The Light Slowly Fades
By John Cornish
December 28, 2005

It always gets so crazy this time of year. The Holidays and then Tucson, a busy, busy time. I just had to get out! I've been hankering for an outing and finally just said the heck with it and packed the truck for a run. I was heading out west, out to the fossil deposits so near and dear lining the Strait of Juan de Fuca here in Washington State.

The rain had been falling steadily over the last several weeks and it was a sure thing we'd have our fair share of liquid sunshine today too. But no bother, heck, here in Washington we mold before we tan, so after a bit of packing it was out the door we went, Buddy my dog and I. I'd thrown a pack together full of all the necessities; plastic bags, hammer, chisel, gloves, straps, water, food and vroom, vroom, vroom, off we went.

The trip through Port Angeles and then further west through Joyce, was uneventful. There were very few cars on the road and the miles obscured by falling rain just sort of slipped by until with a slight turning of the wheel and the selection of a new gear, Buddy and I backed up, parking the truck just off the highway. I regrouped and repacked and then slung our gear over my shoulders and off we went.

This initial part of our hike is sometimes quite a challenge as Buddy and I must first walk along side the highway before eventually dropping down through the woods, following the path leading to the beach. Thankfully, today's walk was a piece of cake, we never saw a car either coming or going. On other days, the road can be thick, not with cars usually, but with barreling logging trucks slapping gears and hauling butt. Buddy is a good boy and stays close heeding my commands fairly well, still, the quarters are tight and the trucks come up awfully quick. I'm always thankful when we hit the woods.

With the rain we've had and were continuing to have, everything was sopping wet. Water dripped from all of the various shades of green and densely matted woody browns and little puddled lakes formed in the depressions of the trail. The clay rich sodden soils squelched and squirted as we half slipped, half walked, ever descending towards the beach below where breakers crashed, their muted sounds echoing through the trees.

Buddy was off ahead of me, racing the trail and slinging clods of dirt with every pass and it was easy to let soft laughter slip out as the joy of the moment gushed from me, a joyous sound accompanied by his panting breaths. With my walking poles in hand, I followed his lead and together we both eventually made it to the beach. There the view swelled out breathtakingly.

Panoramically the waters within the Strait danced and churned as the wind whipped them into a thing seemingly alive. The waves crashed, slapping the shores in bubbling, frothing surges or exploded against the hard black rock bastions slowly weathering along the shoreline. Sharp whites in fleeting sprays against shifting bluish gray.

Tearing my eyes from the scene, I soon began walking, covering the ground steadily while casting a careful shifting, scanning gaze about to search out treasure from among the jumbled beach rubble. Masses of seaweed lay about here and there in clotted rotting piles cast up against beach logs by ghost like receding tides, their pungent odors wafting about in a scurrying wind.

As we progressed down the beach it became ever more obvious that the areas I'd hoped to collect would not be exposed, and upon arrival as I suspected, these finest areas were buried. Huge accumulations of sediment are transported down to the beach terrain in this area each year during this time fed by a dozen swollen streams and the slowly bulging, ever-tumbling progressing fronts of innumerable small landslides.

Likely it will take several months before collecting here will return to its prime, taking that long for the tides to wash these materials away. In the meantime, I'll just shift a bit and change my collecting focus. Originally I'd hoped to work fossil bearing strata still in place, but with these areas currently buried, my focus can now shift to work the materials transported within these fresh deposits. And more then anything, this means pseudomorphs.

Pseudomorphs of calcite after aragonite are found at several localities where fossil bearing marine sediments are exposed along the Strait here in Clallam County, and while not the largest, those specimens found from this locality are among the most morphologically diverse known from any local area. Pseudomorph crystals of this type are most commonly recovered as doubly terminated slightly rotated dipyramids, however in addition to this, crystals from this locality are found here displaying a staggering array of twin forms. Studies involving these crystals is currently ongoing with the collaboration of scientists in Denmark.

The abundant landslides in this area act as transport mechanisms depositing specimens from sediments above to the beach below. Here they are abused by the cycling tides and are prone to rapid wear. Sharp crystal faces become increasingly pitted and deformed from abrasion before eventually succumbing to this abuse, breaking and cleaving into smaller and smaller fragments until inevitable weathering destroys all traces of their existence.

With the slides fresh and new, the potential for discovering pristine specimens was high and I was ready for the challenge. The best pseudomorphs are often found high up the beach against the bluffs. Here they are more or less protected, being attacked only during the highest tides. They are light, lighter than many of the other beach materials found here and this additionally aids in their discovery. Heavier materials settle quicker and deeper into the gravels through the natural sorting action of the waves while lighter materials rest higher in the assemblage. This is the case with the pseudomorphs and while looking, I spotted several resting right on the tops of the gravel piles. Many were already too worn to be considered specimens of relevancy, still, they make excellent give away material for the kids.

After searching about a bit, I found my first keepers and eventually brought out two for us, though there certainly could have been others had I taken more time. Both specimens are between 1 and 2 inches in length and both are multiply twinned displaying sharp form. Real prizes. Additionally to this, I also found my first keeper fossil while searching the gravel piles. It's a rich-brown colored brittlestar coquina plate measuring about 2 x 2 inches. Brittlestars are exposed en mass on both the top and bottom surfaces of this little slab-like specimen comprised entirely of their fossil remains.

With these treasures in hand and no chance of the other areas I'd hoped to work being exposed. I took note of the failing light of falling twilight and decided to make quick steps out of there in the hope of working another near-by locality found along a further section of beach. I gathered up my gear and slung my pack back onto my shoulders, called Buddy and together, we both began a rapid exit of the area.

We pounded the beach and then slipped and slid our way up the trail before braving the road section back to the truck. There I threw the pack into the back, loaded us up, and started up the truck and drove to locality number two. Here eventually, we parked right along side the highway and again loaded up and began our trek through the woods to the beach. This section is much more heavily collected then the other area I'd just left and I was thrilled to find that we again had the entire place to ourselves.

The trail in was much worse then the previous section we'd just hiked and was more a vast swamp then a trail. The mud was thick and clutched at one's foot while soupy waters threatened to find access to clean dry socks. I used my walking sticks heavily here and only had one near fall where I was lucky, catching myself with the sticks just before I crashed butt-first into the muck. And so, once again slipping and sliding, we eventually made our way down to the beach.

And what a beautiful stretch it was. The gravel piles I hoped to collect lay high and dry exposed as far as I'd be searching along this particular section. The overwhelming sediment accumulation destroying the collecting potential of the last beach was 100% absent here as were the olfactory accumulations of seaweed. Everything was just right for treasure hunting and I still had over an hour of daylight left!

We set our feet a' flying and were soon hoofing our way through the crunching gravels. My pace was brisk as I planned to really begin my collecting at the far end of this particular beach and work my way forward. Two reasons for this, less people make the further trip and thus the best unspoiled collecting lay as far from the trailhead as possible, and the second reason, treasure! At the far end of the beach lay an area where crab fossils can be found and these I really, really like!

As I walked, I came across several treasures including a dozen or two fossil snail sections. These examples were found both free of matrix and as specimens partially exposed from within carbonate concretions. I kept several of these including a nice 1 1/2 inch snail exposed as a cross section. These make neat specimens as the shell of the snails fluoresces brightly against its matrix under ultraviolet illumination. Another snail specimen is actually comprised of two individuals within one concretion nicely.

At the end of the section I took a short rest/appreciation stop to take in the changing conditions around me. A new beach, still along the Strait and yet seemingly entirely unique and special. The way the waves crashed here more softly and with less force then at the other beach I'd just left. The way the light was changing as twilight took more of a hold on the evening. The way the lights started to shine on Vancouver Island, Canada; another Country and yet so very close. The wind had died down and the rain had softened a bit and I marveled that among all the billions of people on this planet, I was the only one here, soaking up all this magic, reveling in this special moment, smelling the salt water and the aroma of the wet green woods behind me, basking in the fading light of an average star nearly 93,000,000 miles away. I called Buddy over and fed him a handful of biscuits and poured him some fresh water while I soaked it all in. And while not that long ago, the impression of that evening is still stark and fresh in my mind a thing of magic!

As the moment passed, the need to attend to my surroundings came to bear and I gathered up and again shouldered my pack, beginning the slow attentive walk back towards the trailhead looking for treasure. I worked steadily and was soon rewarded with my first prize, a nice crab bearing concretion, flatish and about 4 by 3 inches. Three other examples soon followed as did a couple neat chunks of fossil bone. Additionally, I found one agatized nautiloid, a cross sectioned shrimp claw and a few other pieces of this and that for the kids and then that was it and the trail called me home.

In the falling darkness of a Monday evening, both Buddy and I slowly made our way back to the truck. We'd both had a great time. The day had been a success on many levels and while true, I never did find that killer-one-of-a-kind-specimen, I did perhaps find something more. If the memories stay with me, these will be the truest treasure I collected that day.

It's good to be alive. All the very best in the New Year upcoming everyone, be safe and take care.