When I first said I was going to North Dakota, the reaction of family and friends was universal: “What’s there?” Images of vast, unobstructed spaces that blur into the horizon don’t typically spark a tourism frenzy. But that pristine, lonely landscape has allowed nature to preserve one of North Dakota’s greatest intrigues: its prehistoric residents.
Nearly the entire surface of the state is sedimentary rock, largely untouched by glaciation, making it perfect for fossil preservation. There are ancient bones everywhere in North Dakota.
In what is now called the Badlands, an area so named because nothing much grows there, rhinos once roamed. Lakes and rivers in what is now a bone-dry landscape once sustained a population of large land tortoises. Cinematic favorites like Triceratops, duck-billed dinosaurs and Tyrannosaurus rex traversed North Dakota.
The state and its fossils have a unique, constantly evolving relationship, thanks in part to modern-day discoveries made on public digs. Die-hard dinosaur fans return each year to assist paleontologists, but the public digs are not well-known outside the world of fossil enthusiasts.
The bones I was to excavate last June were hidden, except for two inches of a rib sticking out of the mountain. The thin, khaki-clad paleontologist assured me that rhinos were very common in this area and that I wouldn’t ruin anything beyond repair. I swung the hammer onto the head of the chisel, sending a huge crack through stone that had been impossible to chip with just a trowel. With a second hit at a 45-degree angle, a chunk flew off, and I could see the rhinoceros’s rib bone, which had settled millions of years ago into the landscape outside of Dickinson, due west of Bismarck, the state capital.
A few peaks and valleys over, Becky Barnes, another paleontologist, clad in jeans and one of her many humorous dinosaur-theme T-shirts, bent over a fossilized tortoise shell, her long braid poking out beneath a tan, wide-brimmed hat. She nicknamed the shell Bruce’s tortoise in her field notebook. Bruce was neither an early explorer nor a notable scientist. Bruce — like me — was just your typical volunteer on a dig in western North Dakota. He’d happened to chip into a mountain and found a stylemys (similar in appearance to an outsized Galápagos tortoise), which lived about the same time as my rhino.
In the Eocene Epoch, which lasted roughly from 55 million to 34 million years ago, this area looked similar to the African habitats where rhinos currently live. This landscape is anything but flat. Walking through the mountains required good balance and paying attention to each step. Only by cracking the surface of these inhospitable rocks could you begin to discover the curious world of wildlife that once roamed here.
The public digs happened organically, in a very North Dakota way. Whenever residents discovered bones on their property (which still happens often), they would call the paleontologists from the state-funded Geological Survey, who drove out to assess the situation. Once there, they relied on local volunteers to help properly collect and transport the fossils to the lab in Bismarck.
Over time, this practice evolved into an open sign-up for volunteers to accompany the paleontologists on their annual fieldwork. The digs are hard work. It takes a dedicated, curious person to play paleontologist with the Geological Survey for a few days each summer and unearth creatures that no longer exist. Most of the excursions are free, except for a refundable deposit.
There are a number of dig sites, like the one outside of Dickinson, where volunteers are guaranteed to uncover fossils. The three paleontologists whom I had met, Mr. Boyd, Ms. Barnes and Jeff Person, also discovered several small creatures they had never seen before at this site, mainly types of fish and oreodonts (“walking food,” as Ms. Barnes calls them, referring to their place on the food chain).
This year’s public digs have been scaled back to four from five in 2016, because of budget cuts. The Bismarck area dig (July 24 to 28) is the only one that focuses exclusively on dinosaurs. At Pembina Gorge (Aug. 8 to 12), volunteers can dig up sea life from 80 million years ago, like giant squid and mosasaurs (marine reptiles). The Medora dig (July 13 to 16), near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, uncovers swamp creatures from 55 to 60 million years ago. The Dickinson dig (June 26 to 30) has the youngest mammal fossils, at 30 million to 40 million years old. Volunteers can join for one day or stay the entire five days.
At 7:30 on the morning of the Dickinson dig, I met up with the paleontologists in the parking lot of the Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck, off a highway dotted with large chain stores and hotels. A group email had informed volunteers about what to wear (closed-toe shoes, long pants, a brimmed hat), what to bring (plenty of water), what not to bring (iPods and headphones) and what to watch for (rattlesnakes, prickly pear cactus). Our car convoy headed west on Interstate 94 following their truck, which stood out from the sea of other trucks on the highway thanks to its trailer hauling a black fat-wheeled utility task vehicle.
The landscape changed as soon as the sprawl of big box chain stores and Bismarck highways disappeared in the rearview mirror. The nearly 100-mile drive dispelled any myth that North Dakota is flat. As I followed the convoy in my rental car, we passed rolling hills with emerald green grass, farmhouses dotting acres of fields and wild, rocky landscapes. Tall signs advertising the Medora Musical, a popular western cabaret show, and the Enchanted Highway, a scenic route dotted with large sculptures, punctuated a big sky with swift-moving clouds. The convoy — eight adults including a mother with an adolescent boy — turned off the highway and ventured into farmland, kicking up rocks and dust on unmarked roads before parking in a green field that slanted upward. We outfitted ourselves with picks, brushes, awls, trowels and collection vials.
We hiked 15 minutes through prairie pastures before arriving at our test site, a flat and dry former pond, where the paleontologists could observe our techniques as we scoured the ground inch by inch in search of tiny fossils, which initially appeared similar to rocks. The paleontologists held unabashedly nerdy debates over whether dinosaurs had feathers between effortless explanations of terminology and time periods for the beginners in the group. Their well of patience and enthusiasm seemed endless, examining countless pieces of rock the volunteers mistakenly presented as fossils.
A group of elk watched with interest from a far-off plateau as we crawled in a prairie field where cows grazed. For every dozen rocks that looked like bones, there was one legitimate fossil. Finding that first fossil is crucial, however, because after that everything clicks into place. Suddenly the array of tan rocks started to look more like shapes, small bones; people started to differentiate previously imperceptible changes in color and texture.
From there, we hiked and took turns in the two-seater terrain vehicle to reach more dig sites, up into the badlands. The group split into pairs and headed for different regions, each accompanied by a paleontologist. During the next six hours, my mind flashed back to the rhinos I had seen in Botswana and Namibia, majestic and awe-inspiring. I tried to picture them stamping along these fields, their strong, stumpy legs trotting where I sat, surrounded by creatures that no longer exist. I asked the paleontologists about dinosaurs, geology, science, the state and whatever else came to mind. The conversation got existential at times, as six-hour conversations tend to do, and we wondered who would be digging up our bones millions of years from now, and what kind of snap judgments they would make about our time on earth.
An hour into excavating, I found the rhino rib cage that I had unearthed was more whole than anyone expected, which meant I had to dig directly into the mountain instead of chipping pieces near the surface. A few hours in and several blisters later, an unmistakable hip bone with a ball socket popped out of the rock, accompanied by a two-inch piece of dismantled spine. The rhino, it seemed, had a tough 34 million years.
While rhinos in the area are commonplace (along with saber-tooth cats and mesohippus — three-toed horses standing about two feet tall — other public digs last summer unearthed many surprises. The Pembina Gorge dig near Canada excavated a species of mosasaur, a sea creature similar to a very large Komodo dragon with flippers, which had never before been found in North Dakota. In Watford City, a small community northwest of Bismarck, the group discovered one of the most complete fossil birds ever found in the state. Bird skeletons are extremely rare (their light and hollow bones rarely survive the test of time) so the paleontologists haven’t been able to identify it yet. But at 60 million years old, this mystery bird existed just after the dinosaurs went extinct. The dinosaur dig south of Bismarck went back even farther, uncovering bones from the edmontosaurus, a duck-billed dinosaur that averaged 30 to 40 feet in length.
For those familiar with North Dakota history, dinosaurs are just a part of life. Museums across the state present fossils that could easily join a collection in the American Museum of Natural History. The Dickinson Museum Center, for example, has 11 full-scale skeletons and an impeccable Triceratops skull, looming large over display cases of beautiful geodes, which seemed to garner more attention from local visitors.
“We have so many incredible dinosaur resources in the state,” said Kim Schmidt, of the North Dakota Department of Commerce’s Tourism Division, “that I think sometimes people forget this is unusual, that you can’t find what we have everywhere.”
But there is one dinosaur that can impress even the most nonchalant of North Dakotans. Dakota, the 67-million-year-old mummified hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur, was discovered on a ranch near Marmath, a city in the far southwest of North Dakota. This “dino mummy” is one of the most important discoveries of its kind: It was found with a layer of preserved skin and tendons. Dakota is on display inside the Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck, an impressive contemporary building with a thorough dinosaur exhibit that covers the state’s entire paleontological history.
North Dakota is part of the Hell Creek Formation, a set of rocks from a geological period that records the very last slice of time before the dinosaurs went extinct. This was “the last gasp” for dinosaurs. For paleontologists, digging around the state offers a more comprehensive twist. It has the Hell Creek Formation layer of ground, the extinction layer and a thick Paleocene layer on top. This means that they can study the last generation of dinosaurs as well as the flora and fauna that survived them. By holding digs across the state, paleontologists can gain insight into an intriguing and mysterious window in time.
As Clint Boyd put it: “Having a nice complete section means we can look at exactly what happens to the mammals, the turtles, the fish, the plants. In North Dakota, you can study the extinction and what that did to the entire fauna better than you can in a lot of places in the country.”
Deep down — very deep down, hundreds of feet in some cases — there are dinosaurs almost everywhere. Digs in the southwest and south central part of the state, Rhame, Bowman, Marmath and areas south of Bismarck, frequently turn up dinosaur fossils. A good fossil is one that was buried quickly by the elements, avoiding predators and scavengers. North Dakota had a large delta during the Hell Creek Formation, which occurred roughly 65.5 million years ago. Rain and sediment washed carcasses from shorelines into moving water, which buried them and effectively preserved them for eternity.
On a public dig in 2015, Ms. Barnes and her crew discovered a mosasaur that would have been between 33 and 49 feet, “a big sea monster,” she affectionately called it. They unearthed most of its skull and a large portion of its neck and shoulder, with most of the bones articulated. After, when Ms. Barnes was cleaning the neck jacket in the lab, she noticed something.
“There were six cervical vertebra all in a row, and there were massive tooth marks on the bottom side of the neck. Something had chomped on the neck of this particular creature. It’s got a pathology, which is kind of neat,” she said.
The public digs attract all kinds of people. There’s a core group of dedicated volunteers who sign up each summer, driving from the far reaches of neighboring states to work on bones that will one day go on display in a North Dakota museum. Then there are summer road trippers, seeking a unique experience on their way to Yellowstone. There are tourists looking for a day activity from Bismarck or Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora and, on occasion, travelers from abroad. There are dinosaur-obsessed children, of course, but an equal number of dinosaur-obsessed parents like the mother with her son in our convoy. Then there was me, the East Coast journalist, with a penchant for seeking new adventures in remote locations.
At the end of the day, I left the dig dusty, blistered, sunburned, scraped and exhausted, but thrilled with everything I had seen and learned. I had a greater appreciation of our fleeting place in history, our smallness on this earth and how much there is left to discover about the places we think we know.
If You Go
Fossil digs are held in June, July and August. Booking a spot is an easy, casual experience — you can call Mindy Austin at the North Dakota Geological Survey directly at 701-328-8015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Information on fossil digs can be found on the Geological Survey website at dmr.nd.gov/ndfossil/digs.
In Bismarck, I stayed at the Holiday Inn (3903 State Street; ndtourism.com/bismarck/hotels-motels/holiday-inn), which was perfectly pleasant. For good eats, Peacock Alley (422 East Main Avenue; peacock-alley.com) has a fascinating Prohibition-era history that adds a little something extra to its award-winning menu. Pirogue (121 North Fourth Street; piroguegrille.com) serves a primarily local and organic, seasonal menu.
In Dickinson, the Ramada Grand Hotel (532 15th Street West, ndtourism.com/dickinson/hotels-motels/ramada-grand-dakota-hotel) was delightfully unpretentious. The Brew (215 Sims Street; thebrew.org) serves sophisticated coffees, excellent sandwiches and fresh baked goods in an 1887 (former) church where Theodore Roosevelt attended services on his North Dakota visits.
Medora is on the border of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Roosevelt spent a lot of time here, and he stayed at the Rough Riders Hotel (301 Third Avenue; medora.com/stay/hotel/rough-riders-hotel). The teddy bears on the beds (in his honor) were a nice touch. Theodore’s Dining Room downstairs is a good option for a casually elegant dinner in a historic building.
The Sanctuary Guest House (403 Holly Street; sanctuary-guesthouse.com) in Walhalla is a local favorite, as is the Walhalla Inn Supper Club (508 Sunset Avenue; no website).
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