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4 Collecting fossils

Many people would jump at the chance of collecting fossils in the field, but it can be hard work, often under demanding conditions, and can sometimes be hazardous.

Most of my collecting was for ichthyosaurs, in a remote part of northern British Columbia, near the small community of Hudson’s Hope. Ichthyosaurs had been found in the rock surrounding Lake Williston, a large lake, 250 km (155 miles) long. With no roads around the lake, we had to travel by water, using an inflatable dinghy with an outboard motor.

Our collecting site was along a side arm of the lake, which extended back to Hudson’s Hope. Using the services of a local outfitter with a large boat, we would be ferried

there with all our equipment, towing our dinghy behind us.

Each field season we set up camp at a different location. From there we would set off by dinghy each day to search the rock for fossils. The dinghy had enough room for all the crew and for much of our equipment, but a larger boat was needed.

One of the locals sold us his old boat at a reasonable price, but there were some issues. The cabin was relatively high, causing the boat to pitch and roll in the wind, and the engine would sometimes cut out when the throttle was fully opened.

Aside from hammers, chisels and brushes, our field equipment included a rock saw and jack hammer, for dealing with the hard rock. We also carried firearms for protection from bears.

My first encounter with a bear happened one morning, when a black bear came into our campsite. And what a huge bear it was, standing on its hind legs a short distance away, staring across at us. Loud shouts had no effect, so a warning shot was fired into the air. Thankfully, the bear took off.

An even more disturbing experience awaited us out on the water.

With everyone aboard the boat and me at the wheel, we were setting back to camp one afternoon, in rough water. We had some distance to go and as we progressed the wind picked up and it became considerably worse, with the boat rolling and pitching wildly. Then we met a strong crosswind at a major creek and the situation became perilous.

Ideally, I would have opened the throttle to get beyond the creek as fast as possible. But if I did that and the engine failed, the boat would capsize for sure and we would likely all drown. Stoically I continued on at the same slow speed.

Eventually we passed the creek, the wind dropped and the water calmed down. Without much being said I headed for a small creek where we clambered ashore. Thankfully standing on solid ground, we all had similar thoughts.

A more quixotic recollection of fieldwork was when I was collecting dinosaurs in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico. Daytime temperatures were not excessively high, but it was thirsty work chipping away in the dry desert air.

Fresh water was delivered to us every day, but on one particular occasion none was available. The only way we could get any was for me to accompany a small group of Mexican strangers into the desert, on horseback.

Riding through the desert on a horse with no name to find a distant stream flowing through the parched land was one of my oddest experiences.

But the Chihuahaun Desert was a veritable jungle compared with the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt, where the ROM's Egyptologists were involved in a long--term excavation project.

Fellow palaeontologist Rufus Churcher, who worked at the U of T, had spent some time in the Dakhla Oasis with our Egyptologists. He told me of a nearby outcrop of Cretaceous rocks where marine fossils had been found, and suggested I joined him for a couple of weeks, during the next field season, so we could prospect there together.


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