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Wooly Wonders

A walk along one South Whidbey beach could offer more hidden treasures than your average beachcomber’s stroll. For a lucky few adventurers, it could be a walk into the past, a discovery of time capsules sealed long ago.

More than 17,000 years before Whidbey is as it is today, people living on the island discovered an easy way of hunting a small herd of woolly mammoths that roamed the land.

They chased the hairy elephants over the Scatchet Head bluff to fall to their deaths below. Then the native people could butcher the great animals as they lay on the beach, harvesting the hides and tusks.

Dale Conklin, an amateur paleontologist, along with several leading experts in Ice Age archaeology hypothesized this scenario after uncovering a “mammoth graveyard” off tidelands on South Whidbey a little over two decades ago.

Conklin, now a Greenbank resident, estimated that he spent 15,000 hours out of the last 23 years searching for mammoth remains and mapping about 1,300 yards of beach.

Have fun in a mammoth way, on a mammoth day

To share his find with the community — especially those children who are curious about such giant, mysterious creatures — the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville is hosting a “Mammoth Day” event today, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

April Peterson, the coordinator for the project, said the event will include hand-on activities, like digging for bones, making fossil rubbings and mammoth paper chains, creating field notebooks and a mammoth word hunt. She said while the games and activities are geared to third to fifth graders, there will be enough to interest folks of all ages. Conklin will be at the event to educate people about the mammoths and tell his remarkable story of bone collecting.

“A lot of people can’t imagine that the island was once home to woolly mammoth,” she said.

Legend of the woolly mammoth on Whidbey

The tale begins, according to Conklin, about 200,000 years ago when Whidbey Island was formed by earth and rock left here by a retreating glacier. The woolly mammoths lived on the island during the Ice Age in periods between ice advancements — about 17,000 years ago, and possibly earlier. The Pleistocene creatures, which are cousins to modern elephants, stood as tall as 12 feet high at the shoulders and feasted mainly on grass and brush, grinding it with powerful molars.

“There were mostly just a small group of them,” he said. “They were a little smaller, a little runtier, because of food availability.”

Conklin was living in a Scatchet Head bluff cabin about 26 years ago when he met Jim Bradley, now deceased, who found a large woolly mammoth leg bone. That meeting started Conklin’s two-decade obsession. He walked the stretch of beach endlessly, digging out bones and ivory with clam shells.

Conklin said the most exciting thing he discovered was evidence of human involvement. The bones showed signs of “green breaks,” which were made after the animal died, but before the meat rotted. He found a rib bone with faint pigment, and an image of a stick figure, that he believes was primitive artwork.

He’s also found ancient tools that may have been used to crush and chop bone, or skin an animal. One tool even has what looks like an ancient finger groove.

“What interests me the most is the interaction between ancient people and these animals,” he said. “That’s what’s most important and most unique about the site.”

Whidbey site perks scientists’ interest

Eventually scientists started to hear about Conklin’s finds. Eight years after he started collecting bones, for example, a scientist from the museum at the famous La Brea tar pits in California came to Whidbey for a weekend.

Conklin said the paleontologists and other experts have taught him much, but they also verified his theories on the find. Carbon dating puts the bones at more than 17,270 years old.

Over the years, Conklin has become an expert in spotting ancient bones and fossils.

“You don’t go out and just dig for it,” he said. “You have to have an eye for it.”

It was Conklin’s practiced eye that discovered something truly rare; in fact, it could be one of a kind. In the spring of 2001, he saw something unusual poking out of the tide flats below the bluff following a landslide. It turned out to be a preserved, 120,000-year-old Douglas fir tree.

Terry Swanson, a professor of geology at the University of Washington, and Conklin postulated that the tree fell into a peat bog and a glacial ice sheet “pressure sealed” the tree for a thousand centuries, according to Conklin. The wood is blackened from the tannic acid from the peat, which also helped preserve it.

“I broke a loose piece off and I could still smell the fir,” he said. “It gave me chills.”

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