A Manitoba man tracks down rocks from space

SUP_meteorite_t270It's not often that something as mundane as a doorstop can change your perception of the world. But that's what happened to Derek Erstelle, when a visiting friend found himself drawn to the strange rock that Erstelle was using to prop open a door.

Erstelle, an Aboriginal artist and rock hunter who combs the woods of eastern Manitoba as part of his ongoing search for materials, had found the rock in the Whiteshell, a popular wilderness and parkland area, and brought it home. The friend "borrowed" the 12-pound rock, had it secretly tested and determined that it had been holding a secret: it was not of this earth.

"I had found one before I knew that I had found one," says Erstelle of the first of his three meteorite finds. "It was a total fluke."

Erstelle has found about four per cent of all confirmed meteorites discovered in Canada. There are 68 in total, and only seven in Manitoba. What's more, Erstelle's alien rocks are all iron meteorites, which, according to Dr. Alan Hildebrand of the University of Calgary's Prairie Meteorite Search, comprise only a small percentage of meteorites found on earth.

Erstelle came across the first two while making a fire pit and the other he found in fragments in a stream bed. He keeps a chunk of fragment in his own home. The meteorite looks slightly rusty but is otherwise unremarkable, although it weighs more than regular rocks of the same size.

"Iron meteorites are like stainless steel," says Hildebrand. They contain nickel, he explains, which means they don't corrode as easily as a man-made lump of iron, which will rust away in the soil. Iron meteorites also degrade less quickly than stony meteorites, the more common earthbound variety.

Experts believe the Whiteshell area is a meteorite hot spot in Manitoba. One theory suggests that thousands of years ago, two retreating glacial lobes may have met over the Whiteshell, thus depositing more debris here than anywhere else in the region, including everything that fell on them from space. If this theory is correct, the Whiteshell may be a meteorite graveyard.

Iron meteorites can be located using a metal detector, but Erstelle searches for his from high points, armed with only a pair of binoculars and a theory of where to hunt. He often targets ancient gravel deposits, where glaciers dumped tonnes of different sorts of rocks during their retreat, and looks for anything differently coloured or otherwise out of place.

He thinks he already has a bead on some more.