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Whidbey Island has a terrain that's set in stone

Joe  Higgins makes arrowheads and other tools. Animal hair left on the quiver shows outlines of a bison at the bottom. Chuck Prentice, right, has a 450-pound piece of petrified rock at his home. - Susan Mador
Joe Higgins makes arrowheads and other tools. Animal hair left on the quiver shows outlines of a bison at the bottom. Chuck Prentice, right, has a 450-pound piece of petrified rock at his home.
— image credit: Susan Mador

Many people call Whidbey Island “The Rock.” Coupeville has Big Rock. West Beach has Rocky Point. Stones big and small cover almost every inch of the island in between.

So it’s only natural that Whidbey Island is a rock hunter’s paradise.

What’s so special about hunting rocks?

Just ask members of Whidbey Island Gem Club what’s exciting about hunting rocks. You’ll be amazed at the answers:

“Beach agates.”

“Finding treasure.”

“Cutting rock.”

“Finding fossils.”

To these people, a rock isn’t just a rock.

“We have a smorgasbord of rocks to hunt on Whidbey Island,” Joe Higgins said at a club meeting last week. When glaciers scraped over the island, Higgins says all types of rock came down from Canada. “The ice plow stopped here,” Higgins said. Thanks to the glaciers’ rock-tumbling action, agates, jaspers, jades and garnets are among the types of stones rock hunters can glean from Whidbey Island beaches and back yards.

Washington’s state stone, petrified rock, is also abundant. Higgins says another common stone here is “picture rock” or stone that is a mixture of different rocks. When polished, picture rocks show many dots of different colors.

Besides finding and polishing rocks, club members explain that there are many more ways to work with rocks: cutting rocks, displaying stones, faceting gems and stones, knapping flints, and casting metal then setting stones in jewelry.

“It’s nice to say, ‘I found this and I made this’,” said Chuck Prentice of Anacortes.

Added Higgins, “You would be amazed at the talent in this club. We have jewelers, faceters and silversmiths. Whatever a person is interested in, someone has that talent. But that’s what you find on Whidbey — all sorts of talent.”

Higgins’ talent is knapping flints. He shapes stones into tiny arrowheads and sturdy blades. Light dances along the edges of a large obsidian blade Higgins has knapped. He also makes his own arrow shafts and quivers.

From under a table, Lee Daugherty pulls a thin section of stone from a tub of cat litter. Rings of coffee, cream and fawn ripple around the stone. Daugherty says the cat litter absorbs the oil used while cutting the stone.

“There’s a good variety of knowledge to pick up here,” he said. “You can get the basics and decide where to go.”

The club’s workshop in Oak Harbor has many pieces of equipment used to work rocks including cutters, tumblers and grinders.

“A person can learn on ours, then buy their own,” Higgins said.

Dick Jones is busy polishing and burnishing a silver ring he’s made. He hasn’t chosen a stone for the setting yet. “I have lots to choose from,” he said. “Onyx, jade, turquois.”

Club members say rocks are a great outdoors hobby for families. “Show me a kid who doesn’t like rocks,” Keith Ludemann said. It probably can’t be done.

Ludemann grew up in Minnesota “chasing Lake Superior agates.” He became seriously interested in rocks after he married an Oak Harbor girl. “Her parents were in a rock club. My mother-in-law said, ‘Keep your hands off my rocks. Go get your own.’ So I did.”

Besides looking for and working their finds, club members make presentations at local schools about rocks that can be found on Whidbey. Higgins says a teacher once told him that “at least half the parking lot had come inside after my presentation.” Other times, Higgins hears that school kids insist that their parents take them to the beach to “see neat things they could find.”

You can go to the beach for that anytime. But the easiest way to see a lot of “neat things” in one place is to attend this weekend’s Sweetheart of Gems show in the Oak Harbor Senior Center.

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