Ridgemount Quarry • C&D Canal • Inversand
Fossils weren't the first obsession Gordon and I shared, that would be saké. We met through a mutual barhopping companion. One day that friend confided, as if rattling the skeleton in his closet, "Gordon's into fossils too, you know". Turned out Gordon had been buying ammonites, trilobites, and mosasaur teeth over the Internet. Personally, I don't care to collect fossils by credit card, I want to dig them up for myself. Gordon, I suspected, was ripe for an intervention.
So I invited him to come collecting at Ramanessin Brook. The fact that he immediately agreed said something, since it happened to be the dead of winter. Maybe it was his Swedish blood. Gordon is a big guy whose tattoos and Viking ancestry belie a mild mannered disposition and unassuming intelligence. He also owns a car. Half the time anyway. His co-ownership deal is a clever way of defraying the cost of keeping a vehicle in NYC. Smart, see? I was traveling to Ramanessin a lot in those days, catching a subway to a train to a taxi to get to the brook, a route that took over two hours and not a little cash. Our first trip together I met Gordon at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge and we shot out the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey. We made McCampbell Road in under an hour. This, I thought, could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I took Gordon on a tour of my favorite haunts. Slogging through the stream in his new wellies he seemed unperturbed by the frigid conditions. He came away with a decent haul of shark teeth and, more importantly, a hunger for more. We celebrated over beers in Red Bank, an inauguration of many joint expeditions to come. He was on hand when I found my first plesiosaur tooth as well as several fine shark teeth. He tolerated my jubilation on such occasions, for which I felt abashed afterward. The only reason I excelled was I knew the ways of the brook better than he. The balance of luck would shift as Gordon hit his collecting stride.
Every fossil hunter finds a method that works best for them. Some split rock, others sift gravel. I've happened on my best specimens by surface collecting. Of course no single strategy works for every site. Beach combing suits a shoreline whereas a quarry calls for hammer and chisel. And besides, it's nice to switch things up every once in a while.
We first visited Swope's Farm on a New York Paleontological Society outing. There, bryozoans and trilobites pepper a crumbling Pennsylvania hillside. As I combed the scree for specimens weathered from the rock, Gordon went straight for the source strata. Spying a glimmer of curve wedged between sharp layers of shale he hunkered down and went to work. He spent hours methodically removing overburden, which is to say the rock layers atop his target. Laying bare his quarry with surgical precision, he was rewarded with a 2x8 inch Devonian cephalopod in one unbroken piece. It was quite a feat, but he was just getting warmed up. I would see Gordon go on to whittle a whale vertebrae the size of a soup can from a block of clay at Calvert Cliffs. In an abandoned upstate quarry he labored to lever free a slab of limestone swirling with Ordovician gastropods. Lugging this monument back to the car his triumph was tempered by trepidation over how he would justify this acquisition to his wife. I marveled at Gordon's careful recovery of these trophies because I lack such patient perseverance entirely.
What we did have in common was a passion for finding fossils. We hit lots of the classic Northeast sites together: Big Brook, St. Clair, Penn Dixie, Calvert Cliffs. This took us on some epic road trips, day long drives up to Buffalo and down to Maryland. Endless stretches of highway reduced us to ogling road cuts and limning the finer points of hardware. What was the ideal weight for a crack hammer? When does a sieve become too big? How many chisels does one person need? I felt like the Michael Palin character “The Most Boring Boy in the World” whose favorite topic was shovels. It was more than a little scary.
Once we got out of the car, though, we were models of quiet concentration. I’m not interested in chatter when I’m trying to focus on finding fossils. I’ve been out with people who want to yak away all day and it drives me crazy -- or out of earshot. Gordon and I drift mutely in and out of proximity, breaking silence only to announce a nice find or a desire to move on. It's a good partnership.
We also share a love of nature, equally delighted to be wading in 18 Mile Creek with water snakes or swarmed by ladybugs on Red Hill. We’ve been stung by jellyfish in the Chesapeake and kayaked with alligators in the Everglades. One day, hunting for an elusive Trilobite Mountain in New Jersey, we found instead a bunch of big indigo snakes lazing on a sunny rock slope. We never located Trilobite Mountain but we could claim to've discovered Black Snake Mountain
Cephalopod in situ at the Pompey road cut, in the heart of New York fossil country
Despite his love of the outdoors, Gordon is not an avid camper. On a long trip, spending days deep in dust and dirt, he looks forward to nothing more than the comfort of a motel. I can’t blame him. But motels can offer their own species of discomfort. Near Red Hill we had the misfortune to book into a rural inn where we seemed the only guests not attending the wedding reception below us. It's a little awkward asking a wedding party if they could try to keep it down a little.
But that's what makes one New York site especially attractive. At Tully you can roll out of a motel bed and wander out back, coffee in hand, into some prime fossil beds. The blasted hillside behind the local Best Western may not seem much of a tourist destination, but it's Club Med for paleo folk. Chipping away at the shale terraces reveals spirifers, Grammysia bivalves and the odd trilobite. It's dusty when dry and muddy when wet, so the proximity of a hot shower makes the location all the more inviting.
Central New York State is Devonian fossil paradise. 350 million years ago the Allegheny Plateau was a sea floor. Now it's a region of rolling, wooded hills gashed by deep glacial lakes. Stream beds and road cuts expose the rocks beneath the trees -- and the ancient marine world locked within them. But that's not the only thing ancient about this area. Rust belt towns and farming hamlets dot the map with classical names like Homer, Fabius, and Ithaca.
I cannot attest to the grandeur that is Rome, NY, but outside little Pompey there’s a road cut swimming with undersea fossil fauna. Tucked between layers of flaky shale are neatly preserved, button-like gastropods. The friable rock is less hospitable to bivalves and the odd trilobite, which tend to crumble when freed. The corrugated cones of cephalopods prove sturdier, even when squashed like so much road-kill calamari.
2-1/2 inch Dipleura cephalon, nose and all; Cole Hill Road in peak fall color.
Further east you could be forgiven for blinking and missing the village of North Brookfield. On Cole Hill Road, perched above a bucolic farming valley, is a mudstone bluff that's been half hacked to rubble by fossil hunters. What's fueled such devastation? Embedded in those rocks are the remains of the estimable trilobite Dipleura dekayi. Elsewhere in New York -- a state renowned for its trilobites -- a two inch Phacops would be quite a find. With Dipleura, that's just the head. People attack that hill with sledge hammers and crow bars in search of entire, articulated specimens. But a passing local told Gordon that in 60 years she never heard of anyone finding a whole trilobite there, just separate heads (cephalons), tails (pygidiums) and thoracic segments. I've spent hours hammering at that rock face myself, but found splitting the stones piled around its perimeter more rewarding.
Though the trilobite parts are relatively abundant, they expose neither easily nor neatly. It takes hefty crack hammers and stout chisels to fracture those rocks. And then you can count on some bit or other, like the Dipleura's distinctive "nose", staying encased in matrix or flying off with an unfortunate hammer blow. Despite our NYPS president's mantra "Don't trim in the field!" ringing in my ears I ruined a few promising specimens attempting to crop off some surplus bit of rock. Once I managed to rein in my impatience I came away with a respectable handful of triangular tails and a couple of bug-eyed heads. And trilobites aren't the only super-sized fossils at Cole Hill. Big bivalves turn up too, though their flat shells stand even less chance of surviving rock splitting intact. Other regular finds include spirifers and coiled gastropods.
Briggs Road: trilobites; Leiopteria in the road; Greenops trilobite; fossiliferous pavement.
At nearby Briggs Road the fossils are literally in the road. Cephalopods and pelycopods stud the shale underfoot like paving stones. But collecting them would put you square in the path of pickups and SUVs barreling over the hill. It's safer to dig in in the miniature quarry right off the shoulder. How people came to excavate this remote spot is anyone's guess. But someone, sometime, set to carving a crumbling amphitheater out of that wooded hilltop. High, ocher layers boast big, rust infused Spinocyrtias, humbler brachiopods, and cephalopods. Down lower, dull brown shale splits to reveal trilobites, some flat, some enrolled. There's something tragic in enrolled trilobites. Curled against impending doom, they must have sensed what was coming, the mudflow that buried them, they were not caught unawares. Where most fossils inspire wonder at long gone life, enrolled trilobites remind me of death.
Having introduced Gordon to the NYPS, we attended many society functions and field trips together. But we also sought out sites on our own. Internet postings led us to spoil piles dredged from the C&D Canal in Delaware. There Cretaceous belemnites and oysters are scattered over several sandy acres.
Carbondale; G dusting off 300 million year old horsetails
We used satellite photos to locate a site behind an apartment complex in Carbondale, PA. Dumpsters mark the mouth of a dirt track through thorny thickets, past smashed bottle fire pits, dead ending at a stand of trees. A path through the woods emerges into a meadow stretching a quarter mile in three directions. The first spring we went there this was a panorama of rutted mud, backhoes lurching irritably in the distance. Summer a year on it was overgrown with clover. The meadow is subdivided into an upper plateau and a lower field by a steep slope cluttered with scree and boulders. That slope is also littered with the detritis of an ancient swamp, the remains of lush ferns and humongous horsetails.
Glossy black lumps of anthracite suggest this was once a coal mine. Like St. Clair, it's full of 300 million year old plant fossils. Unlike St. Clair, the specimens are not in situ. Chunks of shale containing beautiful fern impressions lie sideways so you can slice them like ham. Heavy planks of lycopod bark go tobogganing down the slope with a misplaced footfall. And rust stained boulders encase thick Calamites stalks, the trunks of giant horsetails. Gordon recovered a couple of shattered sections of these our first visit. The second time around I humped a stout cylinder home that would make a fine doorstop.
We ventured over the border into Ontario to comb the floor of Ridgemount Quarry for eurypterids. Popularly known as sea scorpions, eurypterids were the largest arthropods ever. Some species topped 9 feet and were surely the apex predators of the Silurian. Others were likely as placid as their distant cousin the horseshoe crab. At Ridgemount they seemed to hide in plain site even though bulldozers had scoured the shale down to their level. We found that what was wanted -- along with crack hammers and extra flat chisels -- was a good stiff kitchen broom to clear away the dust and debris. Our quarry revealed themselves mostly as scattered abdominal segments, dark straps on the pale stone. Eventually, Gordon became adept at finding articulated telsons -- tails -- several over the course of the day. After a few hot, frustrating hours my own luck finally manifested at the other end of the animal: I scored a couple of nice heads. On our way back into the States we stopped at Niagara Falls where we were happy to cool off in the spray of the Cave of the Winds.
Ridgemount Quarry; one of Gordon's eurypterid tails; one of my heads, 2 inches across.
On another blistering June afternoon we slogged into the Inversand Pit under the auspices of the New Jersey State Museum. Like the quarry in nearby Haddonfield that gave the world its first dinosaur skeleton, Inversand is a marl pit. Marl is a greenish black clay that's been used as farm fertilizer for centuries. What we didn’t know at the time is that the infamous K/T (now K/P) boundary -- the much studied strata marking the end of the dinosaur era – is exposed there.
Streams trickle into the high walled pit and trace a swampy delta around the pool at the bottom. After some initial reconnaissance Gordon set to diligently excavating a hole. I meanwhile prowled up stream channels and over mounds of clay surface collecting.
After a while Gordon began to pull pale, walnut sized nuggets out of the marl. The quarry workers call these “squirrel heads” but they're really the internal casts of a Cretaceous bivalve. He and the lady down the way had unearthed gastropods too. All I'd found were bits of shell. In a fit of envy I planted myself a few yards away from them and began shoveling furiously. It was like digging at the beach, no sooner had I removed some clay than water seeped into the hole. I was about elbow deep in mud when my spade hit something hard. Rooting in the muck I began to dredge up my own squirrel heads. I also produced some flat shards that looked like ossified bits of cracker. When the paleontologist from the museum came by he glanced at these and exclaimed, “Crocodile!” Those shards were pieces of crocodile armor, osteoderm. He told us how a crew from Princeton had excavated an entire crocodile skeleton there the year before. I began digging with renewed zeal, finding more pieces of armor and chunks of bone, but it was right about then we were summoned back to the bus to leave.
Weeks later I was tinkering with those croc scraps to see
if any of them fit together. Miraculously, I discovered that they all fit together. I had a near
complete crocodile scute four and a half inches across. Then it hit me
that I probably broke this plate with my trowel as I chopped out my
hole. I wondered ruefully if I’d had Gordon’s implacable patience I
might have recovered it whole.