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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........
MORE RITES OF SPRING
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,
Twice-monthly newsletter of
firstname.lastname@example.org amateur paleontology