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Rocks must be thrown
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Kelly Spinner skips a rock on Lake Superior in Duluth while her son, Douglas, watches. Few people can walk on this beach and resist the urge to toss a rock into the lake. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
Thousands of "rock hounds" are converging on the Twin Cities this weekend. The Minnesota Mineral Club is sponsoring a convention. The subject is: Rocks of the Great Lakes. At the same time, thousands of tourists will be on the beaches of Lake Superior's north shore. But most of them will be enjoying rocks in a less scientific way. They'll be throwing them into the lake.

Duluth, Minn. — Imagine this. You're walking on a beach on the north shore. It's a golden summer day. The sun is shining, and the water is sparkling, and there are rocks everywhere. You're ankle deep in rocks. Grey rocks, white rocks and reddish rocks. There's something about them - you just have to pick one up.

It's so smooth, and so pleasantly heavy in your hand, and something in your reptile brain, something deep down, says: Throw it!

"No! No! No!" yells a mom as a little boy winds up to throw even though his cousin is standing in the line of fire. He drops his rock.

There's a gaggle of eight kids on a Duluth beach with three moms, and they're obeying the rock-throwing impulse. Only these kids are specialists. They aren't just throwing rocks. They're skipping them.

Morgan Sturm is 9, and she has a rock in her hand.

"You have to throw it by your waist and kind of throw it to the side," she explains.

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Image Morgan looks for a rock

She has a good rock for skipping.

"It's flat," she says

She pulls her arm back and gives the rock a toss. It plops into the water with a single splash. No skips this time. Morgan shrugs, then smiles. She says she's having fun even though the rock skipping isn't going too well.

"Because," she says, with the furrowed brow of a philosopher. "It's fun throwing rocks."

Morgan's mom, Patrice Sturm, is trying to skip rocks, too.

"I was attempting to, but I'm not very good at it," she says with a grin. "It's fun. They're here, and you need to put them back in the water."

She's been tossing rocks into lakes since she was a kid.

"But it was more just throwing, not skipping," she says. "I could never get that down."

She picks up a flat stone, almost the size of a hockey puck, and gives it a side-arm toss with a little snap of her wrist. The rock flies about 10 feet and drops into the water. Like a rock. One splash.

"See, I think that one was too big," she says. "Too heavy."

I like to throw rocks.
- Annette Spinner, standing on a Lake Superior beach

A little ways down the beach, Kelly Spinner is giving her five-year-old son some pointers on tossing rocks. They come up to Duluth from the Twin Cities a couple times a year, and they always spend time on the beach digging around in the rocks.

"Rocks are intriguing," she says with a chuckle. "You can find all kinds of rocks."

Looking for the right skipping rock is the time consuming part.

"The flatter the better," Kelly Spinner says.

But there's more to look for than flatness.

"Oh yes," she says."Color, shape, size. The bigger it is the harder it splashes. We could spend hours digging through rocks."

She picks up a smooth, grey disk of basalt.

"You know, this one is a pretty good skipper," she says as she turns the rock over in her hand. "I'll try it. I'll see what we can do here."

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Image Hunting for a skipper

She crouches down and cocks her arm back like a seasoned rock skipper. She says the trick is to let go of the rock down low, close to the water, which she does, but this time she only manages two skips before a wave swallows her rock. Without the waves, she says she can get six or seven skips if she has the right rock.

Her son Douglas seems more interested in collecting rocks than throwing them. He's five, and he's a little shy, but with a some coaxing, he agrees to demonstrate his skipping technique.

"You spin it over the water," he says as he draws his arm back.

Douglas uses an unconventional Frisbee-style toss. He sends his rock sailing in a lovely, looping arc, but it doesn't even think about skipping. It hits the water with a ploosh and it's gone.

His aunt helps him look for another rock. Her name's Annette Spinner.

"I can't skip rocks," she says with a big laugh. "I like to throw rocks, but I don't care if I can skip them."

She enjoys the simple pleasure of chucking a rock into the lake.

"Yes, I like to chuck the rock," she says. "That's right. I don't throw rocks at cars or anything like that. I do most of my rock throwing here."

She'll have plenty of company. There's another family walking across the beach toward the water, and they're picking up rocks as they come.

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