Fanatical for Fossils

Tim ‘Skippy’ Miller has a passion for fossils and fun…

The photo Tim ‘Skippy’ Miller selected for his Facebook profile is certainly not one that I would choose for myself.  First of all, he is upside down.  His hair is messy, his eyes are bulging and his tongue is sticking out.  It’s hard to tell whether he used Photoshop to rotate his image or the photo was taken while he was skydiving or falling off a cliff.  With Miller, anything is possible!

What I do know is that ‘Skippy’ is the ultimate extrovert.  This Courtenay-based amateur paleontologist has more than 600 kooky self-portraits like this one on his Facebook page—who knew the human face could contort in so many different ways?—and close to 3,000 ‘friends’ from around the world who know him as the fun-loving fossil freak from Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

While he has always been gregarious and goofy, Miller’s fascination with fossils did not start until 1993, while he was tubing down the Puntledge River with some friends. “I stumbled across my first fossil by accident,” explains Miller.  “It was just a little fossil but I was fascinated by it.”

It was on a subsequent Puntledge River tubing adventure that Miller found his next fossil.  This one, he says, literally rolled down an embankment and fell into his hands.  The 80-million-year-old heteromorph ammonite—a fossilized squid-like sea creatures that looks a bit like a snail—measured about 10-centimetres across and had lots of pattern and glitter.  The rest of the Miller’s story, quite literally, is ancient history.

Prior to that, explains Miller with a twinkle in his eyes, “I was ‘famous’ for a number of other diverse activities such as: riding my bicycle around Downtown Courtenay with cockatiels on my shoulder; raising money for YANA by hosting the scariest Halloween House in town with the Haunted Pathway on Tull Avenue; being a spicy chicken wing eating champion; a winner of belly flop contests; and nude bungee jumping… to name a few!”

When asked how he got the nickname ‘Skippy,’ Miller starts to laugh.  “Oh, I am not sure we can put that in a magazine,” he says with a chuckle.  “Are you sure you want to know?”

I urge him to tell me the story behind the ‘Skippy’ moniker.  He is right.  The story is not suitable for publication.  You do not need to know.  Trust me!

Before I learned more about Skippy’s over-the-top fossil fixation, I wanted to discover more mundane facts about him.  How, for example, does he balance being a father with being a self-professed fossil freak?  What does he do for a living?  How does his wife put up with his ever-expanding ‘rock’ collection?  And how, exactly, does one progress from nude bungee jumping to hard-core fossil collecting?  (Actually, that may also be more information that necessary!)

Miller explains: “I was born in Germany in 1966.  My father, Charles ‘Dusty’ Miller, was a firefighter with the Royal Canadian Air Force.  So, that makes me a military brat.  My family moved to CFB Cold Lake in 1967 and then to CFB Comox in 1973.

“Dad was a great sports fan and he loved the Canucks,” adds Miller.  “He also had a great spirit of adventure.  For example, he went parachuting for the first time at the age of 72 and, for his 80th birthday, we went skydiving together.  During the 45-second free-fall and landing he cracked two ribs… but we had a blast and it is a memory I cherish since he passed away on March 21 this year.  He was 82.”

As Miller tells me about his father, it becomes obvious that he inherited his wacky sense of humor and zest for life from his dad.  He explains that his mother, Leona, may not have always liked the “screwball adventures” they went on but supported Dusty and the boys as long as they were having fun and trying to stay safe.  For the record, Miller points out, his brother Percy Miller is a freak, too. “But he is a fishing freak,” he adds with a laugh.

Miller spent his formative years in the Comox Valley and graduated from GP Vanier Secondary School in 1985.  He met his partner, Bryanna Hayton, soon after.  The couple has three beautiful daughters together: Miranda (13), Mariska (8) and Talisha (6).  They also have a couple of rambunctious mixed breed dogs—Tessa and Tolkien—and a cat named Lucky Stotan.  Miller found Lucky during a fossil expedition on the Puntledge River, near Stotan Falls.  “The day I found the cat under a bridge I also found three great ammonites,” recalls Miller.  “Since the cat brought me luck, I just had to bring him home.”

In order to fund his fossil excursions and provide for his family, Miller has worked as a roofer for Nelson Roofing for more than 20 years.  He has also worked the nightshift in the warehouse for Canadian Bread for about nine years.  Bryanna is a homemaker, an Epicure products representative, a Scout leader—all three of the girls are enrolled in Scouts—and, quite likely, a woman with the patience of a saint.

When he’s not working or being a family man, Miller can be found searching river bottoms and rocky shores or hiking on the mountainside cliffs, road cuts and quarries of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.  Outfitted with protective goggles, a hammer and chisel, and an effervescent sense of excitement, Miller looks forward to weekly outdoor excursions in search of the next great dinosaur discovery.  Often, his girls and the dogs join him for the adventure.

“I love fossil hunting because with every tide change on the beach or heavy rainfall and subsequent erosion along a riverbank or mountainside, there is always the possibility of new fossil remains being uncovered,” explains Miller.

In the last 18 years, Miller has discovered thousands of fossils.  Every single one is carefully analyzed and identified.  Since his wife has declared a moratorium on any more ‘rocks’ coming into the house, he now has a storage locker filled with paleontological treasures.  He loans the fossils to museums, trades them with other fossil collectors, and uses them for demos and displays.  Miller adds that although it is not illegal to sell fossils, it is considered unethical.

Miller explains that Vancouver Island is a virtual treasure chest of fossils with everything from dinosaur teeth to ancient crustaceans (hard-shelled aquatic animals).  The waters around here were once home to eight different species of pre-historic crabs, three types of lobsters, dozens of ammonites that ranged from loonie-sized to more than a metre in diameter, and much more.  Miller says that some of his friends once discovered an impression of a huge ammonite in a riverbank at a “secret location.”  When they went back for a second look the river had washed much of it away.

This sentiment, of Vancouver Island being a fossil paradise, is echoed in Miller’s favorite fossil book, West Coast Fossils. The book explains: “Contrary to popular belief, fossils are not rare. Large, complete, and well-preserved fossils are definitely uncommon, but small fossil shells, bones, teeth and plant remains occur widely in sedimentary rocks across Canada.  However, here on the west coast, most residents and visitors are unaware that important and beautiful fossils are preserved in the sedimentary rocks that lie literally beneath our feet…  All over Vancouver Island, remains of ancient life lie frozen in the rocks.”

According to the British Columbia Paleontological Alliance (BCPA) fossils comprise a critical record of past life forms and, therefore, have important scientific, heritage and educational value.  Fossil collecting activities, by both professionals and amateurs, should be undertaken in a responsible manner—that is, suitable for subsequent scientific study and where collected materials receive proper curation, as described in the BCPA Standards and Ethics for Scientific Collecting.  (For details visit   Fossil collectors are urged to obtain permission from landowners or government authorities before venturing out and to practice ‘environmental etiquette,’ leaving each site as found.  All significant finds, like the Elasmosaur skeleton discovered in the Comox Valley in 1988, must be reported and excavated by a paleontological team.” (See sidebar next page.)

Always interested in learning more, this self-taught, amateur paleontologist says his that West Coast Fossils is his reference “bible.”  If he finds something that he cannot identify, he heads down to the Courtenay & District Museum to consult with experts there.  He also uses the Internet to network with other amateur and professional paleontologists from around the world.

In 2010, accompanied by fellow fossil freak and former sidekick, Peter Bryant, the duo video recorded 19 Fossil Freak Show episodes and posted them on YouTube.

Exposure on the Internet has garnered Miller a network of cyber-space connections and supporters, many of which send him odd and unusual free gifts.  “A guy from Australia once sent me a dehydrated kangaroo scrotum!” exclaims Miller.  “Look!” he says as he jumps up to point it out amongst a myriad of other cherished possessions proudly showcased in a glass curio cabinet.  Other prized gifts of appreciation/admiration include a fossilized dragonfly from Germany, a pinecone from Argentina, and a whimsical piece of art that depicts Miller dancing on a beach in the moonlight.  His #1 fan, Minneapolis, Minnesota-based artist Mike Menasco, painted it.

“As a direct result of the Fossil Freak Show videos, I have standing invitations to go fossil collecting to locations around the world,” adds Miller proudly.

Last summer, Bryant and Miller were invited to take an all-expense paid trip down the Athabasca River, Alberta, sponsored by Darcy and Shirley Zelman of Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures.  They traveled by jet boat from the City of Athabasca 150 miles downriver to Grand Rapids.  No amazing discoveries were made but they did collect a few small artifacts and fossils, saw a lot of wildlife, enjoyed the scenery, had plenty of fun, and were able to create several YouTube videos of their adventure.

This year, Miller is going solo and branching out with his own unique brand of fossil fanatic photojournalism.  With the assistance of volunteer webmasters and videographers Michelle Salmon and Shane Eigler, he has new videos in various stages of production and has recently launched a new website:

Miller dreams that one day Skippy’s Freaky Adventures will be “discovered” and that he could become the next reality TV sensation, like Survivorman or Mantracker.  “That would be just freakin’ AWESOME!  Wouldn’t it?” exclaims Miller.

Until then, Skippy Miller will continue to scan the beaches of Vancouver Island for pre-historic starfish and dream of stardom.  He will gather fossils in a bucket, fans on the Internet and hundreds more Facebook friends.  And I guarantee you he will be having fun!


Learn more about Skippy Miller at:

Learn more about Vancouver Island fossils… recommended reading: ‘West Coast Fossils: A Guide to the Ancient Life of Vancouver Island’  written by Rolf Ludvigson and Graham Beard

British Columbia Paleontological Alliance (BCPA) is a union of professional and amateur paleontologists working to advance the science of paleontology in the province by fostering public awareness, scientific collecting and education, and by promoting communication among all those interested in fossils.