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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Garnet digs a secret jewel of central Idaho

The U.S. Forest Service has improved the process used for the public to dig for garnets, near St. Maries, Idaho. This area and India are the only places in the world to find a certain style of star garnet. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
The U.S. Forest Service has improved the process used for the public to dig for garnets, near St. Maries, Idaho. This area and India are the only places in the world to find a certain style of star garnet. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
By Jeanette White Awayfinder Correspondent

Where can you dig for treasure, picnic in the forest, and meet royalty—all for $10?

The answer is surprisingly close to home. And you’ll almost certainly leave this family-friendly dig site near Clarkia, Idaho, with your own stash of star garnets — rare gems found only in India and parts of Idaho.

While rockhounds from around the world come to the Emerald Creek Garnet Area each summer in search of unique six-ray garnets, many locals have yet to catch what’s known as Red Gold Fever.

“So many people live in this vicinity with such a fun thing to do, and they don’t know about it,” says 72-year-old Louise Darby, dubbed the Garnet Queen by awestruck school kids.

Wearing practical shoes and jeans, Darby is pure rockhound royalty. Obsessed with garnets for 40 years, the enthusiastic guide has cut thousands of the purplish garnets into gem-grade stones.

“God put them up there for everybody to enjoy,” says Darby. “It’s an absolute fantastic opportunity.”

Finding garnets today is easier than ever, since the St. Joe Ranger District of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests developed the new dig area two summers ago. Prospectors once hiked in with their own equipment and dug several feet down in stream beds, muddying the water.

Now visitors park and walk a quarter-mile to the site, open several days a week all summer. (The daily schedule changes yearly, and garnet seekers are advised to check the web site for updates.)

There they buy one-day permits—$10 for adults, $5 for kids. Using shovels, buckets and screens provided by the Forest Service, prospectors dig in a mound of garnet-rich dirt stockpiled by an excavator.

Some hard-core rockhounds bristled at the change, but most people love it because the garnets are far more accessible, says Carol Ratcliffe, a recreation manager with the St. Joe Ranger District.

“Everybody gets something, and they get a lot more than they used to—anywhere from an ounce to a pound, depending on how hard they work.”

Forest Service technicians show rookies the routine: scoop dirt into the bucket, sift it through a screen, and wash what’s left in sluices—troughs with running water. That’s where you’re most apt to spot garnets, which in the raw look anything but semi-precious. (Think rocks with a glassy shine.)

Queen Darby, who claims her expertise isn’t needed at the new site, brings clients who want help finding the Idaho state gem. Her top tip: Don’t rush through the sifting in pursuit of the Big Find.

“What I call Red Gold Fever takes over, and then they’ve got to have more, more, more. But more is not the point,” Darby says. “The 8-ounce garnet may not have the value of some smaller pieces. The odds would be enormous to find a big one with no cracks.”

Quality star garnets can be worth $100 or more per carat, but even garnet chips have been made into attractive jewelry.

The adventure is more valuable than the garnet itself, Darby says. “You’re not going to get rich out there. You might find something valuable, but most people wouldn’t part with it anyway. That experience and memory is something no one can take away from you.”

Kids love to hear they’re finding gems formed by a combination of minerals, heat and pressure during the Jurassic period. “So if you find a garnet, you’ve found a rock as old as a dinosaur,” says Janet Hartsock, a forestry technician.

They’re also impressed when she says the amount of pressure it takes to form garnets equals “20 pickups stacked on top of each other on the end of a broom handle.”

You never know who’ll be digging next to you at Emerald Creek, tentatively scheduled to open May 22 this year. Whether lured by dreams of fortune or fun, 7,151 people visited last summer and left with 1,860 pounds of garnets. Some drove from Spokane, while others came from Brazil, Japan, Russia, India and other countries.

A month-old baby in a sling was the youngest; the oldest, an 89-year-old Australian woman.

While rookies studied pictures and sample garnets, one experienced rockhound relaxed in a lawn chair, plucking garnets from a bucket without using the sluice. A boy building sand castles uncovered an 8-ounce garnet, then refused to sell it to a man who offered him $200 on the spot.

The summer’s largest find—an 11-ounce, golf ball-sized garnet—went to a seasoned rockhound who braved a mucky, rainy day that kept most prospectors home. “He was walking around the front of the pile and it was just lying there,” Hartsock said.

Those are the exceptions; most people spend at least a half-day or more digging and sifting. People using wheelchairs and crutches join the fun, too. By calling in advance, visitors with disabilities can be dropped off right at the site.

Each year, a visitor can buy six one-day permits, each allowing the removal of 5 pounds of star garnet.

Wil Edwards, a pharmacist from Palouse, has made the drive four times, happy to find a family activity that pleases both his 3-year-old daughter, Lola, and his wife’s great grandmother, who’s 82.

“She helped dig; she did everything. There was nothing she couldn’t do,” says Edwards.

Why four trips? “Part of it is the ability to go out and find something you’d never find elsewhere,” says Edwards. “It’s creating the special moments you live your life to find.”

Not to mention the 10-ounce garnet now set in a pendant, and a nice collection of 4- and 6-ray keepers.

The Garnet Queen was the big attraction for Alex Rampone, a 9-year-old California boy. “Does the Garnet Queen give autographs?” he asked his mom, Jennifer. “Is there a Garnet King yet? How old would I have to be?”

Alex found out last summer, when the family came from Orange County for a week of garnet hunting with Darby.

“It was a lot funner than anywhere,” says Alex, who has vacationed in Rome and the Caribbean.

To his delight, he found a garnet before Darby did. In the end, Alex took home lots of garnets and a nickname from Darby he treasures just as much: the official Garnet Prince.

Planning to dig? Keep these things in mind.

Bring your own lunch, snacks and drinking water. There’s no vendor on site.

Use a plastic bag or margarine tub to hold garnets.

Take sunscreen, a hat, and insect repellent.

Wear sneakers or sports sandals and old clothes.

Bring toy trucks or shovels for pint-sized prospectors.

Leave pets at home. They’re not allowed.

Consider a weekday trip, when crowds may be smaller.

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