Finding Fossils from the Ancient Seas
By Carol Martino
"There's another world, and it's in this one," says author Susan Casey who writes about the natural world.
As a child, I had an affinity for that other world. For more than 20 years I've enjoyed sharing my love for nature and a sense of wonder with our grandchildren. In today's technology-dominated society, "fun" often needs to be "plugged in." So now, more than ever, I feel the importance of exploring the world's natural treasures with the kids.
On a recent spring day, the weather was perfect for beachcombing. I asked Zoe, my 5-year-old granddaughter, if she wanted to go hunting for fossilized shark teeth and other treasures at the beach. She was super excited about going, especially with the new sand sifter her Papa Dan had made for such an occasion.
I promised a two-day, fun-filled adventure, but it came with one condition. We must go unplugged. She looked confused; I explained that we couldn't touch anything with a power button, except my phone for photos and emergencies. Zoe agreed without hesitation and packed her suitcase. She also filled a large bag with an assortment of stuffed animals, another bag with Barbie and baby dolls, and threw in a kitty purse and two little pillows - none of which plugged in. So what could I say?
A tablet - the kind with thin blue lines that comes with a No. 2 pencil - was in the backseat to keep her occupied during the 90-minute ride from her home in Pasadena to Lusby, Maryland. Our destination - Flag Ponds Nature Park, a protected natural area along the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County. The white sandy beach is bordered by magnificent cliffs that were formed more than 15 million years ago. An estimated 600 types of fossils from the Miocene Era have been found in the region. It's not unusual for visitors to find shark teeth that wash up on the beach year round. One shark can produce thousands of teeth in its lifetime; when one is lost, another one is generated. So there's a huge chance of finding some.
Park Manager Connie Sutton said that sharks, whales, and other animals populated these shores millions of years ago. "It's pure speculation, but paleontologists believe that the beach's shallow waters were once a birthing ground for whales. The sharks followed, knowing they could get some pretty fast food from the vulnerable baby whales," she said.
The expansive beach is the park's "calling card," according to Sutton. "We're popular with visitors from local metropolitan areas, but we also get guests from all over. The interest is amazing. It's nice to see families getting away to enjoy nature, especially when we're competing with technology which continues to get bigger, better, and more entertaining," she said.
Nature doesn't have that progression, according to Sutton. "It's constant, so it's up to all of us to discover the newness for ourselves. We provide the accessibility, but it's up to our visitors to open their eyes and ears. It's just waiting for them and when it unfolds, it brings all of the senses alive."
Zoe must have asked a dozen times, "Are we almost there?" I, too, anticipated our arrival; it was worth the wait! The park limits its daily visitors, so we arrived shortly before it opened at 9 a.m. and parked close to the trail that leads to the beach. Zoe grabbed her sand sifter and was ready to dash down the trail. It's a half-mile hike to the beach. The gravel path is an easy downhill trek through a lush, coastal plain forest, but the walk back up can be a bit challenging for a tired child and her grandma.
The late-spring hike tickled our senses with the sweet scent of honeysuckle, the calls of chickadees, and the golden, day-glow petals of tulip poplars that had fallen along the trail. Later, we learned that the poplars are the largest trees in the forest. A sign pointing to Duncan's Pond Trail caught our attention. It's one of three naturally formed ponds at the park. Zoe was eager to get to the beach, so we agreed to follow the trail on the way back.
After wading through a stream that flowed from nearby tidal ponds, and trekking through sand dunes, Zoe spotted the beach ahead and picked up speed. We took turns sifting the sand along the tide line and she found a nice-size shark's tooth (identified as a Mako by a seasoned sifter), some fossilized coral, and a treasury of shells.
I thought the shark's tooth was the greatest find, but Zoe was more interested in the shimmering oyster shells with little holes that were perfect for stringing and "held rainbows." We wondered how the holes got there. The park ranger explained that sea snails and other mollusks have drill-like tongues that bore through oyster shells to suck out the meat.
Zoe gathered her treasures into a little pile and then played in the water and jumped the waves with other kids. It's amazing how quickly seaside friendships are formed. As much as I relished the sound of waves lapping the shore, I enjoyed the laughter of children even more.
By early afternoon, Zoe was ready to leave the beach and explore the trail we had passed earlier. Heading up the hill, she stopped a few times to write our names in the sand. "That's so I will always remember that we were here," she said.
Our steps grew slower as we struggled up the path. By the time we reached Duncan's Pond Trail, neither of us had the energy to go far on the grassy footpath toward the pond where the celebrated blue flag iris blooms in the spring. But we did see some loblolly pines towering overhead and could hear the song of warblers.
Before leaving, we checked out the visitor's center where display cases are lined with shark teeth, porpoise bones, and other fossils. Guests are encouraged to write their findings on a whiteboard, so Zoe proudly listed her discoveries.
Recharged in spirit, but weary in body, we called it a day.
That night, we stayed at a nearby hotel in Prince Frederick. As tired as we were, Zoe wanted to play school - one of her favorite things to do, especially if she's the teacher. She informed me that our first assignment was to draw something we had seen at the beach that day. My picture came to life with her tiny hand holding a rainbow shimmering in a seashell. Surprisingly, Zoe didn't draw any of the fossilized treasures she found that day. Instead, she drew a pencil-thin stick lying on the beach - like the one she used to write our names in the sand. Beneath her artwork, she wrote "Zoe and Gram."
Oh the sweetness of a child! If only I could reverse the sands of time; but I can't. So I burn these memories into my heart where they'll beat throughout my tomorrows.
FLAG PONDS NATURE PARK is open daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (8 p.m. weekends). Educational tours are available by advanced registration. Small entrance fee required per car. For more information, call (410) 535-5327 or visit www.calvertparks.org