It all started over Christmas break. My family, along with my wife’s parents, was spending the day at the Field Museum in Chicago. In typical fashion, everyone was far ahead of me as I slowly perused the exhibits and tried to read them all.
I was making my way through the Evolving Planet section towards Dinosaur Hall. Part way through I passed by a gentleman. Something he said caught my ear so I listened more intently without trying to be too obvious.
He was talking to about Coal City, the Mazon Creek, Morris and the surrounding strip mines. I was fully interested now. How often do you walk by someone in downtown Chicago at a museum and they are discussing your hometown?
I noticed that he was standing in front of a display of fossils from the Mazon Creek. I couldn’t help myself so I kindly interrupted and mentioned that I am from that area. We talked for quite some time and exchanged contact information.
It turns out I was talking to Andrew Young. He is a painter by profession and uses fossils as an inspiration for his artwork. One thing led to another and this last Saturday, Andrew and his girlfriend came down to our neck-of-the-woods to do a little fossil hunting of our own.
It had been many years since I had set foot in a creek bed with the purpose of looking for fossils instead of smallmouth, but I was game for this latest adventure. My entire family was anxious to try our hand at this, especially the boys. They very much enjoyed our geode hunt last Thanksgiving and wanted to expand their rock finding skills.
We drove to the farm that we were going to hunt from and unloaded with buckets and rope. The water was a little high in the creek this day so it was a sure thing we were going to get wet and muddy. We traversed down the land until we found a place we could access the creek bed.
It is hard to imagine that this very place was once a vast coastal marsh that stretched for miles. It is nearly impossible to wrap our minds around the fact that the prehistoric life that called this area home was vast and varied. It is also amazing that conditions in this place were so unique and perfect for persevering plant and animal life, that we can now see them millions of years later.
In a matter of minutes we had found a specimen that was already split open. As clearly as a bright star in a night sky, a fern lay before us. It is amazing to think that maybe our eyes were the first to see this impression since it was encased in sediment. At this find, everyone was ready to start scouring the ground.
Andrew, our resident expert, explained to my boys what types of concretions we were looking for. He also explained to them that not all fossils would be already split apart for us to see. In fact, most of them would be encased in rock and would need to be split later. Soon we were all scattered about along the riverbank.
Andrew showed me the different layers of sediment we were looking at. He told me about how one particular layer caught his attention and that at one point in time it was the bottom of the waterway that was present here. Upon closer inspection it could be seen that there were little bits of evidence that supported his observations. Every few feet apart we would notice the smallest piece of a concretion sticking out.
As the day went on we collected what we suspected to be the best specimens. The boys were thoroughly enjoying the experience, then again its hard not to enjoy sloshing around in a creek. My wife seemed to be enjoying herself as well. I guessed this was probably the first time that she had rappelled down bluff banks through poison ivy getting covered in mud. Fossil hunting is an amazing activity and we live in one of the best areas in the world to search for them. Besides the Mazon Creek, the numerous strip pits are dynamite areas to look for concretions as well.
If you would like to go fossil hunting make sure you are aware of private property, boundary lines, and always be respectful of those landowners that allow you to search their land. Looking for fossils with family and friends is an enjoyable way to spend a summer day in the outdoors.