Guy DiTorrice keeps his eyes peeled for hidden treasures from the beach.
Eagle eyes sharpened over years of surveying the landscape, Guy DiTorrice detects the near-invisible clues that promise treasure imprisoned in seemingly worthless rock.
He spies an X no bigger than a baby's toe marring the smooth edge of gray stone and minces his way several feet down the beach. He picks a little of the crumbly rock away to expose an ancient particle of sea life.
Nearby, under the rippling water of a small stream, DiTorrice makes out the minute striations that distinguish brown rock from fossilized bone.
"People don't realize this stuff is out here," he says. "People are walking on this stuff every day."
Geologist or archaeologist he's not. But a lifetime of "rock-hounding" has made DiTorrice — known as the Oregon Fossil Guy — one of the most prolific fossil hunters on the coast.
It's an expertise the Newport resident shares with hundreds of people each year, leading special tours on Lincoln County shores.
"You can go to any rock-laden beach in Oregon, and you'll find fossils year round," DiTorrice says.
Winter and spring, however, are the primary seasons for this pastime. Powerful storms help excavate yards of sand, exposing rock that composed the sea bed 12 to 17 million years ago.
Since a violent December gale that carried 100-mph winds and devastated towns in Clatsop and Tillamook counties, fossil-hunting has been "fantastic," DiTorrice says.
"We're like the skiers — we want really bad, wet winters," he says.
One recent trip yielded two blue agates the size of baseballs, DiTorrice says, joking that they could supplement his retirement fund.
It would have been the find of a lifetime for most beachcombers, who covet the semi-precious stones, perfectly intact shells and rare glass floats. But after polishing them up, DiTorrice donates most of his agates to local chambers of commerce.
"If it didn't have an animal in it, I'm not really interested," he says.
DiTorrice's first rock collection — composed when he was 11 of limestone fossils from his home state of Illinois — engendered a lifelong passion for remnants of the past. After seven years of leading tours and giving lectures as executive director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association in Newport, DiTorrice, 55, is now taking his first online courses in geology through Oregon State University.
The fossil guy's boundless enthusiasm was cultivated over decades of self-study and field trips with geology clubs. Fossils, DiTorrice says, tell a story of Oregon as it was millions of years ago.
The region's most common marine fossil, Anadara devincta, closely resembles its cousin, the modern-day cockle. But Anadara indicates rock formations dating to the Miocene Epoch, DiTorrice says.
The rarest fossil, a chambered nautilus, lived in much warmer water than exists today off the coast, DiTorrice says, adding that he's found just one whole specimen in 30 years of beachcombing.
"The bigger the fossils on our beaches, the harder they are to find recognizable," DiTorrice says.
Even specks of wood imbedded in a rock like "dirt in a snowball," he says, reveal a glimpse of the past.
Perhaps one in 50 fossils are plainly exposed, DiTorrice says. The rest are hidden away in light gray and brown rocks — often symmetrical — that comprise the cobble piles on so many Oregon beaches. In other words, taking home a worthy souvenir starts with busting open a lot of rocks.
Note to spectators: Watch out for flying shards.
Once his hammer splits a stone in half, DiTorrice's next move puzzles many tour guests. Like a connoisseur who's just uncorked a rare-vintage wine, he relishes the scent of eons-old perfume.
"It's really funny — people watching me sniff rocks," he says. "They don't want to ask."
He's hoping to detect a whiff of methane gas, trapped inside the rock when the life form decomposed. Some of the most common fossils, DiTorrice says, are, in fact, ancient feces. Most tour participants, however, leave those excretions where they found them.
They do take home plenty of fossilized scallop shells, clam shells, crab claws, fish parts and bone fragments — all labeled and wrapped in plastic bags as part of DiTorrice's service. None have been gathered on shorelines adjacent to state or federal land, which is against the law, he says.
DiTorrice's tours (www.oregonfossilguy.com) cost $29 per person for groups as small as one or as large as 40. Tours last as long as participants desire and depart year round in just about any weather, just so long as DiTorrice deems conditions are safe.
"I've had people out there with me when it was raining sideways," he says.
"It's like, 'Welcome to Oregon.' "
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.