When mastodons ruled South Florida

A guide leads fossil hunters on a kayak trip down a river - and way back in time.

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A big tooth, or at least a portion of one, from a prehistoric elephant.
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The author and Renz.
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Setting out on the Peace River.
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Teeth and bones, frozen in time.
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Treasure seekers: From left, Washicosky, Renz, Mooney and Hammond.
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The armour from an an extinct armadillo forerunner.

(FSB Magazine) WAUCHULA, FL. -- If the thought of spending a holiday slathered in mud conjures images of a spa - well, you probably haven't been fossil hunting in Florida lately. That's how I spent part of a recent visit, and somewhat to my surprise, I found it as relaxing as a massage and a lot more stimulating.

I consider myself a reasonably well-educated person, but did I appreciate the distinction between mammoths and mastodons? (Mastodons were bigger, had straighter tusks, ate leaves and twigs, and vanished first, about 10,000 years ago; the last woolly mammoths preferred grass and reeds and perished about 2000 B.C.) Did I realize that horses originated in the New World and died out there 11,000 years ago (only to be reintroduced by the conquistadors)? Did I know I could find camel bones in Florida? Negative on all counts. But in the space of one day with Mark Renz's Fossil Expeditions, I found myself learning about these ancient eras in the most delightful and tactile manner, while alternately paddling kayaks down the lazy Peace River and digging for rocky lumps of ancient treasure in the river's bottom.

The trip started at 9 A.M. in the parking lot of the Wauchula Burger King, a place prized for its rest room facilities. (There would be none the rest of the day.) The other attractions around Wauchula, about 70 miles southeast of Tampa, include a snow cone stand and a pawn shop that advertises "guns, ammo, and jewelry."

Renz, 52, was a newspaper reporter in his 30s when he caught the fossil-hunting bug. He and his brother had gone fishing on the Caloosahatchee River, near Fort Myers. Nothing bit, but they found small stones of all shapes and sizes that turned out to be fossils. "The teeth were so much easier to land than fish that I immediately took to collecting," Renz explained.

He used his journalistic skills to teach himself the science - conducting interviews with David Webb, research curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the time, and inviting Gary Morgan, the museum's senior biologist, to his home to identify his most obscure finds, such as the teeth of a giant ground sloth and of a rare saber-toothed cat. Renz also pored over Robin Brown's Florida's Fossils and Bruce MacFadden's Fossil Horses and ended up writing manuals himself, including Fossiling in Florida: A Guide for Diggers and Divers, published in 1999.

By then Renz had decided to devote himself to fossils full-time. "I didn't want to work in an office anymore," he said. "I always wanted a job where I could show up barefoot and take my dog." So in 1992 he left his job at the local Fort Myers Beach paper and began organizing tours.

My fellow fossil hounds on this trip were Greg Mooney of Fort Lauderdale and Frank Washicosky, of Litchfield, N.Y. (both repeat customers), and Washicosky's brother-in-law John Hammond, from West Winfield, N.Y. Mooney runs Moondog Dive Outfitters, which equips yachts with diving systems. Hammond is the president of Cedar Lake Electrical, a contracting firm. Washicosky works for a car-transmissions distributor.

It was a high-testosterone bunch, and the small talk focused on cars, 140-year-old harpoons, and the mercury levels in humpback whales. (Renz says his clients usually divide evenly between men and women.)

In the summer, when the river is normally high, fossil hunting requires wetsuits, masks, and snorkels. But much of Florida was gripped by drought during my trip, so our kayaks scraped bottom, and we were able to do our searching on foot. Renz had suggested we wear old clothes and water shoes, which the guys had. I wore khakis and loafers that may never dry out.

In central Florida, the Peace River and Bone Valley (the 800-square-mile region where the river flows) are rich in fossils because of the alternation over the millennia between shallow sea and land, and because of the abundant mineral deposits (mostly phosphate). As a result, the region features both shark teeth and mammal bones. No dinosaurs here, however. They would be from the Mesozoic Era, in a stratum of rock hundreds to thousands of feet below where we were digging.

A fossil is created when sand or silt traps living remains, shutting them off from air. Over time, the minerals in the soil replace the cells or fill in around them, until all that remains is rock. "A bone," Renz told me, "has a one in a million chance of being fossilized."

We paddled about 15 minutes downriver, then parked our kayaks against the bank. Renz explained that we would spend the next several hours digging in the mud. He handed out Home Depot aprons with pockets to hold our finds. We would shovel mud onto screens, float off the plant material, and then paw through gravel and gunk for stuff I wouldn't recognize.

By 10:30 everyone but me had found shark teeth. Admittedly, I hadn't been working as hard, but still! Hammond found a prehistoric horse tooth and a serious hunk of dugong rib. (The dugong was an ancient relative of the manatee.)

At noon we took a break to dive into lunches we had packed ourselves. I brought trail mix; others had packed Cuban or pâté sandwiches. Renz nibbled on berries but for the most part continued to scan the river bottom. Suddenly he poked me with an elbow. "Look right there," he said.

"Where?"

"Right there, under the shadow of my finger."

And there I found my first shark teeth. Renz sat with me and examined the gravel on my screen. "Look at that," he said of an egg-sized, brownish-gray lump. "That's a piece of a foot from a baby mammoth or mastodon. The foot has 20-something bones."

I turned it over in my hand. A fossilized bone from something that had lived before the time of the pharaohs, right here in pink-flamingo Florida. I felt humbled. My own time on earth was pretty insignificant, I realized, compared with such relics.

By 2:30 we were loading our finds into the kayaks and heading back upstream. Hammond had his horse tooth, prehistoric shark teeth, and turtle parts. "I'm going to hand the tooth down to my grandkids," he said. Washicosky - who on his first trip had found teeth of bison and camels, dugong ribs, and a whale ear bone - this time found only some shark teeth and turtle shells. Mooney had picked up part of a giant shark's tooth, a parrot fish vertebra, and that big dugong rib.

And me? Besides my prized piece of mammoth foot, I found prehistoric teeth from four species of sharks, including a piece from a megalodon (also known as a megatooth shark), a piece of chert from which a Native American had chipped an arrowhead, a prehistoric alligator's tooth, part of the grinding plate of an ancient stingray, a piece of armor from a giant armadillo, and a fingernail-sized chip of blue crockery.

In those few feet of riverbank, we witnessed the signs of epochal change from water, to land, to water again - and evidence of sea life, giant mammals, and man. That connection to geological time washes over me whenever I unwrap my finds at home. It's a trip that keeps on giving.  To top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.