A Dinosaur Discovery in Aniakchak National Monument
Anthony R. Fiorillo
Dallas Museum of Natural History
"...It was the abomination of desolation, it was the prelude to hell," is how the Jesuit priest, Father Bernard Hubbard, described the inside of Aniakchak Caldera shortly after its eruption in 1931. Dramatic description aside, when I first learned of an opportunity to head to the Alaska Peninsula to look for the remains of dinosaurs, my attention seemed to focus immediately on a place called Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, home of the famous Aniakchak Caldera. As goofy as it might sound, looking at a map, Aniakchak seemed to be beckoning to me. However, to the relief of who ever might read this, I should clarify that the beckoning wasn't due to some premonition of great paleontological discovery; rather it was simply the remoteness of the spot.
Descriptions like the one provided by Father Hubbard only served to enhance my curiosity. To echo the great conservationist Bob Marshall's sentiment, expressed in his book Arctic Village, blank spaces on maps have always fascinated me. Questions about those blank spaces cover everything from the geology to wondering how cold the water in the rivers might be. Somehow I was equating the remoteness of Aniakchak with blank spaces.
Though Mesozoic rocks can be found throughout much of Alaska, dinosaur-aged vertebrates in this vast region are limited to only a handful of localities. Along the Colville River in the northern part of the state is where many fossil bones have been found. There is a lot of uncharted paleontological territory in Alaska and it seemed Aniakchak afforded an opportunity for discovery because previous geologists had left clues in their notes when they mapped the rocks in the park. These clues suggested Aniakchak was capbable of producing new dinosaur localities.
When I arrived in King Salmon to get started on a paleontological survey of the park, a storm front had also arrived. Anticipation around town was that the storm might last a couple of days, so my colleagues at the National Park Service office said that for now, we would stay put. Later in the day, the winds in King Salmon dropped and the rain stopped, but no one in town could be committal about a weather forecast for the next day or so. It was easy to become anxious with the waiting.
As each day passed, waiting for the weather to clear, my thoughts were becoming more and more philosophically based. One very real thought that remained however, was the story of Father Hubbard's first flight to Aniakchak Caldera. The winds were extraordinarily tricky that day and flying in a Fairchild over the freshly erupted Caldera, Harry Blunt and Father Hubbard were caught in a downdraft. Their only option for escape was for Blunt to take the Fairchild into a nosedive, with the hope of gaining the needed speed to clear the crater wall. As hair-raising as the story is, Hubbard confessed that he was too busy taking photos to worry, something he left to Blunt to do instead. Regardless of who actually woried, I was not eager to reenact the adventure. So the waiting continues.
The third day, I awoke with some less-than-kind words for the weather. Despite the beautiful blue sky, I could see the treetops moving, letting the presence of the wind be known. The clouds moving in quickly from the mountains just off in the distance spoke of how high off the ground the winds were. In a bleak mood, I wandered over the headquarters where the NPS confirmed my fears: the flight was scrubbed again. It seems that the pilot believed he could get into the Caldera, but it was the getting out due to the tricky air currents that concerned him the most.
Another day, but this time there was no wind! The call came in early that we were set to fly out at noon. Patience, patience, patience. And now it was time to go!
We left King Salmon about noon in a Cessna 185 floatplane flown by C-Air. On the approach to the Caldera, the lack of wind allowed us to take a flight around the inside of the Caldera before landing and see the splendor of the Caldera from the air. Leisurely climbing over the crater wall, we turned over the Aniakchak River and entered back into the Caldera at a much lower elevation through the Gates, a break in the rim where the river flowed out of the Caldera and headed for the Gulf of Alaska. At this much lower level, Surprise Lake seemed choked with salmon. "Paradise Lost after having lived in Paradise Found the previous year" was Father Hubbard's description of Aniakchak when he viewed the crater a month after the eruption. But after all these years, the ecosystem here has achieved a rich sense of recovery and seems to be once again Paradise Found.
With no wind, the landing on Surprise Lake was smooth and we taxied into a cove along the shore of the lake where we offloaded our gear. After a quick snack, it was time to go to work and get ready for our float trip down the Aniakchak River. The first step was to learn how to get into a dry suit, an extraordinarily tight, waterproofed outfit. The dry suit was so tight that it seemed one had to just about dislocate a shoulder to get into the suit. Eventually, though, I found myself secure in my dry suit.
After getting through the Gates, we spent what felt like a leisurely day sampling various exposures of rock next to or near the river. We made camp that evening. With all those fish in the river, it seemed a shame not to try for a Dolly Varden dinner, so once camp was set up, other camp needs took over and it didn't take long to catch enough fish for dinner.
In contrast to this euphoria, a sense of melancholy took over as we neared the end of the river and the beginning of the estuary, because the estuary marked the end of the float trip. We made our way around a point of land into the open water of the Gulf and moved a short ways along the coast to a National Park Service cabin. Here we'd break down the rafts and wait for our floatplane to show up and take us back to King Salmon.
As our schedule seemed to indicate that we had some time before the plane would arrive, I continued by foot down the coast. I wanted to take a look at the Chignik Formation, a promising rock unit that included ancient river channel and floodplain deposits. Along the way, there was an assortment of fossil clams and plants eroding out of the cliffs. The leaves of ancient flowering plants and the branches of old redwoods seemed almost to be offering encouragement to continue looking. I scrambled over boulders to peer around one last corner before I would have to return and wait for the floatplane, and then, literally, at my feet was the three-toed impression of a dinosaur footprint.
After I started breathing again, I started to think of all the reasons why it might not be a dinosaur footprint, but everything about it matched up well with other footprints I had seen elsewhere. The spacing of the toes was right for an ornithopod dinosaur and given the size and age of the rocks, the track was likely made by the hind foot of a duck-billed dinosaur. Near this footprint were two smaller depressions, slightly curved or crescent shaped that appeared to be made by the animal's hands. The footprints are contained in a rock unit called the Cretaceous Chignik Formation. Named by W.W. Atwood in 1911 for rocks exposed in the vicinity of Chignik Bay, southwest of what is now Aniakchak National Monument, the Chignik Formation is a significant part of the geologic story at the park. The Chignik Formation represents shallow marine to near shore marine environments, as well as continental environments. These tracks represented a brand new record of dinosaurs in Alaska. The next closest locality of the same age was almost a thousand miles away, more than the distance between New York and Chicago.
What to do with this discovery? The block the tracks were on weighed several hundred pounds. A few field sketches, some notes, and lots of photographs would have to do for the moment. Being perhaps particularly paranoid, I took photographs using two different rolls of film in the event one roll got lost. Realizing I was alone, I ran back down the beach to get one of the other team members. In case I couldn't return here for some reason, I wanted someone else to know where these tracks were located.
The window for flying out was closing due to weather coming from back up river. We radioed back to the National Park Service dispatch in King Salmon and they advised we fly out this night rather than risk getting stranded at the cabin for several days, waiting out the incoming storm. It seems the river trip was squeezed in just right between two storms. There was a scheduled flight in the air already to drop off a supply of lumber for repairs at the cabin and the dispatch office recommended we take that flight back to King Salmon.
After awhile we could hear the throaty roar of the engine of the incoming Beaver and it was time to go back to King Salmon and then home. But what a ride home! The magnificent scenery outside the plane played second fiddle to the images of dinosaurs dancing in my head.
Last Updated: 03-Aug-2009