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A fossil and artifacts hunter on the Kaw River makes the discoveries of his life.
From Jerry W. Engler's book, A Heartland Voice: Just Folks Two
The Kaw River is both a giver and a taker of life.
The large object gleamed a bright golden amber brown in places against the pale sand of the bar under the three-quarter moon. A steady current of dark green water, highlighted in silver, steadily shifted the particles. Only a much smaller glint showed the presence of another brown piece a few feet further upstream.
The Kaw has two bends where the contrasting currents of high water and low water between the storms of spring tear the sandbars apart, and pile them back together again. Several inches beneath the water the same sand pulls and sucks up to the ankle on any person with the fortitude to walk the waterway.
Some of these souls have discovered, despite their long lifetimes on the river, that a deep hole in the sand, with an undertow of current, awaits to take them to their final fate.
While the Kaw is working between the floods, it also is laying up long-buried treasures for the discoverers who dare to explore. What man builds rots and rusts, but the things the creator puts forth endure forever, only coming and going like the flow of the river.
For perhaps 100,000 years, more or less, the treasures lay there waiting to be revealed by the light of day. When finally the dawn came with a red-golden sun in the east, the amber-brown shined even more brightly--like the river had polished it ever more carefully for its day of discovery.
To the west, a figure could be seen moving in a peculiar gait as it sloshed along between the sandbars. The casual observer from far away might have even taken it for a shimmering mirage-refracted creature somehow trying to walk upon the water while struggling to keep its balance.
But it was pepper-haired Ardon Vastou, taking his morning walk between the two bends the way he preferred as the water lowered, away from the brick streets of town, to see what the Kaw might have yielded up. He carried his gunnysack for the small things--the fossils, the small tools, some occasional plastic junk--never knowing what the next day might turn up.
In his youth, Ardon followed his father in the rhythm of tilling the soil, planting the corn, cultivating among the green stalks, and harvesting the yellow grain along the Kaw. He played in the woodlands along the river, fished for mud cats, and waded the flood waters in community catastrophes.
He took a career in white collar under fluorescents, and wondered why life went forward in a steady hum. At 62, he retired. He didn’t know what to do for fun. He watched his wife, Vera, at her hobbies. For two years, he looked at himself in the mirror wondering what he was, and sat in the chair before a glaring screen.
Then one day, after a 4-inch rain, he drove slowly over a bridge looking at the surging, whirling, muddy Kaw. The rhythm of the river reached back to the corresponding rhythm of youth in his soul.
He told Vera, “Don’t worry about me because I know the river. I’m going to walk the Kaw.” The activity took away the fat of his belly, and restored the tone of his long frame.
For a few months, he merely walked the river, getting used to the feel of it again, abandoning his fears of the expanse of water, and now and then sticking what he found poking up from the sandbars in his pockets.
Then one day, while carrying home a rusted iron lister seat, a corroded old revolver handle, some fishing gear, a plastic bucket and some good examples of fossilized sea shells that once belonged to living things under the ancient ocean, he determined to become a collector. He took a sack along on his walks and hung an army-surplus camp shovel at his belt. He wasn’t just a river rat. He was a river pack rat.
Once he found the broken ulna of probably a bison, they told him at the state museum. It was protruding from the sand, so he had to dig out the other end. It was brown and ancient, not really bone anymore but a mineralized fossil. He also found arrowheads and spear points from the oldest of Americans.
From more recent Americans, he found still-old blue-glass canning jars and crockery plus hand tools in various stages of deterioration. Sometimes metal items could be cleaned to reveal a coin, a button, a hoe, or the remains of an engine block or cream separator.
He built display cases in the basement, and Vera joined in to show visitors her husband’s finds.
“Look here,” Vera told a group of ladies while patting down the ringlets of hair hanging over her glasses frame. “Ardon has found the blade of an old scythe he is cleaning on his walk on the river. And here is an Indian penny and a leaf fossil together in the case because he found them the same day.
“He walks the river nearly every day in nice weather. I can hardly keep him away from it in the winter.”
On this day, at the age of 68, Ardon was to make what he considered to be the two greatest finds of his life--bigger than the Indian penny and the leaf fossil. He saw the larger one from a hundred yards away with the yellow-brown glare of the reflecting morning sun on it.
It was big. He knew that. He took longer strides to cover the distance down the sand bar he was on to splash ankle deep in his rubber boots into the river again. By long habit, Ardon reached out with one foot to toe the river bottom in front of him to make sure it didn’t descend into a hole.
This day he took quicker and quicker steps with less caution as he realized the magnitude of the big, brown object ahead. But the fates were kind. He didn’t slide into an undertow. Then he was stumbling out on the sand bar where the item lay in eager anticipation. Whatever it was, it was large, and it wasn’t wood.
He stumbled over the smaller object without seeing it in time to avoid it with his eye on the bigger one. Then he stooped to pull at it digging quickly with his shovel around it to loosen the sand.
It was a mastodon tooth--4 inches long, mineralized amber-brown at the base ascending to a cream-brown at the crown, and it was nearly perfect. He raised it in his hand to gaze at it in the morning light, but his eyes almost immediately looked to the thing beyond. He stuffed the mastodon tooth in his bag, and ran up the sand bar to the next find.
It was about 5 feet across from horn-tip to horn-tip, and the upper jaw and teeth were nearly intact. There was almost no damage done to it as though this was a day destined for the river to yield only the perfection of its secrets to him. It was a prehistoric bison skull, perhaps, as Ardon imagined it, from a grand solitary bull that tried to cross the river, or died from great age below the approach of the glacier.
It was already free of the sand. Ardon strained, pulling at one horn to try to move the skull. Then he went as quickly as he could up the river to his entry point where his truck waited.
In town he begged the grain elevator manager to allow two of the younger, stouter men he knew, and trusted to go to the river with him with an assurance of $100 to split to make them eager. They took along extra shovels, trowels and ropes.
Back at the skull, they dug the sand from inside the skull, and rolled it at the same time to clean it out to a pullable weight. Then they tied their ropes to it, and dragged behind through the rippling water and yellow bars, its rich brown color shining again with the wetness.
Ardon gasped with the effort until Vera was afraid he would have a stroke when he got home. A display case had to be pushed to one side to make room for the supports that held the skull on the wall.
When the museum representative saw it, he asked Ardon to sign trust papers that would give it to the museum upon his death. When he told of the skull on the Internet, he was offered into the thousands of dollars for it. There were smaller offers for the mastodon tooth that set on a small shelf under the skull.
The river gives, and the river takes away. This time it had given to Ardon Vastou.
The Vastous always had the usual visitors, the social circle that had always come to see Ardon with his matter-of-fact talking and Vera with her greater warmth. But the skull especially brought the new visitors. Kids with the 4-H clubs and the scouting groups came by to see the bison skull, and what Ardon came to think of as its little brother, the mastodon tooth. Everything was of interest, but these two were the center of the show.
The occasional expert or serious fossil collector saw an article written about Ardon and Vera Vastou and their magnificent bison skull.
Ardon searched the river for years, and never made another discovery as great as that of the tooth and the skull on the sandbars. He came to feel that the day of their discovery had been a one in a million, a 24-hour period among the eons of the earth that was meant for him.
A spring came when he slowed down. Ardon no longer walked the river every nice day. He sat more often reading his newspaper and his books in front of the bison skull, Vera across from him also reading. By age 75, his walks mostly happened within the safe perimeters of city sidewalks.
Then one day he said to Vera, “I am nearly done. But there is one last walk I must take. It will take some time. Don’t worry about me because I know the river. You know the river is a giver of life and a taker of life. I will walk the Kaw one more time.”
But at noon, Vera began to worry. Ardon wasn’t home to eat. In the silence of the home she ran her fingers over the mastodon tooth, looking up at the giant skull and the collection around her. Perhaps he had known of another great find.
By two o’clock, she was mumbling to herself, “The river is a giver of life and a taker of life.” She feared to think of him slipping down a hole to the cool maul of the river, perhaps held below the surface at Topeka only to pop up miles down the river at Lawrence or Kansas City as other bodies had done.
Vera called the sheriff’s office to tell them Ardon was missing, gone walking on the river.
A day can pass slowly into early evening despite the comforting visits of friends. It passes even slower when the moon begins its rise to cast its silver glow on the green riffles slowly and powerfully chewing against the sand. She decided the museum could have the entire collection.
When the telephone rang, it was Ardon who spoke to Vera from the other end at a town 10 miles downstream.
He said, “Vera, for the first time, I walked past the second bend, and just kept going. It was beautiful. I am sorry though that I didn’t say more.”
It was his last walk on the Kaw.
But it was the beginning of many more nights discussing the river in the room with the bison skull and the mastodon tooth.
Site: Jerry W. Engler
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"The day the Kaw delivered new life"
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|Reviewed by Jean Pike
|Jerry, I always look forward to your stories. This was a fantastic write, filled with meanings just beneath the surface.
What man builds rots and rusts, but the things the Creator puts forth endure forever... That is so true.
I have a creek in my back yard. Usually it is a trickle, but in spring, with rain and snow meltoff, you could almost say it rages. It has brought us some interesting "gifts," but nothing as exotic as your Ardon's finds!