W.C. McDaniel “Let’s go collect some petrified wood” is one my favorite phrases and collecting trips. “A field guide to collecting petrified wood” will take you along on one of those trips. The guide covers: where to look, how to search, what to look for, and concludes with some recommended collecting preparations and precautions.
Where to look? In the South the two primary collecting locations are areas with flowing water such as creeks, rivers and gravel bars or pits. Most bars are found along creeks and most pits are usually private mining operations. What type of creeks will produced petrified wood is a frequently ask question. An initial way to assess a creek’s petrified wood potential is to stand on a bridge or overlook and see if one or more of the following features can be observed. If the creek looks promising look for a convenient access as sometimes that can be difficult and an obstacle if you find some big pieces that need to be hauled back to your vehicle.
• Creeks that have eroded down about 15-20 feet appear to the best producers of wood. However, this not an iron clad rule and each creek just needs to be checked.
• Is the water clear, flowing and shallow enough to walk? Clear water is not an absolute requirement but it sure helps in finding wood in the middle of the creek. Also flowing or moving water indicates the banks are being eroded away exposing
Is the creek accessible via banks? Check the vegetation and the slope of the banks. Banks that gradually slope upward from the surface are the best, however in many cases the top part of the bank may be steep for the first four or five feet.
How to search. Creek searching requires a commitment to stay focused and check everything that looks like wood and everything
that doesn’t look like wood. One of the best things, besides your eyes, to bring along is a good walking/probing stick with a metal tip, Petrified wood makes a distinct clink (glass like) noise when hit with metal. Wood can been found on both sides of the creek, in the middle, under water, sticking out of water, sticking out of the banks, lying exposed on bars and/or buried underwater in sand or clay deposits. Some of the best finds were not visible but were found by probing the bottom and responding to the “clink” sound of metal upon petrified wood.
What to look for.
• Color- The overwhelming majority of petrified wood found in the creeks of the south are the earth tone colors of cream, light to medium tans/browns and whitish. In addition some of the wood will be grayish and others will have rust/reddish stains. Wood that has been in the creek for a period of time may have black stains due to decayed organic material. The rust and black stains can be removed with a soaking in a weak solution of oxalic acid.
• Shape and size - The majority of petrified wood is going to look like real logs. Most wood will be more vertical (longer/taller) shaped than horizontal (short and wider), rarely will wood be wider that it is taller. Grains, crevices and holes usually run vertical. Some will have exposed crystals. Size does play some role, especially for large pieces which have almost no competition from other competitors. In addition size is not an absolute indicator of quality. This will remain subjective and determined by the preferences of each collector.
Some wannabes, impersonators and heartbreakers. The chief culprits are iron concretions, sandstone, clay, chert, real wood and limestone usually placed in the creek for erosion control. Most of these can be quickly assessed with a quick poke with your walking stick. If the material doesn’t make a clink (I wish I could say ‘clink’ here to illustrate the sound) then it is most likely not petrified wood. If you remain uncertain turn it over and check it out. A second opinion from your collecting partners is also a good idea.
• Check the weather the day of and the previous days for the area you are going. Creeks can significantly change during periods of rain. The Internet is a good source to check current and specific local information.
• The majority of the creeks are located in rural and woody areas. Check to make sure there are no active hunting seasons underway. If there are, delay your trip until the seasons are completed.
• Bring along a backpack (this is easier than carry a bucket in the creek bed), digging tools, change of clothes, especially shoes and socks, insect repellant, snacks and drinks. Leave your valuables at home or in a safe place. If you must take your keys and/or wallet place them in a water tight container. Remotes usually don’t work after a good soaking.
• A walking stick with metal end is a good multiple use tool. It can steady you, serve as a probe and if necessary fend off wild creatures of the creek and woods.