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100 Plus Things: Discover at Penn Dixie Fossil Park

In Blasdell, in the middle of a normal neighborhood, lies a gateway to the past.

The serious past.

We're not talking the 1970s. We mean the Middle Devonian Period -- a Tolkien-esque term for an era an astounding 380 million years ago in the Paleozoic Era.

At that time, most of the state was covered by a shallow ocean. That means that every day in Western New York, we walk unknowingly over the fossilized remains of creatures who swam and slithered and skulked in that ocean, 150 million years before the dinosaurs, eons before the Ice Age.

And just as we walk unknowingly over these remains, most of us pass the Penn Dixie Fossil Park with no idea that it is there.

A visitor finds and examines a very good trilobite fossil. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve at 4050 North St. in Blasdell has a legendary treasure trove of fossils. There are thousands of fossils to be discovered and collected… 

In the 1960s, this Blasdell site was a quarry belonging to the Penn Dixie, a cement company. Known for years as the Bay View Quarry, it hit tough times over the decades, becoming a dumping ground for junk cars and snowmobiles.

Rescued in 1993, it has evolved into a destination that is revered to those lucky people who know about it. Visitors come from all over the world, and range from curious kids to serious scientists.

Finders, keepers, is the rule. It makes for an exciting afternoon.

Arriving on an average weekday, two of us from The News found a diverse group of all ages, from all over.

Deborah Person, of Webster, was digging with a large family group.

"We've never been here before. We're loving it!" she beamed.

Anthony Brewer, 4, of Wales digs alongside his grandfather Dave Viglione, of Hamburg. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Brodie Schie, her 11-year-old nephew, proudly displayed his trophy, a rock with the remains of trilobite tails.

"I saw this part when I started digging," he said, pointing to a section of the creature that seemed invisible to the untrained eye. "Then I saw another piece. That's how I found it."

Holly Schreiber, the director of education, loves observing kids' fascination with fossils.

"My 5-year-old loves coming here," she said.

Schreiber was a college professor in California but gave up that career to take this job. She radiates boundless enthusiasm. She can spot a minuscule fossil by simply glancing casually at the ground.

Tools of all kinds can be helpful in unearthing fossils. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

You might want to tote brushes or spray bottles, to help uncover what you find, and a bucket to carry your treasures home. For $5, you can rent a bucket with heavy-duty tools, including a mallet and chisel. You can also bring your own.

Schreiber, though, said she rarely brings tools. Fine specimens are right there on the surface.

"You want to look for shapes and textures," she said. "There are a lot of things with a wrinkly or ribbed appearance."

Lothar Dahlke, of St. Catharines, Ont., was hacking away at a rock with a bricklayer's hammer. But he, too, said tools aren't necessary.

"You can find so much just looking through the rubble," he said.

Kathy Smith sorts through the rubble to see what she can find. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

With a little practice, I was able to spot a tiny horn coral, so named because it looks like an animal's horn. And a cephalopod, a once-powerful predator now reduced to a tiny shape resembling a screw, or a seashell. I also grew adept at recognizing worm burrows, thread-like ridges in a rock. My new-found expertise thrilled me. Something about this place brings out your inner 8-year-old.

The park has various sections where you are likely to find certain creatures. Staffers, many of whom look like teenagers, will be happy to guide you.

Crinoid Heaven is scattered with tiny discs, the remains of creatures cousin to the modern-day sea lily. There is also a field of trilobites, which resemble potato bugs, curled up like them, and were the first animal to have eyes. On a hillside near the parking lot, you might be lucky enough to find an elusive primitive Paleozoic fish.

Also present, and waiting for you, are other long-gone species including gastropods (snails), pelecypods (clams) and ostrocods (tiny crustaceans). Some fossils glitter with calcite crystals or pyrite, known affectionately as fool's gold.

Cullen Shaw, 6, shows off a brachiopod, one of the discoveries from his group. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

There is a romance to the hunt. As you dig, you find yourself forgetting your everyday concerns. Instead, your thoughts stray to eons, to eternity, to matters of heaven and earth.

Arden Thompson, of Maine, added to the dreamy feel. Athletic and limber at 82, she sat chiseling away at a rock. With her wide-brimmed hat and cropped trousers, she looked like a figure from a Merchant/Ivory movie.

Her husband, Daniel, looked on affectionately. They had gone fossil hunting together in 1958, right after they married. He has accompanied her on many other expeditions, and he laughed that now, all he asks is that her collection of fossils be "lift-able."

The rock broke apart. We all gathered around. How does it feel to be the first person to let daylight go where it has not gone in 380 million years?

If anyone could describe it, she could. She is a published poet, the author of poems that brim with love of the earth. Digging in the park, though, eyes sparkling, she resorted to simpler language.

"This is wonderful," she said. "This is just so wonderful."

Visitors arrive at Penn Dixie Fossil Park and pay their fee: $9 for adults, $7 for ages 12 and under and free for age 2 and under. For $5 one can rent tools for the dig, such a a bucket, pick, brush, mallet, chisel gloves and goggles. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)



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