Local stories mean Yukon River ‘treasure trove’ is more than just a lot of dinosaur footprints

three people on a boat
Rita Painter (right) and husband Dean Painter (center) tell paleontologist Tony Fiorillo (left) about a footprint they saw along the Yukon River more than 30 years ago. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

It has been more than a decade since researchers first announced that they’d found dinosaur footprints along the middle section of the Yukon River. And when that team did make their discovery public, they also said that it was unlikely that people who live along the river even knew dinosaur footprints littered the riverbanks near them.

But Nulato resident Rita Painter can prove them wrong.

“It was maybe about 30 to 35 years ago, and that’s when they had a fish wheel right down here,” Painter said.

Painter stood in her family’s long, aluminum boat near the riverbank at Halfway Camp, a fish camp about 12 miles downriver from Nulato. She told the story of a large fossilized dinosaur footprint that had been found nearby.

“We were coming up from Grayling; they invited us to have some tea,” Painter said. “And while we were visiting with them, they showed us this rock. It was huge, and there was, like, a footprint on the rock.”

Painter said that the rock was maybe a foot or so wide and about 8 inches long.

“It was clearly a foot, but the toes looked different. And it was embedded in a rock,” she said.

Her husband, Dean Painter, said that the footprint had three toes.

The Painters told their story to three scientists who spent 16 days on the Yukon River in August. The team was hoping to find out more about the ancient reptiles and birds that once lived in this area.

The Painters’ description pretty accurately describes the footprint made by a bipedal, plant-eating dinosaur known as an ornithopod. And it’s helping the researchers meet their goal to better understand what locals know about the footprints.

a rocky beach
A large dinosaur footprint lies along the banks of the Yukon River downriver from Kaltag. The three toes are a signature sign that plant-eating ornithopods, which walked on two feet, once lived in abundance in this region of Alaska’s Interior. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

Martha Turner grew up fishing along the span of riverbank where the Painters told the story of their dinosaur footprint encounter. It’s also a place where researchers found dozens of similar footprints.

“Oh wow. That’s so cool. Like, our camp has all these dinosaur tracks,” said Turner when she heard Painter’s story.

Turner, who is Nulato’s tribal administrator, said that her grandmother, who was born at Halfway Camp, never mentioned any large, three-toed footprints to her before. Now she’s eager to ask about it.

In Kaltag, a village just over 30 miles downriver from Nulato, news that a research team was finding dinosaur tracks there this summer came as no surprise.

“Ever since we were this big, ever since we were 3-foot high, we knew,” said Patrick “Paddy Bun” Madros Jr.

Madros Jr. said that he’s been finding ancient footprints left by giant reptiles along the riverbank his entire life. He grew up at a fish camp even further downriver.

“When we flip over rocks on the bluffs and we’re making a deadman, we put a stick down and we bury it and we see the footprints,” Madros Jr. said.

a man stands outside, near a fishing boat
Patrick “Paddy Bun” Madros Jr. grew up at a fish camp downriver from Kaltag. He said that he’s been finding prehistoric footprints left by dinosaurs along the Yukon River’s banks all of his life. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

A deadman is a pile of wood buried deep in the sand and silt. It helps anchor a fish wheel in place.

Madros Jr. said that he was always finding preserved footprints in the rocks, but he was too busy subsistence fishing with his family to pay much attention to them.

“You would never think twice about it. It’s just another rock. Throw it on the pile,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s something that people would stop and say, ‘We need to dig here and look around here,’” said Kaltag Mayor Violet Burnham. She added that the science is interesting, but not her community’s focus. “Because there’s so many other things that we face as a community that are just more important.”

a woman poses for a photograph in a home
Kaltag Mayor Violet Burnham’s husband has been finding dinosaur footprints along the Yukon River’s banks for years. While she says that the Yukon River’s paleontological story is interesting, her community’s main priority is survival. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

Burnham was born in Kaltag. She said that things have changed drastically and it’s been hard on her community, where jobs are limited and where, in recent years, the salmon populations people rely on heavily for food have crashed.

“In my lifetime we went from no phone to phones, to internet, to 24-hours-a-day news. From a subsistence lifestyle to a cash-based economy,” Burnham said.

Paleontologist Tony Fiorillo said that he is pleased to hear people’s memories and stories of footprints. Fiorillo is the executive director of New Mexico’s Museum of Natural History and Science and he has studied Alaska’s dinosaurs for 24 years.

“I think that’s fascinating to me because if you go back, what did they say? Thirty to 35 years? You’re starting to get to when dinosaurs were first recognized in this state,” Fiorillo said.

Fiorillo and his colleague, paleontologist Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, spent time traveling on the Yukon River this year. They spent much of the field season collecting data to create 3D images of every track they found. Instead of removing the footprints themselves as specimens to be housed in a museum archive, they also made numerous molds of the footprints. Kobayashi said that he believes the footprints should stay where the locals can see them.

“It’s not ours,” Kobayashi said. “The specimens belong to this place.”

Previous articlePilot was shuttling passenger to remote Alaska sheep hunting area at time of fatal crash, NTSB says
Next articleDetails emerge about Haines canoe accident that left guiding clients critically hypothermic