‘Once in a lifetime find’: Stubborn stump fossil extracted from Edmonton river valley

A fossilized tree stump has been successfully extricated from Edmonton’s river valley by the small-bladdered paddlers who discovered it.

The petrified log, now estimated to be more than 70 million years old, was discovered by Mike Lees and Jeff Penney last month during an impromptu bathroom break on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.

The pair were canoeing down the river near downtown when nature called and something caught their eye — a piece of wood turned into stone through mineralization was protruding from the narrow bank.

After several failed attempts to move the fossil, the rock was finally excavated Tuesday morning with assistance from a steel-bottomed barge, hoists, plywood ramps and a commercial tow truck. 

“They were kind of like citizen scientists,” said Lisa Budney, collections and museums administrator with the University of Alberta.

 “They did everything right. They went through all the permissions and the fact-finding before they did anything which is commendable and what you would like to see Albertans do when they find a fossil like this.” 

The fossil could provide valuable clues about the prehistoric habitat of the region, Budney said. 

“It’s exceptional,” Budney said. “It’s quite rare to be able to fossilize something like that, for it to be preserved for so long and for someone to actually find it.” 

Despite its age, researchers did not have the resources to orchestrate their own excavation of the rock. Due to erosion over the decades, it has moved from its original location, making it less scientifically valuable.

Penney instead obtained a government permit to move the fossil on his own and donate it to the paleontologists.

“There was just something telling us to get this out of the ground. It was a once in a lifetime find,” Penney said.

“Mike and I spent thousands of dollars getting this thing out and countless hours … but we did it with basically knowing that we weren’t going to get anything back from this. We did this strictly for the scientific benefit.

“We’re so happy and proud that it is a very special find … it’s going to be sitting in a museum next to a 350 million year old fish skull. It’s pretty great.” 

‘Impossible to get’ 

Excavating the one-metre stump from the silty, narrow river bank, however, proved brutal. Penney estimates the rock is over 500 kilograms. 

“The original plan of action was to pull up in a boat and put it onto the boat and float it away. Easy does it. And that wasn’t the case at all,” Penney said

Initial attempts to move the fossil were foiled by its weight and precarious location. (Submitted by Mike Lees)

The first attempt involved a large hunting boat.  A second attempt involved a barge made of rain barrels and a crew of six men.

River ice stymied further attempts to extract it. Finally, a stint of milder weather this week allowed Penney and a hired crew with Canadian Dewatering to try again. 

Using large sheets of plywood, they pulled the rock onto a steel-bottomed barge and brought it back to the city. 

After a short ride on a tow truck, the stump has been donated to the University of Alberta where it will be properly dated, researched and soon put on display in the Earth Sciences Building. 

Penney and Lees are thrilled to see the river rock salvaged from the mud. 

“It’s something you just don’t come across very often, even if you do spend a lot of time outside like myself,” Lees said. 

“I’m just a regular guy with my feet stuck in the mud already, I never expected a canoe trip to turn out to be something like that … There is no price tag on something like this.”

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