Searching for Fossils – Many More Walks

Category: I Grew Up on a Farm in Virgina

Exploring the Beach

Many of my experiences are associated with my walks—the walks were the key to my discovery and learning process.

The Farm; arrows roughly show extent of the sandy beach.

The Farm; arrows roughly show extent of the sandy beach.

The river, from the marsh to just before curve below the railroad tracks had a small sandy beach. At the fish house, where there was an access road down to the beach, there were ten yards of exposed sand beach at low tide.

From that point, I could walk the beach up to a point beyond the upper house. The shore along the edge of the river was wooded. This helped hold the soil and slowed erosion. Still, there were always trees that had been undercut by the constant action of the water and that had fallen across the beach. These, however, were not a barrier to a teenager’s explorations.

I had also learned about tides. There were two high tides and two low tides every day, and every day high and low tide were about 45 minutes later than the day before. During a full moon, the high tides were higher than average, and low tides lower.

Knowing the tide schedules, I looked for opportunities to explore the beaches when the moon was full, because more of the beach would be exposed.

Water snakes frequently sunned themselves in the fallen trees. Climbing over these trees, I would hear a light splash as they dropped into the water and swam away. None of the water snakes we encountered were venomous. The common brown water snake had a distinctly arrowhead shaped head, similar to moccasins and copperheads, but they were not moccasins—in spite of what everyone told me. I made it a point to know.

The Find!

This photo, taken on the shore of the York River on the Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, is almost identical to the shore along the farm. Below the bluff, the steep bank seen in the background would have extended upwards 100 feet or more above the river. (Photo: Naval Weapons Station Yorktown)

This photo, taken on the shore of the York River on the Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, is almost identical to the shore along the farm. Below the bluff, the steep bank seen in the background would have extended upwards 100 feet or more above the river. (Photo: Naval Weapons Station Yorktown)

Walking along the beach, it was possible to find all manner of things. Good boards and lumber frequently washed ashore. I collected the good pieces and took them back to dry—we always had a use for good boards. Of course, there was plenty of driftwood—some of it formed from long dead trees—was scoured cleaned, aged and beautiful. The better pieces made their way to the house for yard decorations. Occasionally, I would find a beached boat. Most of these boats had been adrift for weeks, months, or more, and were not salvageable.

Animal tracks were common, especially raccoon, opossum, otter, and muskrat, and occasionally deer. Tracks were fresh since the last high tide. I learned animal tracks through direct observation and could identify an animal as definitely by its foot print as if I had seen it myself.

I also found Indian pottery and arrowheads lying on the beach that had washed out of the nearby bank.
There was one area that I explored regularly. This was the beach at the base of the bluff below the upper house. The soil on the nearly vertical bluff was exposed, with little vegetation. It was being eroded away ever so slowly, exposing whatever was buried in that deep soil.

This is almost exactly like the vertebrae that I found over the years along the river. Unfortunately, I cannot find the photos I took in the late 1950s. (Photo: www.fossileguy.com)

This is almost exactly like the vertebrae that I found over the years along the river. Unfortunately, I cannot find the photos I took in the late 1950s. (Photo: fossileguy.com)

On one walk, again, I was about 12 (c. 1956), I came across my most exciting find. Lying on the beach, right at the base of the steep bank, was a vertebra that was eight to ten inches in diameter. I continued to search the beach and found two pieces of flat bone, apparently from a large rib. Each piece was about the size of my shoe sole. I gathered the heavy fossilized bone pieces and hurried back to the house.

My parents were curious too. My father had found sharks teeth along the beach, but never bones of this size. Mother knew they were not shark bones—sharks do not have bony skeletons except for their jaws. She suggested that they were from a prehistoric whale.

We boxed the bones and sent them to my Uncle Neil at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He took them to colleague in the paleontology department who confirmed that they were indeed whale bones. He could not tell the exact type of whale without more fossils, especially teeth or jaw bone, but based on the size.

Over the next few years, I found many more bone fragments and vertebrae along that beach. I was also able to climb the face of the steep bank by using strong young trees rooted into the bank, and found a rib bone in the bank. It was very fragile. When I dug out too much of it, it would break and fall away. I left it thinking I might come back with plaster-of-Paris like the real paleontologists used to preserve fossil bones.

I never did.

Note: The Naval Weapons Station Yorktown photos were taken where similar fossil whale bones were found in 2013.

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One Response to Searching for Fossils – Many More Walks

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