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Stuck on Goo

September 06, 1998|Michael R. Forrest

The black asphalt seeps out of the floor in Pit 91 like sap sweated out of a poisoned oak tree. It blackens the wide wooden planks that crisscross the roughly 30-by-30-foot hole. It pools in the bottom of the 14-foot pit, where it reflects the sky, pit canopy and planks above. Tiny bubbles rise out of the gooey black witch's brew. The bones of saber-toothed cats and short-face bears poke out of the asphalt for the first time in 28,000 years.

Next week offers the last chance to view the yearly two-month summer excavation of Pit 91 at the La Brea Tar Pits. It's the last time to watch, through glass windows on top of the pit, the excavators below who slowly, deliberately, meticulously dig through the tar during the summer, when it has softened with the heat. It's the last time to wonder: If they lean too far, will they stick like the lions, wolves, ground sloths, bison, horses, vultures and camels that came before them?

"I have been in here, trapped to the point where I've needed help to get out," admits Jerry Smith, who has worked the pit for 15 years. "We've had times when we've cleaned up some of the old excavations, where we'll all go out and pull the trash out, and sometimes you just get mired." The fact that they've found the bones of only one small person, the 9,000-year-old "La Brea Woman," suggests that humans have been able to extricate themselves from the tar and asphalt somewhat more easily than other beasts.

"You just sink a few inches," says Chris Shaw, Pit 91's excavation supervisor. "You get mired like a fly on flypaper and you just can't get out. A lot of people think there were huge pools, lakes of tar, and the animals sank out of sight. They were surface seeps, just a few inches deep, and they would get trapped and either die of exposure or starvation, or be preyed on by scavengers and predators like saber-toothed cats."

"You can get this stuff off! We have ways!" assures Sharen Dyer, a volunteer working the pit this summer. "Sta-Lube will get it out of your hair."

While the excavators work the pit as if it were a '49er gold-digging operation, you can look at the tarred and jagged bones and almost feel the terror of lying in one of the smelly seeps, stuck, staring at the dark shapes of a saber-toothed cat creeping out of the tall grass at twilight with his stomach growling.&

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