North Dakota Dig

I landed in the Bismarck airport and the first thing I am greeted by is a triceratops skull and flying pterosaur bones in the air. It’s going to be a great week.

Since I first watched Jurassic Park, I was obsessed with being a paleontologist. Unfortunately(or maybe $fortunately$) I discovered computer science and my career path took a turn. After that, my obsession with the ancient beasts before our time took a spot on the back burner. I could only pursue my passion from the safety of books and the internet.

My interest was rekindled when I was taking Age of Dinosaurs with professor Richard Bailey at Northeastern University. He talked about how lucky we are in North America to have an abundance of fossils. Especially in parts of the Midwest. Even in New England where the climate is less ideal for preserving fossils there are signs of prehistoric life. With such a plethora of bones to dig up around our continent, there must be someone out there who needs a little help. And I would be glad to give it.

I first heard about these public digs in a New York Times article and I was enraptured by it. I signed up immediately for the Dickinson Dig. Finally, my life long goal participating in a paleontological dig can finally be fulfilled.

To accompany me on this adventure, will be my lovely mother. We prepared all of our equipment. Tools would be provided by the paleontologists. But food, sunscreen, and accommodations were on us. It was her genius idea to bring kneepads. And by the gods would I be thankful for that.

We decided to make it a real trip. We would spend 2 days digging and one day sightseeing around the area. We realized that this would be a once in a lifetime chance to see Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Dakota’s are a bit out of the way when it comes to national monuments. and national parks.

To get to the dig site in Dickinson, we had to drive about 1.5 hours from Bismarck. Luckily we had a North Dakota native named Dale to accompany us for the journey. He was a civil engineer and now volunteers parttime at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. He helps the paleontologists clean the field specimens. A dream job, I might say. He was an expert on all things North Dakota and I spent a lot of time talking with him during the car ride. We talked about the wildlife and climate of the area. Especially birds, since Dale is an avid bird watcher. North Dakota was much more lush than I thought. In my mind, I had pictured an arid climate; what you would typically think of when you thought badlands. But in fact, North Dakota is mostly farmland and oil fields. so it is quite green and filled with rolling hills. Only a small portion of the state is actually arid and dry.

In order to get from Dickinson to the digsite there was a short drive. We rode with Thain and Melanie. A lovely artist couple who were taking a vacation in Thain’s childhood home and getting ready start a new chapter in their lives. Thain was working in Brooklyn as an artist. Melanie recently started a position at an art program in San Francisco to teach children with special needs. We had to do a short hike through some meadowed farmland in order to get to where the fossils were. There was plenty of scenery and wildlife. From abandoned barns and school buses, to antelopes, insects, meadowlarks. Life was abundant. One of the most common sounds I heard was the diving nighthawk.

We were digging in the Paleogene period. About 32 million years ago. During this time, the dinosaurs had already gone extinct. Around the area were rhinos, turtles, rodents, and the earliest ancestor to dogs. One of the most interesting fossils I found were two molars to one of these dogs, of the species Hesperocyon. To be honest, “digging” is probably not the right word. The bone fragments are so exposed and plentiful that all you had to do was look down and you were guaranteed to find bits of bone or teeth. In fact, one of the paleontologists named Jeff Person talked about a visit to a site he called “Tooth Town”. The reason being that he had spent all day trying to pick up as many fossilized teeth as he could. He picked up dozens of samples. He knew that under ultraviolet light, teeth had a neon orange glow. During the day, he believed he had picked up most of the teeth. When he returned at nightfall and turned on the blacklight, the entire floor lit up with a neon orange spots. As vibrant as a starry night sky.

I met all the paleontologists mentioned in the article: Becky Barnes (With a name like that, she could be a Marvel super hero), Clint Boyd and Jeff. And what a group of geniuses they were. They were able to identify entire species of bones just from a toe or a tooth. It was incredible.

I really want to make this an annual trip. I had such a grand time exploring the beautiful scenery and being isolated from all of the inconsitencies of everyday life. There were a few good consistencies here in North Dakota: Good land, good people, and good bones.

Honestly, pictures are worth a thousand words.