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Author to speak at sanctuary about lakes’ geologic history

May 16, 2012
Jessica Nikolich - Assistant News Editor , The Alpena News

ALPENA - Initially pursuing art at Arizona State University, Charles Ferguson Barker decided to switch majors after his first geology class. Little did he know that down the line he would be able to combine the two interests.

Barker, a geologist and children's book author and illustrator, will share his knowledge of Michigan's geologic history, much of which is hidden underwater, Saturday at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center from 1-3 p.m.

"Even though I went to school in Arizona, one of the first things we learned about in class was the Michigan basin ... Here we were, three hours away from the Grand Canyon, and we're learning about Michigan," Barker said, adding that the focus on Michigan helped ease his homesickness.

"I've been back in Michigan for 20-some years, kind of having a lot of fun exploring my home state's geology. It's really fantastic but not a lot expressed in the surface. Other places have big mountains; Michigan's geology is phenomenal but buried underground," he said.

Barker will focus on the Great Lakes and "really cool features" that lie below the surface - huge canyons, cliffs, and at least one meteor impact crater.

"It's something that boggled my mind when I first started looking at the lake floors. Originally I didn't think much about them at all, just flat muddy and deep ... But it was this eureka moment when I was doing the Under Michigan book that I found out the lake floors were anything but flat and featureless, they're incredible landscapes you don't really think about," Barker said.

This was the idea behind his children's book, The Day the Great Lakes Drained Away, which shows what the geological terrain of the lakes would look like if all the water were to be drained. Barker said he will discuss the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, "a giant ridge of rock with a 500-foot dropoff in some places" that stretches all the way across Lake Huron to Ontario. After his talk, a 2011 National Geographic film called "Drain the Great Lakes," will be screened and keys in on the ridge as well. According to sanctuary media outreach coordinator Stephanie Gandulla, Russ Green, an archaeologist at the sanctuary, is featured in the film.

Barker said he plans to touch on the geology behind the oil and gas exploration in Michigan, since fracking is such a big deal. He said although he is not an expert on fracking, it all relates back to the geologic history and what lies underground.

"The geology of Michigan provides a baseline of discussion for oil and gas exploration. It's important to have a foundation, to have a geologic history of the state for a takeoff point to understand it," he said.

Barker used to teach gold panning at Arizona State and will discuss the occurrence of gold in Michigan. He said gold has been found in pretty much every major river in the state. He will have samples of Michigan rocks and fossils, some of which he has found and others he has collected or bought over the years.

"I'll talk about where to find fossils, they're just everywhere," Barker said. "Fun and educational is usually how I pitch these things."

Saturday's family program is appropriate for all ages.

"It really shows our diverse programming here," said Gandulla. "We do, of course, talk a lot about shipwrecks here, but there is so much more to the sanctuary. We enjoy showcasing the diversity of the ecosystem, the geology, biology."

Barker gave a workshop on children's book writing and illustrating last summer at Mackinac Island and plans to hold another workshop in the summer of 2013. For more information, visit

Jessica Nikolich can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 343.



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