‘Dinosaurs are the gateway drug to science’

Fossil fanatics Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson will visit Salishan Resort to talk about their latest book, "Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline"

Like many, I always associated Ketchikan-based artist Ray Troll with the crazy T-shirts sporting colorful fish or other wildlife and lines like “Ain’t No Nookie Like Chinookie” or “There’s No Ho Like Coho.” Troll’s art — irreverent, funny, sometimes dark — is an icon of Alaska, and likewise big, bold, and unique.

What I didn’t know was that as much as Troll is known for his wildlife and Alaskan-lifestyle art, he’s also equally well known — at least by some — for his love of fossils.

“It’s a lifelong thing,” Troll told me when we talked by phone this week. “I’ve been drawing dinosaurs since I was 4 years old. People know me for my fishing T-shirts, but my love of prehistoric things has been lifelong. Dinosaurs are the gateway drug to science. I was an early paleo enthusiast. I was using crayons; I still use crayons, but they are professional.”

Paleontologist Kirk R. Johnson (left) and artist Ray Troll have collaborated on a second fossil-filled book, "Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline."  Art by: Ray Troll
Paleontologist Kirk Johnson (left) and artist Ray Troll have collaborated on a second fossil-filled book, “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline.” Illustrations by: Ray Troll

Troll and fellow fossil expert Kirk Johnson are bringing their latest book, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, to the Oregon Coast. The pair will give a free talk and sign books Nov. 13 at Salishan Resort in Gleneden Beach. The talk is presented by the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, where Troll and Johnson, a paleontologist and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, collaborated on the book, a sequel to Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway. The project took them nearly 10 years to complete, earning them a Guggenheim Fellowship and taking them from San Diego to the northern reaches of Alaska.

“He’s the word guy,” Troll said of Johnson. “I’m the picture guy.”

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” is a sequel to 2007’s “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway.”

He describes their modus operandi as landing at the airport, finding the local diner for a cheeseburger kind of meal, followed by visits with local researchers and museums and, finally, to the field for fossil hunting.

The Oregon Coast, Troll said, has an incredible fossil record of marine mammals: “baleen whales, prehistoric marlins, prehistoric seals, a weird creature called an oyster bear that was found near Newport, and an animal called a desmostylus.”

The desmostylus – “we called them desmos for short,” Troll said – flourished along the Oregon Coast about 20 million years ago. They looked like a hippopotamus, grew as big as an elephant, and were found only in the North Pacific, from Baja to Japan. “We ran into them all along the Coast,” he said. “They were our iconic spirit animals.”

On their road trips, Troll found a few scraps of bones, but reports being skunked on the Oregon Coast. But he did make a big find in Alaska, which he shared in a story published in Alaska Airlines Magazine.

In their book, Johnson and Troll recount their fossil-hunting road trips along the Pacific Coast.
In their book, Johnson and Troll recount their fossil-hunting road trips along the Pacific Coast. Illustration by: Ray Troll

The pair were fossil hunting north of the Arctic Circle on the Colville River. As their week-long adventure drew to a close, they faced the reality that no one on the five-member team had found any part of a meat-eating-dinosaur fossil. Instead, he said, they had found hundreds of pieces of juvenile duck-billed dinosaurs, Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis.

Then, Troll wrote, “Kirk yelped, ‘Check this out!’ He held up the tooth of a raptor called Troodon. The tooth was beautifully serrated, like the finest of steak knives. I was thrilled for Kirk. Really I was.

“Fossil envy can be a powerfully motivating force,” he continued. So Troll dug along the same level as where Johnson had made his find, and a few minutes later, he flicked open a clod of dirt with his knife, “and there it was: a large tyrannosaur tooth, broken at the base, as if, perhaps, it had just snapped off while chewing on the bones of an unlucky baby Ugrunaaluk.

“Tears welled up in my eyes in a weird mixture of joy, exhaustion, and relief. I was 58 years old at the time, but I felt like I was 5 again, touching my beloved monster for the first time in the real world.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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