Inside the Paleontology Museum at the University of Alberta, past the giant fish skull at the entrance, you’ll find a relic from the time of the dinosaurs.
The 65 to 75 million-year-old petrified tree stump is the latest addition to the museum, and is a point of pride in this small room in the basement of the university’s Earth Sciences building.
But what impresses museum curator Lisa Budney most is the discoverers of the stump, Mike Lees and Jeff Penney, who went on a costly, arduous, month-long adventure to retrieve it.
“Their willingness to go the extra mile is exceptional,” said Budney. “But also their willingness and acceptance of going through the proper channels in order to make sure they’re collecting things properly.”
“That makes them great citizen scientists.”
The two friends stumbled on the rare find in the middle of Edmonton during a canoe ride down the North Saskatchewan River in October 2019.
The experts were excited, but didn’t have the resources to collect it.
If these hockey dads didn’t move it, it was likely to wash away down the river by the following spring.
“I don’t think I would have ever forgotten if I just left it there and let it go downriver,” Penney said.
Once the two men made it their mission to extract the fossilized tree, they refused to be stumped.
Excitement over find
The day of the discovery, Lees asked Penney to join him for an after-work paddle.
An hour down the river, and a few drinks later, Penney needed to pull over for a pee break.
The spot they chose is on a narrow muddy bank along the river. A steep cliff about 30 metres tall separates it from any walking trails.
Lees liked this place because he would often find shells or fish skeletons here. A minute after they pulled over, he realized he was standing on top of something.
“I was really excited at the time,” Lees said. “You could tell that there was a difference between what was on the outside of the tree and the inside of the tree. It looked like bark, but it was stone bark.”
They sensed this could be a major discovery, so they sent pictures of it to the University of Alberta.
Based on its fossilization and location, scientists were able to estimate the age of the stump: the tree was a conifer from the cretaceous period.
A paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., called Penney to tell him the news.
“I was thinking it’s like two million years old. He goes, ‘Jeff, it’s estimated it’s probably around 65 million years old. It’s a tree stump with the roots and the bark,'” Penney recalled.
Even though the tree had barely moved from its original place for millions of years, the area around the river is continuously changing in small ways.
By spring 2020, a large section of the muddy bank where the stump stood was largely washed away, which is why Lees and Penney feared it might have been lost if they didn’t move it before winter.
The university couldn’t secure any funds to collect the stump without a clear research objective, but Budney, the curator they consulted with, was eager to put it on display at the museum.
“I’ve never seen anything this big come out of our river valley since I’ve been working here,” she said.
No stone unturned
After hours of paperwork and e-mails between researchers at the university, paleontologists in Drumheller and Alberta Environment and Parks, they received permission from the province to move it, if they wanted to.
To make sure the stump was still retrievable, Penney and Lees did some reconnaissance work.
They found a path through the woods that led to the top of the cliff over the stump, which was faster than taking a canoe.
On a sunny fall day, the two of them rappelled down the 30-metre bank, using extension cords from Penney’s truck. The stump was still there — as glorious as when they found it.
On the first attempt to remove it, they borrowed a hunting boat. But even with several men to lift the stump, it was too heavy. They also worried the weight of the stump could sink the back of the boat.
Lees even called Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, but ultimately, they weren’t able to help either.
Then, Lees and Penney recruited some friends to build their own barge. They took a half-dozen 50-gallon plastic drums and strapped them to a deck they built over a few hours. But they worried that the barge would not be sturdy enough either.
“We were using our best creative ideas to make it work, but it just wasn’t happening,” Penney said.
By this time, it was November, and they were brushing snow off the stump. They realized they needed to bring in professionals.
Penney called a company that did on-the-water and underwater repairs.
“Usually when we’re picking something up, it’s a man-made problem, someone’s dropped a truck, people go out and sink boats,” said Bill Stark, a marine operations manager at Northern Underwater Systems. “It’s not someone who lost a rock.”
“Once they explained what they had and the situation, it became more intriguing,” he said.
Penney spent his own money to pay Stark and his crew to remove the rock.
When the conditions were perfect, right before the river froze over, they loaded it onto an industrial boat and brought it to the museum.
A day later and the river would have been filled with too much ice for the boat to travel on.
A place in history
At around 800 pounds, there are very few petrified trees from this era that are this large and well-preserved, on display anywhere in the world, according to Budney.
University paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus was able to take samples from the core of the tree and find evidence of pre-historic ferns growing on its base.
“It’s a great find because it’s often that people find just smaller pieces of wood, but this was a stump and it looked like it was nearly in situ,” she said.
It’s a signpost of a time back when this wintry city was a hot muggy swampland along a seaway.
The stump still sits on the pallets it was dragged in on since it’s too heavy to move without a lift.
Lees and Penney have both brought their kids to see it in person.
“I’ll be satisfied for a long time knowing that people are going to be able to appreciate this thing long beyond my life,” Lees said.
About the producer
Ariel Fournier is an associate producer at CBC Edmonton. She’s produced radio documentaries about a 70-year-old wrestler with a flashy hat, adult adoption and the lasting influence of autotune.
This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel.