Travels With Charlie
Big Brook • Schoharie • Penn Dixie • Red Hill • St. Clair

James Brown, Marlon Brando got nothing on me.

When I was growing up having a godfather meant something. To me anyway. Mine was a friend and mentor of my dad’s. We weren’t especially close, he’d send the occasional birthday card, and once gave me an autographed set of postage stamps he designed, I wish I knew where they were. Nonetheless, I relished our extrafamilial relationship. So when my friends Tom and Phoebe asked me to be their son Charles’ godfather it had resonance for me, I was honored. Unfortunately I was living in San Francisco when he was born in London. It would be over a year before I met my godson, the summer we all moved back to New York.

Charlie was a sunny kid, head haloed by golden curls, cheeks creased in an impish grin. We hit it off immediately. Having no children and but few and far flung nieces and nephews, I lavished my avuncular affections on him. I used to walk him from their DUMBO digs to his favorite playground in Brooklyn Heights, and across the Brooklyn Bridge from his Manhattan preschool. I decorated his birthday cakes, a tradition handed down from my father. At least one was a dinosaur, a blue Stegosaurus as I recall. Charles had many enthusiasms, and one we shared was things prehistoric. When I shot a TV pilot at Calvert Cliffs I brought him a sampler of fossils from that famous site. And when I began to hunt fossils in earnest, Charlie was chomping at the bit to join in.

He must’ve been eight years old when we went on our first fossil collecting excursion. I had been finding brachiopods in a creek bordering a friend’s land in the Catskills. Charles’ family had moved to Westchester by then so it was an easy hour drive to Rosendale. His mom made a picnic lunch, and his baby sister sprawled on the cobble-like river stones while his golden retriever frolicked in the shallow stream. Charlie and I cracked rocks in search of spirifers and rhipidomellas. Later we all swam at a lazy bend in the creek, and Charles went home with stones laced with 350 million year old shells, the first fossils he ever collected. He was thrilled.

Later that summer he made a trip to his mother’s hometown in southern Indiana. There he discovered little rocky rings, like petrified Life Savers, in the stream behind her childhood home. They were stem segments from crinoids, or sea lilies, artifacts of the Mississippian Period. He made me a present of some when he returned east, proud to reverse our usual relationship.

    Big Brook and belemnites. (For more on this fauna, see the page Bitten But Good.)

For his next birthday I wanted to find another site in the area to take him and his friends. Searching the Internet I learned about Big Brook in Monmouth County, NJ. Prehistoric shark teeth, the tantalizingly remote chance of finding a dinosaur bone, it seemed perfect. We caravaned down in two cars, got lost for a bit, but eventually found our way to Hillsdale Road. The foliage was luminously new and the water chilly, it was barely May. The brook cuts through sediments laid down in Cretaceous seas and churns up specimens to pick out of the stream gravel. The boys found lots of belemnites, the amber cuttlebones of ancient squid, oyster shells and a few shark teeth. Best of all they had license to splash in the muddy stream. Meandering back to the cars Tom overheard one guest proclaim it the coolest birthday party he’d been to.

Though he didn’t need it at Big Brook, my birthday present to Charles was a fossil hunting kit I’d assembled: spade, safety goggles, chisel and a 16 oz. geological hammer. He promptly appropriated my new hammer holster and I never saw it again.

He got to use those tools in the fall when we joined the New York Paleontological Society on a field trip to Schoharie, NY. This was his first chance to rub elbows with other fossil fanatics. Trip leader Erich was infinitely patient with Charles’ breathless torrent of questions and thoughtful, if dubious assertions. We found lots of Devonian brachiopods, crinoid stems and sponges beautifully weathered from the rural road cut. They looked as if cast in concrete, and as it was a limestone formation, in a sense they were. The autumn leaves were peaking in the Catskills, the mountains rolling away to the north a shag carpet of yellow, red and orange. On the long drive home it seemed absolutely imperative to stop at a back road diner for pie. Yet Charles was underwhelmed by this classic site, famed in field guides and bibliographies. He was not impressed by sea shells and roundish rocks Erich assured him had once been sponges. He had already set his sights on other game. A month later he got his shot.


    Schoharie, looking east. C at Portland Point.

It was early November when we took our first overnight trip with the society, to Ithaca, NY. Deep in the vast belt of Devonian strata that girds the state, this is trilobite country. Trilobites were marine arthropods that had a marathon run of some 300 million years. They diversified into thousands of species, some the size of a place mat, others no bigger than the head of a pin. They had tough, articulated shells and crystalline bug eyes that seem to stare right back at you. They exude a peculiar charm over fossil collectors, and Charles had been bitten by the bug.

In Ithaca we were treated to a backstage tour of the Paleontological Research Institute.  We marveled at their hulking mastodon and ogled their wall of trilobite specimens from the region. Though trilobites are found worldwide, central New York State stands tall in this paleontological province. That night we watched the moon go all rusty in a full-on lunar eclipse from the frigid parking lot of a Friendly’s. The next day, bundled against a biting wind off Cayuga Lake, we crawled across the floor of a quarry at Portland Point, levering up layers of shale in search of trilobite graveyards. What we actually found were molting grounds. The black, disarticulated shells of these ancient arthropods stood out against the gray rock like chocolate chips embedded in cookies. There were lots of bits, usually separate heads (cephalons), tails (pygidiums), or bodies (thoraxes) but rarely all together in life position. Some of our lucky brethren turned up a couple of those. But any scrap of Phacops rana was a cause for celebration to Charles, a find as precious as a nugget of gold.

    Cretaceous shark teeth from Ramanessin Brook, Holmdel, NJ

The next spring we made the first of many trips to Ramanessin Brook, again with the NYPS. I built him a sieve that he used to collect Cretaceous shark teeth: goblins, porbeagles and crows. One time we took his English grandfather along, who bird watched in the meadow while we slogged through the stream below. Another time we camped at nearby Allaire State Park and prospected the stream two days in a row. Charlie’s favorite discovery that trip wasn’t any fossil, but rather a hatchet someone had left behind at our campsite

I had taken him on his first camping trip, deep in the Catskills. After the success of that initiation he acquired a tent, sleeping bag and backpack and made use of them on several road trips. The biggest was a 400 mile trek across New York State to Buffalo. We set up base camp on the shores of Lake Erie and from there explored the Devonian riches of the neighborhood.

Nestled in a residential suburb, the Penn Dixie quarry sprawls like a shopping plaza after a nuclear blast. There we braved scorching summer heat -- and dirt bikers -- to hunt Phacops and Greenops trilobites. Most were fragmentary, but some were enrolled like pill bugs. We also found a variety of brachiopods, including a beautiful pyritized spirifer. Charlie discovered a horizon peppered with "trilo-bits", as we dubbed them. When I dug down to the same level a few yards off I came upon a pair of complete trilobites over an inch long. They were beautiful, but extremely fragile. When I chiseled up the slab they were attached to, they shivered into pieces with each hammer blow. What I wouldn’t have given for a little consolidant, or a drop of Elmer’s glue.


    The counterpart of my shattered trilobite; C at Penn Dixie; trilo-bits.

One of the quarry volunteers gave us directions to nearby Smoke’s Creek. There we were happy to cool our dogs in the shady stream surrounded by strata bursting with the finest spirifers I’ve ever seen. In some stretches there were trilobites too. The creek winds around a municipal picnic ground and we were joined by a gaggle of curious kids. Like many locals, they had no idea of the Paleozoic wonders beneath their feet. Before we left I’d helped one of our new friends excavate a stony sponge the size of a grapefruit.

That night we celebrated with a big fire at our campsite -- after trading fossils with our neighbors for kindling. The next day we waded down 18 Mile Creek to the Lake Erie shore. I’d been there before and filled Charles’ ear with promises of beautifully preserved Athyris brachiopods and horn corals popping right out of the matrix on the beach. At the foot of a cliff halfway to the lake we came upon a local collector with a sledge hammer and pry bar levering up big slabs of stone at the water’s edge. He was after trilobites, but said it was hit or miss, you had to move a lot of rock to find a nice one. (On my next visit I would bag a small but complete Phacops in that very zone.) When we got to the lake shore fossils were much in evidence, but not as abundant as I remembered from the far side of the creek mouth. That crossing was too deep and wide for us to ford, so we retreated inland.


    18 Mile Creek at Lake Erie; Athyris and Mucrospirifer brachiopods; Phacops trilobite.

We moved camp to a KOA near Niagara Falls. It was probably the most urban camping experience I’ve ever had, but there was a swimming pool on site of which we were happy to avail ourselves. Later, on a whim, we walked across the Peace Bridge to Canada to watch fireworks over the falls. The next day we stopped at a quartz “diamond” mine near Herkimer where Charles hacked out a few gems to give to his mom. The quarry gift shop had some eurypterids for sale, the giant sea scorpions that are the NY state fossil. This set us plotting our next visit to the region even as we headed off on the long drive home.
We made several forays into Pennsylvania as well. First was trip to Red Hill, a big rural road cut famous for producing the earliest tetrapod fossils in the U.S. This landmark site is administered by the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences but allows supervised collecting by invitation. Again, we came courtesy the NYPS. Embedded in those red rocks are the remnants of a Devonian lakeshore. Certain sediments are full of appropriately green tinged plant fossils. People have chopped out beautiful impressions of isolated fern fronds, though a hash of stalks and leaves is more typical. At other horizons one finds the coin sized scales of the big predatory fish Hyneria, named for a nearby town. Their fang-like teeth are coveted prizes, as are the spines and even skulls of other fish. Ever so rarely diggers uncover the tiny bones of tetrapods, those first vertebrates to wriggle out of the muck and walk on land.

    Red Hill, it's steeper than it looks; Hyneria tooth (top), scale (bottom).

More of a cliff than a slope, Red Hill’s a steep, dusty hard hat zone. On a summer day the risks are falling, sunburn, and being swarmed by ladybugs. Hacking into the sandstone usually requires crack or sledge hammers, which we didn't have that first visit. Our best find was a single Hyneria scale the size of a quarter. (Another trip I scored a large Hyneria tooth, and come to think of it, dug that out with a dental pick.) Still, we enjoyed going down the road to the field station, housed in an old church, where the Academy displayed fossils from the site and elsewhere.

The next morning the group reconvened at an out of the way site on a farm near Turbotville. Here the earth seemed riddled with stems of Devonian bryozoans, corals and crinoids. There were brachiopods, gastropods and trilobites too, neatly eroded out of the crumbly matrix. One of our group found a stunning enrolled trilobite nearly the size of a ping pong ball. Most enticing was a layer of rock that yielded lots of cephalopod fossils, the straight, ribbed shells of orthocones. A friend spent two hours carefully excavating one flattened cylinder that came out 2 inches wide and over 6 inches long. Combing a talus slope I cornered livelier prey: a beautiful little ring necked snake, its smooth gray scales offsetting a school bus yellow collar and underbelly.

Charlie’s all time favorite site is a retired coal mine outside the hamlet of St. Clair. Our first visit there was on a bus packed with NYPS members and our president’s students. The day had begun rainy, and we made a muddy mess of the coach after a stop at Deer Lake. The few brachiopods and cephalopods we'd collected there didn’t make for an auspicious start to the trip. But the sun broke through at our next stop as we tramped a half mile down a dirt track through scrubby pine woods. Like the weather, our luck was about to improve dramatically.

The trail opened onto a black expanse of rock the size of a football field. It took only a moment to find the fossils –- they were everywhere underfoot. X-ray images of fern fronds popped against dark shale like police chalk outlines. Leafy silhouettes shone metallic with graphite in the spring sun. Braided roots like fat stone ropes snaked across the quarry floor. Charlie couldn’t contain his glee. Like all of us, he was a kid in a candy store. Watching him scamper over the slick rocks I worried he’d pitch himself into one of the pits dug by earlier collectors. But it’s the job of children to remind grownups of such unfettered joy.

300 million years ago much of Pennsylvania was a tropical swamp of ferns, horsetails and pithy lycopod "trees". Over eons the logs and leaf litter from this sodden rainforest compacted into vast seams of coal. Some foliage fell into swamp mud and fossilized as the mud turned to shale. Here at St. Clair the local chemistry precipitated an added bonus: the mineral pyrophyllite whitewashed many of these fossils, turning a former strip mine into a uniquely magical landscape.

While the fossils are virtually everywhere, getting really nice examples took a bit of trial and error. Chisels and pry bars are necessary to chop slabs of rock out of the formation, but fatter cold chisels tend to shatter the shale when you attempt to trim it into prettier or more portable slices. A flat utility chisel was an improvement and I've even tried metal paint scrapers, though their broad blades tend to damage the fossils you're working so hard to uncover. I dimly recalled hearing of old steel dinner knives used to excavate thin slabs of stone. So I threw a few in my tool bag on my last visit. Stiff, narrow and flat, they were a revelation. You can get a crack going with one knife, then tap another in from another angle to continue the split, and with a little care wind up with a thin, good sized plate worthy of display.

   Single leaf impressions and more typical hash found at St. Clair.

As he edges into adolescence I brace myself for the day Charlie loses interest in fossils for more teenage obsessions like girls and cars. I was surprised and gratified when he asked me to lead him and his friends back to St. Clair for his thirteenth birthday. It was a long drive for a day trip, especially with Led Zeppelin and Weird Al in heavy rotation on the boys’ iPods. But the trip was a success. Fossils were found, and thumbs managed to stay clear of hammers. We even brought a hand cart to haul out platters of fern embossed shale that now adorn his parents’ living room.

Charlie’s mom says these adventures have made a lasting impression, that he'll remember them the rest of his life.

So will I.