Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oregon coast trip with Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson, part 1: Lincoln city, Emlong's demise, Sitka Center

A little while ago I realized that I had totally forgotten to talk about our trip to Oregon with Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll last February. I can’t believe it’s been a year already; after our trip to Oregon, my wife and I only had two weeks to finish packing for our three year trip to New Zealand, so I know exactly why I neglected to post about this earlier. Kirk and Ray are working on a new book project, sort of a sequel to “Cruisin the Fossil Freeway”, which was a combination of science, humor, Ray’s awesome art, and the tale of a huge road trip across the American west. This new project changes the focus from the western interior to the Pacific coast of North America – the new book project is titled “Cruisin the Eternal Coastline”, and deals with fossils from Baja California to Barrow, Alaska. Kirk and Ray received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2011 to begin leg work for the project. I first met the dynamic duo in October 2011, literally the day after I found out I had been accepted into the Geology Ph.D. program here at Otago. I showed the guys some of the fossils from my collection, which at the time I was still studying and curating (and are now all in UCMP collections). The next day, we visited a bunch of fossil localities in Santa Cruz, and visited a large mural by Ray at the Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz.

Ray and Kirk got into contact with me because of my interest in west coast fossil vertebrates – specifically marine vertebrates. Granted, there are all sorts of spectacular land mammal localities as well (and even non-Cenozoic localities, but I won’t dare talk about those…), but the eastern North Pacific margin is home to one of the most extensively sampled marine vertebrate assemblages on earth. The majority of this record is from the coasts of California and Oregon. Ray and Kirk sent me an invitation to join them in coastal Oregon, to track down some of the haunts and old localities of one of my biggest paleontological heroes – Doug Emlong. The guys were even able to cover our travel expenses with their fellowship! Sarah and I left San Francisco, and headed up I-5 and reached Grant’s Pass by midnight. We left early the next morning, having to make it to the Overlook Motel in Lincoln City by 1pm. We just barely had time to take a short detour off Highway 20 to head south to Toledo to visit the type locality of Simocetus rayi, which was described by Ewan Fordyce (my Ph.D. adviser) in 2002. We followed the locality description by my advisor – which is effectively the same as Emlong’s notes. I’m not sure what has happened in the area, but there weren’t any cliffs or exposures of the Alsea Formation anywhere within a mile or two of the indicated point. It’s possible that exposures along the river are now overgrown – as I’ve seen with all sorts of localities in Humboldt County, California.

The type locality of Simocetus rayi - or, somewhere nearby it. Emlong's notes weren't always accurate, and there don't really appear to be any fossiliferous outcrops in the vicinity. Or, any outcrops at all. If there once were cliffs here, they have long since grown over with vegetation.

We finally made it to the motel with ten minutes to spare, just in time for Ray and Kirk’s talk on “Cruisin the Fossil Freeway”. They go on book tours, and have a ~40 minute presentation version of the book – and it’s a real hoot. I had seen it previously at the Bone Room in Berkeley during their bay area leg of the trip in October 2011; it was great, except for the fact that a member of the audience who knew a bit about fossils muttered to themselves and nodded agreement or verbally confirmed everything that came out of Ray or Kirk’s mouths – which was a bit irritating. The attendance at their talk in Lincoln City, however, was enormous – well over a hundred (maybe even two hundred) people showed up, which was phenomenal (both speakers were impressed with the turnout). After the talk, we met all sorts of locals interested in fossils, rocks, and paleontology – and spent at least another hour chatting with folks before leaving the motel. We met several local private collectors, as well as some members of the fossil club “NARG”, who I had heard about for years – they have the oddly non-specific title “North American Research Group”, but they are a seriously organized group of amateurs who are actually able to acquire permits from the state of Oregon to collect, prepare, and curate fossils into various permanent collections. And they do it all as volunteer work; several years ago, they collected a huge balaenopterid mysticete skull from the Empire Formation of Oregon; it’s still under preparation.

I also got to meet the esteemed Frank Boyden of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, north of Lincoln City; the center was established in 1970 by Frank and his wife Jane as a residency program for artists, scholars, and academics, with a humble beginning as a summer camp. Upon arriving at the motel, I learned that the talk was being sponsored by the Sitka Center. Frank is a fascinating person to talk to – warm, eccentric, talented, hospitable, and a total luddite. I knew we had some sort of accommodation, but this was one of those things that I had barely planned: Sarah and I were busy as hell with preparations for the move to the southern hemisphere, and Ray and Kirk had told me that everything was taken care of. I guess I was expecting a hotel room somewhere. What I didn’t realize was that Frank was graciously putting us up in some of the cabins at the Sitka Center – Kirk and Ray had their own, and Sarah and I had another. It was a wonderful surprise, totally out of left field. They’re these incredible “sea ranch style” cabins in the Oregon rainforest (sea ranch architecture will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on the central or northern California coastline, especially along Highway 1 in Sonoma and Marin Counties). I remember asking Ray whether or not we’d have wireless internet, and Ray reminded me that “Frank has a rock with painted buttons on it for a cell phone.” That was a good enough answer, I suppose. I should have remembered, because earlier at the talk I remember somebody asking him about a cell phone number and he gleefully pulled out his rock "phone".

Inside view of our incredible sea ranch style cabin in the Oregon rainforest at the Sitka Center.

To finish our first day of the trip, we tracked down the place where Douglas Emlong died. Using the police report deposited within the Emlong archive at the USNM, we tracked down the exact spot to a small ledge off the side of the road on the Otter Crest Loop between Depoe Bay and Newport, Oregon, just a few hundred yards north of the overlook parking lot. Emlong was a troubled person, and clearly suffered from some psychological issues. There is evidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or perhaps bipolar disorder – I’ve had many friends suffering from either, but Emlong’s case seems to have been more severe. He tended to quickly spend money he received from the Smithsonian, and in correspondence with Clayton Ray, he reacted rather extremely after learning that the Smithsonian was unable to appropriate enough funding to continue paying him (sometime around 1977-1978). In June 1980, Emlong returned empty handed from a trip to southern California, and after being back in Newport for less than 24 hours, leapt to his death off a cliff adjacent to the Otter Crest Loop. We only thought it fitting to make a pilgrimage to where the troubled genius met his end.

Douglas Emlong's last view. Not a bad one, in my opinion.

Ray, Kirk, and others reflecting on where Douglas Emlong met his end.

 My wife looking down the cliff - it's about a five hundred foot plunge to the Pacific below.

Next up: A visit to the Yaquina Formation


Ole Juul said...

Thanks for the story. I am sitting here in a most unlikely little town of Coalmont BC and above me is a painting of the Oregeon coast that looks much like the picture you took of where Emlong met his end. The painting is signed by him. I don't know much about where the painting came from, but I appreciate passionate art, and this led me to find out about this interesting person. I value his picture very much because, even without me looking this up on the net, the story is there. You are welcome to e-mail me if you like.
- Regards, Ole Juul

Robert Boessenecker said...

Hello Ole,

I would absolutely love to have a photograph of the painting. Could you please email me at Boessenecker [at]