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CHASING WOOLLY MAMMOTHS

Excavating woolly mammoth tusks in the Yukon, Canada

by Greg Klupar

A month ago


Bruce Schindler describes his business as “chasing mammoths.”

“Chasing mammoths is a lifestyle, it’s an adventure, and carving the mammoth ivory and selling it to people involves them in the adventure,” says Schindler, owner of Schindler Carvings in Skagway.

Schindler takes his chase to places like the goldfields of Dawson City, more than 400 miles from Skagway, where mammoth tusks are found as part of the gold-mining process.

Bruce Schindler weighing a mammoth tusk he excavated in the Yukon

“I travel hundreds of miles of dirt roads seeking out miners who have discovered mammoth ivory,” he said. “What miners do is almost magical. Miners have to be able to see what’s beneath the surface, where the gold is, before they put a shovel in the ground.

“Eventually they start tripping over ivory. It’s my job to find gold miners who want to sell the tusks they’ve uncovered.”

The woolly mammoth lived during the last Ice Age and were about the size of an Asian elephant, growing more than 11 ft. tall. Mammoths became extinct about 4,000 years ago, but they thrived for more than half-a-million years throughout North America before their habitat was reduced to Alaska and Siberia.

Alaskan permafrost (a section of ground that never thaws that begins about 18″ below the earth’s surface) preserved many parts of the mammoth, including the tusks.

About four times a year, Schindler travels to gold mines in remote areas of Alaska and the Yukon. His dirt-road routes are hard on his truck, and “if there’s anything that might fail, it will.” Once, for example, his truck lost a wheel while carrying 1,200 lbs. of mammoth ivory — worth about $75,000 — on a dirt road to Skagway from the goldmine.

“I thought I had checked all of my lug nuts,” he said. ”Apparently I didn’t.”

Fortunately, he located a camp in the area and was able to make necessary repairs and be on his way back to Skagway.

Finding the ivory is only half of the adventure, though. The second half is carving it into art.

“I take fossil ivory and do my best to bring it back to life,” he said. “I carve small pendants and restore entire tusks (a fully intact matching set is uncommonly rare.) Ivory has so many limitations due to its age and unique characteristics, but it has so much character that you don’t know what you’ve got until you start carving it.”

“There have been times when I’ve finished a carving and said to myself, ‘this is a wreck.’ Then someone will see it and say, ‘you’re a genius.’”

Bruce Schindler holding a mammoth tusk in the Yukon, Canada

Schindler, a Seattle native, moved to Skagway in 1993 after fishing in the Bering Sea for two seasons. He has adjusted to the Alaska lifestyle and no longer feels like a part of “the south,” or the lower 48 states. Though he loved city life, the smaller venue of Skagway keeps him focused on his craft, especially in the winter when the town population dwindles to less than 600. Carving gets him through the long winters.

His father was an accomplished German cabinet maker, but it was his grandfather who introduced him to carving.

“He bought me my first set of X-Acto knives,” he said. “My grandfather carved in his retirement, working with stones and carving wood in the desert of Yuma, Arizona. The drive to work with my fingers came from my grandfather. I learned the value of working with my hands from him.”

Schindler initially thought carving ivory would be a hobby. It became a passion. He especially appreciates working with the “Schreger lines,” or the cross-hatching pattern displayed on all tusks. These lines are part of the DNA of the mammoth, but, due to age and location, they can vary in texture and color, allowing Schindler to see something in his tusks that no one else sees.

“There are colors or cracks where you don’t expect them,” Schindler said. “In mammoths, the Schreger lines are set about 90 degrees. The patterns are beautiful, like the grain of wood. It’s frustrating but liberating because you don’t have control over the characteristics of the tusk. You have to let your ego go when you’re carving.”

Because mammoth ivory has been in the earth for so long, it absorbs the various colors of its surroundings, including vivianite, a mineral common in the Alaskan soil. Once unearthed, tusks can be cream, tan, brown, green, and even blue, which is very rare.

Mammoth tusk

Schindler sees the innate beauty of mammoth tusks and he doesn’t want anyone to confuse them with elephant ivory, whose sale is prohibited in the United States.

Anyone looking at a tusk for 30 seconds can identify the difference between elephant and mammoth ivory by the Schreger lines. With elephant tusks, the Schreger lines are highly obtuse (greater than 90 degrees), Schindler explained, while mammoth Schreger lines are about 90 degrees. Elephant ivory is often smooth and has a pure white color while mammoth ivory is stained, rugged, and imperfect to carve due to its age.

“The Schreger lines indicate what kind of pachyderm it is,” he said. “No matter what you do to a tusk, you can’t fake the Schreger lines.”

In fact, Schindler believes he is helping spread awareness and appreciation for the prehistoric mammal by bringing it back to life through his carvings. “If I don’t harvest the tusks from the ground, they will rot,” Schindler said.

There is so much mammoth ivory in Alaska that it is of almost no use to most paleontologists, the scientists who study fossils. There isn’t a high demand from museums, either, as a result of its abundance. If Schindler and the gold miners do not harvest it, it will lay to waste.

Schindler believes that when people purchase mammoth ivory, they are buying a piece of history and sharing in the preservation of a long-extinct Alaska icon.

“The more you understand mammoth ivory and the grandeur of what the mammoths were, the more the story is so outstanding. Mammoth ivory has survived frozen for 35,000 years. It deserves to be preserved and my goal is to honor it by sharing its story with others.”

Bruce Schindler working on his mammoth carvings in Skagway, Alaska