Nyssa’s annual festival celebrates hidden hillside treasures

William Nance, a rock hound tour guide for Nyssa’s Thunderegg Days Festival, points out an interesting feature of a rock Saturday to a tour participant. (The Enterprise/Isabella Garcia).

NYSSA — It’s early on a Friday morning, but it’s already pushing 70 degrees as a small group of eight walk through the brush on a hillside, their eyes focused on the ground.

While some people move slow and squint at the ground, one of them reaches for rocks with the confidence of a pelican dive bombing a fish. 

That’s William Nance, the director of anthropology at the College of Idaho and the leader of this rockhound expedition.

A member of the group brings an angled rock with flecks of agate on the surface over to Nance.

“What about this?” they ask.

While it’s not a stunning, gem quality rock, Nance excitedly points out each attribute: colors that indicate the presence of copper, rings that represent five-million-year-old “blurps” of water, tiny pockmarks that are fossilized snails. Each vein, color, texture and shape stem from the geologic history of Malheur county that Nance tells with glee.

This history lesson takes place in the hills outside of Nyssa as part of the town’s Thunderegg Days—a three-day festival full of food, community events and plenty of rocks. The most traditional part of the festival is arguably the rockhound tours that leave from the Nyssa Elementary School parking lot each morning.

John Wasden, from Boise who attended the tour Friday, July 12, woke up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Nyssa.

Wasden is new to the gem and rock scene. After retiring as an engineer recruiter last year, Wasden looked for new ways to fill his time.

“I wanted to reinvent myself,” Wasden said. Knowing that his grandkids were interested in rocks, he decided to join the Idaho Gem Club and learn about digging for rocks and gems so he could take his grandkids on geologic adventures. 

Lucky for Wasden, Nance knows plenty about rockhounding.

Throughout the morning, Nance led the group to three areas that all contained various concentrations of different stones, like jasper, agate, pink plume and opal. When the caravan reached a new area, Nance would stop to explain how the area had formed through moving hot spots and lake beds, and areas, like the ridge line, to dig in.

At the second spot, Neil Potts, longtime rockhound and friend of Nance, found a vein of green gem material after spotting a marbled green surface rock. 

“It looks like Neil found the honey hole,” Nance shouted to the other group members as Potts pulled green stone after green stone from the area. It’s exciting to identify a fruitful vein – a crack that has large mineral deposits from water flow – but the bountiful experience only lasts so long.

“It’s a limited resource. Once we dig this vein out, it’s gone,” Nance explained. “Next year, we may walk this whole hillside and not find anything.”

But this year, each member had a promising bucket of rocks by 11 a.m. Between the success and the sun, which was now high in the sky with the temperature approaching 90, Nance decided to call it a day. 

Back in Nyssa, Wasden took three of the rocks he found during the tour to get cut for $5 by a vendor with a bandsaw. Two of the stones are jasper and the cut reveals a stacked look with warm tan and pink colors running through the crosshatch. The third stone is mostly rhyolite lava, but with a big stripe of gleaming green material across the middle.

“Well that’s just stunning,” Wasden said.

News tip? Contact reporter Isabella Garcia: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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