Nerd network

Sean Sullivan’s “The Mammoth Hunter” is one of several programs joining forces to spread the fun-science word

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Sean Sullivan has been fascinated with early humans ever since he was around 18 years old. The ways of the frontier-era mountain men in America intrigued him: How they lived off the land, worked with native Americans, learned from them, traded with them and lived among them. That fascination gradually went further back in time. He learned how to make the clothing, tools and weapons of the Paleolithic era.

One might picture the now 34-year-old Sullivan as the type of person who lives in the woods, a recluse using his homemade atlatal (spear throwing device) to hunt animals for food.

Sullivan can use those tools well, but lives comfortably in his east side Wausau apartment. His home looks like anyone else’s might, with a large collection of DVDs, artwork on the wall, and plates in the sink. Out in anticipation of a reporter’s arrival, he set out a spread of clothing and tools. These are usually tucked away with whatever new replica he happens to be working on, which he does on his couch in the middle of his living room.

Sometimes while camping, he attempts to use these ancient tools, weapons and clothing. And it’s not uncommon to see him walking about town in his homemade clothes. But Sullivan is quick to point out he’s no purist. Yes, he eats a diet mostly of whole foods that are in season, but he takes the occasional trip to Culver’s or other restaurants. He has worked as a baker and worked this winter at Sylvan Hill manning the tubing hill.

His passion for building old weapons and clothing has mostly been a hobby, until now. After meeting David Daniels, founder of Colossal Fossils, he learned there was a big audience for his passion. Much like Daniels has experienced, Sullivan now finds himself being contacted by more and more museums, schools and libraries asking to schedule him for an appearance to show off his Paleolithic tools.

While Colossal Fossils now has a designated public space in Wausau Center mall, a major part of what the nonprofit still does is bringing mobile exhibits to schools and other groups. Daniels has been happy to help coach Sullivan on doing the same.

Daniels hopes to foster that kind of cooperation among other local science-related groups with the Science Alliance, a collection of, so far, six local businesses or non-profits. The aim is to foster a sharing of resources, including programs that incorporate two or more specialties, and cross-promoting each other.

Those organizations are: Colossal Fossils, Wausau West Planetarium, The Mammoth Hunter (Sullivan), Snapshot Science, the STEM shuttle, and Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center.

“With a lot of these business, a lot of people don’t know they exist,” Daniels says. “If I’ve learned anything in the 8-9 months since Colossal Fossils opened, it’s that the best way is to collaborate with as many people as you can.”

Daniels says the Science Alliance will be “the ultimate nerd networking tool.”

The fact that something like Science Alliance exists at all signals something quite remarkable: That science-related fun is becoming a major part of Wausau’s entertainment and recreation scene.

Science as a bear market


Jeff Traska educates children at the Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center.

You might be forgiven for not knowing who Jeff Traska is, or that four black bears live on his property in Wausau, just down the street from East High School, at his Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center.

A roofing and ventilation contractor by day, Traska started out as a hunter, seeking out animals with his bow and arrow. Many hunters feel the need to learn about their quarry animals, and through that earn a respect about that animal.

Traska wanted to take that understanding deeper. “Once the animal is dead and in the back of my pickup truck, I couldn’t learn anything,” Traska explains. “So I put down my bow and picked up a camera.”

In 1998, Traska acquired his first bear, Vince, from someone who sold bear cubs. The Department of Natural Resources rules on keeping bears appalled him: The minimum cage size is only 400 feet.

At Traska’s Black Bear Education Center, Vince lives on a preserve of seven acres along with three other bears. Bears can live for 40-50 years, and Traska hopes he lives long enough himself to continuing caring for the big critters. He’s had the bears since they were cubs. American Black Bears can grow to several hundred pounds and they’ve bonded to Traska as if he were their mother. Photos on the Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center’s Facebook page show Traska playing with a bear inside the fence while a Boy Scout troop watches from the other side, their eyes wide with amazement. A film crew for the BBC came last spring to film the bears and the education center, and to talk to Traska.

Traska loves the idea of Science Alliance pooling resources, and cross-promoting all the cool science-related activities in the Wausau area. Traska’s mission is to educate people about bears and he often hosts school-age group tours of his center. Anything that helps spread the word would be a major help, he says.

The bear center has been around for nearly 20 years, but most of the other science related activities in the alliance are newer. The Wausau West Planetarium last year finished a major renovation, including the addition of a digital system similar to the one used to shoot the Star Trek movies. Some of the programs make you feel as if you’re flying in space, and almost feel like being on a roller coaster.

Snapshot Science, founded in 2010, brings science to you at events and afterschool programs. The STEM Shuttle brings a mobile space center to schools and other groups to spread science.

Why not bring them all together?


Chris Janssen, of the Wausau School District Planetarium: “The idea is that now we can say, ‘Hey, if you liked this, have you heard about this other science related thing over there?’”

Imagine going to a planetarium program and learning that the “stars” you see are really light from them created dozens, hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years ago. Or learning that some stars were born only millions of years ago. And after that, you see skeletons of dinosaurs that roamed the land when those stars first appeared in Earth’s sky.

You’ll get that kind of astronomy-dinosaur combo next week, says Chris Janssen, who runs the Wausau School District Planetarium at West High School. The planetarium will host “Did an Asteroid Really Kill the Dinosaurs” and display some fossils from Colossal Fossils. Janssen mused that pairing one of Sean Sullivan’s early humans presentations with an upcoming show called “First Stargazers” might be a good collaboration as well.

“There are families who want to do things like this, with quality educational programming,” Janssen says. “The idea is that now we can say, ‘Hey, if you liked this, have you heard about this other science related thing over there?’ Awareness is the first step.”

Stephen Schmidt of Snapshot Science loves the idea of the collaboration. His business—an after school and summer program aimed at getting kids to perform real experiments using the scientific process—has grown so much that Schmidt had to hire additional teachers. Schmidt already has held one Snapshot Science session at Colossal Fossils. Similar partnerships with other alliance members could be possible, Schmidt says.

“This will really most benefit the people who live here,” Schmidt says. “It should really increase access.”

The alliance began not with grand ideas, but because Daniels has an interest in astronomy. He reached to Janssen at the planetarium, and it was Janssen who suggested the science alliance, Daniels says.

They fed off each other’s excitement and the idea took off at warp speed. Having a permanent museum, Daniels started meeting a number of other science enthusiasts. Why not bring them into the fold?

What that alliance will look like is still being decided, Janssen says. There’s a lot to figure out: How “official” does it need to be? Will they bring in other members, and under what criteria?

The concept, however, for years has worked with the local arts and educational groups in Wausau, which often collaborate on programs and even big events such as Artrageous Weekend.

The Mammoth Hunter


Sean Sullivan during his “Mammoth Hunter” presentation at Colossal Fossils

A small crowd grew larger by the minute in the back of the darkened Colossal Fossils museum at Wausau Center mall as Sullivan spoke about his various tools, weapons and clothing. Children watching were transfixed, and adults gravitated toward The Mammoth Hunter, as Sullivan calls his business.

Watching as Sullivan explains his passion, his various tools spread out inside the museum, it’s hard to believe that only six months ago Sullivan had no idea anyone would be interested in his pre-historic recreations and knowledge. When Daniels met Sullivan at the museum’s early humans exhibit, Daniels convinced him otherwise.

Now Sullivan has a number of presentations lined up at museums, libraries and schools throughout Wisconsin.

It’s not something Sullivan could have envisioned when, as a late teen, he was carrying a 60-pound backpack during a camping trip, thought there had to be a better way, and wondered how early American mountain men did it. That curiosity transitioned to the Romans and the middle ages, and then back to prehistoric times, which he studies today.

For his first project, he made a pair of moccasins. “I had a lot of fun doing it and they turned out pretty well,” Sullivan says. “My fascination slowly grew from there and I added on more and more items.”


Some of the prehistoric-type tools Sullivan creates in his east side Wausau home.

Recreating tools used by ancient people gave him a more intimate connection to those people beyond just reading about them, Sullivan says. He points to a shirt he made that’s a replica of an artifact from early people, found “not far from here,” Sullivan says. He has bows and arrows, atlatals, clothing, utensils, a flute made of a bone; many crafted in his apartment.

But his works are not artifacts, Sullivan is quick to point out. He can use the atlatal efficiently (it’s basically a stick that flexes, allowing early humans to throw a spear faster than by hand), and wears the clothes he makes around town.

Through the Mammoth Hunter, Sullivan hopes to dispel the notion that people who lived 20,000 years ago were cave dwelling dummies, as movies often depict, he says. “They wore well-tailored clothing, used bone needles, they were weaving textiles and fishing with fish hooks. They did what we do, just a little differently.”

That will be more possible through the Science Alliance, through which science-based businesses and non-profits can spread the word for each other, and show more people around Wausau that science is geeky fun.