first time either of us had ever been there! The satisfaction of that day still warms my toes on a cold night.

In summary, my caution to you is to never follow the crowd, unless you’re sure the crowd really knows where it is going. Most crowds do not have a clue where they are going or what to do when they get there! Many leaders only know about one glory hole, and they really don’t want you to know about it, so they often send you to the far side of the mountain to try your “luck”. With my observation skills on full alert, I make another 33% of my own luck.

Working Hard and Getting Dirty

As I get older, I am realizing that I can no longer climb to the top and be the first one there. You youngsters will always beat me to the top, but now I get my satisfaction from out-smarting you once we’re there. I know to let others dig my holes for me wherever I can.   And I carry more chisels than you so I can extract just the one piece I want. I pick my spots much more carefully, and once I get set up, I intentionally move only the dirt most likely to yield real treasure. I still work hard, and I still get dirty, but I carefully pick and choose my battles. I am aware that there is a lot of treasure buried deep, but I am also mindful that it is also buried near the surface, and may even be lying in the tailings pile, waiting for a crafty eye like mine to spot it in the sunlight. And after you have made three trips up and down the hill to carry back all that low-potential rock, I’ll get to the parking lot a little later with my half-bucket of colorful cabbing rough. You definitely worked harder and got dirtier while achieving your goal of getting the most rock your pickup could handle, but I worked hard enough and got dirty enough to achieve my goal of making 65 unbelievable Cabochons for the next rock show. I guess we both won today!

Working smart therefore counts for the final 33% of my “luck”. When I pour my treasures on the tailgate at the end of the day, someone will often remark, “Boy you sure got lucky today” I just smile and acknowledge that I’d rather be lucky than good. Little do they know that 33 + 33 + 33 equals “Lucky Today” !

Life is good...