The two 60,000-year-old Pleistocene mammoth tusks look like they might be a matched set. Looking up the frozen cliff, it’s hard to tell from here. I can see that they’ve mineralized a vivid blue, a very sought-after color for carvers. I doubt the skull is frozen back in the ice lens because of the angle of the tusks. Even though the tusks are sticking out about eight feet, both the base and tip of each is close to the surface. I’ve learned that before I do anything, it’s wise to study the situation awhile. Mistakes can be costly here alone in the Alaska wilderness. I may also miss other finds nearby.
Tusks are heavy, so they usually sink below the bones. If the rest of the animal is here, it will be as much as a hundred feet higher up the cliff. I notice a fine white line at the level of the tusks, which is a small shell layer, the bottom of an ancient pond. Knowing what the area was like, how the animal died, helps in finding the fossil remains. If the mammoth died in the water, the animal should flip upside down due to the weight of the tusks and gasses bloating the stomach. In a flood, the pointy ends of the tusks drag on the bottom and tend to get hung up at the upstream end and at the bottom of a log jam. I look for prehistoric log jams.
I see shells, so I think ‘water’, and ‘flood’. I see ancient wood, again, ‘flood’. The root wad of a tree drags on the bottom and behind, with the pointy top end going downstream. A majority of pointy ends facing the same direction shows me downstream. I scan the upstream side of the log jam closer, for bones, tusks, or remains of other animals. Whatever killed one animal may have been the cause of death for other animals, such as bison, musk ox, horse, and ancient elk. A predator like a Smilodon cat is possible, but a rare find. Being in the right age layer is most important. No use even looking at other layers in the frozen mud.
I am idling the river boat engine. The Kantishna River is eating away at the permafrost cliff. This is interior Alaska, backside of Mt. Denali. I stare up at house-size chunks of mud that slide or fall from 200 feet up. In the peak of the short summer with the never-setting arctic sun the cliff can lose 100 feet a day into the river. This is ancient glacier silt, powdered rock. There is a smell of ‘rot’ in the air, with oil oozing out of the primeval muck. The smell is an indicator of being in the right area where ancient animals died. Sometimes there is hair, sinew, bone marrow. I’m told that, not far away, across the Bering Strait, in Siberia, there is even flesh sometimes found. I’ve been fossil hunting for almost fifty years, but I’ve never found preserved flesh. But I’ve found hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds of ancient animal remains. Tusks and teeth are the most valuable.
I have a specially built boat and engine for my hunting. I need to be able to go 800 miles without having to buy fuel. My boat is long and narrow with a flat bottom and low sides. Easy pushing, like a canoe, but not particularly safe. The boat is rated for a 40-horse outboard engine. Mine is 115 horses in harness. The back of the boat had to be beefed up, in which I can load 2,000 pounds with an inch of freeboard. I try not to go over 30 mph, keep it under 3,500 rpm, and burn under three gallons of fuel an hour. Speed and fuel consumption are two of the most important aspects of this kind of hunting. If I run out of gas it can cost my life. I can run out of anything else and get back to civilization for more. Time is important in emergencies. The nearest road, gas, or human, is over 300 miles away. It cost me about $500 to be here, and that is if everything goes well. I’ve had it cost thousands of dollars and an entire summer when unexpected things go wrong.
Fossil hunting for me becomes an entire lifestyle. I know how to live off the land. I hunt and fish for food, build shelters for the night, and deal with bears, mosquitoes, even outlaws, as this part of Alaska is a long way from civilization. It’s extremely important to know how to read the water, as it’s not possible to see even an inch into the silt river. Luckily there are few rocks in the shallow rivers where I go, but submerged logs can be hazardous. I’ve learned how to read the water’s surface by how the current responds to know when and where there’s an obstacle underwater.
There’s nothing to which to tie the boat against this mud cliff, so I idle the engine and angle into the current to hold myself steady. I spend half an hour just studying the situation. The roar of a cliff calving interrupts my thoughts. The cliff gave way a quarter mile away yet sends a wave that rocks the boat. It’s not safe to remain here long. The sun is shining on the ice. I decide that if I do nothing the tusks will fall out of the calving cliff on their own and land in the shallow water at the base of the cliff. There are a variety of options. I’ve shot my hunting rifle at the ice surrounding a fossil to knock the ice away. I now carry several hundred rounds of ammo because it once took over 100 rounds to chip two feet of ice away from a massive tusk. If low enough on the cliff I can toss up a grappling hook or use the fish pole and weight on the line, then pull up a bigger line. It’s rarely possible to climb the ice and repel, partly because the cliff face is sliding and sloughing off too fast; there’s nothing stable enough to trust to which to tie. I tried a drone once but found it unreliable under harsh conditions. I’ve had a variety of interesting things happen retrieving mammoth tusks.
When hunting fossils there are legal concerns, safety, insurance, and liability issues. I’m not a lawyer so I can’t give advice, but it’s my understanding that, for now, in Alaska, fossils fall under mineral laws, which state that to find minerals one must be on land — examples are old homesteads, Indian land, mine claims. I have permission from various landowners to look for fossils on their land, with the understanding that I do not share the exact location, as, of course, landowners don’t want the public showing up, digging, and altering the scenic landscape.
If you wish to find fossils yourself, keep in mind that it matters whose land you are on. Sometimes the incidental find for personal use is acceptable in many situations, but it’s best to inquire.
A tip I offer on how to spot a fossil is to look for what I call “anomalies”. Look for something that doesn’t seem like it belongs or doesn’t fit in to the landscape. It can be a color or a shape. I develop an eye for what should be there. Twigs, leaves, various natural debris become a pattern. A fossil will often be shiny, or an off-color like black, blue, or red. I prefer waterways after floods or turbulence, followed by a drop in the water level. Gravel pits, excavation areas, roadwork along hillsides, anywhere the land gets disturbed and gets into the right age layer are all good places to go looking.
It takes two days of waiting for a matched set of eight-foot tusks, weighing about eighty pounds each, to fall into the mud at the water’s edge. Eighty-pound tusks aren’t huge. I’ve seen tusks that weigh over 200 pounds and measure fifteen feet long. This new find should be worth at least $100 a pound, if they’re handled right. These tusks have been under pressure in the ice for tens of thousands of years. Upon release, the internal pressure works on the tusk and it may want to warp and twist. The tusks are wet and need to dry evenly from inside out. If the outside dries too quickly the outer layer will shrink and crack around a swollen inner layer.
Within an hour of acquiring a tusk I put hose-clamps around it every two feet so it can’t expand and, thus, it can’t crack. I wrap plastic around the fossils and keep them out of the sun in the bottom of the boat. Later, when I’m home and have washed the mud off the fossils I paint a mixture of half water and half Elmer’s glue on the whole fossil. Elmer’s works well on wet material, and dries clear, making a seal so the tusk or bone dries slowly.
It might be a week before I am home, but when home I lay out all the fossils and use a garden hose to get the mud and silt off. This is often the first time I get to look closely at my finds and determine what kind of shape they’re in. I can do a preliminary grade and decide what level of care each fossil needs. After the coating process, the fossils are placed in plastic bags and they’re put in my shop, which I keep at a temperature of fifty degrees. Every few days I turn the fossils and open the bags to let moisture out. In about a month I cut holes in the bags to speed up the drying, and they’re eventually removed from the bags after a few months. A tusk or mammoth tooth should dry for a full year before calling it stable enough to put on the market. Fossils sold too early and then not taken care of by the buyer may later crack and fall apart.
You likely picked up this Tucson EZ-Guide at one of the gem, mineral, fossil or jewelry shows in Tucson, so you’re aware that many — actually around 4,000 — fossil, gem, and mineral dealers (of which I am one) come to Tucson every year in January and February. We sell our wares at over 40 “gem shows” that comprise the biggest citywide gem, mineral and fossil showcase in the world.
My small business is called Miles of Alaska. Not only do I find and sell fossils and minerals that come from my home state of Alaska, I’m also a storyteller. My stories come from the source, I find nearly all of the materials that I sell in Tucson, and I create the art from the materials I find. I’ve written books and also sell them when I come to Tucson. I hope you’ll come to see me at the Fossil & Mineral Alley Show at Days Inn. I’m in Room 127, and the show runs from February 1-15, 2020.
There are at least two other Alaska dealers at the Days Inn show. One is a world-class expert on ancient human-worked fossil ivory tools, another specializes in stone tools. Interesting dealers abound at my show: A dealer next to me specializes in just meteorites, another is a leading expert and seller of short-face bear fangs and skulls, and another has replica fangs, skulls and entire skeletons. There are three rooms of nothing but shark teeth. Russian fossils take up a big tent in the parking lot, specializing in full mammoth tusks from Siberia. There are over 100 dealers at this one show! Most of us sell wholesale to gift shops, supply museums, and high-end collectors, but, also, during the show, we sell retail to the public.
We all look forward to seeing you here, a very exciting, intense two-weeks of buying and selling of the most interesting and beautiful things that were hidden for millennia from man’s eyes! As the folks who publish the EZ-Guide say, these are “The Greatest Shows Unearthed”!