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Digging Into Oregon's Past

by Grant McOmie

Bio | Email | Follow: @KGWNews

Posted on September 4, 2009 at 1:00 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:35 PM


Oregon offers a treasure trove of interesting places and fun activities that can reveal much about our region's past.

In fact, one Eastern Oregon town offers fascinating lessons in "pre-history," that - with a bit of imagination and some handiwork - can transport you to a quite different Oregon.

In Fossil, Oregon all you need are some simple tools, keen eyes and curiosity to learn more about the state - as you dig into Oregon's past.



Eastern Oregon's gigantic landscape holds on to memories - old homestead sites - where families once worked the land and carved out their livelihoods across the high desert.

Time has passed most of them by and what often remains today are small reminders in a big country that are worth a pause to consider.

Fossil, Oregon is worth more than a pause! Especially if you enjoy history, like to get your hands dirty and really dig buried treasures!


"You take a rock, crack it open - and there's a fossil or two," noted Wheeler School District Superintendent, Brad Sperry. "It's that simple! Our entire area contains fossils. So, it's really a matter of how much work and time you wish to spend digging then slicing open shale rocks that determines the quality of the fossil that you collect."


It's a much different slice of outdoor life for the visitors who stroll through the back gates at Fossil's Wheeler High School - pass under the goal posts of the school's football field and then take a step back in Oregon history.


It's the only public fossil dig area in Oregon that offers surprises with each handful of dirt and rock that you turn over.

Sperry added that the area has been known to the locals for years: "Oh yes, it's been kind of a local secret, the community has known of it and they come up and kick around in the rocks to pick up a fossil or two. About eight years ago, we were discovered and today, there are even websites dedicated to the Fossil Field - lots of folks come to visit."

Today, the fossils that you dig reveal a much different scene in this part of Eastern Oregon.

In fact, 30 million years ago the region was more akin to today's Oregon Coast Range Forest - a temperate rain forest with ancient firs and cedars and ferns and even prehistoric insects. All were covered and trapped by ancient mudflows born of volcanic eruptions that were a common geologic feature in this part of Oregon.

All of it adds up to a stark contrast to the high desert sage and juniper country that surrounds Fossil in the 21st century.


Just down the street, the new Paleo Lands Institute will teach you much about the fossils that you collect.

The Institute enjoyed it's grand opening this past summer and Anne Mitchell, the Institute's Director, said the PLI provides a new way to look at the high desert.

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"Many people come out to Fossil and say, 'I want to dig up a fossil.' Now, when they actually get here, they start learning about the fossil's context in history. Our center was designed to be sort of a hands-on, get a little dirty and comfortable with ancient history location and I think it helps people see that history is real and not just something to read about in books."


Sperry noted that fossil digging isn't free - the district appreciates a small donation - and he emphasizes that there's little need to take more than a handful of the fossils. He'd rather see more people coming back again and again instead of loading up by the bucketful.


He also said that simple tools, like a hammer and chisel - plus, a bucket - are all you need to get started.


"It's all about kids and families and the excitement of finding fossils and realizing they're 30 million years old. It is like Christmas morning and seeing what Santa brought you. Well, take the rocks, crack them open and it's Christmas time. You never know what you're going to find."

You might consider your visit to "Dig Into Oregon's Past" a part of your entry in a unique travel contest. It's called the Oregon 150 Challenge and it offers a unique dream vacation as a grand prize.