AN ICE FISHERMEN’S
Howard Plotkin, Phil McCausland, & Peter Brown, University of Western Ontario
Part 2: Howard Plotkin (April 6-23)
Part 3: Phil McCausland (April 20-May 4)
Part 4: Howard Plotkin (April 24-May 10)
Conclusion, Acknowledgements, Recovery Team Members
Introduction. (Howard Plotkin)
meteor raced across the northwest Canadian sky just after 8:43 a.m. on January
18, 2000. Residents in the Yukon
Territory and British Columbia, as well as in Alaska and Washington in the
U.S., reported that the brilliant, multi-colored fireball lit up the pre-dawn
sky brighter than full daylight, and was accompanied by sizzling sounds,
peculiar foul smells, and ground-shaking sonic booms a few minutes afterwards.
Data from U.S. Department of Defense satellite observations and from
seismic monitoring stations quickly established the fact that a meteor
weighing approximately 200 metric tons and 5 meters in diameter had impacted
the Earth’s atmosphere, exploding with a force equivalent to 2-3 kilotons of
Jim Brook, who lives in the remote area just south of the Yukon/British
Columbia border where it was thought material might possibly have landed, was
contacted by the Yukon Geoscience Office and given some plastic bags for
collecting snow which might contain dust from the meteor’s train.
Brook, a pilot and outdoor guide who operates the Brooklands Wilderness
Camp on Tagish Lake, British Columbia, had witnessed the fireball from
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and was particularly interested in the
possibility of finding exploded fragments.
On the afternoon of January
25, as he was driving his pickup truck homeward on the frozen surface of the
Taku Arm of Tagish Lake, he noticed that the lake was open that day with
little snow on it, and thought it would be an ideal place to look.
Just as darkness was setting in, he spotted some small, black rocks in
the crusted snow several hundred meters from the shore.
Because of his university training in geology and his intimate
knowledge of the locale, he immediately suspected they were meteorites.
Careful not to touch them, he covered his fingers with clean plastic,
picked them up and placed them in plastic bags. He observed that they looked
“fried” on the outside, with molten globules inside.
Only one piece had melted snow on the bottom, but the others did not
appear to have been thawed at all. He
further noted that they were extremely fragile, and that the smallest
fragments had crumbled to dust when they hit the ice.
One larger one, however, had left a rolling trail in the snow.
All of the pieces were found more or less along a straight line on the
ice, with the largest ones furthest to the south.
On arriving home, he put
the plastic bags in his freezer, ensuring the meteorites would remain in their
frozen, pristine state. The
following morning he returned to the area in his truck, and found several
smaller fragments a few kilometers to the north.
A heavy snowfall on January 27 completely covered the lake, however,
and thwarted any further recovery. Altogether,
Brook found 17 meteorites totaling almost one kilogram in weight within a few
hours of searching; five were the size of small oranges, and twelve the size
A few days later Brook took his specimens to the Yukon Geoscience
Office in Whitehorse, which set into motion a train of events that brought
them to the attention of a small number of scientists, including Peter Brown
at the University of Western Ontario. Brown,
in turn, contacted his close colleague Alan Hildebrand at the University of
Calgary in Alberta, and Mike Zolensky at the NASA-Johnson Space Center in
Houston, Texas. Brown arranged for
Zolensky to receive two samples from Brook for analysis, and–still
frozen--they were flown down through arrangements made by the Geological
Survey of Canada.
confirmed that they were meteorites (and rare C2 carbonaceous chondrites at
that!), and Brown and Hildebrand quickly lined up financial support from their
two respective universities and from NASA and Sandia National Laboratories,
Los Alamos, New Mexico to lead a field investigation to the fall area to
investigate the fireball and try to locate additional fragments.
In the following pages, accounts of this expedition and a later one are
given. Brown discusses the first
expedition, which was carried out February 15-27, in which hundreds of
eyewitnesses were interviewed and dozens of photographs and videos of the
fireball event were collected and analyzed.
Aided by satellite observations and seismic records, this expedition
succeeded in deriving a fireball trajectory, and calculated where meteorites
of various sizes would have fallen. Although
this prediction was consistent with where Brook made his discoveries, poor
weather conditions prevented them from finding any additional meteorites.
From our different
perspectives of recoverer and searcher, Phil McCausland and I next discuss the
second expedition, carried out April 6-May 10.
With favorable weather conditions, this expedition found some 410
meteorite sites in a strewnfield approximately 16 kilometers long by three
kilometers wide, and managed to recover about 200 of these meteorites.
Together, the efforts and accomplishments of these two expeditions in a
remote corner of frozen Canada represent what we believe to be a unique
chapter in the history of meteoritics. Moreover,
our accounts offer a rare, intimate glimpse into how science is sometimes
carried out: under less-than-ideal
conditions, but with enthusiasm, ingenuity, perseverance, and–at least in
our case–a measure of good luck.
I arrive at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory after a long flight from
London, Ontario via Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Charlie Roots of the Yukon Geoscience Office, with whom I have spoken
on several occasions, meets me at the airport and we immediately proceed to
make measurements of the area around the sidewalk in front where a
surveillance video of the fireball had been captured.
The airport security office helps to establish the fact that since the
video catches only one out of every 30 frames, it will be able to provide an
accurate measure of the duration of the fireball event.
We later stop by the office of the Yukon Emergency Measures
Organization, and speak to some persons there about the reports they have
received. I also indicate to them
my plans for the next ten days–namely to interview as many eyewitnesses as
This evening, Charlie has arranged for me to give a talk at the
Beringia Community Center in Whitehorse, in the hope that it will help to
quickly locate more eyewitnesses of the fireball and dust cloud, and hopefully
some photographs and/or videos of the event.
The talk goes well (about 70 persons attended), and afterwards many
approach Charlie and me with names, accounts, and some photographs and videos.
After a prolonged set of meetings with various people at the end of the
meeting, Charlie takes me back to the hotel where I prepare for the next
day’s beginning of field work.
At Charlie’s suggestion, we begin the day on February 16 with an
early (7:00 a.m.) interview on CBC radio so I can make known my interest in
talking to people about their observations of the fireball.
Afterwards, we go to the Yukon Geoscience Office and go over leads
which might be profitably followed up. After
much discussion, we decide around noon to begin interviewing some eyewitnesses
in the Whitehorse area, and to try to track down some of the persons who had
shot early videos.
I decide to see if I can find
any security video which might have been shot in Whitehorse, and go to a local
video security store and explain my interests.
A technician there who installs security cameras around the city
informs me that there are many that are constantly recording, but claims that
he cannot give me any names or leads due to confidentiality considerations.
I explain to him that many of these cameras are on a one-month cycle,
and since the next day will be one month after the event, it will be the last
one possible for tracking down additional videos.
None of this makes much of an impression on him, however.
He seems to think that I work for some sort of secret government
agency, but still will not give me any information as to whom I might contact
in town. In the end he says he
will talk to customers individually and get back to me, but he never does.
This evening, although bitter cold (-25 C), I take stellar calibration
photographs from the place where one of the earliest–and thus most
valuable--videos had been shot by a person working at WHTV, the local
television station. He had been
doing some photocopying in front of a south-facing window on the morning of
January 18, and was perfectly positioned to see the flash and part of the
meteor. Luckily, he managed to
throw open the window and start shooting with his digital video camera almost
immediately. Following this,
I go to the office of the Whitehorse Star newspaper, and shoot another set of
stellar calibration photographs where one of the employees
had taken some early pictures of the dust cloud.
Having secured some basic information from the Whitehorse area, my next
priority is to establish the azimuth of the ground track projection of the
fireball. An exact determination
of this will be critical both to solving the final trajectory and for the
modeling of where meteorites might have landed.
It is obvious from all the Whitehorse reports that its path was
slightly to the west of the city. In
light of this, on February 17 I decide to head west of Whitehorse on the
Alaska Highway to try to locate as many eyewitnesses as possible who had seen
the fireball. After stopping at
many ranches along the road just outside of the city (without success), I
finally reach Takhini Heights, a subdivision of about 100 residents some 60
kilometers west of Whitehorse. My
first interview suggests that the fireball had been east of this location.
By canvassing every accessible house here, I manage to confirm this
from three other witnesses–the first definite constraints concerning the
range of the ground azimuth.
I continue heading west, all the way to Haines Junction, where I
interview persons at the airport (which is located on an open plateau at a
higher elevation than the immediate surroundings, affording an excellent view
of the sky in almost all directions). The
most interesting report there is from a pilot who had just finished putting
some gasoline into his plane and had stepped into his car at the time of the
fireball. He had recently
purchased a new Toyota a few months earlier, and had been having problems
adjusting to the presence of the car’s interior light, as his previous truck
never had a working one. Just as
he was about to turn on the ignition, the entire landscape lit up like broad
daylight. He thought this was
somehow related to his new car’s interior light, and was amazingly
impressed, but soon realized by the extent of the light (as well as by
noticing a second flash shortly after the first) that this could not be the
case. He then got out of his car,
and had seen the last few seconds of the fireball.
Having determined in a rough sense that the fireball had passed to the
west of Whitehorse by several tens of kilometers, I hope on the following day
to further refine its azimuth by finding observers along a line perpendicular
to its path. Other than the Alaska
Highway I had investigated earlier, the only other possible road which affords
observers is about 30 minutes south of the city.
I head there, and manage to speak with several persons who had seen the
On my way back to the highway, I stop a woman driving a truck toward
the end of the road, and ask her some questions about the fireball.
It is apparent from the start that she is not totally lucid, and she
gives the impression of one who might possibly have been experimenting with
some local recreational pharmaceuticals! She
concludes her rambling account by stating: “As if all of that was not
strange enough, the same thing [i.e., a bright fireball and loud detonations]
has happened every morning since January 18.”
We part company quickly thereafter.
I then proceed south to try to find people near Carcross to interview.
It is apparent from early reports that the fireball path had been quite
close by, and a major question I would like to answer is whether it had passed
to the east or the west of this town. I
already have a few local names, and am soon able to track down a person who
had been outside starting his truck on the morning of the fireball, and had
seen the entire event.
I am struck by the fact that he had noticed the fireball first coming
over the mountains from the northwest at only four degrees altitude, and then
tracing out a complete path almost directly overhead all the way to the
southern horizon. This was
unusual, as such a long apparent path could only be produced by an object with
a very shallow entry angle. This
is the first direct indication in the field of just how shallow the entry
angle might have been. In speaking
to several other witnesses, it becomes apparent that the fireball had nearly
passed overhead, but everyone puts the path just to the west of town–a
reassuring degree of consistency.
After these initial interviews, I manage to hook up with a
well-connected local person (he holds many offices in town) who decides that
the most efficient way to find additional eyewitnesses would be for us to grab
a bite to eat and sit and drink coffee in the local coffee shop, talking to
everyone coming into the store. While
skeptical at first of the utility of this approach (particularly since I was
paying!), it soon becomes apparent that the local store is the cultural hub of
Carcross, and many useful leads develop. After
getting a number of potential names this way, we part company and I begin
following up with some in situ interviews.
One of the witnesses I speak to is someone who lives only a few
kilometers north of Carcross, who had seen the dust cloud after noticing the
bright flashes of the fireball. Of
special interest is her claim that she had felt some odd, fine, sleet-like
granular material falling just a few minutes after the fireball (a sensation
also experienced by an earlier witness I had interviewed).
After finishing up a few more interviews, I head back to Whitehorse.
Jim Brook is in town the following day, February 19, and we meet for a
quick breakfast. Jim needs to run
down to Ten Mile (on the north side of Tagish Lake) to retrieve his broken
truck (it had broken the same day he did his last bit of searching and
recovering material from the lake ice on January 26), and I will accompany him
there. I plan on stopping along
the way and interviewing a few people, most of whom he already knows.
From Ten Mile we drive on to Tagish, and Jim introduces me to some
additional eyewitnesses. Several
persons in this area report having heard a series of short booms and cracks
following the main explosion, and one reports a sulphurous, kerosene-like
smell a few minutes after the event (other witnesses elsewhere report similar
sounds and smells). On my way back
to Whitehorse, I stop at one place to see the early photographs that a person
had taken of the dust cloud, and to take his and his daughter’s eyewitness
accounts. He is particularly keen
to try to find material from the fall, and is hard pressed deciding between
spending some saved money on fixing the kitchen or on meteorite hunting (with
his wife’s intervention, the former received priority funding).
On February 20, Alan arrives on the afternoon flight from Vancouver,
accompanied by Andrew Bird and Mike Mazur from the University of Calgary, and
Mike’s wife, Tina Mazur-Rubak. We
waste no time in heading down to Atlin, British Columbia, interviewing several
more witnesses along the way. We
arrive late into Atlin, and contact Jim to arrange to fly us to Brooklands
early the next day.
It becomes apparent the next morning that the logistics of getting all
our equipment and people over to Brooklands is going to be a full-day affair.
While the others wait in the hotel, Alan and I take the opportunity to
interview as many people locally as we can.
The enormity of the event as seen from Atlin becomes apparent as one
person who had an excellent view of the fireball from her office window
relates to us how she ran out of the office after seeing the fireball (but
before hearing the loud booms) to retrieve her child from daycare and drive
home to make sure that everyone was all right.
One of the more interesting persons we interview is a local realtor,
who was sitting at his desk facing toward the direction of the fireball when
it occurred. He happened to have
the digital camera he uses to take photographs of real estate sitting on his
desk at the time, and was able to go out almost immediately and take some very
early shots. His first photograph
was within 90 seconds of the fireball, and shows remarkable detail which turns
out to be critical to our entire investigation.
Late in the afternoon, Jim
shows up with his Cessna-180 and takes us out of Atlin in two separate
flights. At long last, before
evening darkness has fallen, we are finally at Brooklands.
February 22 is our first day of active searching for meteorites.
We begin by having Jim take us out to the fall area on Tagish Lake by
snowmobile. En route, he shows us
the safest trails to the site (some water overflow is present, even in
mid-February), and where he had found his initial specimens.
After briefly looking over the area, we decide that Alan and Andrew
should begin searching by clearing the snow off the ice in an area near the
northern extremity, where Jim seems to vaguely recall that at least one
fragment had broken up into many pieces on impact.
Meanwhile, Mike, Tina, and I head off into the woods to assess
conditions there and to do our own search.
Because of the significant amount of snow that has fallen since January
18 (more than 30 centimeters), just walking through the woods is an exhausting
task. After about an hour we
realize that finding any fragments under these conditions will surely be an
impossible task. In the meantime,
Alan and Andrew manage to clear off about 100 square meters of snow, but
without success. (Ironically, we
later find meteorites within 300 meters of where they were, and the densest
area of recoveries turns out to be only about one kilometer further out onto
the lake from there.)
After lunch, Alan and Andrew continue clearing snow in some randomly
selected search areas, while Tina, Mike, and I hike to a small, unnamed lake
about one kilometer east of the shore. The
trek in takes much longer than anticipated (we get partially lost), and
slogging through the snow saps much of our energy.
We use our shovels to uncover snow from portions of the lake ice, but
do not find anything. (Even more
ironically, we later find two meteorites on this lake less than 50 meters from
where we had been searching.) When
darkness approaches we head back to where Alan and Andrew are, and go with
them back to Brooklands.
On the following day we fly to Atlin to do some more interviewing, and
to meet with some members of the RCMP canine unit.
Alan had contacted them in Whitehorse, and they have agreed to come to
Atlin and conduct an experiment with one of their trained dogs.
Basically, we want to see if it can “smell” a meteorite buried in
the snow. After meeting the dog
handler and the local RCMP constable, we proceed by car to a small, relatively
secluded lake north of Atlin and use one of the meteorites Jim had found as a
test. Unfortunately, either the
dog cannot smell the rock once it is beneath the snow, or (more likely) it
ignores it since it has not been trained to key on that particular smell.
After much prompting it is finally able to locate the meteorite, but
unfortunately there is no evidence that this procedure will prove effective on
the ice. Reluctantly, we are
forced to abandon the idea.
Later that afternoon Alan and I fly to some more remote locations to
interview persons close to the fireball path.
We head back to Brooklands around sunset, flying right over the fall
area (and unbeknownst to us at the time, thousands of meteorites buried in the
ice!). The next few days are
devoted to various logistics and making phone calls, and on February 25 I
drive back to Whitehorse, tie up a few loose ends, and return to London.
Alan, Andrew, Mike, and Tina remain at Brooklands until February 27,
but it becomes obvious that if there are any more meteorites in the Tagish
Lake ice, they won’t be found until the spring melt arrives, probably in
mid-April. We therefore decide
that a second field investigation will be carried out at that time.
I arrive in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory with Peter from the University
of Western Ontario in London, and we check into the High Country Inn.
Our arrangements to fly west with advance purchase airline tickets had
involved a guess on our part as to when the snow would begin its spring melt,
but the weather has remained colder for longer than we had thought.
We will remain here until the heavy snow cover still blanketing Tagish
Lake–our primary search area for additional meteorites from the January 18
fireball–decreases enough for us to go to Brooklands.
The cabins at Brooklands will serve as our base of operations during
Until Phil McCausland and Margaret Campbell are due to arrive from the
University of Western Ontario in five days, we will spend our time shopping
for supplies, interviewing persons known to have witnessed the fireball or the
ensuing dust cloud, trying to track down additional persons who might have
seen the event or (hopefully) taken videos or photographs of it, and taking
stellar calibration photographs. Peter
wants to use these data, in conjunction with data he has obtained from U.S.
Department of Defense satellite observations, to improve his determination of
the trajectory of the fireball’s path through the atmosphere in order to
narrow the potential search area.
Our interviewing efforts over the next five days take us into the rural
areas outside Whitehorse in the enormous, gas-guzzling, four-wheel drive Ford
Excursion we have rented. Driving
up deeply rutted, snow-filled paths to isolated cabins, we brave the “Beware
of Dog” signs posted everywhere (most cabins seem to have a minimum of four
to six dogs) to talk to people about their observations.
Although some persons realized that what they had witnessed was a
meteor, most did not. A few feared
that some sort of nuclear device had gone off, but many more thought that
their generator or propane tank had blown up, or if not theirs, perhaps their
Other explanations offered were less prosaic.
One individual, who had just passed a police cruiser on the highway,
thought that it had snuck up behind him and was blasting him with some sort of
powerful beam. A few others
thought that what they had seen was either a NASA or Cruise missile, or
perhaps even a UFO. One person who
lives at the base of a mountain heard the sonic boom and ran outside naked
thinking that a landslide had begun. He
turns out to be one of our most colorful witnesses, for when we ask him if he
had noticed anything unusual afterwards (some of his neighbors had reported
seeing dark, dust-like material on the snow surface), he responds with a
smile: “Oh, nothing much more than the fact that I briefly grew a second
head and had a four-day erection!” We
are impressed by how deeply moved by the event everyone we speak to is, and
how genuinely interested they are in aiding our investigation.
There is also a mystery to solve in Whitehorse while we are there.
During their earlier investigation in February, Peter and Alan had
noticed that one of the Yukon Electric substations had reported an unexplained
drop in voltage from 120 to 115 volts at the time the meteor passed overhead.
The voltage remained at this lower level for about half an hour, at
which time there was a massive gangswitch failure that plunged much of the
Whitehorse area into darkness. We
want to follow up on this and, if possible, determine whether these events
were related or simply
coincidental. Understandably, the
U.S. Department of Defense has more than a passing interest in finding out the
answer to this question as well!
No one we speak to at the substation can explain the drop in voltage.
To make matters even more confusing, none of the surrounding
substations have reported a similar drop.
Although it is known that there had been earlier problems with that
particular gangswitch, we do not know whether or not the long-lasting drop in
voltage had anything to do with its complete failure at that time.
The strip-chart records from the Yukon Electric substation in question
do not show a similar decrease in voltage for that particular time for either
the preceding or following day, or for that day and time for the preceding or
following weeks. But Peter notices
that there are other sporadic times during those weeks that the charts reveal
a similar drop in voltage. Once
again, everyone is at a complete loss to explain this.
Then the light goes on over
the head of one of the supervisors: “There is a space heater up in the room
that the strip-chart recorder is located, and it’s on the same circuit.
Maybe that kicking in is what’s causing the drop in voltage.”
So we race upstairs, turn on the space heater, and sure enough the
voltage immediately drops from 120 to 115 volts.
Mystery solved–it was not a space visitor but a space heater that had
caused the drop! We then surmise
that this drop in voltage probably had nothing to do with the gangswitch
failure, but that the shock wave associated with the fireball might have
delivered a final fatal blow to an already weakened switch.
Although Jim’s reports
are not very encouraging, we are all chomping at the bit to begin the search.
By April 14 we cannot restrain ourselves any longer; hoping against
hope that Jim is somehow wrong about the snow levels, we make the final
arrangements for the transport of the four All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) we have
rented, and leave Whitehorse for the 2 ½-hour drive south to Atlin, British
Columbia, the jumping-off point for our rendezvous with Jim.
One of the first things we do is to visit the Atlin Elementary School,
where we talk to the students about meteors and meteorites, and do our best to
answer their interesting questions. Afterwards,
we interview those who had seen the event (most of them had), and take some
measurements during recess. One of
the students there tells me of the highly imaginative explanation that had
flashed into his mind when he saw the fireball pyrotechnics: “Whoopee,
Whitehorse is firing back at ‘em!” Who
the “‘em” was and why Whitehorse was firing back, however, go
On the following day Jim
meets us on the Atlin shoreline with his ATV, and leads us across Tagish Lake,
over a narrow strip of adjacent land, and up Graham Inlet to his Brooklands
lodge. The scenery is
breathtakingly beautiful; we are
on a frozen glacial lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with no one
around for tens of kilometers, and are experiencing a high degree of
excitement now that our search is finally about to begin.
15-19. The four of us
settle into our log cabins, and are shown where the various necessities of
life are (the fast-running creek where we can get drinking water, the place
where the firewood is stored, and–last but not least--the location of the
outhouses). Marion--Jim’s wonderfully warm,
friendly mother and cook extraordinaire--explains to us the winter
camping routine we will follow at Brooklands over the next few weeks.
We lose no time, however, in checking out snow levels at various points
on the lake.
To our great chagrin (but not surprise) we find that Jim had of course
not been wrong–the snow is still too deep to begin searching.
But we are incredibly eager to start, and decide to go to the proposed
search area, some 40 minutes away by ATV, right away-- if for no other reason
than to get a feel for what the terrain is like.
Shortly after arriving there, however, a threatening snow squall
quickly blows in, forcing us to return.
The next few days develop into a cat and mouse game.
As the weather slowly begins to improve, with daytime highs going above
freezing, we continuously check the snow levels on the lake.
In the primary search area, Phil takes snow depth measurements every
100 meters or so, quipping that this no doubt represents the most
thorough–and expensive–measurement of its kind ever carried out on Tagish
Lake. Since a lake search is still
impossible, we decide to begin searching along the eastern shoreline and in
the adjacent forests in spots where the snow has already melted.
The prospects for success, however, appear frustratingly small.
In the first place, the shoreline is overcrowded with jumbled piles of
rocks that have severely weathered over the years, which has turned them jet
black. Trying to pick out a small,
black, fusion-crusted meteorite from such a rock pile will be extremely
difficult, if not impossible. Going
inland, we discover that the numerous alders shed plates of bark which, upon
rotting, turn black with white specks. They
unfortunately look just like carbonaceous chondrites, except they bend when
you poke them. Well, perhaps if we
happen to step on a meteorite we might find one, we console ourselves.
As the hours wear on, we even begin to wonder if extremely fragile
carbonaceous chondrites can survive intact after being imbedded in a thick
layer of snow which has subsequently melted.
We fear that these conditions might possibly have turned them into a
mushy sludge, in which case our efforts will be for naught.
We find no meteorites during these searches, but do find something of
interest--a few sets of freshly-made grizzly bear tracks.
This, needless to say, does little to help brighten our moods.
Ed Tagliaferri (who has joined us for a week from the Aerospace
Corporation in Los Angeles, California) expresses his dismay that we had not
brought some firearms with us, but we are only armed with two cans of pepper
spray, and therefore somewhat nervous. The
instructions on the can read “Only for use on angry bears.”
But if we should encounter a hungry bear who has just awoken from a
winter-long hibernation, how can we ascertain whether or not it is angry?
How good will our aim be if it suddenly charges?
And how effective will the spray be?
Not wanting to be put into
a position where we will have to answer any of these questions, we decide to
make a lot of noise, and Margaret and I even sing songs at times while
searching. If the former doesn’t
do the trick, then the latter obviously does, for happily we never encounter
any bears. In the face of these
long, tiring, non-productive efforts, we try hard to maintain an optimistic
While Phil, Ed, and I search close to the eastern shoreline, where Jim
had found his initial meteorites, Peter and Margaret check snow depths and
reconnoiter areas toward the middle and west side of the lake.
Scarcely an hour had passed when I sense some commotion a short
distance away, and look up to see Peter racing toward me on his ATV.
“Howard,” he excitedly shouts, “where’s Phil?
We’ve found a meteorite!” We
all marvel at the meteorite, which is dark and sooty looking, resting in a
dimple in a thin layer of snow, with its main part settled down somewhat into
the lake ice. It is beautiful and
absolutely unmistakable–a carbonaceous chondrite!
We are surprised to hear that they had found the meteorite while
cruising along at a fairly good speed. In
fact, they had nearly driven over it! The
sobering implication of this is that there are no doubt many, many fragments
to be found–not only in the immediate area where Jim had found his, but also
here, some 2 kilometers to the west, and probably over the whole lake surface
for many square kilometers. The
enormity of the project before us begins to sink in.
Because of his previous geological fieldwork, Phil is the obvious
person to take charge of the
recovery operations once meteorites have been found.
While he and Peter labor to retrieve the meteorite from the ice, we
continue our search with renewed vigor. Margaret
soon finds a pair of meteorite holes, and I am absolutely determined that I am
going to find one, too! While the
others are busy recording Margaret’s find and retrieving material from it, I
get on my ATV and start searching in closely-spaced traverses.
Within a few minutes I find a beautiful circular sink hole in the ice,
with large, black chunks of a meteorite clearly visible within.
I am so excited with this, my first ever meteorite find, that I
literally jump up and down with joy while waiting impatiently for the others
to come over to see it.
We are all euphoric and
can’t bring ourselves to stop, and continue searching till past 8:30 p.m.
This is a few hours past the time we usually leave to return to
Brooklands for dinner, and on our way back we run into Jim, who has come out
on his snowmobile to make sure we are all right.
We have found nine meteorites today.
After dinner, we stay up well into the evening transcribing our field
notes, poring over our area maps, plotting the day’s finds, and planning our
searches for the next day. Everyone
is very excited; we also feel quite lucky–it had seemed like such a long
shot to actually find more meteorites after the long winter.
We also discuss the various sampling gaffes we had made that day, and
how to avoid them in the future. Mike
Zolensky from the NASA-Johnson Space Center had sent us a small package of
materials by FedEx in case we should be fortunate enough to find a meteorite
or two–including such items as sterile latex gloves, a few sheets of
aluminum foil, and some Ziploc plastic bags–but this was barely adequate for
the number of meteorites we found.
Our success that day had
shown us how unprepared we had really been, and we realize that our actions
will have to become far more purposeful now.
I return through darkness to my cabin, have a late-night snack of a
handful of M&Ms, put another log in the wood-burning stove, hang my boots
and socks on a mobile over it to dry out, and fall into bed both exhausted and
The next day we meet for breakfast at 7:00 a.m., one hour earlier than
usual, so we can get an early start on the day’s search.
By mid-day we are finding, on average, one meteorite per hour, and are
moving beyond the area that the recovery team is working in.
In order to help them more easily locate the meteorites we have found,
we stick twigs with red flagging tape into the ice next to the sink holes.
This works well for a while, but we fear that even with this aid the
holes might not be readily visible as they are sometimes far apart.
Starting the following day, we begin sticking evergreen branches into
the ice next to the flagging twigs to further mark our finds.
As we continue to find more and more meteorites, it soon becomes
obvious that we need help. To
begin with, we have to decide on the best way to maintain them once we remove
them from the ice coolers they have been kept in since their retrieval.
Should we keep them frozen in ice, or would it be better to allow them
to thaw a bit so they can dry out? How
should we store the ever-increasing cache of meteorites we are accumulating?
How should they be shipped out from Tagish Lake?
We decide that until someone suggests otherwise, the best thing to do
would be to wrap the meteorites in aluminum foil, put them in
plastic bags, and store them in the freezer compartment of Jim’s
refrigerator at Brooklands. This fills up very quickly, however, so Jim begins
to fly the meteorites into Atlin in his Cessna-180 plane, and places them in a
storage freezer in his shoreline shed. Later,
when this freezer becomes filled, he begins to cache the meteorites in two
large game freezers at a friend’s house in Atlin.
But above all else, our primary concern is that we need more manpower
to help us out.
Alan and a few others are due to come to Tagish Lake from the
University of Calgary to help out at some later time.
We feel we need him now, however, and phone him to tell him so.
But this cannot be done in a direct manner, for Jim’s phone hook-up
is via citizens’ band radio.
This means that anyone with a CB receiver can listen in on our
conversations. Since Jim wishes to
remain anonymous at this time, we have developed a ruse we will use: we will
never mention the word “meteorite,” but will instead talk about
“fish.” After several
attempts, Peter manages to connect up with Alan:
“Alan, we’ve finally succeeded in catching some fish.”
“Roger, copy that.”
“We’ve been catching something on the order of 10-12 a day.”
“Roger, copy that. That’s
“We can use some help. When
are you planning on coming up?”
“Well, I have some important matters to attend to at the University,
and don’t think I can get away for another five or six days.”
“Alan, we need someone to help us now, to...er...help retrieve the
fish from the ice, and figure out how best to...um...skin them and store
“Roger, copy that. I
understand. Maybe I can get away a
“Alan, I strongly suggest that
you call your travel agent, book a ticket, get on a plane, and come up NOW!”
Alan arrives back on April 22. As
Jim leaves for Whitehorse to pick him up, Peter gives him his credit card and
asks him to buy all the ice coolers he can get hold of for our use on the
lake. That night, Marion prepares
an elaborate, delicious Easter dinner of roast turkey for us.
Phil comments that this is the best field camp he has ever seen!
Our Easter dinner is one day early, because Ed, Peter, Margaret, and I
all have to leave the following day–Ed to return to his job in California,
while Peter, Margaret, and I have to return to our duties back at the
University of Western Ontario. After
dinner we stay up later into the night than usual, as the stories of the past
week and beyond pass around the table of contented meteorite searchers.
Easter Sunday, a bright sunny day, is a changeover day. The four of us leave, but Mike Mazur (back for his second time) and Mike Glatiotis arrive from Calgary. Phil stays on to provide continuity. Since Jim is going to fly Margaret and me out first, we say our good-byes, and head off on our ATVs towards Brooklands. Before traveling 20 meters, however, we both abruptly stop, having simultaneously found two more meteorites only a few meters apart from each other. We excitedly cross our arms overhead, the signal for a find, and wait for the others to come over to check them out. Though we are sad to leave, we now do so on a high note.
Up until mid-day April 20, the meteorite hunting expedition had been an
unusual but fun-filled experience for me.
My previous geological field work in northwestern Canada had always
taken place in mid-summer, and I was not used to trolling about in an ATV on a
frozen lake in this part of the country. But
the hunt had also been frustrating. Since
Jim had suggested that we try to chop a hole through the ice anytime we felt
uneasy about its thickness, Peter and I had taken to chopping “frustration
holes” at the end of each day’s futile search.
Not only did this help to quickly allay our fears about the ice
thickness, it unexpectedly also felt good!
With each passing day, our frustration holes got progressively deeper.
My experience changed dramatically that day, however.
After lunch, Howard, Ed, and I began searching along the ice on the
eastern shore, just south of where Jim had found his initial meteorites nearly
three months earlier, while Peter and Margaret searched further west on the
lake. The trail seemed cold, but
after a short while Peter came charging towards us on his ATV.
“Pack things up and come on,” he shouted, “Margaret and I have
just found a big one! Come on!”
While the others begin to walk away from the site in a spiral pattern
to see if there are any other meteorites nearby, Peter and I set to work,
trying to figure out how to recover the fragments without either contaminating
them or getting them too mixed in with the snow.
We first remove the larger
pieces, setting them on a spread-out piece of aluminum foil to dry.
But the wind begins to lift up the edges of the foil, threatening to
blow it–and the meteorites--away. What
can we use to hold it down without contaminating it?
And what can we use to scoop out the smaller debris from the ice hole
and surrounding snow? “You mean
we have no trowel?”, Peter asks incredulously.
We improvise with more foil, but see that we hardly have any.
The full extent of our unpreparedness for actually recovering
meteorites quickly becomes all too apparent.
During this first innovative attempt at meteorite recovery, we retrieve
about 30 grams of loose material from the hole.
Interestingly, it has an associated area of debris embedded within the
first centimeter of ice, a “spallation zone” created when the fragment hit
the ice in January and partly broke up. We
carefully note the dimensions and southerly orientation of this impact
feature, and collect as much of it as we can in a large plastic garbage bag.
I then take the frustration
axe and use it in earnest for the first time, chopping out around the hole and
under it, eventually being rewarded with a satisfying “chock!” as a cubic
block of ice 30 centimeters on a side pops free.
Inside the block we can see more dark meteoritic debris.
We stuff this block into another garbage bag, but see we hardly have
any of these as well.
Meanwhile, Howard, Margaret, and Ed have begun a systematic ATV search
away from us along a line moving east. Within
a short time, Margaret finds a pair of meteorite holes, and then Howard finds
one. Peter and I look at one
another and quickly realize that it is going to be hard to keep up with the
searchers–we had better get our act together!
We begin to work out a system for recovering material in which we
primarily keep out of each other’s way.
Wearing the sterile gloves, I do the “fishing” while he finds tools
and readies the aluminum foil for receiving material.
I have found it helps matters to chop a second hole in the ice next to
the sink hole, somewhat deeper and connected to it by a channel.
This drains water away from the sink hole, and helps make retrieval of
the meteorites easier.
We end the day with a splash–Peter finds a group of meteorites (again
while traveling at a fairly fast speed), five holes in all which we come to
dub “Peter’s Party of Five.” By
now it is quite late in the day, so after recovering the larger pieces from
two of the holes and noting their positions, we head homeward.
We do not find it necessary to dig any “frustration holes” today!
Prospects for tomorrow look bright, and I have a hard time getting to
sleep despite being in a cozy cabin after a long, exhausting day.
Early the next morning we arrive back at the search site armed with all
the stainless-steel spoons and forks and garden implements we can get our
hands on, chopsticks, hatchets,
axes, and all the aluminum foil and Ziploc and garbage bags we can muster.
We also bring along a turkey baster (which turns out to work really
well on sucking up small fragments from the sink holes) and even a potato
masher (for reasons which I can neither remember nor fathom).
We are going to be prepared today!
Jim has also supplied us with a chainsaw, and has shown me how to cut a
“keystone block” out of the ice. I
can’t wait to give my axe-worn muscles a rest and to try chainsawing out the
hard-to-get meteorite holes. Jim
informs us that the method has a serious drawback, however–it will cover the
working area with a cherry-red chain oil, a sure contaminant.
Peter and I resolve to use the chainsaw only as a last resort.
Our resolve is tested almost immediately on our return to “Peter’s
Party of Five.” As we arrive and
start to set up our gear for recovery, Howard and Ed find two more meteorites
nearby. Moreover, most of the
holes have frozen over during the night, making it more difficult to recover
fragments without breakage. We
spoon out what we can, and fire up the chainsaw.
I make four cuts in the ice that bracket the largest fragment, and am
excited to see that the “keystone block” method really works!
Peter and I jimmy the ice block out, stuff it into a garbage bag, and
move on to the next hole. We use
the chainsaw when the holes are frozen over, but use an axe when they are open
to the air, thus promising the minimum of contamination.
The day begins to get much warmer, and we start to wonder how much more
time we will have to find and recover meteorites.
By noontime, the holes we find are all thawed out, and the dark
meteoritic material, often flattened out to resemble a thick pancake, seems to
almost visibly sink further into the ice as we are working.
Time is becoming a dominant factor in our planning!
Over lunch and during the afternoon, we debate how best to search: how
fast can we go on our ATVs without missing meteorite holes?
How wide apart should the searchers be?
On the recovery side, we realize that the ice blocks in garbage bags
need to be kept cool somehow, so Peter finds a good snowbank on the
north-facing shore of a point of land, and caches them there while we continue
We feel there is a strong need for us to keep our expedition as secret
as possible, in order to help keep the science viable and to keep the
lake from becoming a potentially dangerous collectors’ and media circus.
Because of the early widespread publicity surrounding the meteor and
our recent conspicuous presence in Atlin, we have been astonished at the lack
of any local activity on this beautiful frozen lake during the past five days.
But during the late morning this day our fear of others coming out onto
the ice and finding us is finally realized.
As Peter and I begin to set up for a site recovery on the west side of
the lake, I spot two lights approaching us just offshore to the north.
We are expecting Jim and his girlfriend Doreen Stangel to be driving
down the ice in his pickup truck later in the afternoon, but they seem to be
coming early. Then the lights
diverge impossibly far apart, and we realize that these are visitors
approaching us on snowmobiles!
We hurriedly pack up our gear and move away from the site, and Peter
roars off across the lake to alert the others, who have just found and are
marking another site. I watch the
snowmobiles approach with apprehension, wondering if they will buy our “ice
fishing” story. Two men pull to
a stop with a wave, and I step out to meet them.
As I do so, I note the large ice auger on the back of the lead machine,
and feel the lack of one on my ATV.
“Good day,” I say, in what I hope is a relaxed, conversational
“Hello,” says the larger of the two, stepping off his machine and
coming over. “Out for ice
fishing, are you?”
Thank heavens, I sigh; this makes things a lot easier.
“Yes, we’ve been out here for a short while, putting in some holes.
Haven’t found a good spot yet, though.”
I feel this is somewhat truthful, as we still don’t know where the
best “fishing” is.
“We’re headed on to Deep Bay,” he explains, pointing south.
“We’re on out from Tagish. Know
some good places in the Bay.”
“Well, we haven’t been there yet,” I say truthfully, “and I
don’t think we’ll get over there today.”
We talk briefly about the weather, but then an awkward silence follows.
I hope they don’t ask me about fish–I realize for the first time
that I know absolutely nothing about ice fishing, or about what kinds of fish
might inhabit winter lakes in northwest British Columbia.
I am starting to ponder plausible fresh water fish when he speaks
“You folks out from Atlin?”
I reply that we are, but it is clear that he means today, for he asks
about the ice conditions on Atlin Lake, which we crossed five days ago on our
ATVs. I tell him we are staying
nearby, at a lodge, but I fear that I am being a bit too cagey, and that he is
With some alarm I notice that his eyes are wandering over the
improbable ice fishing gear on my ATV: the FedEx box from NASA-Johnson Space
Center with sterile latex gloves and various sizes of Ziploc bags, a plastic
milk crate with boxes of aluminum foil and garbage bags, and the bag
containing our essential “fishing” gear (a trowel, some bent forks and
spoons, a few garden implements, chopsticks, some strainers fashioned out of
ladies’ nylon stockings placed over Mason jar rings,
a turkey baster, and a potato masher).
Off the back of the ATV hangs the chainsaw, with blotches of red chain
oil smeared over the blade guard.
Just then I hear the whine of Peter’s ATV approaching.
“The cavalry is coming!”, I say to myself with great relief.
I mention that we are all out on a trip from southern Ontario and
haven’t been here before. His
brow furrows and then he nods–this seems to have explained something to him.
We turn to meet Peter. As
he brakes sharply to a stop, I hurriedly greet him: “Hey Peter, how’s the
ice fishing over there?”
Without missing a beat he responds: “Not bad, not bad.
We have a couple of holes, but no fish yet.”
We exchange further pleasantries with the real ice fishermen, and they
soon head on to Deep Bay and out of sight.
That was close! In the late
afternoon we see them again, heading north back to Tagish, perhaps after a
good day’s fishing. Amazingly,
these are the only persons we see on the ice during the entire Easter holiday
Saturday the 22nd is an exceptional day on the ATVs.
The weather is cool, and the machines seem more jumpy and alive than
usual (on our return to Brooklands at the end of the day, Jim informs us that
we had accidentally fueled up that morning with his high-octane aviation fuel
instead of gasoline!). Late in the
afternoon, Jim comes driving down the ice in his pickup truck with Alan, who
has just arrived from Calgary. We
are very happy to see him, and eager to show him how we are finding and
recovering the meteorites. We
tease him about his late arrival to the search, and threaten to leave him on
the ice overnight to make up for lost time.
But after a while we relent, and he leaves with Jim for Brooklands
shortly before we head back ourselves.
The next morning we introduce one of Jim’s snowmobiles to the array
of machines on the ice, along with a metal sleigh for coolers.
This becomes the recovery vehicle which Peter, Alan, and I use.
Late in the morning, when Jim flies over with Mike Mazur and Mike
Glatiotis who are joining us from Calgary,
we at last have the prospect of putting all five of our ATVs onto the
Alan is gamely picking up on what we have been doing the past week, and
exploring other options for more efficient sample collection.
Peter is bent on impressing upon him the need for speed, even at the
expense of leaving some of the smaller material behind.
After enjoying their spirited and entertaining discussion throughout
three recovery sites, I move on to searching, leaving them to further discuss
the merits of various sampling strategies.
As it happens, we are strangely unlucky at finding meteorites during
the day, despite the larger crew. Mike
Glatiotis is enthusiastic and sharp-eyed, and finds one within an hour of
arriving on the ice, but that is the only find so far.
In the early afternoon, Howard and Margaret prepare to leave, but in a
welcome turn of events each finds a meteorite only seconds after we say
good-bye to them. Later, we hear
the approach of Jim’s plane,
coming to pick up Peter and Ed from the ice, as they are also leaving Tagish
Lake. As we gather to meet him and
say our good-byes, Ed continues to wander on foot beyond the front of the
airplane. He then stops,
straightens up, and calls out to us: “Hey, I think you folks had better come
have your chat over this!” Like
Margaret and Howard, he, too, had found a meteorite just prior to leaving the
ice. Perhaps this is the secret to
a truly successful search strategy–to always be just about to leave?
We wave good-bye, and watch them take off.
With Peter, Howard, Margaret, and Ed gone, it feels strangely empty on
the ice, with only Alan and the two Mikes from Calgary remaining.
April 24-May 4.We set off on the next day, a sunny Monday morning, joined by Jim on his ATV. Alan figures that it would be a good idea to examine the area to the south of where most of our search has taken place so far, farther along the calculated fireball path, where the meteorite fragments promise to be more massive.
While heading north on the 8-kilometer stretch of lake around and north
of the “Golden Gate,” we spread out and slow down to cover more area.
Like the others, I stand up on the footrests of my ATV to get a better
view of the surrounding windswept ice and the low, hard snow dunes.
On occasion, one of us slows abruptly and turns full circle to
investigate a suspicious hole. We
are beset by feathers, spade-shaped brown alder leaves, and the occasional
pile of animal droppings–all of which sink into the ice leaving holes that
have to be investigated.
Off to my left, Mike Mazur has stopped and dismounted, halfway through
a sudden turn. I continue onwards,
trying to catch up with Alan ahead. After
a time I notice that neither of
the Mikes has caught up with us. Looking
back, I can see them in the middle distance, jumping up and down.
We join them and find a mess–a big, beautiful mess!
For his first find, Mike Mazur has come across an enormous field of
carbonaceous chondrite debris, marked by many black holes set in a dusky
patch. There are many whoops of
joy; this is to be our southernmost and single largest find, totaling over 2
kilograms in all.
As I step carefully around in the 20-meter-long strewnfield, marking
hole after hole of meteoritic material with flagging tape, I am beginning to
wonder how we will be able to recover all of this and still search.
This 40-hole site promises to be a multi-day job in its own right!
We decide to carry on northwards, splitting into two recovery
groups–Alan and Mike Mazur in one and Jim and I in the other--to recover
material from the remaining known sites from previous days.
Meanwhile, Mike Glatiotis sets about making reconnaissance traverses to
try to get some feel for the ice search conditions and the possible overall
extent of the strewnfield.
Jim and I quickly saw out blocks of ice from two sites, and then take
an axe to the third on our list, as its hole is open to the air.
I am beginning to be comfortable with leaving some hard-to-get material
behind in these holes. The
“mother lode” that Mike Mazur found this morning ensures that we will have
no shortage of meteorite return from this expedition.
Just the same, we are keen to get as much as we can from each site,
since it will be good to have samples from as many sites as possible to
represent material from various locations throughout the meteorite’s
pre-impact body. Jim leaves us
after lunch, so during the afternoon Alan and Mike Mazur continue recovery,
while Mike Glatiotis and I run a search patterns close to the east shore.
We have retrieved most of the sites by now, and only have the big one
in the south to worry about tomorrow.
The next day, the recovery of Mike Mazur’s huge site begins in
earnest. Mike and Alan are
outfitted with most of the sampling gear and many coolers for storing cut-out
ice blocks. Mike Glatiotis and I
conduct east-west traverses across the width of the ice at the site, looking
for the next big one, but come up empty-handed.
After a while, we decide to go along the shore trail to the snowbank
where we have cached some meteorites, and take a break.
As we drive along this route, I notice something funny–the snow sure
is dirty down here. I skid to a
quick stop. Yes, the snow is
dirty--and has black holes in it!
I jump off my machine and look. Sure
enough, I’m stopped in the middle of a large impact area.
I cross my arms overhead, and wave to Mike up on the trail, only 15
feet away. For the next few
minutes we take pictures and marvel at the extent of the south-oriented
strewnfield, and the density of meteorites in the dirty snow patch that I had
almost run over. I guess this is
the only way I can find meteorites–by accident!
Mike heads back to inform the others, and I set to work marking all the
With the midday April sun beating down, I ponder covering the holes
with aluminum foil to reflect sunlight away from the dark meteorites, and help
keep them from sinking any further into the ice and becoming waterlogged.
However, the foil placed over some meteorite holes yesterday at Mike
Mazur’s large site didn’t do the job–it seems to have absorbed heat
instead and melted a bit into the ice, filling the holes with even more water.
Some other method of shade is needed.
I start to make foil umbrellas which can shade the holes but still
leave them open to the freezing air. I
have fun doing so, and after some experimentation I can even make them
self-supporting, able to stand in the breeze.
Alan and the two Mikes arrive and we have lunch at this new site.
We have an embarrassment of riches here, but clearly not enough people
to recover material from our two large sites and also continue searching.
We are not mopping up the leftovers, as Peter had predicted would
happen when he left two days ago. Rather,
we are finding a great deal more material, and a mostly unsearched
strewnfield at least two times larger than previously thought.
We need to get more people–if only the ice will last long enough!
Alan and I recover meteorites from both sites during the next day, as
the two Mikes search on their ATVs towards the west and north.
They find three more sites, extending the size of the strewnfield yet
again. Fortunately, we now are
relieved to know that three more searchers from the University of Western
Ontario–Erika Greiner, Heather Gingerich, and Rob Carpenter--will be flying
into Whitehorse tomorrow to join us.
Thursday morning arrives overcast for a change, and cooler, so we feel
compelled to emphasize searching rather than more recovery from the two big
sites. All four of us run in
east-west parallel search lines across the lake.
This strategy pays off with 21 finds, nearly doubling the total number
of sites found so far.
Late in the afternoon, we see a pickup truck coming down the lake.
It is Jim and Doreen, with the three new arrivals.
Boy, am I glad to see them! But
they seem a little nervous about being on the lake, and with seeing us out
here. Thinking that maybe it’s
our chapped lips and our sunburned and wind-burned faces, I try hard to be a
little less wild-eyed. In truth,
they are a bit disoriented. It has
been less than 24 hours since they first heard about the expedition and
volunteered to fly out to help, and here they are now, standing with us on the
cold, windswept ice, drinking tea from Doreen’s thermos.
Brooklands is busy this night as the swelled crew of seven guests
settle into their cabins and discuss plans for the next day.
Now we’re getting somewhere, I feel!
Over the next few days, we have increasing success with our searching.
The ice is now cleared of almost all snow in most places, leaving a
velvet aqua-blue surface that is perfect for spotting dark holes.
The new arrivals have come at just the right time!
Our search turns up more and more meteorites each day, until we are
getting totals of 70 to 90 finds per day.
While this is gratifying for the searchers, it is mortifying for the
recovery team, and we become hopelessly behind in our work.
We must devise faster recovery methods!
Alan conceives of an “inverted pyramid” method of chainsawing
meteorite-laden blocks, whose four sides taper to a point at the bottom,
directly out of the ice. This way,
we don’t have to jimmy the block out, and it is more likely to stay intact.
Although this works very well, the increasing difficulty of seeing some
of the more deeply buried meteorites sometimes results in our cutting through
the specimens that we’re trying to recover.
Such errors become immediately and painfully obvious to everyone
around–the typical white ejecta from the chainsaw becomes a tell-tale black
sludge, for all to see. “Oops,”
says Alan, with a sheepish grin on his face,
“we’ve now created what is surely the most expensive chainsaw
lubricant in the world!”
Mike Glatiotis conceives of a different kind of innovation: using the
unique suction power of a capless “Aunt Jemima” plastic syrup bottle to
suck up small pieces of loose debris. For
holes that had previously taken 20 or so minutes to clear out, we can now
quickly remove the larger pieces, and then subject the rest to the “Aunt
Jemima” treatment. It works!
But compared to the searching, our retrieval work is still going slow.
The ice is becoming candled now, and the meteoritic material is deeper
and harder to get out. To make
matters worse, the larger pieces are starting to penetrate into the ice in
tubes or “straws,” leaving the
smaller debris behind. These
straws can be quite deep, sometimes even passing all the way through the ice.
This is especially frustrating when a piece I’m working to recover
slips off my spoon and sinks down one of the dark blue straws to oblivion!
To prevent this, we cover up all the adjacent straw openings with
To help define the extent of the strewnfield, we move our search
patterns in one-kilometer steps to the north.
More meteorites are found here, but they are, predictably, generally
smaller. Those that are large
enough to merit collection are retrieved on the spot.
But we are now routinely leaving the smaller fragments behind in the
ice, and considerable debris deep into the hole at each recovery site.
There is simply no time to get it all!
Heather finds a single, large meteorite here that is unusually intact,
and excitedly rides over on her ATV to where Alan and I are working further
south to show us her beautiful find. “Hey,”
she playfully suggests, “maybe this will pay off my student loan–or
perhaps the house!”
May brings our first genuinely warm days, making the trip from
Brooklands out to the search area much wetter.
It is now becoming dangerous to get on and off the shore, where the ice
is thinnest, and we realize that it will soon become impossible to get to the
field area with our ATVs. On the
morning of the fourth, we gather after breakfast as usual on the shore at
Brooklands. There are just four of
us now as Alan, Erika, and Mike Glatiotis have left to meet other obligations.
With an overcast sky last night, the morning is warm and the ice is
already wet on top.
We head out in a long line, finding small patches of water in our
tracks on the ice here and there. Ten
minutes out, we come across much larger patches of water and areas of slush on
the trail, making our passage soggy and slow.
The first three ATVs find an old, hard snowmobile trail and ride on top
of it, but I miss getting on to it and become stuck in the slush.
When the others turn around and come back to help, we agree that this
feels too dangerous. Mike Mazur
tests the ice thickness where we are, and discovers that we are sitting on 9
inches of candled ice, and below that only 6 inches of good ice!
And this is only the start of the day–what will the ice be like when
we drive back at 8 p.m. tonight, we wonder?
We decide not to risk it, and turn back to have a camp day instead.
Rob and Mike search the shore opposite Brooklands, where it is possible
that a really big meteorite might have come down, but all they find are good
views of the lake. I take the
opportunity to pull together my notes of the last few days, and Heather helps
out Marion and Doreen with the woodcutter.
In the afternoon, Jim arrives with Peter, who has just flown back from
Jim informs us that the route east through Graham Inlet out to Atlin is
impassable now, as there is open water on Atlin Lake.
So it will be necessary for us to drive the ATVs out to the north on
Taku Arm to Tagish, more than 90 kilometers away.
We decide to do this the next morning, if the clouds go away and there
is a freeze overnight. Happily,
the sky clears, and I enjoy one last dark, starry night at Brooklands.
The ice is frosty the next morning, and we wish the Brooks well as we
leave. It has been a fantastic
three weeks, a time I’ll remember always!
We travel out on the frozen ice without a problem, realizing that if we
weren’t trying to get out to Tagish, this would be an excellent field day.
We search along the way, spreading out as we pass through the
strewnfield, and find four more small fragments.
Jim has given us an up-to-date idea of where the pressure ridges and
open waters are further up Taku Arm. We
run along the shore ice for most of the journey, a crazy dunebuggy
roller-coaster ride at times, watching one another to see if we get airborne
over some of the shore ice ramps! My
ATV starts to pack up during this trip, now having lost its long-troublesome
neutral gear altogether. This
means that kicking down from first gear puts me immediately into reverse,
making for some curious maneuvers whenever we stop for a break.
At the north end of Taku Arm we need to cross a pebbly delta and head up some ten kilometers of woods road to reach the town of Tagish. The road proves to have many satisfying muddy pools that we have to get through. By the time we get to Tagish, both the machines and our clothes are refreshingly muddy. It is good to be on solid ground again. Upon reaching our predetermined meeting point with Jim, who has flown to Atlin then driven up in his truck to meet us, we discover an outdoor payphone standing in splendid isolation. Civilization! But who to call first?
After returning to London, Peter and I phone Alan every day at
breakfast time to hear how matters are progressing:
“Good morning, Alan. How
is everyone at Brooklands?”
“Everyone here is well, but tired.”
“How are the ice conditions?”
“The ice in the area where we’re working is fine, but it’s
beginning to thaw out along the shoreline at some points, and we have to drive
our ATVs up on the land there.”
“How is the fishing going?”
“Good–we caught 37 fish yesterday.”
“What size are they?”
“Oh, I’d say mostly in the 30-50 gram range.”
“Were they...ah....whole, or were they...um...disaggregated?”
“A few were whole, but most
were broken into several pieces in their holes.”
by chance anyone is listening in to this dialogue on their CB receiver, we
chuckle, they must be scratching their head and seriously wondering just what
kind of crackpot ice fishermen we are!
As the weather continues to warm up and the snow melts further, we are
delighted to hear that the searching conditions on Tagish Lake have improved
greatly. But this has brought
about a new set of problems. Because
the black meteorites are absorbing sunlight so efficiently, they are beginning
to sink deeply into the ice. How
much more time will there be before they sink in so deep they will be
irretrievable, we wonder? We
realize that we are in a race against time.
Peter quickly decides to send up three additional searchers from the
University of Western Ontario to aid in the recovery effort.
With each passing day, the number of meteorites found has been
climbing, soaring to a high of 94 meteorites in one day ( May 1).
But Alan’s phone messages have begun to take on an alarming tone.
The ice is continuing to deteriorate rapidly, he informs us, and soon
will become unsafe. Moreover, he
and the others are becoming exhausted. Due
to their other commitments, various expedition members are starting to leave
Brooklands–one leaves on May 3, and Alan and another on May 4.
Knowing that all the others except one will be leaving a few days
later, depending on the ice conditions, Peter and I make plans to return to
Tagish Lake. We will continue the
recovery process as late as possible, and oversee the cataloging and packing
of the meteorites for shipment to the University of Calgary.
5-8. I arrive back in
Whitehorse on May 5 (Peter had flown in the preceding day), and phone Marion
at Brooklands to inquire if I should bring down any supplies with me.
She informs me that I should buy at least a dozen more Tupperware
containers to add to the large number we already have for storing the
high-grade meteorites in, but that I should not leave for Atlin immediately,
as originally planned. She
explains to me that Jim and the others had become so worried that the ice had
become unsafe that they had called an end to the ATV search.
Earlier that day he had driven his truck to Tagish, on the northern
shore of the lake, where he rendezvoused with the expedition members who had
driven up in their ATVs, and was in the process of transporting them back to
Whitehorse. So I go to the store
that the ATVs have been rented from, and await their return.
When they finally arrive, I learn that the transmission on Phil’s ATV
had pretty much given out and that he had had some difficulty in making it
back, and that we had put some 2000 kilometers on each of them since renting
them out three weeks ago. All the
expedition members are returning home except Mike Mazur, who will stay on with
Peter and me, and ultimately transport the meteorites to Calgary.
The next morning we buy two 25-cubic foot Woods freezers and drive to
Atlin with them. Jim is very sick
this day, and can do nothing but sleep on the way down.
Once we get there, he collapses into bed at his friend’s house, and
we utilize the time to unpack the freezers.
As we do so, a neighbor
curiously watches us, and at one point his curiosity gets the better of him
and he comes over to see what is going on.
He assumes we are the freezer deliverymen (we say nothing to correct
him), and asks if it would be okay
if he were to take the cardboard boxes. We
of course say yes, and hope that he will quickly leave so we can continue our
work in private. He does leave,
but a few hours later, after we have set up the freezers in the side yard,
plugged them in, and covered them with tarpaulins so they will not attract
undue attention, he wanders over again, puzzled why we are still there.
Trying hard to keep a straight face, we tell him that the quality
control at Woods is very high, and we won’t be leaving until we are
absolutely sure that everything is working perfectly.
This seems to do the trick and he returns to his house,
but we wonder what we can possibly say to him later that day?
Or the next day? Or the
days after that? Luckily, he never
asks again. Jim wakes up
sometime in the late afternoon, and is so disoriented that he apologizes for
having slept for a day and a half. We
figure he is in no position to fly us to Brooklands, so we leave him to go
back to sleep and the three of us check into the Atlin Inn for the night.
The next day Jim is much better, and we fly in his plane to the search
area to see if there is any place there he can safely land us.
Although he feels that the ice will not support his landing, the
presence of dozens of dark circular spots we see from the air convinces us
that it would be highly desirable to resume the search for at least another
day or two, if at all possible. Within
an hour, we have rented a helicopter
and are on our way back to the search area once more.
For the next two days we walk back and forth over the ice for nine
hours each day. Since there are
now only three of us, we have to work as a single team, serving as both
finders and recoverers. By now the
meteorites have sunk quite deeply into the ice, in some cases
20 centimeters or more. Some
have even sunk completely through, and are lost forever.
For the meteorites that have fragmented, each piece has carved out and
sunk down into its own separate tube within the larger hole, further
complicating retrieval. In order
to avoid the risk of accidently dropping anything down one of these tubes
during retrieval, Mike stuffs wadded up balls of aluminum foil into them as he
adroitly lifts the fragments out with Marion’s chopsticks.
He has also hit upon an
additional way of finding the meteorites.
He has discovered that not all are in readily visible sink holes, but
that some of the smaller holes have been covered over by a thin layer of
crystallized ice. He has further
noticed that these have a certain signature that is relatively easy to spot
once you know what to look for--a marked radial symmetry, resembling the iris
of an eye. A slight tap on this
causes the ice layer to break, revealing the meteorite sitting deep down a
tube. Knowing this, I begin to
find several of these hidden meteorites, but sadly wonder how many I’ve
missed up to now.
During these two days we
manage to retrieve about 50 more meteorites, but by the third day, May 8, Jim
becomes worried that conditions have become too unsafe to continue.
The ice has candled nearly all the way through, and he points out that
if someone were to break through and fall in, no one would be able to get
close enough to manage a rescue. Water
is beginning to slosh up out of the sink holes with each step as we approach
them, and at one point the ice makes a loud, ominous cracking sound as I step
over a pressure ridge, forcing me to quickly jump backwards. As safety issues
take precedence over all others, we reluctantly call a final end to our
9-10. Our search has resulted in
the recovery of approximately 200 meteorites.
The high-grade specimens have been individually wrapped in aluminum foil
and placed in Tupperware containers for protection, but most of the meteorites
are still in chainsawed ice blocks. We
figure we have about a ton of such material in large plastic garbage bags,
divided between Jim’s storage freezer at his Atlin shed and the two game
freezers at his friend’s house. All
of this material now has to be catalogued, and transferred to the freezers we
A quick estimate of the amount of material we have convinces us that our
two 25-cubic foot freezers will not be sufficient, so Peter drives into
Whitehorse and buys a smaller 7-cubic foot freezer, which will be used only for
the high-grade specimens. As we
begin transferring the meteorites, we realize to our chagrin that some of the
high-grade ones are not in hard protective containers, but only in plastic bags.
So we go to the general store in Atlin and buy out their entire supply of
Tupperware containers. When the
salesperson raises her eyebrows, we simply shrug our shoulders and say “For
our fish.” We had used this same
line earlier when we bought out their entire supply of aluminum foil and Ziploc
bags, and now she can’t resist asking “Just what kind of fish are you guys
catching, anyway?” Mumbling
something or other, we leave and continue our task.
Once the meteorites have been catalogued and transferred, our final job
is to prepare the freezers for shipment to Calgary.
Mike and Jim’s girlfriend Doreen Stangel are going to transport them in
Jim’s truck, with one of the large freezers in the truck cabin, and the other
two freezers on a hitched flatbed. We
feel it is crucial that the small freezer containing the most valuable specimens
be cushioned as much as possible. Mike
suggests resting it on semi-inflated inner tubes.
But a call to the only garage in Atlin fails to turn up any–it seems
that the only kind of tires serviced there are tubeless ones.
Asking around if anyone knows where we can find any, someone suggests
that we try the local “junk” dealer. We
phone him and he says yes, he does have a few, but he isn’t sure if he is
willing to part with them. Nevertheless,
we decide to pay him a visit. When
we arrive there we see that his yard is filled with just about everything
imaginable, from huge, menacing-looking bearskins hanging from tree limbs to a
massive pipe organ propped up against the side of a barn.
Although he seems very reluctant to part with his sorry-looking,
patched-up inner tubes, the sight of a twenty-dollar bill quickly gets us two
and a few pieces of chewed-up foam rubber.
By 9:30 p.m. on May 10, Jim’s truck has been set up with an inverter so that the freezers can be kept running during their transport, and the freezers have been loaded into the truck and onto the flatbed, securely lashed down, and covered with tarpaulins. Everything is now ready for the two-day drive to Calgary. Peter and I bid a fond farewell to Mike, Doreen, Jim, and his friend, and head off for the drive to Whitehorse, where we will board a plane the following morning to return to London. Our long, arduous, but incredibly fun-filled meteorite recovery expedition on Tagish Lake has finally come to an end, successful beyond our wildest hopes–a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be treasured forever.
Our Tagish Lake expedition members have been fortunate enough to have
taken part in the recovery of the largest meteorite fall and the largest
strewnfield in Canadian history. The
24-day search on the frozen ice of Tagish Lake has resulted in our finding some
410 meteorite sites, in a strewnfield approximately 16 kilometers long by three
kilometers wide. We have managed to
recover about 200 of these meteorites, totaling probably five to ten kilograms
in mass. This is the first time in
the entire history of meteoritics that a newly-fallen meteorite has been
recovered pristine from a frozen environment.
And to make matters even more exciting, preliminary analysis indicates
that this organic-rich carbonaceous chondrite is a new primordial type (CI2).
Thanks to the brilliant initial recovery efforts by Jim Brook and the
additional material we were able to recover, scientists worldwide will now be
able to analyze this extraordinary meteorite, which may help them to one day
explain the formation of the solar system and the rise of life on Earth.
With much fondness, we thank Jim Brook, Marion Brook, and Doreen Stangel
for their encouragement and support, good food and good cheer, friendship and
With much fondness, we thank Jim Brook, Marion Brook, and Doreen Stangel
for their encouragement and support, good food and good cheer, friendship and
Lake Meteorite Recovery Expedition Team Members
Andrew Bird (February 20-27)
Andrew Bird (February 20-27)
Jim Brook (February 15-27,
April 6-May 10)
Peter Brown (February 15-25,
April 6-23, May 4-10)
Margaret Campbell (April
Rob Carpenter (April 27-May
Mike Glatiotis (April 23-May
Erika Greiner (April 27-May
Alan Hildebrand (February
20-27, April 22-May 4)
Mike Mazur (February 20-27,
April 23-May 10)
Tina Mazur-Rubak (February
Phil McCausland (April
Howard Plotkin (April 6-23,
Doreen Stangel (April 22)
Ed Tagliaferri (April 16-23)
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