Family Weekend at the John Day Fossil Beds

September 10, 2014 (Updated September 11, 2014)

It is 10 o’clock at night. I am standing outside in the dark, holding a three-year-old. It’s way past his bedtime. We are waiting for a turn to look at Saturn’s rings through a telescope.

“Mama, I have to pee.” Of course. But at least he told me before the fact.

We leave our place in line and find some sagebrush to water. This is our very first night at a family camp put on by OMSI – the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry – in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We are at the Hancock Field Station, in the center of the Clarno unit of the monument, known for its dazzling array of fossils. OMSI has been running camps here for decades, leveraging these beautiful and unique public lands to educate young minds about natural history, geology, and earth science.


I know some of what to expect at OMSI family camp because I have done one before. I know we will all learn something new. I know someone else has planned activities. I know there are cabins and warm showers. And I know someone else cooks. That’s pretty much all I need to know.

Back in line waiting for our turn at the telescope, we look up. I have rarely seen so many stars in the sky. The counselor points out Mars and Saturn.

“I’ve never seen Saturn’s rings through an eight-millimeter telescope. But the atmosphere is thinner tonight,” the counselor says.

My five-year-old goes first. He says, “It was cool. I could see the white rock, and then fuzzy dots around it.” I look. Yup, Saturn does look like a white rock, and its rings look like fuzzy dots.

Through a second telescope, we see a blue fuzzy Cheerio. It is a nebula, which my friend tells me is where stars are made.

Cool is the theme of the weekend. Astronomy. Rock climbing. Fossil hunting. Throwing an atlatl (at-lattle). Swimming in the John Day River. Not having to cook the entire weekend. The only thing that wasn’t cool was the temperature – upper 90s all weekend.

Maybe the coolest thing about science camp is that I feel like a kid too. We sleep on wooden bunks in rustic cabins. We sing songs around a campfire. We go on group hikes led by counselors who know things. Someone else tells me what to do, where to go, and what to notice – and if you’re a parent, I think you’ll understand how freeing it is for someone else to make most of the decisions for a few days.

For example, the hike we choose is specifically meant for small children. It is pretty short. Yet still, every few minutes, someone under four feet tall says, “I’m tired.” “I’m thirsty.” “Can I have uppy?” “Can I have shoulders?”

But in between the whining, we see a fence lizard, three hatched snake eggs, turkey vultures, coyote scat, and deer poop. Our hike leader, Dylan, stops next to a pile of large, sun-bleached bones.

“What are these?” he asks.

The kids all yell, “Fossils!”

Dylan asks the kids to pick one up. They do, and the bones are light. This means they’re not fossils, just bones – something he taught us earlier. “What kind of animal did these bones belong to?” Dylan asks.

The kids yell ideas. A deer! A wolf! A saber-toothed tiger!

No. A cow. This area used to be grazed. Oh, how the West was won.

Eventually we reach our destination – a fossil made from an entire tree trunk that was buried in ash thousands of years ago. It is called the Hancock Tree, and it was worth the whine.

The following days bring as much fun as the first. We polish thunder eggs. We climb a rock wall. We catch toads. We make cordage out of reeds. We throw spears using an atlatl. And we generally have a lot of good, family fun.

Without getting too philosophical, I couldn’t help but reflect at the end of the weekend that without a strong system of public lands, this kind of experience would not be possible. The John Day National Monument is set aside in recognition that it is special, and everyone should be able to experience it. The monument makes it possible for organizations like OMSI to take generations of kids outdoors and teach them, firsthand, about earth science, natural history, and geology. My kids are now interested in hearing and reading about fossils. The trip nurtured their sense of wonder about our world.

So we will be back again another year.

Because, did I mention that I didn’t have to cook all weekend?

About The

Natalie Bennon
Natalie Henry Bennon is a former journalist, current mother, and current writer and PR freelancer for Springtale Strategies. She works mightily to get her family outdoors camping, hiking, fishing and rafting as much as possible. She is not afraid to camp with small children in the rain, although she much prefers the sun.