Go paleo and dig for dinosaur bones at area quarry

Rachel Sauer, left, holds the dinosaur bone she found. Beside her is Tom Temme, field director at the museum.



Melinda Mawdsley looks at a handful of dirt while on a Dinosaur Expedition with the Museum of Western Colorado.



Thomas Deiner, 6, from Los Angeles, learns about some sauropod bones at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry at Rabbit Valley.



The evening before Melinda Mawdsley and I dug for dinosaur bones, I mentioned the exciting news to a friend. Granted, my friend is not a 7-year-old boy, so this might not have been as receptive an audience as I’d want, but still:

Me: Melinda and I are digging for dinosaurs tomorrow!

Friend: Great!

Me: There’s a chance we could find sauropod bones!

Friend: Sauropod?

Me: The really big plant eaters, like apatosaurus.

Friend: Is brontosaurus one?

Me: Apatosaurus is brontosaurus.

Friend: I thought you said sauropod.

Me: I did.

Friend:

Me: I can’t have this conversation with you.

Some people outgrow their dinosaur phase. I never did. Thanks to obsessive childhood reading of “The Enormous Egg” by Oliver Butterworth and “The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek” by Evelyn Sibley Lampman, plus most of the nonfiction dinosaur books at the library, the terrible lizards have long occupied at least one entire chamber of my heart.

So, when Tom Temme, field director for the Museum of Western Colorado, confirmed that the silver dollar-sized black thing I’d uncovered June 5 was, indeed, dinosaur bone, I pretty much died of happiness and I write this from beyond the grave.

Melinda and I were enjoying one of the Museum of Western Colorado’s one-day Dinosaur Expeditions. Offered in one-, three- and five-day adventures through the summer, the expeditions give dinosaur enthusiasts the chance to dig for fossils in western Colorado and eastern Utah under the guidance of experienced paleontologists.

My fantasy camp, in other words.

Melinda, who didn’t go through a dinosaur phase (but who is very fond of “Jurassic Park”), is nevertheless the world’s greatest sport, the finest kind of friend and co-worker and always up for an adventure. She slathered on the sunscreen and bug spray and kindly let me babble.

I mean, it would be crazy not to dig for dinosaur bones when we live in one of the greatest caches of them on the planet. People come from around the world to participate in the museum’s Dinosaur Expeditions, and all we had to do was show up at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning.

Our group included Joseph Breman and his grandson Marcus, grandparents Rita and Bob with their grandson Zach, and Jonathan Deiner of Los Angeles, who brought his 6-year-old twin sons Thomas and Everett.

The twins, Jonathan noted, are a little bit into Star Wars, but mostly their world revolves around dinosaurs.

TESTIFY, BOYS!

Temme drove us to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry at Rabbit Valley west of Loma, where paleontologists and volunteers are working to uncover a 5-foot-long sauropod femur discovered several summers ago, among other mesmerizing bones.

After a get-the-blood-flowing walk to look at a camarasaurus fossil preserved in a ledge above the quarry, Temme instructed us in the finer points of digging for bones, a process that narrows from macro to micro: scoop off top layers of loose gray dirt with shovels and picks to uncover the bedrock, peel back a horizontal layer of bedrock at a time with a hammer and flat-head screwdriver (“a paleo-chisel,” Temme joked), sweep the detritus away with a whisk broom and then, when something looks promising, approach with the lightest of touches and the gentlest of brushes.

Kneeling on a spot of what, more than 100 million years ago, was likely a riverbank or shallow pond, we chipped and swept, swept and chipped. Each layer we peeled up — Temme compared the process to turning the pages of a book — revealed black, fibrous fragments of plants that once thrived here, ferns and ginkos and horsetails that made this now-parched area fecund and lush. Seeing that history revealed and crumbled in our hands, it was so easy to close my eyes and feel the humid air, hear a lazy river meandering by, see a stegosaurus pause for a nibble on a fern as its herd rumbled past.

Man. Same planet, different world.

It was in the midst of this chisel-and-sweep reverie that I brushed at a little biscuit of black rock. Picking it up, I noticed a break in it revealed an interior that looked like fossilized, fine sponge. Temme had mentioned this is what bone looks like, but ... no way.

“Um?” I said, showing it to Melinda.

“Maybe!” she said.

“Um?” I gestured to Temme with shaking hands.

“Yep, that’s bone,” he said. He explained a possible scenario in which the dinosaur died somewhere along the riverbank, its body got scavenged and its bones eventually tumbled along by the river, to be found by me, on the brink of tears, 150 million years later.

Then! Not 10 minutes later, Jonathan Deiner gestured to Temme with the same hesitant “Maybe?” And in what had to be one of the greatest happenings ever at the quarry, at least in Melinda’s and my opinion, twin, 6-year-old dinosaur enthusiasts had begun to uncover what turned out to be a sauropod limb bone at least 2 feet long, possibly longer.

It was a gift to behold (though I would add that hearing Melinda huff, later that day at Dinosaur Journey, that the velociraptors seemed “too small” because “they looked a lot bigger in the kitchen in ‘Jurassic Park’ ” was a gift to me). Dinosaurs, that day, lived — in the bedrock around us, in our imaginations, in hearts that never stopped beating true for the biggest, coolest animals we ever could envision.

Get going: The Museum of Western Colorado offers Dinosaur Expeditions throughout the summer. The one-day expedition is $125 per person and includes transportation, instruction, lunch, beverages and a plastic cup that says “I’d rather be in the Mesozoic.” It is a tremendous cup. Three- and five-day expeditions also are available. The expeditions often sell out, so make your reservations early. For information, go to 
museumofwesternco.com/dino-digs or call 242-0971, ext. 212. Your inner 6-year-old will be glad you did.


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