[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index][Subject Index][Author Index]

Pre-season Prospecting - Experimental Paleo(?)

With all respect to the usual scientific inclination of this group, I 
thought some of you might like a bit of a diversion.  If not, its easy 
enough to vaporize it; if so, please let me know.  Perhaps we can build a 
seperate 'list' for those who wish to exchange tales about field work........

April 12 - Tuesday.  
A ten-day forecast of "unseasonably high temperatures" was all the news 
Danny Steward and I needed for a pre-season trip to Montana.  Our official 
mission was to make arrangements for an August field trip , but a little 
fossil prospecting was also on our minds.  

A winter's-worth of erosion will have exposed the first, precious millimeter 
of this season's fossils.   As recently as last summer they were still 
hidden by 78 million years of geological history; a grain of sand or two 
away from potential celebrity... a place in paleontological history.  This 
year they poke their little noses out for us to find.  We plan to discover a 
new species, help wrestle it into some worthy museum, and make a small 
contribution to our aggregate understanding of Planet Earth.  

Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit.  Actually there are so many hundreds of 
square miles of badlands, one need not get into a tizzy about finding 
fossils.  Of course some popular areas, near roadsides and otherwise 
convenient to casual prospectors, get picked-over pretty closely.  The trick 
to finding fossils has more to do with our ability to recognize unnatural 
variations in the terrain, as opposed to any ability to recognize them lying 
exposed.  In heavily trafficked areas the footprints, the scuffed-up 
surface, create an unnatural disarrangement of the surface, eliminating the 
characteristic textures and patterns.  If you toss a marshmallow onto a 
fresh snowfall, it will be pretty conspicuous, but if you toss another onto 
a heavily trafficked, snow-covered sidewalk, you will have much more 
difficulty finding it among the 'chaos'.  Sure, there are cases where entire 
dinosaur bones, even whole skeletons, are discovered neatly exposed, but 
ordinarily you find some meager clue - some feature in the sandstone that 
attracts your attention - not for what it is, but more for its being 
out-of-place.   The practiced field worker can see the dorsal end of a 
hadrosaurian quadrate.  The novice has been known to trip over fully exposed 
femurs.  (My toes are healing nicely, thank you). 

But I'm getting far ahead of the story....

Missoula is a few miles behind us as we continue southeast, along 
Interstate-90.  The mountains ahead, and on our left, are the Garnet Range, 
part of the complex assemblage known, in the aggregate, as the Rocky 
Mountains.  The sun is behind us, low in the late afternoon sky, coloring 
everything in our view a brilliant yellow.  Last season's grass, tangled 
underbrush, once stately trees: all are beginning secret chemistry for 
Spring's renewal.  Externally, the ravaged flora is brown and dirt-color and 
embarrassingly bland.  In our heads we know it.  But the sun helps prepare 
the stage for Spring renewal.  Yellow, sparkling, glowing - not dirt-color.  
In our spirit, it is gold.

And behind this renaissance, over the mountains, the sky is boiling.  
Boiling with Imperial purple swirls.  The sky is a dark tempest, the 
foreground all smooshy and gold and warm.  Contrast purple and gold.  Danny 
spots a flock of large, white birds.  They are part of the gilded 
foreground, yet they venture into the purple and are notable for their 
intensity.  Then back into the gold where they are less alarming.  

Emboldened by the defiant onset of Spring, we too challenge the storm in our 
future.  Opting for MacDonald Pass (elev. 6320') over the longer route 
through Butte, we take the left turn onto Highway 12.  Danny is driving now, 
and realizing that the storm is hovering over the pass, we speed up.... 
nightfall may bring sufficient chill to turn purple clouds into snow.  The 
town of Elliston, nightfall, and snowfall occur simultaneously.  Curiously, 
the two-lane highway becomes four.  We begin to pass tractor/trailer rigs as 
the grade becomes steeper and the snow begins to accumulate.  As we finally 
crest the summit, there is about 1 inch of slushy snow on the road - at the 
rate it is snowing, we feel lucky to have made it.  Two miles later we have 
again descended into normalcy .  I think.  It's awfully dark out there.

>From Helena we are unable to confirm motel reservations in Havre (!!) so, 
instead, get a booking in Great Falls.  Another hour on the road, in the 
dark.  We drive on through the night, past Helena and northward over 
Interstate-15.  Regretfully, we are cruising past the convoluted limestone 
disturbances and massive volcanic dikes along the Missouri River, all out of 

April 13 - Wednesday
It's a hunerd-n'leven, uneventful miles to Havre the next morning.   We 
check in to the Super 8 Motel, toss our stuff on the beds and head for the 
badlands.  Havre's River Road parallels the north side of the Milk River 
along 7 miles of classic Judith River Formation.  Stanton and Hatcher were 
here in 1904, emissaries of the United States Geologic Survey.  The 
landmarks in their Geology and Paleontology of the Judith River Beds are 
still here, despite a rumored erosion rate of 1/4 inch/year:  

"The most extensive exposures of the Judith River Beds in this area are on 
the north side of Milk River from 1 to 4 miles above the town of Havre, a 
small station on the Great Northern Railway just north of the Bearpaw [sic] 
Mountains.  This is perhaps the most accessible of all the exposures of 
these beds.  Here is a rather large and picturesque badland region composed 
entirely of the Judith River beds.  ........the bluffs on the north side 
present a picturesque badland area, consisting at the base of 150 to 200 
feet of usually light-colored sandstones and clays, with brown sandstone 
concretions and occasionally thin seams of lignite.  In these beds at 
several horizons were found in considerable abundance dinosaur bones, 
crocodiles, garpike scales, turtles, and other vertebrates with freshwater 

We leap from the car.  Bound across a hundred yards of flatland and throw 
ourselves at the sage-scented Judith River bluffs.  Like houn' dog pups in 
the back of a pickup truck, we squint into the wind savoring all flavors of 
sagebrush and dust, groping around for the handfuls of fossils Messrs. 
Stanton and Hatcher promised.  Pretty slim pickin's for us today: a 
lethargic horned lizard is our best catch.

Joe Small - Amateur Paleontologist &   Editor of 'Bone Bug Journal,
                                       Field Notes':
                                       Twice-monthly newsletter of
bonebug@halcyon.com                    amateur paleontology