It was a crisp spring morning when my son and I headed toward the pond in the woods behind our house. Heavy dew beaded on the thick grass and soaked our boots as we headed to the trailhead that attached to the yard. On both sides of the raised trail patches of soft muck awaited the unwary. Loads of deer traveled this narrow path daily, and their tiny hooves cut the fragile soil, making it especially soft and muddy.
Carrying a shovel, a cup, and a jar, we ducked under the curvy sassafras limbs and slogged forward. Our goal this morning was to capture some recently hatched tadpoles in the pond that formed each spring from the snowmelt and move them to a deep pond in the front yard. We hoped that a few of these frogs might choose to live there.
My son, about seven at the time, loved every excursion we made into the backwoods. A stand of aging shagbark hickories marked the front border of the woods and a pair of monstrous oaks stood at the far end near the creek that ran north and south. Every time we stepped out of the grassy yard, and onto the muddy path leading to the backwoods, it was like entering another world where nature made all the rules.
Since the backwoods had always been a low area, no farmers or developers ever disturbed it. Going there was truly like walking back in time to what Michigan might have been a thousand years ago—a wild and untamed thicket brimming with wildlife. Thick bushes and blossoming pussy willows blended with the wide cattails around the two acre water hole. Animal tracks, of various shapes and sizes, led us to the pond’s edge. Bending low, we spotted a few tadpoles swimming in the deeper water. As we expected, none were within reach. Not wanting to sink into mud up to our knees, we had a different plan. With the shovel, we would dig a small hole and make a tadpole swimming area at the edge so the tadpoles could swim to us. It seemed a perfect plan.
But as I began to dig, a few stones blocked the shovel. In truth, so many rocks were buried just below the soft surface that they threatened to foil my plan entirely. Not deterred, however, I dug even deeper. From below the murky water that rushed into the hole, a rock different than the others became visible. The first ones had been standard fare, mostly rounded field stones, dark in color, with bits of red or blue or brown in them. But this last rock was different. It was ivory white with long, sharp edges.
My son pulled the pale rock close and rubbed at the course, grimy surface with his fingers. Then his big eyes looked up at me. “What are all these tiny holes for?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “This is not just any rock. It’s sandstone. All these tiny holes are the remains of an ancient sea sponge.”
“You mean this is a fossil? We saw some in science class, but they were tiny, not like this.”
“Fossils come in all shapes and sizes. At one point, ages ago, Michigan was under the ocean. Sponges and coral were some of the creatures that must’ve lived here.”
My son’s eyes gleamed. He knew this rock was special.
After cleaning more of the mud off the hardened sponge, we noticed that half a dozen tadpoles had entered the newly deepened section of the pond. Catching them with the cup was easy.
As we headed back to the house, I grabbed the shovel and cup. My son had his sponge fossil in one hand and the jar of tadpoles in the other. On his face he wore the biggest smile I had ever seen.
I knew this would not be the end of our fossil exploring, in fact, it was just the beginning.
About the Author
Michael Ajax is the father of two curious kids and the author of a novel about dinosaurs. He enjoys spending time with both his son and his daughter, telling them stories to challenge their imaginations—while also keeping them out of mischief. During one cross country vacation, Michael and his kids spotted a unique rock shop. They had to stop. With breathtaking fossils surrounding them, the topic of dinosaurs came up. The next few hours of their drive quickly passed as Michael told of a wondrous adventure that began in the Badlands. This story eventually became his novel.
Michael’s novel, Tomb of the Triceratops, follows three high school friends to the Badlands of Montana where they search for a paleontologist that claimed to have discovered a portal to another dimension were dinosaurs escaped to. What’s your favorite dinosaur?