Monday, June 08, 2009

Fossil Hunting in Alaska

When I posted my list of Summer Activities in Anchorage, Alaska a couple of weeks ago I had people asking for more details on fossil hunting so I'm posting about one of our family's fossil hunting adventures--though as you'll see from the photos it was a few years ago. I'm resurrecting the entry I made in my journal in July of 2003 . . .


Fossil Hunting in AlaskaWe struck out with our sturdy pick axes, buckets, brushes which I purchased especially for the occasion (after all, if you're going fossil hunting you better have a standard issue pick ax, right?) and which the boys were so excited to use I had to confiscate the tools early on to save my men from themselves.

With only our trusty map and a newspaper article on fossil hunting as our guides we set off for the wilds of Palmer—or more accurately Sutton—an hour north of Anchorage hoping (desperately hoping) that we would actually find fossils, or else my sweet little budding paleontologists would be severely disillusioned and probably need an addition six months of therapy to come to grips with the disappointment their mother had heaped on them.

It took a bit of finding, as the “roads” listed on the map were more hopeful suggestions than actual places an adventurous minivan could travel. We took several wrong turns, many of which appeared to be places good for disposing bodies should the local need arise. Apparently we were looking for Coyote Lake (which we eventually found to be amazingly optimistic given that our home could have covered the body of water in question) and after nearly an hour of wrong turns we finally found the right road. We had been looking for the Sutton Public Library as a landmark to mark the road and funny thing, it turned out to be little more than a converted outhouse with a shelf of old Montgomery Ward catalogues. Hard to imagine how we'd missed it.

We eventually found the structure, turned left toward the Talkeetna mountains and drove way the heck back in there past the ominous sign saying, “state no longer maintains the road past this point” (there appeared to be blood splatters blocking some of the words but I think that was the gist of it).

Another twenty minutes closer to the Canadian border and we found what our map had called the “Coyote Lake recreational site” which consisted of an outhouse, a covered picnic area and a parking lot that obviously had not been visited by parks and rec for at least 30 years but was frequently frequented by local males enjoying beer and firearms. Completely empty of people and being so run down, it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere—I’d say a wasteland, but then the area was thickly forested with the usual birch, alder and spruce and was quite lush and beautiful if you looked up past the broken glass and trash in the parking lot.

We were in the process of unpacking tools and children and getting Lillian situated in the backpack (with stylish rain poncho strategically draped) when Spencer—who was too excited to stand still and who had already starting nosing around the parking lot, turning over rocks with his overkill pick ax—started yelling, “Hey Mom!" (WHACK!!) "Hey Mom!" (WHACK!!) "HEY MOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!” until we finally turned around.

“I found a fossil!”

I smiled and said, “Sure you did, honey!” in that voice mothers have patented which means "I'm really not listening" though this time I did stop long enough to glance at the cloven rock in his hand and saw, sure enough, a distinct leaf print.

Fossil Hunting in AlaskaWe chuckled and thought it was a good sign that we were being blessed for our noble parental efforts so we loaded everyone up and hiked to the “lake” area which was little more than a pond surrounded by thirty-foot sloping walls of loose rock leading down to the water's edge which was in various spots murky opaque blue or rusty brown.

The walls rising around us were layered sedimentary rock that had broken off and slid down in piles and around the top of the ravine erosion had undercut the layer of top soil and vegetation causing the trees and ground cover to tip over the edge and list down toward the lake. Very pretty really, though not terribly appealing for swimming, but in general rather secluded, mysterious and exotic.

The kids immediately set to work whacking away at the already crumbled rock. Heaven forbid there should actually be something like a mammal or dinosaur fossil to be found because the top layer of dirt was thoroughly strip-mined by my little Neanderthals.

After half an hour or forty-five minutes they'd found lots of leaf fossils; mostly aspen, alder, sequoia, magnolia about 50-70 million years old. Quite recent really, being from the late Cenozoic era when the area was supposedly a subtropical basin.

Andrew and I found some petrified wood and some good plant fossils—so many in fact that we had to abandon many finds—and the kids had a blast, which would be an accurate word given the amount of destruction they caused with the pickaxes. A resounding success. Score one for the parents.

Fossil Hunting in AlaskaWhen we got home we mixed a thin solution of Elmer's glue and water which we painted over the fossils to shine things up and bring out the details in the prints but in the days following the kids washed, catalogued, compared, and hoarded each of their precious finds in assorted shoe boxes until I was tired of finding rocks and dust all over the house and insisted on a new display strategy.

I suggested they save a few favorites but take the rest out to the garden as decorations and they
agreed to my plan so quickly I was instantly suspicious. Turns out what sold them on the idea was that leaving the fossils in the garden would throw future scientists off when they discovered 50-70 million year old fossils mixed in with the other modern stuff in the garden. They just wanted to mess with the paleontologists of the future.

That fits.

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Melissa B. said...

Oh, I LOVE fossil hunting! We used to find a fair amount of fossils on my Uncle's farm in West Texas. When we moved to VA, we went hunting for Civil War artifacts. The battlefields around here are full of them!

PS: I wrote about your Write-Away Contest this morning!

Shelly said...

Too funny! And what a fabulous idea, I'm going to have to try out fossil hunting with my girls!

Flea said...

Oh what fun! We've collected fossilized shark's teeth from a stream bed in northern Mississippi, as well as a river in central Florida.

I dedicated a video on Funny Bone Monday to you today. Scroll down till you see the Journey video. It cracks me up, especially the last quarter of it. :)

Robin Sue said...

My children would love to do this. I will have to look for a local place near me of course. I will have to look into treasure hunting too since that is new on TV as well. Great post, I enjoy your writing.

CountessLaurie said...

What a great adventure! I am a wee bit jealous. I googled fossil hunting in Massachusetts, but apparently no one wanted to be fossilized here. Oh well.

Thanks for sharing so I can live vicariously through you!

M said...

Love that last picture! Such a beautiful family.

Heart2Heart said...


Wow you and Andrew are very adventureous! What an incredible way to spend the day with your kids. Your boys seem very bright in their plan to confuse future generations!

Gotta love it and thanks so much for sharing. Glad you made it there and back home safely.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Maddy said...

Lovely! We went fossil hunting when we were in England but they were so fragile. I kept meaning to mould them into a resin to make paper weights........still on the 'to do' list currently.

3 Bay B Chicks said...

Such a great, great post Michelle. I especially enjoyed seeing a picture of you and your kids.

I actually feel like I am striking a bit of gold. I saw your feature on Kim's The Mommy Machine site and now this. Even though the latter is dated by a few years, it is great fun.

Oh, and my son would love fossil hunting. I am going to have to get out of the Bay Area and give this a whirl sometime.


CasualFridayEveryDay said...

This would be right up me and my oldest son's alley! How much fun. And I love that family photo. How blessed you are.