Yukon Footprints

The cataclysm is obscured by blue skies and a nascent pride at floating long-distance, downriver. If you haven’t done this, it goes something like this. You motor downstream, pretty much sunbathing on top of a raft and weeks worth of gear, until the weather turns and the river runs to chop. 500 miles of river. You stop at the birthing grounds of mosquitos and the dumping grounds of an undercut bluff. And after about the 5th Normandy, you begin to understand the difference between what is a rock, and what is a rock with a dinosaur’s footprint on the other side.

The paleontologist looks at these rocks. He sees them clearly as a highway, or a highway billboard, or a smashed barn next to a billboard along a highway. He counts the toes, edge-on. Then you’re back on the raft, bumping and rolling downhill. Navigating the gravel churn is imprecise as science, but after the 5th stranding, you begin to see the bars too. You learn to look.

Like buttered toast, footprints tumbling from an outcrop land face down. The act of looking is the act of flipping stones like hubcaps, with your boot. Sometimes, you get down on your  knees, fingers in the mud, and find a friend to help turn the larger slabs, which might contain the trackways of ancient birds or worms. Or, the paleontologist stands at the foot of the bluff and points to a grass-tufted boulder peeking from out the exposed slope and says, “That looks promising,” in the way that people who are good on camera talk on camera. And you are there, with camera, the moment he pulls this thing, right-side up, from the dirt. The print is huge, big as a human head, and clear to see even for the unbelievers, loud as a boat burning back upriver.

—Thanks to UA Museum of the North, Earth Sciences Collection (2013)

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