Fossil hunting long-jumper

Was it just last week that I was sniveling about being trapped inside?  My, how time flies.

This week has been wonderful for outdoor adventures, with major portions spent hiking and exploring with my children.  Though the weather was not exactly picture-perfect, it did allow us to put many muddy miles on our boots.

One day was spent fossil hunting with my son.  As a freshly minted college student, he was developed a newfound interest in Hoosier geology that echoes a similar interest from his father.  After a lunchtime discussion punctuated by things such as “terminal moraine,” “anticline,” “crinoid” and “Can you pick up the check,” we decided to spend a day with the rocks of our state.

Recently I had become aware of the Crinoids of Crawfordsville.  That is not the name of a rock band but refers to world-famous fossils of prehistoric creatures that have been found along Sugar Creek in the Crawfordsville area.  These small, fossilized marine creatures were first found by settlers in the 1830’s and areas of heavy concentration were dug commercially during that century.

I often laugh when communities claims anything of “world famous” historical significance but after a bit of research, I learned the crinoid beds of Montgomery county are actually coveted by museums, universities and private collectors throughout the world.  We decided to see if we could find any ourselves.

One great way to find fossils is during early spring when exposed rock cuts have plenty of freshly shed material due to the wintertime freeze-thaw cycle.  Knowing the location of a massive shale bluff along Sugar Creek where I had permission to visit, we headed out on a gray foggy day.

The hike along the floodplain was far muddier than I anticipated but we soon arrived at the bluff.  Gingerly walking on the loose heap to avoid sliding into the deep, cold water below, we began poking among gray and tan stones.

We didn’t actually dig into the cliff, as that would have required a permit issued by state authorities.  However, simply rooting among the already-dislodged rocks is perfectly legal and served our purposes well.

Within moments we found all sorts of fossilized shells ranging from the size of a mouse ear to larger than a golf ball.  Almost all of them were protruding from broken layers of gray shale that undoubtedly had been the muddy bottom of the inland sea that covered Indiana a few million years ago.

Another good reason for fossil hunting during colder weather is to avoid problems with snakes, wasps, spider and other venomous critters that enjoy hiding under rocks.  As it was, the only interesting creature we found were two tiny blue salamanders living under a large rock at the base of the cliff.  We enjoyed them for a moment and then gently put their home back in order.

After lunch and more poking around, we visited Pine Hills Nature Preserve across from Shades State Park.  This is undoubtedly my favorite nature preserve in the state and certainly one of the most scenic.  As I have written about it numerous times, I shall spare further description but say that it should rank high on your list of places to visit this year.

The shale and sandstone cliffs of Pine Hills also contain a considerable number of small fossils and we found many rocks that contained interesting bits of shell and other material.  As the area is a State Nature Preserve, we did not remove any of the rocks.

Our fossil hunting day concluded, we headed home with our treasures.  My son plans on returning to school tomorrow with a few of the rocks in hopes that someone might show him the best ways to extract the fossil treasures within.

The next day involved a geocaching trip with my daughter and her friend.  Again, as I have discussed geocaching previously, I shall omit further details.  Along the way, however, an interesting thing happened.
As we were poking about a fencerow in search of a cache, I happened to look down and notice a snake a few feet away from my foot.  I’m pleased to note in the last few years that such an occurrence no longer causes instantaneous heart seizures for Yours Truly and I actually thought the critter was a bit cute.  At least until I saw his brother and sister coiled up a few feet away.

Somehow, on a blustery day far too chilly for cold-blooded creatures to be frolicking about, I had stumbled into some kind of garter snake convention.  Though running across a snake doesn’t inspire the same horrific fright it did only ten years ago, I can’t make the same claim when surrounded by a writhing herd of serpents.

On a related-note: I’ve decided to enter the Olympic standing-long-jump competition since I have now set the unofficial world record in that event.

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