Searching for gems and minerals has been a fascination for people since we were people. The earliest humans and hominids sought outcroppings of chert and other silicate stones in order to create spear points and arrow heads. Other minerals like soapstone and jade were used to carve decorative items, like the famous Venus of Willendorf.
It rarely takes much to convince kids to at least give rockhounding a try. "Digging for treasure" is pretty much the only phrase you really need to use! It also helps if you choose your earliest outings for their gemstone appeal. Kids are much more likely to persist in hiking and digging if you're going after amethyst, fossils, or geodes, rather than more "boring" minerals like travertine.
Every part of the world has its own native minerals and gems. The best way to find out what to hunt and where is to contact a local rockhound club. Many clubs offer field trips for beginners, for a nominal fee. These clubs are also great because they provide coaching, in the form of experienced rock hounds, who can help ensure the success of your outing.
Unfortunately, a lot of rockhounds have caused damage to private and public property. Here in Washington state, rockhounds are personas non gratas at several former collection sites, which have since been posted "PRIVATE" which is strictly enforced.
One classic form of rockhound destruction happens to stream beds. A lot of minerals (such as jade, pyrite, and gold) can be found in streams that have washed them out of the mountains. In order to collect these, unscrupulous or simply unknowledgeable rockhounds will start taking a shovel to the stream bed.
Riparian habitat is exceptionally delicate, and a shovel at the wrong time can wreak devastation on a trout or salmon spawning location. By increasing the silt and turbidity, the act of shoveling at a stream bed can cause destruction for miles downstream. And by shifting the contents of the stream bed, these problems can cause disturbance for decades afterward.
Less ecologically devastating but more annoying to property owners and passers-by is collectors who dig holes and don't fill them in again, or permanent changes caused by chipping away at rock faces. Last weekend I visited a site at Blanchard Mountain here in Skagit County where rockhounds have caused a surprising amount of damage over just the last 20 or 30 years.
And of course, anyone who goes out in the woods is liable to leave trash behind!
The lesson is clear: when rockhounding, as with any other activity, tread lightly. Fill in any holes you dig. Be as gentle and non-invasive as possible. Bring an extra trash bag, and pick up any garbage you find. This is a great way to not only teach kids how to care for the outdoors, but why they should.
Creative Commons-licensed image of fire agates courtesy of Flickr user live w mcs