Unusual rocks turn up on north Cook Inlet beach

Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2005


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  Michael Carlson and his uncle Orville Engelby change a tire on Carlson's truck after hitting a sharp rock on the drive down the beach. Finding concretions is a lot of fun, Carlson said, but the drive down the beach can be a problem. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Michael Carlson, right, and his son Charlie pass a boulder as they walk the beach near the family's cabin on Cook Inlet several miles north of Captain Cook State Park. Carlson has been finding mineral concretions along the beach for four years.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

There once was a time that Michael Carlson sought any kind of job he could find. Didn’t matter the kind of labor, he just looked, sought and found what he could.

These days, the same arduous hustle that helped him get by while living those tough days in Seward is helping him build an incredible display of stones that he believes may be as many as 10,000 years old. And the beauty of them, aside from the obvious when you see them, is that they’re all right here along the shores of Cook Inlet, just north of Nikiski.

For this beachcomber, it is almost as surreal as it is exciting. Carlson lives for the lowest of tides, when he and his family can look for more of the stones which made up his first book. They crave the special time of day when more hints at history unveil themselves to him, tourists or anybody else having a mind to seek out these unknown treasures of the Kenai Peninsula.

A book Carlson put together asks the question, “What do you see?” when looking at the stones. Carlson himself sees many things, among them the opportunity for the area to add another tourist attraction and historical item, proving there’s more to the peninsula and its great waters than fishing.

“Dozens of locals are starting collections,” Carlson said. “And they’re all looking. What I found is people didn’t believe me. I’d show them rocks and they’d say, ‘I’ve been here all my life and I haven’t seen them.’


The concretions Carlson has found are all about the same size.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“But they had not been past Captain Cook State Park and at low, low tide. I showed people where to get them, and people realize they are out there, and I’m not just making this up.”

All it took was one

For Carlson, a man of natural curiosity, all it took was one find to get him going. That came when he purchased the Otter Creek Fish Camp, about six miles north of the shores of Captain Cook State Park, and saw a stone near his cabin.

The stones are concretions, rocks that form in layers around some object, like a grain of sand.

While Carlson thinks the stones are over 10,000 years old, Pete Stelling of the University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Geological Sciences said they may be even older.

“What he’s finding is from quaternary sediments, which means less than 2 million years old,” Stelling said.

Stelling used the analogy of a pearl in describing how the concretions formed into such intriguing rocks.

“As it is setting up, but before it is hard, water is able to migrate through and percolate through it,” Stelling said. “It dissolves with things like calcium carbonates. Water washes around something, like a stick or crab, it washes around that. Some of that grabs onto the stick, and pulls on, stays there, kind of like a pearl. A pearl gets a piece of sand in the oyster and gets more and more calcium carbonate.”

Carlson thinks the rocks may have formed under a glacier, which retreated thousands of years ago. Stelling said that glaciers in that area formed what is known as the Kenai Fjords, but he’s not sure that the rocks formed under a glacier.

Dr. LeeAnn Munk, Assistant Department Chair in UAA’s Department of Geological Sciences, thinks it’s more likely that the rocks “were weathered from a rock in the nearby area and transported by the glacier, and then melt water, and eventually deposited into the inlet.”


Carlson enjoys talking about the unique formations and distributes copies of a self-published book he has made of the concretions he has collected.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The rounded shapes come from growing face down in the clay. The tops are more likely to be smoothed by the water. But find one, turn it over, and you begin to see many different shapes and formations — each one a treasure chest of possibilities to itself.

“Once you form a concretion, and it’s a solid piece of rock, everything else gets stable,” Stelling said. “Once the concretion starts to weather away, then part of it can wash away and part of it can make really interesting patterns.”

Some are darker than others. Those that haven’t been jostled from a longtime resting place are lighter in color, very smooth in texture. The darker ones have usually been moved about.


Carlson said he finds many of the concretions lying with their most interesting details facing down. He doesn't know what he's found until he turns them over.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

And the rocks Carlson has been able to pick up, Stelling said, may just be the tip of something bigger to come. There may be more, and there may be some much, much bigger.

“They can get super big,” Stelling said. “Some of them can be half the size of a Volkswagen bug, ridiculously big. If you break them open, usually what you’ll see is layers and layers around an object. Sometimes it’s really small, you can hardly tell its there. The layers continue to form.”

After Carlson and his family found the first one near their cabin, they kept their eyes open for any others as they walked the beaches at low tide. They did find one more, straight out from the cabin.

“It was just a round one, but then, I knew they were out there,” Carlson said.

It was August of 2001, and time had come for him and his family, including wife, Susan, and sons, Charlie, 8, Rueben, 20 and Curt, 23, to return to their winter home in Luck, Wis.

“My family and I went home, and then I told them I was going to go back moose hunting,” Carlson said, a smile creasing his worn face. “But I really wanted to come up and look for rocks. So I came up for two weeks, just by myself, for two weeks during moose hunting season and I just looked for rocks.”

He laughs heartily when saying that, no, he didn’t go moose hunting at all.

“I did find one spot, at low, low tide about the size of a football field, where there were hundreds of them,” Carlson said. “All of them were laid (design-side down), you couldn’t even see the back of it. They’re like a turtle shell, laid right in the clay.

“Now we’ve given rocks and books out to almost everybody who comes down the beach. I bring up a hundred books every year and give them out.”


Most of the concretions feature round or oval shapes.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Changing lifestyles

Carlson and Susan, his wife of nearly 30 years, didn’t have an unusual trip to Alaska. He worked with his father until she finished nursing school, then they loaded a van, left the Midwest and came to the Last Frontier.

Alaska is special to Carlson. Go beyond its highways, he said, and you’ll discover the true beauty of the state. He always was a looker, whether it was for agates while on his paper route as a boy or sifting through his cleanup work in his father’s machine shop as a youth.

While in Seward, he would work multiple jobs in a winter’s time.

“You go to Seward in the winter, you might get 20 different jobs in a year,” Carlson said of his experience. “You go into town, see what’s going on, if anything can be done, like unload pipes from a ship, something like that. Bring sheetrock out. If nothing is going on in town, you go cut firewood for the day. That’s how you make a living in Seward.

“Then, eventually, this opportunity came up to go back to Minnesota to start this horseshoe factory with my brothers. And that just took off. We’d make a million more horseshoes a year than the year before. So 14 years later, we’re making 14 million horseshoes.”

And the world’s No. 1 company wanted to be No. 1 in the U.S., so Carlson’s factory was bought out. His wife won a lottery position for a spot in the Gray Cliff area north of Captain Cook park, the Carlsons eventually met up with a fish camp operator who needed to sell and now they’ve got their own treasure cove they wish to share with the world.


Carlson said this concretion reminds him of a mother with a child.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“This is luck,” Carlson said of his findings. “My whole family has found quite a few. Finding that spot, I thought that was a discovery that should be known about and maybe even in a museum to show these rocks.”

And the fish camp? Carlson does it just to be something, for the most part. He stays far enough north not to get entangled with more serious fish camps, pulling in his catch on Mondays and Thursdays. What he doesn’t keep of the salmon or give away to friends he takes to market.

I don’t need to make money,” Carlson says, alluding to publishing the book but not truly trying to sell it. “I sold my company. I do the fish camp just so I can get salmon. I love salmon. I can it, I smoke it, I give it away, and then the rest of it I’ll give to the cannery. I love that salmon.”

And rocks.

Spirits in them?

Could there be something mystical, magical or even amusing in the rocks? Carlson thinks what you see is what you get; that is, if you just see rocks, that’s what you have, or if you see spirits, then that’s what you have, as well.

You could say it’s a bit interpretive.

“I haven’t heard any Natives around here say anything,” Carlson said. “I talked to one Native around here and he had a word for them. It was in Native tongue. I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said ‘spirit rock.’ And then, I said, ‘Here’ — I had about a dozen I had just picked — I said ‘Take your pick, you can have one.’


Some concretions feature repeated shapes.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“His eyes grew big as dinner plates, and he jumped in his truck and took off. He didn’t want nothing to do with those things, those spirit rocks. So I don’t know what the Natives locally know. But you’d have to think they would have found these.”

Stelling said he could understand different interpretations of what Carlson has found, both now and in past centuries.

“You get a lot of different patterns (in the rocks),” Stelling said. “I can see different Native cultures calling them spirit stones.”

In other parts of the U.S., concretions have varying names and ways they are formed. Even at Otter Creek, there are concretions with more of an iron base. Munk said changes in acidity and available oxygen results in “precipitation (crystallization) of certain minerals such as calcite or quartz or iron oxides.”

“There’s a lot of stories around the world where Natives have found these and said they were spirits,” Carlson said. “In Virginia, the Indians there find them in the pools in the river after a flood. Their stories are that they’re dancers. They’re dancing around the pools of the river, and they’re going ‘Haya, haya, haya, haya.’”

“The Chippewas in Wisconsin and Quebec call them fairy stones. On the Internet, you’ll find the fairy stones look more like these than any of the other concretions I’ve looked up.

“The Natives in Wisconsin use them in their ceremonies. They line their ceremonial drums with them. They believe there’s spirits in trees, and some rocks. These would be the (kind of) rocks.”


Michael Carlson and his uncle Orville Engelby change a tire on Carlson's truck after hitting a sharp rock on the drive down the beach. Finding concretions is a lot of fun, Carlson said, but the drive down the beach can be a problem.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Does Carlson believe in such spirits?

“I don’t believe in spirits or nothing like these,” Carlson said. “These are just rocks. But the interesting facet of these particular rocks is that people (hundreds of years ago) did think there were spirits in them.”

Something to see

The salmon fishing keeps him smiling, and the horseshoe factory took care of all his financial needs. For Carlson, the rocks are a new passion. He wants to share his findings with everyone.

“I’ve never found anything in my life,” Carlson said. “But I’ve looked and looked. We once found one of them green glass balls on the beach (on Kodiak Island). We love to walk beaches and look for stuff. We’re beachcombers. That glass ball and now something like this.

“And I was spending all summer out there. I couldn’t figure out what’s out here. Anybody who’s done it figures what the heck, I don’t find nothing. And then all of a sudden, we started finding these rocks. It was something to look for. Then we find the mother load. That was amazing.”

Carlson has contacted different places about displays. But so far, he’s had few takers. Perhaps with more authentications his findings will get a place in visitors centers and Alaska museums. And along the way, Carlson hopes to find more people with knowledge of the stones.


The Carlson family cabins sits on the Cook Inlet beach near the area where they've found most of their concretions.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In the meantime, Carlson will gladly welcome those who come to the shore near Otter Creek searching for the rocks. He has his books available, which he’ll give you for free. And he’ll tell you a good area to look. He’ll probably share a rock to two with you.

“I haven’t had to go to a gift shop since I found these,” Carlson said with a laugh. “I’ve given away hundreds of these and they all love them. They put a book and a rock on their coffee table and they’re always interested. They’re a hot topic. I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’ve never had anybody so interested in anything I had in my whole life.’”

Not bad for a guy who once combed a different Alaska town just to get by day to day.

“I want to show people the rocks,” Carlson said. “I’m looking to share them with the world.”

Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.

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