A day down on Shark Tooth Creek with Mr. Ken
Story Birney Imes | Photographs Luisa Porter
Jones Creek is a winding trickle of water that flows into the Sipsey River about 10 miles south of Aliceville, Alabama. The creek is contained by shale walls and sheltered by a canopy of giant, white-trunked sycamores, dense oaks and sprawling sweet gum. In June, the fragrance of pink mimosa wafts over the stream’s clear water mingling with its mossy fragrance. Where the sun’s rays manage to penetrate overhead foliage creating dappled light, the effect is theatrical. The setting is timeless, even primeval. So much so, a child blessed with sufficient imagination might conjure up the distant roar and crash of creatures from an earlier age.
The sounds on this Saturday morning on this stretch of the creek — for our purposes here, Shark Tooth Creek — are anything but ominous, however. Today the stream is teeming with elementary-school children and parents, all of whom are chattering with excitement as they splash through the creek with Ziplock bags containing sharks’ teeth and fossils.
“The road to Shark Tooth Creek is kind of bumpy. Do you want to go slow for the mothers or do you want to go bumpy?”
Ken Owens, 64, University of Alabama business school graduate, farmer, proprietor of Shark Tooth Creek Outdoor Adventures and occasional stand-up comedian, has just loaded 43 adults and children into a 24-foot cattle trailer hitched to a Ford F-250 pickup truck.
The group is about to embark on the first activity of the day, a treasure hunt of sorts. They will be traveling to a stretch of water that has been in Owens’ family for three generations. There they will be sifting through gravel and limestone shale searching for residue of an age that existed millions of years ago.
For 30 minutes Owens has briefed the group on the history of his enterprise, delivered a lesson in paleontology and told more than a few jokes.
“If you get attacked by a shark, you won’t hold it against me?” he begins. “I’m Mr. Ken. I’ll be your guide today, and I’ll be your guide tomorrow.”
THE LESSON BEGINS
Geologists believe the Gulf of Mexico covered the lower half of Alabama during the Cretaceous period, which lasted from 145 million to 65 million years ago. The area around Owens’ farm may have been a series of barrier islands during that time.
Contained within his tutorial is a disclaimer: “Some people think these teeth are the result of the biblical flood,” says Owens. “Some say millions of years, some say thousands. That’s all we’re gonna say on the matter. We’re here mainly to have fun.”
Sharks are born with 300 teeth, says Owens. When they eat, they shed their teeth. In its lifetime a shark grows — and sheds — thousands of teeth. Teeth from 16 different species of shark have been found on Shark Tooth Creek. Fossils are also abundant, including coprolite, or fossilized shark droppings, a detail Owens’ young guests find of particular interest.
“My entire life people have knocked on my door wanting to see Shark Tooth Creek,” Owens says.
Twenty-eight years ago the University of Alabama’s museum of natural history asked if they could bring a group. For the next 17 years, the museum sponsored tours. About 10 years into it, Owens, a cattle and catfish farmer, learned the museum was bringing 400 people per summer and charging $30 a head.
“I said, ‘wait a minute’ … then I said, ‘Roll Tide.’”
Owens and his wife Betty had brochures printed.
“All of a sudden I had a little business and didn’t have a clue.”
That was 14 years ago. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing, he says. School and church groups, scout troops, families come. Owens offers camping, canoeing, hayrides and in his backyard, a two-story “Play World” with a 150-foot zipline.
But the centerpiece of this homegrown amusement park, the one thing that distinguishes it from any other enterprise of its kind, are the sharks’ teeth, the sheer abundance of them. The supply appears to be limitless. With spring flooding, inventory is replenished.
INTO THE CREEK
“We want to go fast!” the kids scream in unison.
Mr. Ken smiles. Inside the pickup truck, he picks up a mic connected to the truck’s PA system.
“This is your captain speaking, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” the kids yell.
“I don’t anticipate any turbulence, but takeoff can be breathtaking.”
After leading his passengers in a countdown, Owens accelerates the F-250 and for the next quarter mile of rutted gravel road gives them all the turbulence he can muster.
Reaching pavement, he slows the truck and picks up the mic. “Everybody OK?” Then as he continues at a more reasonable pace: “We will be cruising at an altitude of 18 inches as we depart Shark Tooth International Airport. I hope you enjoy our flight.”
He takes the truck down a hill, across the highway and onto a red clay road. The kids, given a choice of sites, have opted for Shark Tooth Jungle, home of a savage black panther.
At a makeshift guardhouse, Owens stops the truck and gets out. He returns shaking his head and holding what appears to be blood-soaked hand.
“This is all that’s left of the security guard,” he tells the kids.
The kids groan. They aren’t buying it.
“The only thing that is no a joke here are the shark teeth,” he tells me, back in the truck.
Thanks to the wild hogs, there are no snakes, Owens tells the parents and children. We descend to the creek. The day is overcast and cool. There is no litter, no evidence humans have ever been here
Almost immediately the creek bed is crawling with amateur paleontologists. Soon a small girl named Ella brings Owens a tooth about an inch and a half long. He takes a magic marker and puts an “X” on the back of the child’s hand.
“You’re in the X-Club,” he tells her. “You’re in the running for a T-shirt.”
The children who find the largest tooth and the most teeth (by weight) will win a T-shirt.
“There are teeth in this creek over two inches,” Owens says.
Other children bring their newly acquired treasures to Owens and he inducts them into the X-Club.
“In my 20 years of teaching, it’s the best field trip ever,” says Heather Ford, a kindergarten teacher at Annunciation Catholic School in Columbus. This spring Ford took a school group to Shark Tooth Creek, her eighth year to do so.
Ford says it’s a tough field trip to pull off, except for one thing.
“I never have trouble getting parents to go, especially those who have gone before” she says. “This year I had as many dads as children.”
Darlene Willis of Northport, Alabama, who came this Saturday with her two sons, Mason, 5, and Garrit, 8, appreciates the escape from technology the Shark Tooth Creek experience offers. “This gets you back to how we grew up, hunting for bugs, playing outside,” she says.
Back at basecamp after almost two hours on the creek, Owens is weighing each child’s find — each visitor is allowed to take 10 teeth home with them. The children show him their trophies.
“Conner and Ella, you’re going to Hollywood,” Owens announces.
The two children, holding their T-shirts over their chests, stand in front next to the cattle trailer with its sign announcing Shark Tooth Creek Outdoor Adventures and have their pictures taken.
On the drive home Darlene Willis quizzes her sons about the experience.
Mason, her 5-year-old, is ready with an answer.
“Mom,” he says, “it was epic.”