You and your family are sitting on a rocky beach in Prince Edward County, the Kawarthas, or southern Georgian Bay. You look down at the rocks and you see some stony eyes looking back. Or some shells. Or a snail.
You make the obvious conclusion: The little fossils in the rocks are creatures that lived and died in Lake Huron or Lake Ontario, or your inland lake, and have been preserved in stone. But those creatures have a much more interesting story, one that’s fairly easily pieced together once you know what to look for.
All the fossils that you’ll encounter in Ontario cottage country are mind-bendingly old. When you crack open a fragment of rock, you’re opening a piece of seabed that hasn’t seen the light of day for nearly half a billion years. That’s right: half a billion. These fossils were ancient when the dinosaurs wandered the earth. They were old when the first tree took root on land. They lived in a very different world.
Back then, the days were a bit shorter: The earth’s rotation has slowed in the 450 million years since most of cottage country south of the Canadian Shield got its bedrock. The continents were not where they are today. The seas that spread across what’s now southern Ontario once lapped at the edge of a young continent. Today’s cottage country was then in the southern hemisphere, at about the latitude where Peru is now. Not only has North America since moved north, but it has also rotated sideways about 90 degrees. In the Ordovician period (488 to 443 million years ago), the equator ran through what’s now the middle of Manitoba.
All of this geological history is there in the rocks: the pieces of corals, the bug-like trilobites, the shells of clams and crustaceans. And it’s a fun project to collect a bit of this ancient world, take it home, and use it to learn the fascinating natural history of the country. Bear in mind, though, that not everywhere in cottage country has fossils: The rocks of eastern Georgian Bay and north of the Kawarthas are volcanic and, at a billion or more years, they are older than the earliest easily recognizable life forms.
I grew up in Craigleith, northwest of Collingwood on Georgian Bay, where the shoreline is covered with pieces of trilobites, and it was there that the fossil bug bit me. It can bite you too, or at least offer an interesting day trip. Here are four of the best— and safest—fossil hunting grounds in Ontario.