Southeast Alaskans, visitors find awe and friendship in fossil hunting

Dave Strassman, left, and Ray Troll investigate a block of limestone crusted with fossil shells. (Photo courtesy Josef Quitsland)

Dave Strassman, left, and Ray Troll investigate a block of limestone crusted with fossil shells. (Photo courtesy Josef Quitsland)

Many in Alaska with a working knowledge of the plants and animals spend the long summer days exploring and collecting them.

One group of friends, mostly from Ketchikan, likes to travel an older, hidden version of this landscape.

Ketchikan-based artist Ray Troll was doing what expedition leaders do when they accept that they are off-track: reflecting next to the campfire.

“This morning we had a good day, didn’t we? But here we are on day two, and nothing, we’re skunked. We can’t find the spot,” he said. “You may think you know where the fossils are, but you know especially in Southeast Alaska, they are not easy to find.”

Self-described paleo nerd Troll spent his life drawing animals – living and extinct – and learning from the people who study them.

One thing he has learned is that all landscapes hold evidence of their geologic past.

Only, Southeast Alaska’s is hidden with trees and water.

“You gotta have a friend with a boat,” he said. “Or an airplane.”

Troll’s friend with a boat was Petersburg metalworker and artist Josef Quitsland, Also on the trip was Ketchikan UPS man, pilot and poet Tom Fowler.

Dave Strassman, who currently lives near Los Angeles, is another of their fossil-hunting friends.

These guys share an obsession with what some call “deep time.”

During the last weekend in June, the group retraces a trip Troll took with a paleobotanist a few years ago in the Tongass National Forest.

The group had to work around the tides.

Usually the rock layers that hold fossils are exposed along the shoreline.

An hour before low tide on the first morning, they hopped off the boat with a few hammers, a crowbar and a chisel to look for plant fossils from the Cenozoic era, or about 55 million years old.

This island was tropical then, with palm trees and “tiny horses,” Troll said.

“The horses would have been about the size of a beagle. The dinosaurs were extinct by then, but there were these large birds that stood maybe 8 feet tall,” he said. “There’s debate as to whether or not they were meat-eating birds or whether they ate anything they came across or whether they were plant eating birds.”

Everyone spread out at first, poking around different corners of the beach.

Fowler crouches down near a row of sandstone rocks near to the boat and taps the edges with his hammer.

“Sometimes, they break right in the right spot and there’s something phenomenal in there,” Fowler said as two pieces fall apart, revealing nothing. “Sometimes, it’s just like this. But you can see all the different layers and when you look, you know the whole floor here would have been just covered in forest debris just like in the forest over there.”

Further down the beach, the sandstone flakes off like paper, coated in black splotches — really old plant material. Finding something sturdier and better defined is the goal. At one point, everyone congregated around this one slab. The corner of a leaf was sticking out from between two layers.

Fowler and Dave Strassman’s son, Carson, work to make a clean break, while the elder Strassman cheers, “what do we got? What do we got boys? Look at that! It’s a forest floor! Look at that. Holy schmagoli.”

Tom Fowler of Ketchikan scrapes off a thin layer of sandstone to reveal the impression of an ancient leaf. (Photo courtesy Josef Quitsland)

Tom Fowler of Ketchikan scrapes off a thin layer of sandstone to reveal the impression of an ancient leaf. (Photo courtesy Josef Quitsland)

It is legal to collect about 10 pounds of plant or invertebrate fossils in national forests.

This story does not include any of the names of locations because scientists and enthusiasts want to make sure that some of these fossils stay put.

Researchers a few years ago cut out a giant palm leaf that is part of a new Smithsonian exhibition.

The island they visited on the second day is where scientists found a fully intact fossil of a thallatosaur, a marine reptile.

They stand around the campfire, a little humbled after not finding the 250 million-year-old Triassic fossils that Troll knows were somewhere nearby.

He seemed to have almost as much fun imagining the world that created them.

“These rocks were actually part of an island chain and maybe even a subcontinent that was way over by Australia or Hawaii and beyond at least,” Troll said. “They were on a conveyor belt across the ancient Pacific Ocean that has come up against North America and gone under North America and there are shards that split off and oozed to the side, and that’s what this stuff is right here.”

He said each of the shards they visited showed up at different points in Earth’s history.

“It just drives home this idea of a dynamic, fluid changing planet with a deep, deep history that will just blow your mind,” Troll said. “You begin to look at this landscape and it almost melts before your eyes.”

This history still is unfolding.

Troll and Fowler disagree on some of the politics around climate change, although both agree that it is happening.

“We know that the world is changing rapidly right now. The weather systems are changing. We’re trying to understand it,” Troll said. “And the only way to know, really, is to collect all the data that you can, and there’s a lot of the data that we’re standing on right here, right now.”

The next day, they took the fossil-fueled boat to a different island, and found the remnants of animals that existed on the other side of the Permian-Triassic extinction, which scientists consider to be the largest in Earth’s history.

Troll co-authored “Cruising the Fossil Coastline,” a book about the geologic history of the West Coast from Baja California to Alaska. The book comes  out in September.

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