Fossil Hunting on the
Lost Coast of Alaska
In Search of the Wily Desmostylian
Photo: Ray Troll
The Lost Coast is the coast of Alaska from Prince William Sound south 330 nautical miles to Cape Spencer, the entrance to the inland waters of Southeast Alaska. This coast is virtually uninhabited except for the town of Yakutat, roughly in the middle, with its 630 people. This coast is also extremely exposed, with very few safe anchorages, all of them very far apart. If a boat is surprised by bad weather or has a mechanical problem, there is nowhere to go and no one to help. The region is also poorly charted, and some of it is not charted at all.
This was a fossil-hunting expedition, mostly. It was organized by Kirk Johnson, a noted paleobotanist, and Ray Troll, an Alaskan artist well known for his paleo- and nature-themed work. Kirk and Ray are the writer and illustrator of two books, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway (2007) and Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline (2018). Jason Hicks, a geologist specializing in magnetostratigraphy, Paul C. Murphey, a paleontologist who owns a company that salvages threatened fossils for museums, Charlie Hanson, a former Alaska fisherman, and Bill Urschel, captain of the Endeavour, made up the party. All except Urschel had been on expeditions with Johnson in the past.
The mission was an exploration in the classic sense. The Endeavour would leave from Cordova, a fishing town on the east side of Prince William Sound, and meander south to Yakutat. It would visit previously documented fossil sites, look for and document new sites, study the imprecisely dated Yakataga, Poul Creek, and Kulthieth formations, and see what else could be found. But there was one fossil the party really hoped to find. As Johnson wrote before the trip,
Both Ray and I are obsessed with the extinct marine mammal lineage known as Desmostylidae. These hippo-like beasts lived along the North Pacific coast from Baja to Alaska to Honshu between 28 and 7 million years ago. An amazing and unlikely outcome of this trip would be to find some remains of one of these beasts along this coastline. The rocks maybe a tad too old, but you never know until you look.
There was also a historical component. Everyone on board wanted to walk the beach where Georg Steller, a German naturalist under a Danish captain working for the Russian throne, walked in 1741. Steller was the first European to set foot, briefly, on the west coast of North America. For more recent history, Urschel hoped to locate the remains of the lost town of Kayak, abandoned in 1909. Johnson would be able to walk the land where one of his mentors found fossils in the 1960s and 1970s and theorized on the evolution of forests in North America and Asia.
The mission had another dimension, too. Johnson imagined this short voyage would be a small version of the Harriman Expedition of 1899, which took a shipload of scientists and artists from Seattle to the Bering Sea and back. Something happens when you get a group of talented people from different disciplines together alone in the field. Ideas flow and trigger new ideas and ignite new questions. It rejuvenates.
In exploration, you never know what you’ll find.
The Endeavour left Cordova on August 16. The forecast for the coast was poor for the next two days, so the party headed west, into Prince William Sound, then continued south down the Lost Coast, crossing the Copper River Delta, anchoring at Katalla, Kayak Island, Icy Bay, Taan Fjord, and the Gaetani River, arriving at Yakutat in time for flights home. The weather was drizzly and overcast most of the trip.
The finds of the expedition include:
Fossils preserved in concretions, which are hard, round rocks the size of plumes and apples which, when broken open with a hammer, sometimes reveal three-dimensional fossils, including 35- to 50-million-year-old crabs.
Fossil mollusks loose in the matrix of the Yakataga formation, where they were not known to be.
Fossil plants in two different outcroppings of different rock on the same island.
A fossil “glass sponge” (hexactinellid) which, if confirmed, would be the first found in Alaska.
A modern whale bone, the fused basihyal with right and left thryrohyals tentatively identified as that of a young humpback whale.
A hard purple boulder with hundreds of belemnites – extinct squid-like cephalopods at least 65 million years old – mostly aligned in the same direction.
A Chinese Writing Stone, an igneous black rock with radiating white crystals, rounded, roughly polished, picked up and dropped by a glacier, weathered out of the bedrock to roll onto the beach.
Obvious evidence of the scouring of Taan Fjord by the 500-foot tidal wave that swept down the canyon in October 2015.
And incredibly, one of the party found a desmostylian. Or at least part of a demostylian. The bones were in a concretion, already broken open on the beach and facing up, waiting for Johnson to come along.
The desmostylian piece and the other fossils collected have been sent to the Museum of the North, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
The team did not find the lost town of Kayak. Murphey flew his drones over the general location and Urschel and Hicks crawled through the alder and devil’s club, but they found no sign of the old buildings.
Johnson, Hicks, and Urschel could not get up the Bearing River in Scout, the Endeavour’s jet-outboard shore boat, because of high surf at the mouth.
The party did find the beach where Steller walked, and they walked it. They also photographed six Steller Sea Lions on what might be the very rock where Steller first saw their ancestors and named them.
There was more. The humpbacked salmon were spawning, hundreds of fish racing upstream and floating down dead, being eaten by bears. There was the pinnacle of Saint Elias Rock at dawn. There was maneuvering the Endeavour through ice-choked waters below the Yahtse, Guyot, and Tyndall glaciers. There was a six-hour beach party in the rain at night, waiting for the Endeavour to float off an uncharted mud bar. There were many big lingcod and many silver salmon hauled aboard. There were conversations about the rock cycle, how rocks move and change composition over and over. About how Puget Sound and its radiating canals were formed by rivers flowing uphill under the glaciers. About how the continents formed and what they're doing now. About why the flora of northeastern China and Connecticut are so similar. About how the earlier paleobotanists got some of the story right with the wrong evidence, and how the uniquely unbroken 65-million-year fossil record of plants in Alaska – fossil plants being the thermometer and rain gauge of deep time -- tells the story of forests on two continents.
The expedition was a success.
- Bill Urschelhere.
Watch the Video
The Fossils of the Lost Coast
This is a short video of the expedition from Cordova to Yakutat in August 2021. Narrated by Bill and Patsy. Length 05:12 minutes.
Jack A. Wolfe was a paleobotanist working for the US Geological Survey. In this scholarly paper from 1977, Wolfe attacks the Arcto-Tertiary theory, which tried to explain how the forests of Asia and the United States developed the same genus of trees, proposing his own theory. In the near future, a better understanding of the unbroken fossil record in Alaska will likely refocus Wolfe’s ideas. This PDF download is not light reading for the uninitiated. Click to download.
This paper by Jacobs, et al, published by the Museum of Northern Arizona in 2009, describes what science knew about marine mammals in Alaska roughly 23 million years ago. These mammals were separated from the Arctic Ocean by the Bering Land Bridge and developed independently, and then went extinct. Among them were the Desmostylians, which in the region had only been found in the Alaska Peninsula and on Kodiak Island. If the fossil collected by the Alaska Endeavour expedition is confirmed to be a Desmostylian, it will expand the known range of the animals and require some refinements to the dating of the local formations. This PDF download is for scientists and motivated amateurs. Click to download.
This podcast is about paleontology and deep time, and it is ridiculously entertaining. As the hosts describe themselves, David Strassman is a ventriloquist who plays with dolls, and Ray Troll is an artist who draws with crayons, but they’re both paleo nerds (you know, those kids who loved dinosaurs and then grew up). Almost all these 46 plus episodes feature a guest scientist talking about his or her work with passion, while Dave and Ray keep it all intelligible to the rest of us and make it very fun. Subscribe to Paleo Nerds! Click to go check it out.
This is Ray Troll’s home base on the Internet. To quote the site, “Ray’s work has been described as ‘scientific surrealism’ a label that he’s okay with. He’s widely recognized for his obsessively detailed scientifically accurate artwork along with his offbeat, quirky sense of humor. … If there were such a thing, Ray Troll would be the Artist Laureate of hallucinatory fish images.” The site tells Ray’s story and shows a huge portion of his work. Looking for a gift for the dinosaur or fish fan in your life? This is the place. Click to visit.