I start off our adventure with a simple request: “Honey, let’s take the kids to the lake to go fossil hunting.”
It’s the end of winter, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just begun the annual filling of Summersville Lake. Because the process is long, most of the lakebed will be dry and walkable for days. The stony slopes and ancient boulders, long since scoured of topsoil, will be exposed and perfect for fossil hunting.
Next comes the tricky part: “And, I was thinking maybe I’d bring my climbing shoes and boulder a little?”
My inflection rises. My statement comes out as a question, which was not my intent. Wendy pauses a moment and glances at me. After almost 18 years of marriage, I’m still not quite sure how to decipher her looks. I think she’s about to say something like, “You won’t get a chance to put them on.” But instead I hear, “Yeah, go for it. Maybe Lincoln wants to boulder some, too.”
Lincoln is seven years old and pretty much up for anything. Sometimes he’d rather just explore and scramble around in the talus than climb rocks with ol’ paw. He’s growing his hair out and looks like a mini-skater punk from the 90s. It’s rad. I bounce to the closet to find climbing shoes then bounce to the kitchen to pack snacks.
A few hours later, we’re on the lakebed via the Whippoorwill access point. We’ve been here for 20 minutes and have moved at most 20 meters. The kids stop every few steps to throw a stone or examine octopus-like stumps of trees. Hewn and submerged half a century ago, they still cling to the slopes like ghosts of a long-gone forest.
We find fossil after fossil, almost as if they’ve emerged from the lake to greet us. Most resemble wooden planks with linear ridges and perfectly spaced spots: lepidodendron, AKA the “scale tree,” a 400-million-year-old vascular megaflora from the Carboniferous period. We ‘Oooh’ and ‘Aaah’ in admiration, leaving them where they are so others can find them, too.
Lincoln scrambles up increasingly larger boulders, gaining confidence in his vertical movement. I follow and occasionally spot him. Rocket, my four-year-old daughter, warms to her surroundings and tackles a few climbs of her own.
There are climbers everywhere. I reminisce about my climbing days of yore and let out a deafening sigh that echoes off the cliffs. Some fishermen on the far side of the water hear it and shake their heads in pity. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.
Even though I’m not bouldering, I’m psyched because we’re on a family adventure. Everyone is exploring. Occasionally, somebody plucks a fossil from the Mars-like earth and yells, “Here’s one!” Then Rocket hurls a stone. Impressed, I say, “Dang, good throw, Rocket!”
We round a proud sandstone buttress and leave the climbers behind. Suddenly it feels like we have the whole lake to ourselves. I decide to fly a drone and take some photos of this otherworldly place. Lincoln is scrambling around on the talus like an iguana. Wendy and Rocket are down on the old roadbed tossing stones in the water and digging through the mud. We all gather on a ledge overlooking the lake for a family picture. Lincoln makes an obscene hand gesture; I ask him not to. Wendy explains what the gesture means while we scarf down snacks. We wander down the road to where it disappears into the murky depths.
I lead everybody over to the mother of all Summerville Lake fossils—a towering, fragmented beast of something majestic that no longer exists. I won’t tell you where it is, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s on the downhill side of a boulder.
On a whim, I drop my pack and scrape my way up and over the mother of all fossils. It’s an easy boulder problem, but I climb it like it’s my own little Dawn Wall. On the hike out, I spy several boulder problems I climbed back in the day and probably can’t do anymore. I also notice a few others that, so help me, I will climb next time.
Our kids love days out on the lake, and so do I. The climbing is fun, the bouldering is surreal, and it’s an entry-level way to get my spawn outdoors with a common mission: finding fossils. Next time you’re sitting around the house, wondering how to get the kiddos outside before the winter comes to an end, round up the gang and go find the mother of all fossils for yourself.
Jay Young is a family man, media maker, and aging climber. He’s a board member of the New River Alliance of Climbers and vows to send a boulder problem worthy of his seat.