There are a few places in Northern Idaho where everyone in the family can enjoy spending the day in one location without anyone launching a protest. Fossil Bowl, just 3.5 miles south of Clarkia on Idaho Highway 3, is one of those places. The Kienbaum family has built a motocross track open to all ages and, for a $5 fee, you can ride all day on a course that’s been featured in films like “Children of the Metal G-d.”? It’s great fun, but what really makes Fossil Bowl interesting – and what most people just driving by do not see – is that beside the motocross track is a wonder of natural history.
There, in the forested range of the upper reaches of the St. Maries River, you can almost imagine Troutasarus Rex stalking the lands of Miocene Park. The oldest complete DNA sequence from an extinct animal, the very stuff that Spielberg made famous in his Jurassic Park movies, can be found in the Fossil Bowl at Clarkia, Idaho. Most amazing is the fact that at this site, where complete 15,000,000-year old fossil genetic materials have been found, the public is allowed to dig for these fossils. This is science and history taken outside of the textbook or the classroom and made available hands-on.
The leaves and fish in the Fossil Bowl clay beds represent the most diverse and well-preserved assemblage in the world. Only one other place in the world, in China, even comes close, but the Chinese site is closed to the public. At Fossil Bowl, members of the general public pay $8 to dig all day, with tools provided on request.
There is nothing like being unable to hear the roar of kids hitting jumps on 80cc dirt bikes, even though they’re riding right next to you, because you are so focused on the motion of the butter knife you’re using to pry a shale parting loose to reveal yet another layer of fossils. On rare occasions, the leaves that appear in the shale before you are actually still green though they have been buried for millions of years. These green leaves begin to oxidize to black only as you expose them to the 21st century air.
One of the keys to successful fossil digging is making sure that your freshly opened treasures are properly preserved. The carbon-rich materials are likely to dry out and blow away unless you handle them correctly. It is recommended that you bring newspaper and plastic bags to the dig and, once you find a good fossil, you wrap in the newspaper so that the moisture is slowly wicked from the clay. This allows the clay to harden and holds the complete fossil form of the leaf or fish in place. It can take weeks for a specimen to be ready for display. You don’t want to risk have a 15,000,000-year old leaf simply fall apart, so remember, patience, newspaper, and plastic bags are essential.
Paleobotanists who have studied the Clarkia fossils beds have been able to determine what the exact rainfall patterns and climate of the region were 15,000,000 years ago. The flood basalts of the Columbia River Plateau to the west of present-day Clarkia blocked river flows from the Northern Rockies and backed up water into large embayed lakes at a time when wooly rhinos lumbered through the mountains. It is in this region that the first examples of mole species are found. 15,000,000 years ago, it rained almost twice as much and twice as hard as it does today. Back then, the region received between 50 and 70 inches of precipitation per year.
Clay from the surrounding hills filled in those ancient lakes and trapped leaves and fish between its layers, preserving them with their biological structures intact. Once the lakes were gone, the properties of the clay fill ensured that the fossils remained in exceptionally good shape. Today, for a mere pittance, you can dig those fossils while basking in the bright sun of a hot, dry, Idaho summer, so unlike the rainy weather of the Miocene period (or of the modern-day Seattle coast).
The Kienbaum family’s Fossil Bowl also sports a wonderful museum of old logging and farming tools, as well as prime specimens of some of the fossils that have been found on the site. On the drive leading to the Kienbaums’ office, you’ll spot patches of plum-colored garnets – hunting for these gems is another recreational opportunity offered by the Clarkia Embayment. The Kienbaums are happy to direct gem and rock hounds a few miles up the road to where the US Forest Service maintains a star garnet digging site. There, recreational garnet hunters have located gemstones worth thousands of dollars. For those who might want a bit of quiet time while the kids dig fossils or hit the motocross track, there are also excellent hiking trails in the vicinity.
The Kienbaums’ devotion to making this varied attraction available to the public is to be commended. Though off the beaten path, Clarkia’s Fossil Bowl is well worth visiting. However, I feel that I should offer a word of warning to all who venture out to Clarkia – be careful driving on the road at night. Highway 3 is infamous for its moose-car collisions. When a modern lightweight vehicle hits 1500 pounds of moose, the car is totaled, the passengers are injured, and the poor moose is mincemeat.
Drive slowly, drive carefully, and remember that it’s hard to properly appreciate our large fauna on a dark winding road at 55 miles per hour.