A 10-million-year-old shark's tooth was the coveted prize for a day trip up the Potomac to
Virginia's Westmoreland State Park.
by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Dick Goertemiller
I frequently visit friends who keep their boat on the Potomac's Yeocomico River, and when we heard about the great fossil-hunting at Westmoreland State Park, farther up the Potomac, my friend Hal and I decided to visit by boat. When I called ahead to request a meeting the following Saturday with park manager Scott Flickinger, he said that if we arrived early enough we could join a fossil hunting "field trip" by canoe, on the beach just beyond the park's Horsehead Cliffs.
On Saturday morning it was overcast but calm as Hal and I packed tuna sandwiches, a box of Pecan Sandies and enough water to float a whale. By 8:20 we were motoring out of Sandy Point Marina in Hal's small cruiser. At Sandy Point, where the Yeocomico meets the Potomac, we rounded the "Birthday Cake" (flashing red "2") and turned upriver. Half an hour later, in a roughening sea, we rounded Coles Point marker and left the whitecaps behind for smoother, gentler water.
After another 15 minutes, we had passed the Nomini Bay marker and could see Nomini Cliffs rising sharply from the shoreline. We could also see evidence of a recent slide that had left the homes at the cliffs' summit perilously close to the edge. Mudslides-technically and rather ominously referred to as "mass wasting events"-had occurred in July 2003 at both Nomini and Horsehead cliffs after the ground became supersaturated with the spring and summer's heavy rains. At Westmoreland, a section 100 feet long by 7 feet wide had fallen into the Potomac below, forcing the park to close a section of one trail and the beach below the cliffs.
Continuing upriver past Horsehead Cliffs, we came to Westmoreland Park's boat dock, which carries only three feet of water at low tide. As we cut the power and ghosted past the fishing pier to nestle against the dock, we spotted a small flotilla of canoes launching from the bulkheaded shore near the boathouse. Hey, the field trip was off already and we weren't even tied up yet! We quickly secured the boat and rushed ashore, leaping wildly and shouting. A sympathetic park ranger indulged us with one of the park's tandem kayaks, paddles and life vests, and a helpful push. After a few moments of uncoordinated paddle-thumping like some demented water cricket, Hal and I finally got into synch and set off as quickly as we could without threat of heart attack. Although the canoes seemed to be pulling away from us with the speed of voyageurs, leader Holly Walker told us later that she and her group of fossil-seekers had actually been struggling to make headway against the wind. Oh, well. Hal and I did slow down to watch a bald eagle soaring above the cliffs; nearly a half-dozen are known to live within the park's 1,300 acres.
By the time we reached the beached canoes, fossil-hunting was well under way, as people pulled Miocene-era sharks' teeth and bone fragments from the coarse sand at every turn. Within the first 10 minutes, a nine-year-old girl had picked up one of each type of fossil, and the boy next to me was the proud new owner of three sharks' teeth. "At one time," Walker explained to us as we hunched over the sand like so many sandpipers, "you would have had to go out forty miles to find water. Another time, the water here would have been well over our heads."
I too scooped up handfuls of wet sand and then let it slip through my fingers as I watched intently for fossils. After a backbreaking hour with my nose to the sand, and still no fossil, Hal finally had to tear me away and back to the kayak for the meeting I'd scheduled with Flickinger. He told us that sharks' teeth and other remnants of the Miocene Sea are as easy to find as the prize in a Cracker Jack box . . . at least for those whose eyes are sharp enough to distinguish them from the rocks, sand and other debris thrown out to dry in the tide's perpetual wash cycle.
"Don't you ever run out?" I asked. "No," he said. "In fact, two summers ago a young woman who lives in Great Britain and her father, who is a professor at William and Mary, came here to go fossil-hunting. She went down to the beach-probably a hundred people had already picked over the area that day-and within two hours she had found thirty-five shark's teeth, thirty ray's teeth and two whale vertebrae."
"How nice," I said insincerely.
After talking with Flickinger, we hiked around the park; with its cabins, campsites and Olympic-size pool, it was far more extensive than I had realized [see sidebar]. Later, as Hal was getting the boat ready to leave, I scoured the shore one last time like a crazed gambler. Just as I gave up, Cole Vanover, a high-school student who works summers and weekends at the park's boathouse, took pity. "Here, take one of these," he said. In his hand were a half-dozen shark's teeth. I picked out the iridescent green and black one that is sitting next to my computer as I write this. It's small, about the size of a pram-rigger's cotter pin. It is black at its head and iridescent green along serrated edges that taper to a point. Although probably 10 million years old, it still looks oddly menacing.
Heading back down the Potomac, Hal and I finally had time to enjoy our sandwiches-it had been such a busy day we'd forgotten to eat. Passing Coles Point light, we finally broke out the Pecan Sandies. Between bites, I checked my pocket to make sure my prize shark's tooth was still there.
Snag Your Own Tooth
One of Virginia's six original parks, Westmoreland was established in 1936 on land that once belonged to the Lee family's Stratford Plantation. The park's single boat ramp is busy, but not crowded, on summer weekends. The boat dock has room for three or four tie-ups, always allowing for the three-foot depth at low tide (the boat dock is currently being upgraded but will be finished by spring). There is also a small fishing dock; no license is required to fish off the dock.
Before park manager Scott Flickinger came to Westmoreland, he spent seven years on the Eastern Shore at Kiptopeke State Park, whose extensive fishing docks he recalls fondly. Westmoreland has no such docks and probably never will, he says, since the State of Maryland comes all the way across the five miles of Potomac River to the Virginia shore. "And Virginia says, 'Why put money into Maryland?' " "But," he adds, "wearetrying to promote boating." Many visiting boaters simply anchor off the park's 11/2 -mile-long shoreline and go ashore by dinghy. The park, which has an Olympic-size swimming pool, does not allow swimming on its beach. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the park rents kayaks ($16 for singles, $22 for doubles) in two-hour increments or for fossil-hunting group tours along the cliffs (on Wednesdays and Sundays, and every other Saturday).
Although best known for its fossils, the park also has seven miles of trails through forests, meadows and wetlands, several campgrounds, and rental cabins that sit high on ridges or nestle deep among the trees (the most charming of them, log cabins with fireplaces, were built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps). The park also offers nature hikes, music nights and camping-skills classes.
For more information on Westmoreland State Park, call 804-493-8821 or visitwww.dcr.state.va.us/parks/westmore.htm. By land, the park is located on Virginia Route 347 off of Virginia Route 3, northwest of Montross and east of Colonial Beach.