Finding Fossils in Florida? A Peace River Adventure
In May of 2021, we embarked on an adventure to discover Florida’s ancient history with some friends. Trent Anthney, owner of Canoe Outpost-Peace River had offered to take us on a guided tour. We would hunt for mammoth bones and mastodon teeth with our good friend, Jennifer Huber of Solo Travel Girl, on a Florida Outdoor Writers’ Association field trip.
First, we needed to order a Florida Fossil Permit from the Florida Museum of Natural History. It is required for taking vertebrae fossils from lands owned or leased by the state. It takes a few weeks to arrive and costs $5 for a year. The adventure was starting early!
Canoe Outpost is located right on the banks of the Peace River just two miles west of Arcadia off State Road 70, right behind the Arcadia Peace River Campground. The drive was less than three hours from Florida’s Nature Coast, but we opted to stay overnight before and after our Saturday adventure because we figured we would be tired after a day on the river – and we were right!
Canoe Outpost-Peace River is Florida’s oldest professional paddlesport outfitter, having been founded in 1969. It has a really funky, hippy sort-of vibe, which immediately put me in a throwback mindset. We were going hunting for remnants of a land before time!
We met at 8 am at the Outpost, boarded a small bus, and were transported to our launching spot upriver. We followed a large group into the water after Jenn assembled her fold-up kayak. What a great idea for easy transport, but would it work?
Trent grew up on the Peace River. His grandmother, then his mother and her brother, and now Trent, as the third generation of native Floridians involved in the Canoe Outpost, would share his love of the outdoors, paddling, and the Peace River on our journey – and of course – guide us to the megalodon tooth we were sure to find!
Why are there Fossils in Florida?
Learning the history of how this area ended up with so many fossils and what we might find was part of the fun of our Florida fossil-finding adventure. I began by visiting fossil hunting websites and learned that about 50 million years ago Florida was simply under the sea. Limestone accumulated on the ocean floor, and over the next 20 million years, an island of limestone emerged in north-central Florida.
The landmass grew with tectonic plate shifts. Land animals roamed central Florida, while a very shallow sea covered the coastal areas. At this time, nutrient-rich deposits washed in from the Appalachia Mountain building event. Heavy sediment-laden and nutrient-rich waters flooded Florida’s landmass. These sediments sank to the bottom trapping marine animals, including sharks and dugongs (the manatee’s cousin) when sea levels rose.
This trend continued until about 5 million years ago. As the Ice Age entered, glacial periods would cause sea levels to drop, and Florida’s landmass would grow. Wooly mammoths, horses, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, giant beavers were part of this era. When the glaciers would melt, these mammals would be covered over by sediment, entrapping their remains in the layers of Pleistocene sands and gravels of Florida.
Today the sediments form phosphate-rich formations, including the Peace River Formation, which is mostly underground,
The Peace River provides access to a Unique Geologic Phenomenon
Fall through Spring is the best time to hunt for fossils on the Peace River. This is because it is Florida’s dry season. The Peace River cuts through 100-plus miles of an area known as Bone Valley, and as it flows, the sediment from millions of years ago erodes, freeing some of those fragments of prehistoric millennia.
“The lower the river level, the easier it is to spot areas of gravel along the river, which is where we find the fossils,” Trent told us as we ventured out in our canoe. On our adventure, the river was nearly 2 feet below average depth. This made for good sighting of places to stop and dig.
Along with our canoe, we were provided with shovels (yes, a spade shovel like I use to dig at home), and sifters with pool floaties zip-tied around them for buoyancy. Simple, inexpensive tools.
We made sure that we wore plenty of sunscreen and hats, along with our bathing suits and some aquatic shoes to protect the toes. We wore UV blocking shirts also for sun protection.
On the Water – In the Water
The Peace River has a slow, steady current. Paddling wasn’t difficult. Trent took a paddleboard for its view. We brought water and lunch, as this was a full day’s adventure. After less than a half-hour of paddling, we stopped at our first gravel bar to look for Otodus megalodon.
We got out of our canoe and dug a shovelful, placing it gingerly in the sifter. “Now just shake it in the water and – Voila – a hammerhead shark tooth!” Trent pulled out the tiniest shark tooth I had ever seen. It was maybe a quarter inch in size.
Part of me was happy and part of me was disappointed. Then he pulled out a lemon shark tooth, a bull shark tooth, a snaggletooth shark tooth… it got more interesting and it was really amazing. These shark’s teeth were millions of years old!
“There are turtle shell fragments, stingray mouth plates…” Trent pulled more small pieces from the sand we had shoveled, “Try again.”
We put several shovel loads through our sifters and found something nearly every time. But no megalodon tooth.
On we went to a little beach with a sand bar.
Searching for the Big One
While I had high hopes and was somewhat single-purposed to find a megalodon tooth on our Peace River Fossil Hunt, I found the whole adventure very relaxing with just enough challenge to make it an experience I would gladly repeat.
Over the course of the day, my attitude changed to one of discovery and identification of each fossil we found, and there was a huge variety! Imagining all these prehistoric creatures roaming or swimming the area we were paddling was part of the fun.
As the day wore on, my husband decided he was going to look for larger fossils. He dug deeper and found part of a mastodon or giant sloth bone!
We began to get tired when Trent pointed across the river and said, “If I were going to hunt for a megalodon tooth, I would do it over there,” pointing to a tree with roots and branches all around it in the bend of the river. “The current is likely to have pushed up more stuff.”
It was deeper than we had ventured into. I didn’t have the moxie to swim across the river and dive for the prize after paddling, digging, and sifting for several hours already. “Next time,” I thought.
We decided to head back to the Outpost and arrived at their docks about 5 pm. There were young, strong men to help us get out of our canoes and take them back to their homes, and I was really grateful for that.
The Best Part of Our Fossil Finding Trip to the Peace River
The canoe trip itself is very relaxing. The river is quiet and an easy paddle when it is low. Having friends to paddle with makes it better and having a local as our guide was a big part of what made this adventure so special. It can certainly be done without a guide, however.
Canoe Outpost-Peace River did a great job of providing all of our equipment and making sure we got back to the outpost safely. They have a full-service operation with changing rooms and souvenirs, as well as huge fossils that have been found over the years to inspire us.
Staying overnight both before and after our adventure was a great idea because it was exhausting as well as exhilarating.
Canoe Outpost offers overnight packages where they will deliver your entire camp to one of their riverfront sites. There are picnic tables too. It looked like a great plan for next time.
The very best part of this adventure was sharing a couple of the sharks’ teeth we found with a friend’s eight-year-old daughter and watching her face light up with the knowledge that she was holding a real fossil that was here millions of years ago from Florida!