Ray Troll gestures

Ray Troll gestures to the bear family tree illustration in the Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline exhibit at the Tongass Historical Museum on Tuesday. Staff photo by Christopher Mullen

Ketchikan artist Ray Troll opened his “Cruisin’ The Fossil Coastline” exhibit at the Tongass Historical Museum on Friday night, offering an experience that is a blend of science, art and humor.
Before even entering the museum, visitors are greeted with a life-sized duck-billed hadrosaur image created by Troll that gallops across the museum’s front windows, offering an enticing glimpse of the unique blend of art and science to be viewed inside.  
The exhibit first opened at the Anchorage Museum in 2017, then it traveled to the Oakland Museum, the Museum of the North, the Alaska State Museum, the Burke Museum, and the Oregon Coast Aquarium before landing at the Tongass Historical Museum this week.
The exhibit was created in partnership with paleontologist Kirk Johnson, who is the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. With Troll, Johnson logged more than 10,000 miles and 250 days traveling in a series of trips along the North American coast from 2010 to 2014, while searching for fossils, visiting museums, talking to scientists and artists, and visiting active dig sites via cars, helicopters, bush planes, airliners, boats and, according to exhibit information, “one very special minivan they dubbed “The Vanibou.”
Troll and Johnson also co-authored two books, “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific,” and “Cruisin the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip.”
During a tour of the exhibit with the Daily News and museum staff on Tuesday afternoon, Troll spoke passionately about how and why the exhibit in Ketchikan came about.
The exhibit was taken down at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in September, Troll said, and although the exhibit originally wasn’t planned to be installed in Ketchikan, everything came together for it to now land at the museum.
“We added some things, and then decided to make it hyper-local,” Troll said. “Only Alaskan stuff and as local as we could.”
Museum Curator of Exhibits Ryan McHale added that many of the fossils in the exhibit were found on islands in the Ketchikan area.
As visitors enter the museum, they are greeted by a tall, colorful geologic time column created by Troll. It illustrates the layers of the earth from the archean at the bottom with a label noting that the earth formed 4.6 billion years ago at that level. Moving up in time layers, the proterozoic is next, then the period layers labeled under the paleozoic, mesozoic and cenozoic eras. On the other side of the scale are drawings of the fossils found in each layer, with notes on two layers stating “gigantic extinction,” and “big, big extinction.”
On the top of the scale are depictions of archaeologists working on digging, with their pickup-truck nearby holding a giant ammonite, which is an extinct cephalopod.
The next piece of art visitors will see shines with Troll’s humor. It depicts an old sourdough flipping pancakes, with the mnemonic phrase “Crusty Old Sour Doughs Make Perfect Pancakes Toast, Juice and Coffee” to help people remember the layers of the paleozoic era, which begins with Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian …
There also is a self-portrait by Troll titled “The Artist: Kansas Hippy Paints Fish in the Rain,” and a portrait of Johnson titled: “The Scientist: Coastal Creationist Kid Finds Rocks and Evolution.”
Near the portraits is a plaque with the storyline of Troll and Johnson’s adventures that led to the creation of the exhibit.
They first crossed paths at an exhibition opening by Troll in Seattle, it states. 
“Before long they were planning their first collaboration together: an ambitious fossil and art-filled exhibition called Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway,” the biography explains.
It adds, “together, Troll and Johnson visited museums, dove into research collections, hung out with scientists and fellow artists, found local fossil enthusiasts and visited active fossil dig sites.”
Also noted is that “this exhibition shares the fossil discoveries of Alaska through the eyes of a walrus-and-ammonite-obsessed paleontologist, and an artist with an inordinate fondness for cheeseburgers, ratfish and trilobites.”
Troll said that visitors can share his delight with cheeseburgers by finding hidden cheeseburger images in much of his artwork, and the exhibit features more than 20 such hidden burger “Easter eggs” that people can discover.
“It’s a lot like fossil collecting,” Troll said of seeking the hidden images.
Other fun additions to the exhibit are two projected silhouettes of fossils on the floor of the museum — an ammonite at the entrance that slowly turns, drawing the eye to the heart of the exhibit, and a trilobite farther inside, creating an intriguing bright accent. 
“Kids will be drawn right to this,” Troll said, indicating the twirling bright ammonite projection at the entrance.
“Of any age,” Museum Director Anita Maxwell added.
The walls of the museum are covered with Troll’s drawings of the earth’s layers packed with fossils of all kinds and sizes, realistically depicting the types of fossils and objects that can be discovered at each layer.
Noted at the top of each wall is the timeframe of each display in that area. 
There also is a display featuring plant fossils, with an informational tag stating that they “can be found on a number of islands in Southeast Alaska.” Those fossils date back to the Paleocene-Eocene Boundary about 60 million to 52 million years ago when the earth was at one of its warmest periods ever.
In that display are photos of the scientists extracting the fossils, an artwork drawn by Troll and colored by Grace Freeman depicting how the forest in Southeast Alaska looked in that time period compared to its appearance now, and some of the tools that are used in fossil hunting.
“Ancient Tongass was a mixture of palm trees and big-leaf trees and a whole lot of metasequoia, most of the forest was metasequoia, which is kind of a link between conifer trees and deciduous trees. It’s actually a conifer tree that sheds its needles in the winter,” Troll said, noting that there is one such tree growing up the hill from the museum.
Pat Druckenmiller who is a paleontologist and the Director of the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, and whom Troll described as the “probably the world’s expert in ichthyosaurs,” worked with Troll in 2013 to search for fossils in the Ketchikan area. 
During their search, they found ichthyosaur fossils on Gravina Island, Troll said, ranging from the remains of a dolphin-sized creature to a 70-foot long animal.
“Ichthyosaur — which is not a dinosaur,” Troll explained, “means ‘fish lizard,’”
Many of Alaska’s dinosaur fossils are found in the far north in Alaska in the Colville River area, Troll said. 
A large display in the exhibit features information about a “very rare marine reptile known as a thalattosaur,” named “Gunakadeit joseeae,” on the recommendation of Sealaska Heritage Institute's Council of Tribal Scholars along with the approval of Tlingit Elders from Kake and others.
The informational tag in the display explains that Gunakadeit is a sea monster from Tlingit oral history that brings good fortune to those who encounter him.
“It’s the first time a Tlingit name has been used for a scientific name given to a fossil,” the tag notes.
The Gunakadeit was a 5-foot-long sea creature that lived in the shallow coastal waters of the late Triassic period about 215 million years ago. It is Alaska’s most complete Mesozoic vertebrate fossil recovered to date, according to exhibit information.
Also included in the Gunakadeit display is a photo of Druckenmiller, Jim Baichtal and Gene Primaky standing in rising tidewater after extracting the fossil on the beach near Kake. A cast of the fossil itself, showing the intricate detail of the creature’s bones, can be seen in the display. Ketchikan artist Terry Pyles meticulously painted the cast to realistically restore the fossil’s original appearance, Troll said.
McHale said that the sea monster is depicted in Native clan crests throughout Southeast Alaska.
“It belongs to multiple clans throughout Southeast, the story of Gunakadeit,” which also was known as the sea bear, McHale said.
Also included in that display is a large, brilliant artwork depicting Gunakadeit created by Tlingit artist Robert Mills of Kake.
Another item displayed in the exhibit is a dinosaur tooth, which is described in a plaque as from a predatory raptor named Troodon. Although Troodon fossils are found throughout North America, it has been noted that Alaska specimens are larger than others farther south.
The walls of the exhibit feature many of Troll’s colorful, playful drawings of Alaska’s dinosaurs, such as the Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum, Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis and Nanuqusaurus hoglundi. The Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis is noted on its tag to have been “the most abundant dinosaur found in Alaska” — the duckbilled genus.
There also is a display case holding a skull cast of a juvenile duckbilled dinosaur skull and other bones from that species.
Another display showcases the Ichthyosaurs of the Tongass, which are ancient marine reptiles. 
Trilobite fossils are featured in another area. In the description, it is noted that trilobites are extinct marine arthropods that flourished in the oceans of the ancient Paleozoic.
“The closest living relatives of trilobites are horseshoe crabs and spiders!” the tag reads.
Also noted is that in 1991, Troll and Baichtal each found half of a trilobite fossil in the Devonian rocks on a beach on the coast of Prince of Wales Island. The two halves are displayed in the museum exhibit.
In the center of the exhibit is a glass-topped display table featuring several of Troll’s sketchbooks, filled with precise line drawings, whimsical notes and fascinating details.
Troll said that Baichtal “has been pivotal in my education on all things paleo.”
Another display features several skulls, allowing people to compare the anatomy of the extinct short-faced bear skull which was found near Ester, Alaska to that of a coastal brown bear, a Steller sea lion, and a harbor seal. A drawing by Troll of the “bear family tree” hangs above the skulls, illustrating how different members of the Carnivora mammalia order split off into different species.
In a side room of the museum is a hands-on opportunity for exhibit attendees — an actual fossilized leg bone from a hadrosaur. It is displayed on an open table edged by dinosaur designs hand-painted by Troll. Attendees will be allowed to handle and study the bone.
Troll is planning to give a presentation with Druckenmiller and geologist Baichtal about the exhibit at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 4, at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center in partnership with Ketchikan Museums and the U.S. Forest Service. The Discovery Center is located at 50 Main Street in downtown Ketchikan. 
A “Cruisin’ Family Fun Day” is planned for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 1 at the Tongass Historical Museum, as well.