This fall I am taking a class at college on the history of Paleontology of the Comox Valley.

Now here is the background.  Vancouver Island is not actually part of the North American tectonic plate.  It started at the bottom of the ocean west of South America and east of Australia.  As the plate moved northeast it came in contact with the North American plate which was (and still is) drifting west.  Our plate banged into the NA plate, slid underneath and lifted, creating the Rocky Mountains.  But part of this ancient undersea plate folded up and produced Islands.  These islands range from Catalina in California through the islands off Washington State and Vancouver Island all the way to the Queen Charlottes.  Yadah Yadah, a whole bunch of time passes.

The mud that covered the ocean bottom 100 million years ago turned into soft shale, incapsuling shells from billions of sea creatures.   As it moved north it became covered by a 100-meter thick layer of sandstone, and some volcanic materials.  Eventually as the Island folded up from beneath the ocean, it brought with it some of the deep shale deposits bearing layers and layers of dead sea life.    A million years of glacier runoff produced a cut called the Trent River that goes down to the bedrock, revealing the shale deposits.

Our Paleontologyinstructor organized a field trip to the Trent River, where we were given rock hammers to chip away at the exposed shale to hopefully discover fossils.  A bit of a hike from the highway, through forest, to arrive at a bend in the river, where at this time of year, you can walk across it (wearing rubber boots) to see the exposed shale cliff.

Now this is not like going to Drumheller where you might, with a hundred visits, find the toe bone of a land-based dinosaur like Albertosauras.  This is the sea bottom where you find dead clam shells and other sea creatures.

The wall of mud shale is surprising soft.  You can chip away and pull off layers with your gloves.  And every now and then you find a tiny bit of shell about the size of your fingernail that was a snail 100 million years ago.

22 of us in the class spread up and down the cliff.  Now this is actually a very important part of the Trent River.  In 1988 Mike Trask was stopping for a picnic on the shore of the river and recognized exposed fossils.  These turned out to be the complete fossil of the Elasmosaur, a dino-sized sea creature from 80 million years ago when our island was still the bottom of the ocean.  A very famous find, and the bones are a recreated as a highlight of our local museum.

I know this story is going on but bear with me there is a point.

So there we are chipping away at a wall of shale finding little fossils of tiny clams.  The instructor is Pat Trask, the younger brother of Mike.  He leads hundreds of children and adults on explorations to chip away at the bank and find traces of sea creatures.  As he pointed out (as I expect he has many times) we were maybe 100 meters from the famous fossil.

So there I am chipping away at the shale face.  Pulling off pieces roughly the size of a deck of cards, when I come across something that was not part of the face of soft black shale.  I thought it might be a toe bone from something exotic, and asked Pat to join me.  When we chipped it out, it was a rounded piece of basaltic rock.  The kind of rounded stone we find on the coast and in river bottoms all up and down the cost, but Pat said this should not be in the shale environment we were examining.  There should not be a small rounded river basalt rock buried in mud in the middle of an ocean from 80 million years ago.

He came up with a couple of theories.  The one that I liked best is that the Elasmosaur, like turkeys, would go to a river to swallow some stones to help grind their food.  Occasionally the stones passed through their systems and would be excreted, landing on the mud of an ocean bottom 500 kilometers from a river in South America, 80 million years ago,  only to be discovered by me.

Now that is the kind of story that makes you want to follow this paleontologist on future field trips.