Grand Slam Day in the Driftless

By Laura Deering

driftless area of minnesotaInspired by fellow beachcombers and the mudlarks of London, I was motivated to seek out water-borne discoveries in my local area in southeast Minnesota called the Driftless Area. While I do not find Roman coins, I come across discoveries from other civilizations, sometimes even more ancient than those of Rome or Greece. From oceans to lakes to rivers, one can find treasures in a variety of settings and locations. After all, eventually the nearby river empties into the Mississippi River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico and oceans beyond, thereby creating a cycle that connects us all.

fossils from minnesota

No Glaciers

A unique biosphere called the Driftless Area is my playground in southeast Minnesota. It has plants and animal species that are found nowhere else in the entire world. This is due to glaciers, or better stated, the absence of glaciers “drifting” here. Being missed by the last ice age created a one-of-a-kind environment. Instead of flat plains, we have small mountains, deep gorges, and more caves than the entire rest of the state combined. Eons ago, insects, plants, and reef life went bobbing along merrily in their warm soupy coral sea. This distinctive environment ended up creating some of the oldest bedrock on the planet. This is showcased by fossilized brachiopods, cephalopods, and gastropods enveloped in 450-million-year-old stone that often churn up on river sandbars.

mudlarking finds from minnesota

Older than Caesar, Stonehenge, and the Pyramids

Cherished finds of Native American artifacts that reflect their culture never cease to take my breath away. Sometimes it is an arrowhead, drill, or a stone scraper. A recent discovery of a 6,000-year-old arrowhead stopped me in my tracks. I thought for sure my mind was playing tricks with me, and I was envisioning what I wanted to find. Reaching down and touching it made it real. The stunning craftsmanship of a perfect intact point made of pink chert stone, showed its maker had an artist’s eye for color. The thinness of the arrowhead revealed the skill the hunter used to chip rock delicately without breaking the entire piece. I consulted with an expert archaeologist from a nearby university, who explained the level of talent in crafting such a fine point was comparable to Michelangelo.

Among my favorite finds are pottery shards from Native American bowls made 800–1,200 years ago. I feel a connection to these shards as it’s very likely its maker was a woman, who often decorated with flairs of individual design. The bowls were made by a combination of clay and crushed shells. The designers of these vessels would use cord twine material and press it into the damp clay, creating beautiful intricate imprints. This process is known as cord-impressed pottery. Finding remnants of this functional art strikes a feeling of admiration and an appreciation of the wide variety of patterns and shapes.

agates and rocks from minnesota

Did Someone Say Agates?

Having collected agates during my Michigan childhood and coming up empty handed during a recent visit to Lake Superior left me feeling jilted. Once home, I got a book on how to find agates and read about tell-tale characteristics such as pitting, rounded edges and translucent glow. To my amazement was a map of Lake Superior agate zone, and behold, it extended to my Driftless area!

river mudlarking in minnesota

Like a child finding a treasure map with “X” marks the spot, I sought Lake Superior agates that for millions of years took their time tumbling 400 miles to my turf. Within two days of scouring local sandbars with strong determination, I ended up with 34 agates versus a Lake Superior jaunt, which yielded zero. Turns out the agate-rock-band members made their way here too, including stunning unakite, jasper, and chalcedony.

beach glass from minnesota river

Old Man River Glass, China, and Pottery

The absence of glaciers left rich topsoil intact, which attracted many early settlers, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family of Little House on the Prairie fame. Her family lived at nearby Burr Oak, Iowa. Often homesteaders lived close to streams, and their castaway household items would eventually show up on river edges. Along with pieces of glass from bottles and lanterns are smooth hazy weathered pieces comparable to ocean sea glass. You can also find chunks of Red Wing, Minnesota, pottery which was used by the early settlers, as well as delicate broken willow-pattern china from England, which speaks of their long-ago journey across the ocean to America.

wagon wheel from mudlarking in driftless

Grand Slam Day

The day I found the “gift” of the pink arrowhead turned into a grand slam day, in which I found many types of treasures. As I continued my way down the riverbank, I found an antique aqua green bottle. My next find on the first sandbar was an adorable gastropod fossil. Then I spied a robust fortification agate, with a brilliant Picasso-like design. After meandering a bit further, I spotted a cord-impressed pottery piece. With the winter sun sinking low, I traced my path back and it was then I saw the arrowhead. This meant I had earlier walked right past this important find.

river finds mudlarking minnesota

Connecting Us All

Eager to repeat that grand slam day, I returned to the river’s shore, and it started on a high note, sighting a small, nodding decorated canoe. As I fished it out, it had all the appearances of an epic find. It was a miniature canoe about 14 inches in length.

Thinking I discovered a Native American toy artifact, the surprise was doubled when a closer look revealed a sealed inner message in the hatch, with instructions to report the canoe finding to a website. It was a moment of, “Turns out the Internet was invented 6,000 years ago!” 

Kidding aside, the website was for an international non-profit group called the River of Dreams. Their program explores the connectivity of our planet’s water supply and how watersheds function. With young students, they launch canoes to educate the next generation on how lakes, oceans, and rivers connect us all. The correlation of the humble canoe serving as a vessel in carrying this timely message was not lost on me. I gave the canoe a quick clean and re-launched with a silent ceremony, wishing future finders the gift of health and happiness—wherever they may be in the world. Keep an eye an out; it may be coming your way.

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2021 issue.

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