BELLINGHAM - For 15-year-old Sam Girouard, there's nothing like crawling on his hands and knees in an ancient lake bed, poking for bits of teeth shed by dinosaurs.
"Everything else is secondary," he said. "It doesn't matter how you feel, how hot it is, how cold it is, how many insects are biting you. You get so focused, you don't know any of the distractions."
Despite his youth, Girouard already boasts a fossil-hunting career that would make many amateur paleontologists proud. He has found possibly the oldest American mastodon bone yet uncovered, given presentations to paleontological societies and donated his fossilized finds to museums throughout North America.
Girouard is cruising through high school. At 12, he sat in on a geology class at Western Washington University. He has just completed his first full year in the Running Start program at Whatcom Community College and plans to complete his associate's degree by the end of what would be his junior year of high school. He plans to have his bachelor's degree completed by the time he's 18.
After spending some time in the Air Force and getting his doctorate, Girouard hopes eventually to dig for dinosaur bones for a living as a professor or museum curator.
Girouard says he's not particularly smart, just focused.
"It's just that I have a tremendous amount of personal interest in things," he said, "whereas other people don't."
It may be more than that, said Doug McKeever, who taught Girouard recently in his physical geology class at Whatcom Community College.
"He's amazing," McKeever said. "He's up there probably in the top five students I've ever had."
In May, Girouard presented a paper on the first dinosaur fossil found on the Pacific coast of British Columbia to the British Columbia Paleontological Symposium.
Two years ago, while poking around a quarry near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Central Washington, he picked up what turned out to be a 4 1/2-million-year-old ankle bone from an American mastodon.
"It's probably the oldest occurrence of the species," he said. " It may have originated in Washington, but further finds may dispute that."
On a recent walk in northern Skagit County, he stumbled upon the "Holy Grail of paleontology" - an ancient lake bed.
He'll probably spend the rest of the summer digging up and cataloging his finds from the lake bed, which so far include a yet-unnamed leaf species and extremely rare examples of fossilized raindrops, insect wings and seeds.
"It's pretty exciting" coming across a find like that, he said. "You do the NFL victory dance."
Girouard has donated his fossils to collections at Western Washington University, the University of Washington, the Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, the University of Alabama and the Alabama Geological Survey.
The teen's father, Sam Girouard, a retired airline pilot, and his mother, Paula, a retired high-school math teacher, often accompany their son on his search for prehistoric remains.
Other than his focus on fossils, there's nothing unusual about his son, the elder Girouard said.
"He's a 15-year-old at heart. Get him with a bunch of boys, and it's nothing but a barrel of fun," the father said.