Collectors discover world-class fossil hunting in Southcentral Alaska

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

SUTTON, Alaska (AP) -- Bea Allen had been kicking over rocks with the toe of her boot for about five minutes when she found it.

Embedded in an elongated, tan-colored rock about the size of her hand was what appeared to be a six-inch-long, black branch.

''This is an outstanding fossil,'' she said. ''I'm not kidding you. This is a fantastic find. It's dimensional -- the whole branch. It looks like a piece of living wood.''

Allen is a rock hound.

She didn't know how serious her affliction was until she moved to Alaska six years ago from Michigan. Now living in Eagle River, she is only 40 minutes from some of the best fossil hunting in the state.

On a good week she will go fossil hunting two or three times.

And she's not alone. Members of the Anchorage-based Chugach Mineral and Gem Society have many fossil hunters in its ranks, as does the Mat-Su Mineral and Gem Society. Allen said she almost always runs into other fossil hunters on her excursions.

''You get the bug,'' she said. ''All over Anchorage people are doing this. I went to the eye doctor and found out he was collecting.''

Both the Talkeetna Mountains and the exposed rocks just off the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Glennallen offer world-class fossil hunting, Allen said.

The Glenn Highway follows the Matanuska River Valley and cuts through Cenozoic sedimentary rock that dates back to a time just after dinosaurs died off, about 65 million years ago. In the years that followed, plant deposits suggest temperatures warmed up.

Rock hounds and collectors have been going to the area for decades. Recently, teams of paleontologists from the University of Alaska have documented one of the world's largest and best preserved petrified forests here, with dozens of trunks standing in place alongside needles, leaves and seeds from a lush subtropical landscape.

Anne Pasch, a retired paleontologist from the University of Alaska Anchorage, says more than 43 species of plants have been documented in the area. Another paleontologist has documented fossilized animal tracks, too.

Fossils are easy to find in road cuts along Moose Creek, near Coyote Lake, Wishbone Hill and at the Jonesville Mine area, all near Sutton. The Chugach Mineral and Gem Society reports that there are 15 commonly found fossils in the area, including horsetail, sequoia, alder, elm, magnolia, seed pods, fern, pine cones and oak.

Longtime Anchorage resident Oro Stewart has been collecting fossils in these areas for 62 years.

''Petrified wood, mussels and clams, prehistoric squid. You find all kinds,'' said Stewart, whose basement is a museum complete with lighted displays of her fossil collection.

Another favorite spot is Eureka Creek off the Glenn Highway. But it takes a horse or an ATV to get back far enough, she said.

Where's it legal to hunt fossils?

Every government agency seems to have a different answer. Clearly, you cannot wander on to private property without the property owner's permission. And technically, under Alaska's Historic Preservation Act, all ''historic, prehistoric and archaeological resources,'' which would include fossils found on state land, must be turned over to the state.

The Mat-Su Borough requires anyone fossil hunting on borough land to get a permit, according to Fran Seager, a cultural specialist with the borough.

But no one appears to be enforcing either state or borough rules. The borough has no record of anyone bothering to get a permit in recent years; nor did Seager know of anyone being prosecuted for fossil hunting without a permit.

Instead, most hunters -- and even land managers -- seem to be following guidelines outlined in a pamphlet distributed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is also available on the Internet. It's called Fossil Collecting & Artifact Hunting in Alaska.

Collecting small samples on most public land is OK. But the bureau advises fossil hunters to check with the public agency that manages the land first.

According the BLM, here are the rules:

-- Generally, collectors can take small samples of plant fossils from state and federal land, but check with the federal or state agency that manages the land for specific rules;

-- Taking small quantities of invertebrates (animals without skeletal structures) such as insects, clams and snails is OK;

-- Fossils taken from state or federal land cannot be sold;

-- It is illegal to collect artifacts, including arrowheads, pottery shreds or human remains without a special permit for scientific research; and

-- It is illegal to collect or sell any dinosaur, mammals, fish or other fossil that has a skeletal structure.

Professional paleontologists view citizen collectors as both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, they uncover and share findings that lead to even greater finds. But much of what they cart off is lost to history.

The 65-year-old Allen is self-taught.

''I kick over every stone I see,'' she said. She learned about her hobby by hunting with Anchorage and Mat-Su rock hounds and reading extensively.

When she goes out, she likes to wear a fishing vest so she can pocket her finds. Setting a fossil aside sometimes means losing it.

''I'm am sure I have found fossils someone else has set aside and I am sure others have found ones that I set aside.''

She also carries a geologist's hammer so if she finds a rock with a crack in it, she open it. In her pocket are the orange bags that the morning newspaper comes in. They are handy for storing the rocks as she finds them.

When she finds what appears to be a fossil, she sometimes splashes a little water on it, which brings out contrasts. ''They say don't lick your rocks, but a lot of times I will just spit on them,'' she said with a smile.

At home, after cleaning the fossil with water-soluble craft varnish, she takes a little bit of Elmer's glue diluted with water and smears it over the fossil to permanently display the contrast.

''You don't want to make it too shiny,'' she said.

In her garage, she has much of her fossil collection stored in stacked pizza boxes.

Fellow rock club members help her with those she cannot identify. She also volunteered at the natural history museum in Eagle River before it closed.

The appeal of fossil hunting is ''that you never know what you are going to find,'' she said.

''It fascinates me that I'm holding something that was there before any human being,'' she said. ''I think God is present because it is a miracle that everything is still here for us to puzzle over.''

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