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Students get geological lesson at Alaskan base

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AFPN) -- Students attending schools in the Anchorage area are getting a lesson in Alaskan geology, courtesy of a base civil engineer employee here.

About 100 children, parents and teachers from Chinook Elementary School in Anchorage visited Knik Arm Beach recently, also known as Fossil Beach, near Six-Mile Creek on the back side of Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Led by Roger Bon, from the 3rd Civil Engineer Squadron here, the group spent the afternoon learning about the different geological aspects of the beach and combed for fossilized leaves and wood, dating more than 25 million years old.

"This trip is about building a friendship with the community as well as about younger children working with older children," said Sheryl Himes, a first- and second-grade teacher at the elementary school. Himes and Bon have been bringing children to the base beach for 11 years.

"The kids love rocks and they love learning about fossils from Roger," Himes said. "It's amazing to have something like this in our own backyard in Anchorage."

Besides looking for fossils, the group spent the afternoon learning about local fish and wildlife, past glacial events, various land features and vegetation in the area. Bon also covered the importance of safety while near the water.

The beach provides a setting to learn about several types of ecosystems. Evidence of the most recent glacial intrusion is easily observed on many of the rocks that lie on the till and beach, left behind the retreating glaciers.

One of the most unusual and exciting finds made by children on the beach was a beached young Baird's Beaked whale, according to Bon. Elmendorf wildlife officers and U.S. Marine Fisheries personnel were called to identify the mammal.

"The whales are rare this far north. It was an exciting adventure for the young people who found it," said Bon, who has brought more than 1,000 children in the area to the beach.

According to Bon, a process called carbonization creates the majority of fossils found on Elmendorf AFB. Plants are most commonly fossilized through carbonization. During the process, the mobile oils in the plant's organic matter are leached out and the remaining matter is reduced to a carbon film. Plants have an inner structure of rigid organic walls that may be preserved, revealing the framework of the original cells.

Some of the fossils found recently included leaves from willow, cottonwood, alder and sequoia trees.

"It's a cool trip," said Tyler Robertson, a fourth-grader from Chinook Elementary. "We are learning a lot about fossils. I have seen fossils in museums, but that's boring. This is more exciting because we get to find the fossils on our own."

During the search, Bon gave the group a lesson on how to get out of the tidal flats on the beach by having the group gather sticks and pull a fellow student out of the deep, thick mud.

Bon said children learn with their fingers, and more importantly, the base beach allows them to actively learn about Alaska's history.

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