Dishing the dirt on the elusive Stonehammer Geopark

·6 min read
Gorge Rocks Lookout on the Bay of Fundy. The bay is a failed rift that opened when Pangaea began to split apart, says Stonehammer's Catrina Russell-Dolan. The rift shifted to off the coast of Nova scotia and grew to become the Atlantic Ocean (Stonehammer Geopark/Twitter - image credit)
Gorge Rocks Lookout on the Bay of Fundy. The bay is a failed rift that opened when Pangaea began to split apart, says Stonehammer's Catrina Russell-Dolan. The rift shifted to off the coast of Nova scotia and grew to become the Atlantic Ocean (Stonehammer Geopark/Twitter - image credit)

New Brunswick's Stonehammer UNESCO Global Geopark contains many wonders. From footprints of the first animals to walk the planet, to billion-year-old fossils, to the birthplace of the Atlantic Ocean and the collision point of Africa and South America, it's all part of the park.

But where exactly the park is remains a mystery to many tourists and locals alike.

"I get that question a lot," said Catrina Russell-Dolan, Stonehammer's program coordinator.

Catrina Russell-Dolan set up for a virtual program at the New Brunswick Museum.
Catrina Russell-Dolan set up for a virtual program at the New Brunswick Museum.(Submitted by Catrina Russell-Dolan)

Stonehammer was founded over a decade ago. You see it advertised in tourist brochures, on highway signs and on the websites for Saint John's Rockwood Park and Irving Nature Park.

"It's not a park in the traditional sense," said Russell-Dolan.

"It's kind of abstract, I guess. … We don't have a gate."

The Stonehammer Geopark is spread out over a 2,500-square-kilometre area in southern New Brunswick from Norton to St. Martins, along the coast of the Bay of Fundy to Lepreau Falls, and across to Grand Bay-Westfield.

An interactive map of Stonehammer sites can be found on its website.
An interactive map of Stonehammer sites can be found on its website.(Google Maps)

Within those boundaries, said Russell-Dolan, "you can find rocks and fossils representing an almost continuous geologic history dating back a billion years."

Stonehammer contains 61 sites where people can engage with rocks, fossils and human stories, she said.

A dozen sites are "easily accessible" to the public.

Russell-Dolan emphasized that Stonehammer is "not just about geology."

"It's this holistic approach to looking at our heritage, looking at our communities, how we experience the world."

Geology is "the foundation to our entire experience as humans," Russell-Dolan said.

"Without the rocks beneath us we wouldn't have all of the plants, the animals, the weather — everything that we see today is sort of determined by our geology."

These signs with the Stonehammer logo show the way to geologically significant sites.
These signs with the Stonehammer logo show the way to geologically significant sites.(Stonehammer Geopark/Twitter)

Russell-Dolan's passion for geology began when she was a teenager.

She decided at 14 that she wanted to be a geologist and even though she had little idea what that entailed she has never regretted it.

One of the goals of Stonehammer, she said, is to help people gain a better understanding of the patchwork chunk of planet we're living on.

"There's a lot you can learn just by looking around you."

"You can learn about millions of different worlds that have existed and disappeared without ever leaving your backyard."

"Even just driving down the highway is like going on a trip to a different country — continent."

Billion-year-old stromatolite fossils are found in the marble that formed in South America and can be seen in Dominion Park, said Russell-Dolan.
Billion-year-old stromatolite fossils are found in the marble that formed in South America and can be seen in Dominion Park, said Russell-Dolan.(Stonehammer Geopark/Twitter)

Russell-Dolan said she feels it's important to connect those stories to the modern world.

For example, she said, you can tell from geological formations that flooding in the St. John River valley is something that has happened many times before.

All along the river, she said, are v-shaped valleys that were formed by water and u-shaped ones that were formed by glaciers.

When she drives home through the Kennebecasis Valley, she sees terraces where the water levels were higher in the past.

And more modern evidence of flooding can be seen in sedimentary deposits.

This aerial view of Reversing Falls taken by Lance Timmons shows the Bay of Fundy waters meeting the river waters.
This aerial view of Reversing Falls taken by Lance Timmons shows the Bay of Fundy waters meeting the river waters.(Submitted by Catrina Russell-Dolan)

A couple of her favourite sites in the geopark are Reversing Falls and the Norton "fossil forest."

At Reversing Falls, said Russell-Dolan, you can see signs of an ancient ocean and the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea.

Under the bridge are billion-year-old light gray marbles from South America on one side and 500-million-year-old dark gray shales and sandstones from northern Africa on the other.

The light gray rocks under Reversing Falls bridge were part of South America. The dark gray shales and sandstones were part of Africa.
The light gray rocks under Reversing Falls bridge were part of South America. The dark gray shales and sandstones were part of Africa.(Submitted by Catrina Russell-Dolan)

They came together as the body of water known as the Iapetus Ocean closed, said Russell-Dolan. That happened 480 to 430 million years ago.

Evidence of more recent history can be found underwater at Reversing Falls, she said.

"There actually was a real waterfall there."

"Beneath the surface there's a 40-foot plunge pool," which formed where the water used to drop thousands of years ago.

Artwork by Jessica Doyle depicting what Reversing Falls may have looked like prior to flooding.
Artwork by Jessica Doyle depicting what Reversing Falls may have looked like prior to flooding.(Submitted by Catrina Russell-Dolan)

The Wolastoqiyik have a legend dating back to that time about a giant beaver, she noted.

As the story goes, this beaver built a dam near the mouth of the Wolastoq that flooded the favourite campsites of the Wolastoqiyik up river.

Koluskap intervened on behalf of his people, smashing the dam, allowing the falls to flow again and shrinking the beaver to a size that would no longer be a threat to the people.

A version of the story as told by Doreen Saulis can be found on a monument in Saint John's Wolastoq Park and in a video that Russell-Dolan posted on the Stonehammer Facebook page for Earth Day.

A banana-sized beaver tooth held by the New Brunswick Museum shows giant beavers really did exist back then, she added. They were about the size of black bears are today.

This tree fossil from the Norton area was unfortunately destroyed by fossil hunters, said Russell-Dolan.
This tree fossil from the Norton area was unfortunately destroyed by fossil hunters, said Russell-Dolan.(Dr. Randall Miller)

Russell-Dolan's other favourite site, the Norton "fossil forest" is near Moosehorn Creek. It's made up of about 700 trees that were buried over and fossilized.

"You're not actually seeing fossilized trees standing in place."

"But you can find parts of trunks and even see root structures preserved in the rock."

"There are so many sites like this around," said Russell-Dolan.

"You just need to know where to look."

Signs have been put up to help people find them.

Commissioned artwork by Jessica Doyle showing what the Norton fossil forest may have looked like.
Commissioned artwork by Jessica Doyle showing what the Norton fossil forest may have looked like.(Submitted by Catrina Russell-Dolan)

New ones are going up at Saint John's Tucker Park, she noted.

And there's "loads" more information on the Stonehammer website.

One thing Russell-Dolan asks of explorers, is that they don't remove any fossils they may find.

They are protected by law, she said.

The best thing to do is leave it in place, take a picture and contact the New Brunswick Museum.

"Every fossil here is a part of this geologic puzzle that we're trying to piece together and missing even one piece could change the entire geologic interpretation of our region."