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Steele Gunnell, 12, left, and Wade Porter, 13, of North Oyster elementary school chip away with hammers and chisels by the Puntledge River. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)
Steele Gunnell, 12, left, and Wade Porter, 13, of North Oyster elementary school chip away with hammers and chisels by the Puntledge River. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)

Off the Beaten Path

B.C. museum spawns new generation of paleontologists Add to ...

Over the past two decades, Pat Trask has led thousands of school kids along the Puntledge River in the Comox Valley, hunting for treasure on the shale riverbanks.

He arms them with hammers and chisels, and trains them to look for the mud balls that may hold the remains of B.C. prehistory from a time when Vancouver Island was under water and giant sea monsters ruled.

It was his niece, Heather Trask, who put Courtenay’s little community museum on the map in the 1980s when she spotted the remains of a 12-metre elasmosaur – a long-necked marine mammal from the Cretaceous period – while fossil hunting with her father.

Pat Trask was, at that time, an electrician training to get his ticket on steam engines. He was persuaded to move to the island. He is now curator of natural history at Courtenay and District Museum and Palaeontology Centre, which attracts scientists from around the world, and his tours have helped reveal the secrets of a little-known fossil record.

For a child who has likely only ever looked at a collection of yellowed bones from some safe distance, the chance to bring a creature’s remains into the light for the first time in 80 million years , these expeditions offers the thrill of discovery.

One little boy, just minutes after arriving at the river bed, put up his hand and announced, “Pat, I think I found a fossil.” Mr. Trask, conditioned by many, many false alarms from his enthusiastic explorers, was stunned to see the boy holding out the tooth of an elasmosaur for his inspection.

The fossil bed covers a large swath of Vancouver Island, from Campbell River to Duncan, but most of its prizes are well hidden. The rivers in the Comox Valley have yielded much of the Courtenay museum’s collection: sea turtles, coiled ammonites the size of dinner plates, and clam shells up to four metres wide.

Blasting for a highway construction project nearby also uncovered the remains of a Tylosaur – a predatory marine lizard – thanks to one of the many amateur paleontologists who have trained their eyes here.

Mr. Trask’s family seems to have a knack for the hunt. Another of his relatives found the large jaws of a ratfish, a primitive shark that was likely two metres long. “He had never been fossil hunting before,” Mr. Trask noted. It was the first ever found in western North America, and also the largest.

A few years ago, remains of a species of an ancient vampyromorph – a precursor to today’s vampire squid – were discovered. “Our shale is the perfect chemistry to preserve them,” Mr. Trask said. By volume, the museum has collected about a quarter of the world’s cephalopod finds from the Cretaceous period.

The odds are good that the kids he has tutored will have fossils to take home. Mr. Trask asks them to consider themselves the custodian of a part of B.C. heritage. If the find is important, he will ask that scientists be given a chance to study it. But no law protects B.C. fossils outside of national and provincial parks. A bill is in the drafting stage.

Mr. Trask expects B.C. will adopt a law similar to Alberta’s to ensure that valuable finds are not exploited or destroyed by clumsy extraction efforts. But he hopes the law will not restrict the kind of prospecting that has spawned a new generation of paleontologists.

“I don’t want to deny a child the right to find a fossil – that eureka moment – but we need to protect the natural resources, and some places have to be protected,” he said. From the start, Mr. Trask recognized the value of even the youngest fossil hunters, with their keen eyes and boundless enthusiasm.

“Our bones, they are not laying all over the place, they are few and far between. For me, the more people I have out there the better, the more we’ll understand about the fossil record,” he said. “There is still a lot of room for discovery.”

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