By Rachel Azima | Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
The first time my mom and I visited Alpena on the shore of Lake Huron, we came on a geology trip. Following a stop at a gypsum mine, we hunted for fossils. After this first taste, we became obsessed, returning again and again to look for more.
During our drives up north, we’d talk about the searches to come. “I hope we find some trilobites!” I’d say, and my mom would agree. The Holy Grail of fossils, trilobites were rare in the Devonian rock we searched in. We knew it was unlikely that we would find one of these peculiar, ocean-dwelling creatures, the cousins of horseshoe crabs and sow bugs, but this made the idea of finding one all the more alluring.
It was odd to think that this land, even this lake, was once covered by stranger seas. Here in Alpena, the fossil-bearing limestone was laid bare, the evidence of Michigan’s even more watery history crumbling out into the open. Glaciers that began scraping over this region a million years ago made both our lakeshore dallying and fossil hunting possible. The soft seabed of the Paleozoic era — the layer where our fossils rested — offered a malleable landscape. It yielded willingly to the creeping ice, soft sandstone and shale giving in, preparing the way for new inland seas. The Great Lakes emerged once the glaciers receded, this ice that cut away the layers and gave us glimpses of a deep history life hardened and preserved in stone.
And these fossils were what we wanted: tangible links to a distant past.
Our first morning in Alpena brought the start of our quest. We’d set out, armed with paper and plastic bags and mom’s startlingly wide fossil-hunting hat. A moment always arrived when our whole mission nearly fell apart: We’d pull up to the gate of our search site, Three Mile Dam — a small dam on the Thunder Bay River, about three miles from Lake Huron — and we’d see the “No Trespassing” sign. My mom would tense up visibly.
“I don’t know about this,” she’ say, looking around, probably picturing men in pickup trucks with shotguns just around the bend.
I bounced in my seat impatiently. “Come on, Mom! We drove all the way up here — we have to go! If anyone sees us, we’ll just tell them why we’re here. It’s not like we’re doing anything bad.”
As we climbed the rocks beside the dammed the river, there was no escaping the August heat. We squinted up at the sky, willing the big clouds that just barely skirted the brightness to make a move a plunge us into shadow. The artificial waterfall of the dam held an even roar, mocking us with its all-powerful, just-out-of-reach coolness.
The forbiddeness of this place gave it an extra charm in my eyes, making us more like Indiana Jones as we plundered the dam for treasure.
At first, it was hard to see the fossils as anything but more grayish rock. But gradually, as the sound of the water seemed to ebb to a hum, our eyes adjusted to gradations of texture and form. Soon, anything with a ripple jumped out at me: most were shells, some a familiar shape, like ordinary bivalves that needed a good washing. Others were elongated, their ridged surfaces pulled to narrow tips on either side, stranger than anything I knew. And the tiny disks of crinoids were scattered everywhere.
“Look at this one!” I’d shout, grabbing a piece of rock with a well-defined shell embedded inside.
I kept everything that caught my eye, unable to let go of a slab that had one perfect brachiopod, a slightly longer-than-normal crinoid stem. If a fossil appealed to me in some way — if it were a hair different from the one I’d just seen — I wouldn’t be able to part with it.
I tossed them in bags haphazardly, figuring that if they had survived hundreds of millions of years already, they wouldn’t break. Mom was more selective, picking and choosing, keeping in mind our basement already cluttered with relics.
Even more exciting was the discovery of a fossil with a different shape, something that wasn’t a shell, a form that seemed more insectile. And it never failed. If there were a knobby piece that could be a trilobite, my mom would find it.
“Rachel, come and take a look at this!” she’d call out, and I’d run over so we could breathlessly examine a mysterious fragment she’d found.
And this time, it finally happened: She held out a bug-like piece, a semicircle followed by slender bands, narrowing to a rounded end. It was oddly curled, almost into a ball.
“What do you think?” she asked eagerly.
I peered at it, felt its ridges. “It has to be one,” I said. A trilobite. Despite my devotion to my mom, I was jealous of her skill.
I returned to my own searches, doubly determined to find perfect specimens. And I wondered: How could these creatures persist for such unimaginable lengths of time and remain recognizable? The earth held its memory more accurately than its human inhabitants, but surrendered it only in these fragments, pieces that held inscrutable stories in states of surprising perfection. At home, I’d look up the names of the fossils I had found, though the names did them no justice. A “blastoid” looked like a stony bud, not something out of science fiction. And I found the artist’s renderings of the Paleozoic sea laughable. The images were too familiar, like any other ocean — not nearly adequate to the mystery of these odd forms, their fascination.
That night, when I would try to fall asleep, the fossils would still be there, a mosaic of a thousand ridged pieces pulsating behind my eyelids.
Once we were thoroughly baked, eyes exhausted from the search, it was time to leave the dam with our loot and return to the edge of the living lake. Sometimes we’d wade in the water, sometimes just sit and think.
One night we lingered late, stretching out on the rock to look up into the dimming sky. The lake was in a pleasant mood, sucking and slapping the rocks below us. The expanse above us slid through the spectrum, blue and violet giving way to a luminous grey. The sky receded further into shadow, until it was just dark enough to let stars emerge.
“Look, Mom! There’s Vega the Lyre!” I said softly, pointing out a bright, bluish star.
“What’s that?” my mom asked, startled. She pointed to the horizon. A full moon was just peeking over, uncannily large and bright. Quietly, we watched it rise over the water. Then once it reached a certain height, we noticed some disturbances on the lake.
Fish flickered everywhere, triggered in some mysterious way by the moon’s pull: Tiny shadows leaped out of the water and splashed back down in shards of moonlight.
We never wanted to leave.
I hold now to this great lake and to the fossils we hunted, those reminders of older water — ripples of azure and grey…dreams that open out into histories. ≈
The above excerpt by Rachel Azima from “Fresh Water — Women Writing on the Great Lakes,” edited by Alison Swan (2006, Michigan State University Press) is used by arrangement with the publisher (msupress.msu.org).