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Spotlight on alumni

Derek Wilton


Dr. Derek Wilton, twice a Memorial graduate who teaches Earth Sciences at the university, has had a busy year so far. In January, he become an International Fellow of the Explorers Club, the club that once counted Captain Bob Bartlett and Admiral Peary among its members. Then, just a week ago, he was elected director of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada. And he has just launched a children’s book in Nain, Hopedale, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and St. John’s. Our contributor Bojan Fürst recently talked to Dr. Wilton.

BF: Are you from Newfoundland?
DW: I am originally from St. John’s. I did my undergraduate at Memorial, my masters at UBC, I came back to do my PhD here and they hired me after that. I’ve been teaching since 1983. I teach earth sciences and lately I’ve been getting interested in the history of geological exploration and also in outreach.

BF: Your interest in history, how did that come about?
DW: [Laughter] I think it’s just getting older. Most of my work is done in Labrador; it’s just a fascinating area. The history is just amazing and most of it has not been told. So, you pick up pieces as you go along. I started working with an archaeologist out of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, Stephen Loring; we started working on Ramah chert. This was a material used by the earliest inhabitants of the northeastern North America 4,000 years ago, they were mining this stuff in Ramah Bay. Stephen and I both had interest in this and I became interested in following the history of it. Then I ran into a story about an expedition that went up to northern Labrador in 1860, which Stephen and I are working on in terms of a book because nobody knows anything about this expedition. I then followed on with other things as well. The Labrador Institute asked me to give a paper on A.P. Low in 2005. It was the centenary of a big expedition in 1905 that went through Northern Labrador which was led by a woman named Mina Hubbard. So the Labrador Institute had an exploration symposium 100 years later. A.P. Low was a famous geologist and as I am a geologist I was asked to speak, so I started reading up on him and it was fascinating. I did a 20-minute presentation, but then they asked for a paper.

BF: Tell me about the children’s book you are co-author of?
DW: We have a children’s book coming out of the Labrador Institute, [March 25], actually. It was funded by International Polar Year (IPY). We took an Inuit legend from Nain and turned it into a children’s book. The book is called The Polar Bear and the Rock: Two Windows on the Planet. We called it Two Windows on the Planet because we have the Inuit legend in it and we also have the modern day description, the geology, of that particular story. So it’s two views, the modern scientific view of the geology and the view of the Inuit.

BF: Tell me the story.
DW: The story goes that there was a group of Inuit living near Nain and the men went hunting and fishing, and they left the camp. A polar bear started to approach the camp. There were only women and children left in the camp and they became very frightened. They had to defend themselves and they really did not have anything left to defend themselves with. The men had taken the spears so they only had fish spears and things like this, but nothing really to protect them from the polar bear. The one thing they did have to protect was an elder, an old man who was living in a tent. He was too old to go fishing and hunting with the men so he had to stay behind. He rose to the occasion and rescued the women and children from this polar bear. And how he did this is that, though he had no weapons, he did have a drum. So he stood up and drummed and drummed and drummed the bear into a rock and saved the community, saved the people.

BF: And the other window? What does the other window on the planet tell us?
DW: If you go to Nain right now and look across the bay to Mount Sophie and the broken hill, there is a boulder that from a distance looks like a polar bear. It’s white and it looks like a polar bear just sitting there. Geologically, we know it’s anorthosite and we know how long ago it formed, some 1.2 to 1.3 billion years ago. When you look at it from geological perspective you can see that it broke off the face of the cliff and rolled down, and it just so happened that when it rolled down, it had this shape of a polar bear. The other thing is that one surface of it is covered in white. It has this vein of quartz material going through it - it highlights it. It’s almost as of someone took the shape of a bear and painted it on a rock. It’s just an amazing thing to look at. It’s incredible when you see it from a distance because it does look like a polar bear. But, even when you climb up closer, it looks like a polar bear within four or five meters.

BF: How did you become aware of the story?
DW: We were awarded a grant from the IPY to develop a children’s book on geology of northern Labrador. So Martha MacDonald and Linda Nuotio-Flynn a down and determined that the best way to do this was to find a good legend and then build the geology around the legend. They recruited two or three students from Goose Bay and sent them to Nain one summer to collect legends that dealt with the earth and rocks. They came back with different stories from different elders and people in the community. One elder in particular, her name is Rose Pamok, gave them a more detailed version of this story. We sorted through the stories and said: “Wow! This is the story! This is the one we can go with.” Then Janet McNaughton came on board and shaped the tale into a story and I provided the geological framework. Then artist Cynthia Colosimo drew these amazing pictures for the story. The English text was also translated into Inuktitut.

BF: What is your current research interest?
DW: I do mineral deposits research; that’s my main focus. I do a lot of work at Voisey’s Bay with Vale Inco. I am co-investigator with Inco Innovation Centre on the geological side. We do a lot of work with other companies, as well. I work with a whole bunch of junior exploration companies conducting research that ranges from uranium to nickel to iron ore to lead and zinc.

BF: Memorial is a good place to do this kind of stuff?
DW: Oh, it’s fantastic. We always say that Newfoundland and Labrador is a great natural laboratory for geology; you can’t beat the geology of this province. Within the confines of this province you have continental scale geology. We have rocks here that go back to almost the beginning of the Earth – 4.5 billion years old. Around here somewhere we have pieces representing almost all of the Earth’s history. It’s a fascinating playground for a geologist.
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