Don Smith, a Community Transit bus driver who has held an interest in rocks, minerals and crystals for years, washes off a stone he is interested in bringing home on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Don Smith, a Community Transit bus driver who has held an interest in rocks, minerals and crystals for years, washes off a stone he is interested in bringing home on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Everett rockhounds dig in for shiny, rare, ‘ugly as sin’ treasure

This club has been around for 83 years. They’ll tell you what rocks their world — and how to identify “leaverite.”

DEMING — Don Smith likes shiny things. Crystals, druzy quartz, geodes. That’s why he joined the Everett Rock and Gem Club.

“My daughter told me I’m just like a bird,” Smith said. “Anything shiny I always pick up.”

Last month, Smith sat shotgun in a minivan full of fellow rockhounds, the trunk packed with pickaxes.

The rocky banks of the Nooksack River waited for them. Jon Elmgren kept his eyes on the road, winding through rural Deming, past goats grazing under the sun.

He explained how he got into stones in the first place. He was 6 years old when his dad brought home a shoebox full of them. Now he’s the president of the club. He brings treasures to his day job so fellow bus drivers can carry the lucky charms on their routes.

Jon Elmgren holds an unsuspecting rock that contains olivine, a mineral that is uncommon through most of the world, but abundant in certain parts of Washington on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Jon Elmgren holds an unsuspecting rock that contains olivine, a mineral that is uncommon through most of the world, but abundant in certain parts of Washington on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Elmgren’s favorite rocks? Thunder eggs — rough balls of minerals, “ugly as sin,” as he puts it, with colorful crystal cores.

Jimmy Sharp, an artist and retired carpenter, sat in the back seat of the van. He reckoned his childhood obsession with fossils destined him to be a geology nerd.

“I was a dinosaur freak from about 6 years old,” Sharp said.

He grew up a stone’s throw from the Waco Mammoth National Monument, where remains of two dozen Columbian mammoths are preserved in sediment. He hung around Texan geology students before a different kind of rock — “rock and roll,” he said — inspired him to start hopping freight trains. He landed in Everett, where he sometimes makes sculptures out of wooden shoes and game pieces.

To figure out if a rock is a keeper or a “leaverite” (as in “leaverite there”), Sharp said he likes to “just kind of vibe it out.”

Jon Elmgren, president of the Everett Rock and Gem Club, talks with two club members while out searching for olivine and other minerals on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Jon Elmgren, president of the Everett Rock and Gem Club, talks with two club members while out searching for olivine and other minerals on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Smith, Elmgren and Sharp may have taken different paths to find their passion for rocks. But the Everett Rock and Gem Club is the glue between them. The club is 83 years old and even has its own Constitution.

The trio spends free time hunting for stones and gems around Western Washington. Jade from Deer Creek. Red Jasper from the Everett waterfront. Cornelian agate from Mount St. Helens. Smith keeps the glittery ones around his house, hoping to feel the healing power of quartz.

“I guess it works,” he said with a smile, “because I’m happy there.”

This time around, they had their sights set on olivine. It’s a green rock with black pepper-like speckles on its crust. Several cars’ worth of rock club members met at the Nooksack, traversing pebbles and boulders and massive logs carried down the 75-mile river. The Nooksack pulses with snow melt from nearby Mount Baker. And it’s full of olivine.

Jon Elmgren and fellow Everett Rock and Gem Club members dig around for rocks on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Jon Elmgren and fellow Everett Rock and Gem Club members dig around for rocks on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

But don’t be fooled. Olivine is no common rock.

The mineral is abundant in the Earth’s mantle, about 100 miles below your feet. But it rarely makes it to the surface. According to Elmgren, the olivine here is about 100 million years old.

Before then, Washington as we know it only extended as far west as Spokane, where it was met by the Pacific Ocean. But as Pangea shattered and North America drifted west, islands and volcanoes crashed and melded into the coastline. Tectonic plates fractured, magma saw the light of day and mountains jutted skyward.

Olivine, caught in the chaos, was pushed up and out.

“It’s crazy that we have this big chunk here,” Elmgren said of the Western Washington deposit.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Nooksack watershed has one of the largest deposits of olivine in the world. And it’s the only major deposit in the western U.S.

The rockhounds searching for it last week all had special plans for the green beauty.

A group of rockhounds scour the riverbed for olivine and other types of rock on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A group of rockhounds scour the riverbed for olivine and other types of rock on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Elmgren was looking for stepping stones. Karen Keith kept an eye out for rocks she could turn into fancy knife handles. Robert McKeever wanted to add to his collection of stones that could be polished for jewelry.

He’s part of three local rock clubs in Snohomish County.

“We get a little rivalrous,” McKeever said, “because there are treasures to be found.”

Mark Smith, an Everett Rock Club member and retired Marine, stores his treasures at “the museum.”

That’s what he calls the dozen or so glass display cases at home, full of opals, thunder eggs and many fossils he dug up in Wyoming. Those fish and bird skeletons are preserved in flat limestone, a mineral made from compressed shells and the skeletons of tiny critters.

Don Smith uses a hammer to pry away rocks from a large specimen of olivine on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Don Smith uses a hammer to pry away rocks from a large specimen of olivine on July 23 along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Mark Smith sells some of his rarities, mainly for gas money for his rock-related adventures. Each year he travels to Tucson, Arizona, home of the largest gem and fossil show on Earth. It even has its own afterparty, the “Gem & Jam Festival.”

He and his wife stop at roadside museums to learn about the power of geology — how it can draw people into town, lead economies through booms and busts, or spark labor battles. Mark hails from Copper Country — Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — where the shiny stuff was mined by Native Americans, and later white people, whose mines caused major earthquakes 100 years ago.

Some Everett Rock and Gem Club fanatics hound far and wide, but many are content with sticking with the Pacific Northwest.

“We have the most interesting geology,” McKeever said, “because we’re on a subduction zone.”

Sometimes, mysteries show up at the club’s regular show-and-tell. Members bring in puzzling minerals, Elmgren said, “and we’ll use the collective brain trust to figure out what it is.”

Stones begin to pile up beside a car as a group of rockhounds collect specimens to bring home on July 23,along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Stones begin to pile up beside a car as a group of rockhounds collect specimens to bring home on July 23,along the Nooksack River near Deming. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @yawclaudia.

More on the rocks?

To find out more about the Everett Rock and Gem Club, visit everettrockclub.com. The club meets monthly at the Carl Gipson Center, 3025 Lombard Ave. in Everett. The next meeting is at 7 p.m. Aug. 16. The featured rock of the month for August? Agates.

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