The hunt for a dino dancefloor in Katmai National Park

Aug 25, 2015

Artist Ray Troll and Katmai's Roy Wood were on the search for evidence of Jurassic creatures... and all signs pointed to the stomping grounds of the duck-billed dinosaur. 

The "smoking gun" to this mystery? A three-toed indentation found by artist Ray Troll in Katmai National Park.
Credit Ray Troll

A few weeks back, Alaskan artist Ray Troll was invited to be an artist-in-residence at Katmai National Park and Preserve. With the help of one of the park's dedicated rangers, he went in search of animals that pre-date the brown bears by millions of years....

KDLG’s Hannah Colton tells this tale of the search for dinosaurs in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. 

Audio transcript:

Ketchikan artist Ray Troll may be most widely known for his art and music celebrating all things FISH. Perhaps fewer know about his love for prehistoric creatures.

"I’m a paleo nerd from day one… I’m an artist but I’m a lifelong paleo nerd, you know. I sing songs about trilobites and draw pictures of tyrannosaurs and all that kind of stuff..."

Troll's 2005 self-portrait, “Self Portrait a la' Untermann,” prominently features dinosaurs.
Credit Ray Troll / trollart.com

While in Katmai, he mentioned this interest to chief of interpretation Roy Wood, who’s a bit of a fossil fanatic himself.

WOOD: "And so he asked if it’d be possible to go poke around in some of the fossil layers in the park. So we went out to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where we have a rock formation called the Naknek Formation."

Wood says this rock layer – the Naknek formation – has turned up all sorts of fossils over the years.

WOOD: "Mostly marine fossils, things related to modern-day clams, nautiloids, belemnites, things like that… but also dinosaur tracks."

Now, Wood is no stranger to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes – every year he spends some time out there looking for traces of dinosaurs.

WOOD: "So it was great to be out there with someone else who was very interested with this lifelong… ten-year-old boy dream of finding dinosaurs. So we’re crawling around, looking under every rock layer and there’s some places that start to look a little interesting."

They started to see signs of ancient life - first a spiraled piece of ammonite, then some fossil plants.

WOOD: "These terrestrial plant fossils kinda indicate it’d be a marshy area, tidal area like a lagoon, and that’s typically where this type of dinosaur would have lived."

TROLL: "There like there’s sandstone right above this - that's Troll again - "and that’s the kinda stuff you might find prints in. The smoking gun it seemed like was gonna be if we found a three-toed something."

As they walked down the trail, Troll spotted an area of sandstone with all these pockmarks.

TROLL: "It sorta looked like a big dance floor, in my mind’s eye."

WOOD: "At the right angle, you could see what appears to us to be dinosaur tracks. Some of them are indistinct, but some of them have the 3 toes just like you would expect like the hadrosaurs, one of the duck-billed dinosaurs"

They took a bunch of photos, and returned to King Salmon with high hopes.   

A seemingly three-toed print
Credit Ray Troll

  If these truly are dinosaur tracks, Wood says they would be the first found within the boundaries of Katmai national Park.

WOOD: "The ten-year-old in me wants it to be dinosaur tracks so much, but the adult says 'ohhh, don’t get too excited, Junior!' And that’s where I kind of am. I really want it to be, but that doesn't mean it is.

TROLL: "So this is where we get the experts in. I’m kind of a expert, but I’m not a paleontologist, I just play one on TV or on guitar… but…I’m 99-ish-percent sure these are prints, and I hope I’m not mortally embarrassed by this, but I really do think they are…"

*music*

JOHNSON: "When Ray sent me the picture I knew right away he’d made a mistake. He made a fatal mistake."

That’s Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and a paleontologist who’s discovered thousands of dinosaur tracks.  

Johnson and Troll are old friends, and co-authored a book in which they road-tripped across mid-America in search of fossils.

Johnson says in this case, Troll had all the right evidence. He was looking at the right rocks. The fatal mistake, was that he was looking at them upside down.

"The way that tracks actually get preserved is if an animal walks on a muddy layer, and then the mud hardens and later gets buried by a layer of sand," says Johnson. "So usually in sandstone, tracks are made as depressions that face downwards into an underlying layer of mudstone rock."

The way to find real dinosaur prints, he says, is to look at the underside of a sandstone slab. Not the top.

I called up Troll again to see how he was taking the news.

TROLL: "My dreams being destroyed before my eyes… but Kirk’s actually used to doing that with his rather ambitious artist partner. So he’s broken my heart a few times over the years."

Troll's art from the book "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" shows Johnson and Troll on the hunt for evidence of prehistoric creatures in the American West.
Credit Ray Troll / trollart.com

This team is not giving up on the Naknek formation. Troll and Johnson are actually working on another book now, one that will cover the fossils of the entire west coast. Johnson says there’s still time to get Katmai into that book. 

For now, Troll says, this episode might inspire another Ratfish Wrangler song…

TROLL: "I think… I was letdown in Naknek… the Big Naknek Letdown… there’s something in there…"

*music – The Rocks Don’t Lie*

A panoramic view of the *almost* dinosaur print site, with Ranger Roy Wood.
Credit Ray Troll

Note: All music in this piece is from Ray Troll/Russell Wodehouse and the Ratfish Wranglers' 2010 album, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway.

Contact the author at hannah@kdlg.org.