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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Fossils to a World War II-era dog tag: Exploring the interesting finds on Lake Michigan's shore

Lake Michigan shore
Joy Powers
The lakeshore off Bradford Beach, looking toward downtown Milwaukee.

This time of year, you don’t see too many people on the beach, but there are still a lot of things to find. The waves of Lake Michigan bring in an unknown number of things onto the shore — trash, trinkets and sometimes treasures, as Bubbler Talk question asker Erin Christie learned while beach combing. She found a World War II-era dog tag and although the soldier had passed on, she was able to find his son and give it back to him.

Christie and her husband regularly comb the beach together, which inspired her to ask Bubbler Talk to explore some of the cool and unique things people have found on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Bubbler Talk: What have you always wanted to know about the Milwaukee area that you'd like WUWM to explore?

"Every time we pick up something interesting, we always wonder the history behind it: where it came from, how it ended up in the lake, and why? I don’t know, I guess you can learn a lot about people from their garbage and that garbage ends up in the lake a lot of the time," she says.

Vials filled with items artist Geo Rutherford collected from the shoreline.
Geo Rutherford
Vials filled with items artist Geo Rutherford collected from the shoreline.

Artist Geo Rutherford knows a bit about that garbage. For her master’s thesis she decided to collect and document the items that washed ashore in Milwaukee.

She explains, "I just went to the beach every day. Some days I would just stand there for 15 minutes and then leave, but eventually I started to collect a lot of stuff and now I have boxes upon boxes upon boxes of beach detritus in my studio."

READ: Artist & Educator Geo Rutherford Finds Inspiration At Milwaukee's Bradford Beach

Rutherford admits that a lot of the stuff she’s found is disgusting, but her collection of vials containing the sorted items have a beauty to them, a glimpse into the world we create and which in turn creates us. But some of her most common finds are not the kind of things you want to touch.

"Plastic tampon applicators are awful, I always find them. The plastic things you attach onto cigarettes and cigarillos. I find a lot of straws, I find a lot of bottle caps, and I find a lot of zebra and quaga mussels," she says.

LISTEN: Beach Trash: Where Lake Michigan’s Litter Originates

These mussels are invasive species in the Great Lakes, and walking along the shore on Bradford Beach you can find a lot of them this time of year. But the most conspicuous finds are rocks, nestled among the snow, sand and ice. The rocks and fossils on the shores of Lake Michigan have their own story to tell, which took millions and sometimes billions of years to develop.

Rocks and shells on Bradford Beach in Milwaukee.
Joy Powers
Rocks and shells on Bradford Beach in Milwaukee.

Geologist Robert Graziano explains these rocks and fossils tell the story of our world, of shifting continents and global climate change.

He says, "Wisconsin wasn’t always in the place that it’s at now. It was once south of the equator and it was once underwater and that’s a hard thing for some people to grasp but the remnants of that are the fossils that we see. And in Milwaukee, we have the Milwaukee Formation, which has a tremendous amount of fossils in it."

Samples of the Milwaukee formation, found on a Lake Michigan beach.
Dan Mullen
Samples of the Milwaukee Formation, found on a Lake Michigan beach.

The Milwaukee Formation is essentially a large rock filled with fossils, a geological record of what was once in the area. It can be found along the shores of the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan, which explains how so many of these fossils wash up onto the beach. The formation contains a variety of fossils including crinoids, brachiopods and corals — ocean-dwelling creatures that lived in the area when Milwaukee was still underwater.

Graziano says that some of the most colorful rocks on the beach tell the history of the Wisconsin glacier.

Yooperlite stones under UV light (top) and in regular light (bottom).
Yooperlite stones under UV light (top) and in regular light (bottom).

"The glaciers, as they move along, they can pluck rocks off the landscape and these colorful ones are mostly the igneous and metamorphic rocks that have come from some of the oldest parts of North America in Ontario and even further north," he says.

There are so many fascinating rocks and fossils you can find along the shore like yooperlite, or syenite that glows under UV lights, and wood boulders, which are chunks of preserved peat stemming from an underwater bog that predates the glacier. In every case, these things took thousands of years to land in the right spot for someone to see it and pick it up.

"It’s just a hard thing to grasp. Sometimes you’re the first one to pick that rock up after it’s been washed and traveled via the glaciers, and washed by meltwater of the glacier and washed by the lake, and you’re the first one to pick this rock up in so many millions or billion years," says Graziano.

And perhaps the most amazing thing about anything you find on the beach is this: you could be the first person to really see it, consider its meaning and its place in our world.

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Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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