Day Six – Fossiliferous

More photos here.

Coldest morning yet, as we approach the northernmost reaches of the lower 48.

This is the Year of the Dinosaur for me and with so many of these fantastic beasts once living (and dying and turning to stone) all throughout the American West, we’re making a bunch of stops to see them. But today we actually went out with a bunch of paleontologists to dig for fossils.

But first we had to figure out what to do with Owen the dog while we traipsed around the backcountry. Choteau, Montana (where we were camped) is small. Bynum, Montana where the fossil expedition departed is even smaller, comprising a grand total of four buildings (but the highest percentage of paleontologists per capita). Still,  we found a pet sitter and called her … only to find out that she was fully booked. She suggested we call a local veterinarian — of which there were four because, being rural, there are a lot of animals to take care of (including the big, livestocky ones). First vet we called happily agreed to watch our doggo for the full day. Problem solved.

The dinosaur dig was our own version of (non-submersible) adventure tourism. The real deal in every way. We headed out with two scientists, two volunteers, and an intern from the Montana Dinosaur Center to dig into 75 million-year-old shale called “The Graveyard” in the Two Medicine Formation. On private property (with permission to dig from the owner) but also being mindful of fossil poachers, we were instructed to shut off location data for our photos and not to take post photos of identifiable landforms. We positioned our transport van ready to depart the site hastily should any bears pop up (not kidding) and we set to work. 

Sweeping and chiseling we were each assigned one square meter of a predefined grid and instructed to look for certain telltale shapes, striations, colors, and “stickiness” — the latter being a rock’s ability to soak up water because of the porousness of fossilized bone compared to sedimentary rock. We immediately found fragments and eventually uncovered vertebrae, a toe, at least one tooth, and tons of bone fragments almost all from hadrosaurs (which you may know as “duck-billed” dinosaurs). It was tedium punctuated with thrills.

I did have to explain to my daughter the difference between excavation and demolition as she indelicately hammered away at the rock face, but she eventually got it and, with her cousin, was even enlisted to help make plaster jackets for the larger fossils and to precisely map the location of the major finds with road surveying equipment.

I learned a ton. For example, I am now pretty sure my daughter and niece will not become paleontologists, geologists, or stone sculptors. But they had fun too. It’s always a pleasure to be around people who both love what they do, know a ton about it, and want to tell you about it. An A+ day even though (or perhaps because) we returned hot, exhausted, and covered in dirt.

Speaking of dirt, the trailer is an utter sty of clothing, dog stuff, and gear. I planned no downtime for tidying up, naturally.

As far as powering the electric vehicle, we are now far beyond Level 3 chargers in-range. Nothing left now but ingenuity and possibly a well-timed lightning strike, Frankenstein-brought-to-life-like. 

But tomorrow … we ride!