Friday, July 9, 2010

tiny tracks, big find

my herald summer column started last week in parrsboro with the world's tiniest dinosaur footprint. next week: our very own lady peggy of the sea...


Published: 2010-07-04

Tiny tracks were a huge find

Parrsboro’s renowned fossil hunter George discovered evidence of smallest dinosaur

JON TATTRIE | BIGGEST & BEST

ELDON GEORGE was ambling along a Parrsboro beach on March 31, 1983, when he saw something that stopped him in his tracks.

An amateur fossil hunter since he was a nine-year-old boy, the then 52-year-old man knew unusual when he saw it: three tiny footprints skittered across a rock before disappearing.

George got down on his knees for a good look. He glanced at the tide. It was heading out. Good. He spent the rest of the day exposing all 21 gorgeous steps.

As the Fundy rumbled back in that night, George reluctantly abandoned what he was pretty sure were the tiniest dinosaur footprints in the world.

He called Donald Baird, a geology professor at Princeton University, at 10 p.m. and the world expert said he’d be in Nova Scotia pronto, but pronto would take two days.

Worried somebody else would spot his find and grab his glory, George went back to the beach at low tide and stood vigil over the small steps the whole day. He did the same thing the next day.

Baird finally arrived, rushed to the beach and verified what George knew all along: these little feet were huge.

George tells me this while sitting in his kitchen next to his Parrsboro Rock and Mineral Shop and Museum. He built the house himself. He built the rock shop, too, and collected its 300-million-year range of fossils. He’s eating a piece of blueberry pie with ice cream. On the radio, Lady Gaga is singing about her telephone.

George wound up in newspapers and textbooks across the world for the robin-sized Coelophysis and its penny-sized prints.

"It looked a lot like the Road Runner," George says of his little friend.

"He had sharp teeth and was a very fast runner."

George, who lost his wife to cancer 10 years ago and his son two months ago, muses about the permanence of fleeting moments, like the seconds Coelophysis spent darting across the mud 200 million years ago.

He microwaves us a couple of mugs of tea and shows me his basement workshop, complete with diamond-cutting knives to slice open his rocks, industrial tumblers to polish them and stacks of stones. A bisected gem looks like a sunset over the ocean. George shows me the rough outside it came from.

"You’d never guess it was so pretty inside," he says.

George is a rock star in geological circles. He appeared in a 34-page National Geographic spread in 1957, when the magazine dispatched a reporter to Parrsboro for two months. George is still enjoying his complimentary lifetime subscription.

Ken Adams, director of the Fundy Geological Museum, agrees to lead me to the dino-beach. We meet in the museum, which is undergoing a million-dollar renovation. I ask him when it will be re-opened. He closes his eyes and says he hopes by August.

Adams closes his eyes whenever he’s deep in thought. I resolve not to ask him any questions while he’s driving.

We hop in his car and speed down Two Island Road until the pavement turns to dirt and we stop by a dusty sign proclaiming the dawn of the dinosaurs. A rocky path takes us to the stunning coastline full of weird erosion sculptures towering out of the sand and in the water. Loons sing to the outgoing tide and crows holler from the cliff tops.

George’s find was a 20-minute walk to the left, Adams says, but he wants to show me another treasure trove to the right. We walk for 25 minutes, until the dark volcanic rock yields to orange sandstone that looks like it’s been painted on with a thick brush.

Adams explains that after George drew the global spotlight to Parrsboro, others followed and that led to North America’s biggest fossil find in 1984. Neil Shubin — discover of Tiktaalik, the "fish with hands" that shows the moment animals left the water — headed the mammoth hunt in his student days.

In his best-selling book Your Inner Fish, the American scholar calls Parrsboro one of the best spots in the world to search for ancient mammals and reptiles. The highlight of his 100,000-bone find was a tritheledont, a tiny creature that was part mammal, part reptile.

Adams peers at the rock face, quickly spotting flecks of small bone. The rocks are covered with them, with more exposed daily as the tide chews the cliff.

"It’s like a bucket of KFC bones," he says, fingering a small arm bone.

George, who still hunts fossils, calls the tide his personal fleet of 20,000 bulldozers excavating the bay. He shows me the tiny footprints in his museum. It’s like a letter in the sand from a long-lost relative.

George starts his story over again when a new visitor rings the chimes.

The proprietor of Canada’s oldest registered rock shop (est. 1948) is as enthusiastic as a nine-year-old boy. But a For Sale sign out front hints at the inevitable.

The 200-million-year-old footprints aren’t going anywhere, but the man who found them is: George is selling the shop and retiring.

If you want to see the famous fossils with their legendary hunter, make tracks today.

( jon@jontattrie.ca)

Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and the author of Black Snow and The Hermit of Africville.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Are the Bay of Fundy tides really the highest in the world? Does Halifax really have the largest ice-free harbour? Writer Jon Tattrie is spending the summer checking out some of Nova Scotia’s claims to fame for The Sunday Herald.

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© 2008 The Halifax Herald Limited
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