Dino Dig in Colorado: Be a Paleontologist for a Day

Digging for dinosaurs at Mygatt-Moore quarry in western Colorado. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The green-and-purple tail of Triceratops disappears over the crest of the mesa, headed west through the desert toward Utah on I-70 with our van driver in hot pursuit. I sit shotgun, and behind me a seat full of kids shouts, “Catch up, catch up!” Bouncing around in a back seat is my brother, David.

Heavily loaded with children and parents, the van chugs up the mesa and we again spot the Triceratops—a.k.a., the Dino Mobile, piloted by ace paleontologist John Foster, who leads our caravan to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry for a day-long Dino Dig. The Dino Mobile, decked out with three horns and trademark bony head-frill, emits occasional bursts of fossil fuel from its tailpipe.

The excavation, sponsored by the Museum of Western Colorado, is wish fulfillment for the prehistoric-reptile obsessed kids in the van—including David and me. Once upon a time, we were fossil-collecting eight-year-olds who used to bicker during road trips about who was tougher: Tyrannosaurus rex or Dimetrodon.

Like these hunters, we two spent our childhood locked in titanic struggle for no reason other than preadolescent rage about family pecking order. I fantasized about being an only child with nearly as much passion as becoming a paleontologist. He wanted to take his know-it-all sister down a peg. There was hair-pulling, arm-twisting, and, yes, even biting at which my brother was the clear champion.

The Dino Mobile, decked out like a Triceratops ©Laurel Kallenbach

But that was ancient history—almost as long ago as the 150 million years we’re traveling back in time today. David and I are going back to the Jurassic. We’ve partnered up for a brother-sister road trip with a prehistoric theme. No longer adversaries, we both agree we have more in common than not—including our love for the outdoors and for dinosaurs. So, we’ve met in Grand Junction, Colorado—he lives in Montana; I’m from Boulder—to commemorate the car-camping treks of our childhood. Luckily for us, nearby western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise some of the world’s best dinosaur country, much of which we can access via the scenic, 512-mile Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Byway.

Quest for dinosaurs

Paleontologist John Foster demonstrates how to brush away dirt at the dig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As the Dino Mobile and our van pull into Mygatt-Moore Quarry, Dexter—who has just graduated from kindergarten summa cum laude—announces he’s going to unearth a dinosaur skull today. The eight-year-old inside me thinks, “No way! I’m going to find it!” After all, I’ve got more than four decades on the kid.

First, though, we paleontologists-in-training learn the ropes. Dr. Foster demonstrates how to use our tools and tells us how to spot dinosaur fossils; they’re darker than the surrounding clay. “Never remove a fossil from the ground until a paleontologist has documented where it’s located,” he says.

David and I pick a spot under the shade awning, strap on knee-pads, arrange old carpet squares to kneel on, and start digging with screwdrivers, using them to delicately lift horizontal layers of the bleached-out clay, which was once mud along an ancient river. We scrutinize every earthen clump, sweep non-interesting pieces into a dustpan with a small paintbrush, and eventually pour the waste into a bucket. We’re hyper-vigilant for anything dark. A piece of bone will have a spongy texture; teeth are shiny black.

Fifteen minutes after we start, young Dexter calls out: “I found something!” Our heads pop up like prairie dogs on alert. Paleontology assistant Tom Temme checks, and then confirms, that Dexter has indeed unearthed a dinosaur bone fragment. David and I exchange determined looks, as if to say, We’ve been upstaged by that pipsqueak? We apply our screwdrivers to the clay with renewed fervor.

When I encounter a blackish vein about a third-inch wide, I slow down and carefully trace its edge. Soon the vein forks to the right. My pulse pounds in my ears at the prospect of digging up the bone of an animal never before seen by humans. I call to Kelsie Abrams, a paleontology grad student who’s in Colorado for a summer of digging. She bends over my find. “Yep, that’s a stem of Equisetum—horsetail.” She touches the dark line. “You can tell because plant matter rubs off on your finger like black charcoal.” My adrenaline rush crashes.

David uses the tools of the trade: screwdriver, brush, dustpan, and a bucket for hauling away empty rock. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Equisetum grows everywhere—even today,” David says. “Pretty common.”

I want to strangle my biology-major brother. “Still, it’s a 150-million-year piece of Equisetum,” I retort, but we both know that horsetail is not paleontology’s holy grail.

We continue digging as the sun grows hotter and our legs cramp. Beside us, Frank and his ten-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, hold out a chunk of rock to Tom; there’s something dark in it. Tom carefully breaks off bits of the rock, revealing the tooth of a juvenile Allosaurus, a ferocious meat-eater. Had the tooth been from an adult, it would have been three inches long.

Ashley’s find—just two feet to our right—ignites in us a frenzy of breaking chunks of hardened clay, but the result is only sore fingers.

At noon, Stephen Senior and his ten-year-old namesake unearth another piece of bone. After Tom has flagged its position in the ground, he removes it and passes it to me for a look. I have a hard time distinguishing “spongy” bone from clay. It takes a practiced eye, this digging for dinosaurs.

Sweaty and deflated, David and I quit for lunch and watch Tom drizzle a mixture of acetone and dissolved plastic on Dexter’s bone fragment to keep it from crumbling. Any doubts I have that this Dino Dig is a tourist gimmick evaporate. We amateurs are helping out with real science—hot, back-straining, exhilarating science.

At the picnic table, we ask Kelsie, who has a Diplodocus skull tattooed on her left forearm, why the kids are making all the good finds. “It’s total luck,” she said, sipping Gatorade from a plastic Dinosaur Journey souvenir cup that reads I’d rather be in the Mesozoic. Then she adds that kids tend to “dig in,” whereas adults can be overly thorough. My brother and I look sheepish. Being meticulous is a family trait.

After lunch, we double our speed, yet each time I empty my dustpan I worry I’m discarding a valuable piece of prehistory. We never hit “pay dirt,” but it’s here at Mygatt-Moore Quarry. Fifty yards from where we’re digging, seasoned volunteers are unearthing the five-foot-long femur of an Apatosaurus.

Now that’s the holy grail.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

After the dig, Dr. John Foster gave our group a behind-the-scenes tour of the paleontology lab to see large fossils and some of the tools scientists use to analyze them. Then my brother and I strolled through Dinosaur Journey, a family-oriented museum filled with reassembled skeletons—including our toothsome, 27-foot Allosaurus friend—and robotic recreations of dinosaurs such as the carnivorous Utahraptor and a venom-spitting Dilophosaurus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dino Digs is an educational/vacation program by the Museum of Western Colorado, in Grand Junction, Colo., that offers paleontology adventures (half-day up to five-day expeditions) in various quarries in western Colorado and eastern Utah, including Moab.

Laurel: living the paleontology dream! ©David Kallenbach

The digs let you work with real scientists in quarries and learn skills such as spotting fossils and digging them out of the rock or dirt. Participants also get a behind-the-scenes view of how paleontologists clean and study their finds at Dinosaur Journey museum.

Dino Digs are available from mid-May through mid-September. Transportation to the quarry, lunch, water/Gatorade, and tools are provided. The minimum age varies from five to eight, depending on the dig you choose.

 

Lessons in the Simple Life: Maine Schooner Style

On our sailing trip aboard Isaac H. Evans, a 126-year-old schooner, we had access to the endless outdoors: voluminous sky, sea, and islands—and stars galore.

Big water, little sky. The scenery while sailing Maine's Penobscot Bay is spectacular. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Yet, on a schooner, you’re confined to a small boat except for the times when it’s anchored and you debark. The reality of “tiny” hit me when I first saw our cabin; there was so little space in our bunks that we couldn’t sit up in them. We had to sort of crawl in horizontally. And only one person at a time could stand up to dress or brush their teeth. (There is a tiny sink in the cabin, which was quite convenient.)

However, over time, Ken and I wrapped our brains around the idea of “smallness,” and the bunk became a cozy haven—especially when at night we placed a hot soapstone (heated in the massive galley stove) under the covers.

Ken tucked into the lower bunk in our cabin on the Isaac Evans schooner. (Some cabins have double beds; you get a choice.) Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

I’m not saying we didn’t smack our heads a few times on the beams, but I realized how little “stuff”—and space—you need on this type of adventure.

Loo with a Shower

Having a nice hot shower in the teeny-tiny head—basically a Port-o-Potty—was also a funny lesson in “less is more.” Here’s the drill for whenever you decide it’s time to freshen up.

First, you go barefoot and wear as few clothes as possible into the shower/toilet. Then, inside the head, you stand in front of the toilet (the only place you can stand, really), undress, hang your clothes on the wall pegs, and cover them with the tiny plastic shower curtain. The four inches behind the curtain are the only part of the head that don’t get sopping wet.

Next, you grab the handheld showerhead and spray yourself with the hot water. Turn the water off (we’re always conserving water on a boat), lather up with shampoo and soap; then rinse. There’s not much elbow room, but after a couple of days, it feels wonderful to be clean.

Having a sink in the cabin was handy...but you still have to climb the ladder to get to the loo. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Finally, you towel off, pull on your (mostly) dry clothes, and emerge smelling clean, fresh and rather victorious after having succeeded in the tiny-shower quest.

Needless to say, there are no hair-driers—unless you count the breeze.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Four Days Before the Mast: Adventure on a Maine Schooner

 

The Isaac H. Evans under sail. Photo courtesy Maine Windjammer Association

“Camping on the water.” That’s how the website describes a sailing trip aboard the Isaac H. Evans, a 126-year-old schooner that departs from Rockland, Maine’s harbor and sails around Penobscot Bay. On board are 20 lucky passengers—including me and my husband—and we’re in for a historic sailing experience.

The Evans was built in 1886 for oyster-catching and hauling, but nowadays it’s outfitted with small bunk rooms with electric lights. For four days in early June, it was home to me and Ken. We were keen on doing an unplugged, historic sail—a unique way to have a vacation. (Trips range from just overnight to a week in length; we chose the four-night adventure.)

Owned by Captain Brenda Thomas and her husband Brian, also a captain, the Isaac Evans is wind powered, although the gasoline-powered yawl boat—aptly named Tug ’n Grunt—pushes the boat when the wind dies. So not only do we get to enjoy an experience from days long past, but schooner sailing is eco-friendly too: very low carbon emissions. For more on this, see “15 Reasons to Take a Wind-Powered Schooner Trip in Maine.”

All Hands on Deck

On the morning we leave Rockland Harbor, Phil Bidwell, our first mate, instructs passengers on how we can help the crew of five to raise the sails. Helping out with the sailing is completely optional—but learning about sailing is half the fun! So, we all pitch in and line up along the rope lines to raise the giant mainsail, which is surprisingly heavy. We were advised in advance to bring gloves to keep from getting rope burns from the thick rope, which furiously whips through our palms.

Guests help the ship's crew hoist the sails. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Once all the sails are up, we glide along so smoothly that I can hardly feel the movement. As the crew bustles around, we watch as the lighthouse passes by. Twenty minutes after setting sail, two porpoises swim in tandem along the starboard side.

Already on the first day, I realize the pleasures of living on a historic boat: watching seabirds patrol for fish, seeing seals snoozing on rocky islands, gliding into quiet coves, skimming across the water, having your morning coffee on deck as the sun rises over the forested island hills.

There are other schooners to watch as well. We’re lucky enough to be part of the Maine Windjammer Association’s Schooner “Gam”: a rendezvous of all the ships in the association. So on our first day, we see a dozen other schooners sailing on the horizon—all heading to our meeting point in Gilkey Cove.

Schooners, I discover, are gloriously graceful with their angled sails, their sleek lines, and their slim prows. And, because she’s mostly made of wood, iron and brass, the Isaac Evans has an organic, living, breathing quality. I can see why our crew is passionate about what they do—even though they work super hard for long hours.

For the Love of Schooners

For Ken and me, the charm of the schooner sail is the relaxation and slow-down factor. It’s the sort of vacation where you can leave behind the 21st century for a simpler time. It’s amazing how quickly we forget about electronics and world events and just slip into a rhythm of the sun and moon, wind and tides.

Mostly, our daily routine centers around meals—which are incredible. Our cook, Wally, coaxes fresh-baked culinary delights from the belly of a 1905 cast-iron stove they call Glenna. (The stove is a Glenwood brand.) To give you an idea of the good eats, here’s a sampling of our saliva-stimulating menus over the four days: Maine blueberry pancakes, lobster quiche, fresh fish chowder and cornbread, haddock stuffed with crab, pork loin and biscuits, and strawberry rhubarb pie.

Wally is assisted by deckhand Aiden, a 17-year-old young woman who really knows the ropes—she’s been sailing since she was a little kid. For activity, there’s swimming, fishing, and rowing to uninhabited islands and hiking their rocky shores — but nobody minds if you lounge on deck and watch lighthouses drift by.

All of us passengers—even the kids—got to take a turn at the boat's helm. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Outdoor Living on a Historic Schooner

What I love most about my schooner sail on the Isaac H. Evans is the ocean and being in nature. As a landlocked Coloradoan, I can never get enough of the ocean. If I don’t get to the sea at least once a year, I feel bereft. And the ships of the Maine Windjammer Association make a total oceanic adventure possible. (Because the weather was cool and rainy for two days of the sail, the water was too chilly for me to literally immerse myself in the salty waves. Wading had to suffice.)

The flip side of our outdoor sailing experience can be dealing with foul weather. We contended with almost two days of rain and cold, and spent them huddled around the woodstove in the bunk area or helping the cook in the toasty-warm galley. On one particularly blustery night, our group of sailors gathered around the table, swapped stories, sang songs, and got to know each other better.

Luckily, Ken and I had brought our long underwear and wool hats—I had even purchased some Wellies for my feet (very little call for them in dry Colorado!)—yet still there were times when I was cold during this sail in early June.

During our four-day excursion, we learned to follow our course on the nautical chart, furl the sails, hoist the anchor and coil the ropes. Though purely optional, playing sailor is half the fun. Even mundane chores — vegetable chopping, dishwashing — are more fun at sea.

And to top off the excitement—and clinch the authentic Maine experience—there’s a lobster bake on the beach of a pretty little island. (More on that in a later post!)

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and erstwhile sailor

Next post: “Lessons in the Simple Life: Maine Schooner Style”

The Isaac H. Evans  is a member of the Maine Windjammer Association (MWA), a fleet of more than a dozen schooners built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are a bit fancier than others; a few have engines to fill in with sail power. Some do not take children under 16.

MWA schooner trips last from two to six days, sometimes include special themes. For instance, the Isaac H. Evans offers cruises with live music, knitting, pirate adventures, puffin excursions, lighthouse spotting, photography and full-moon night sailing.

Maine Windjammer Association members "raft up" for the annual Schooner Gam in Maine's Penobscot Bay. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

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15 Green Reasons to Take a Wind-Powered Schooner Trip in Maine

Choosing your transportation well is an important part of greening your vacation. On a Maine windjammer trip, the transportation—a historic, wind-powered schooner—is the vacation. As you sail past quaint lighthouses and pristine, rocky islands in Penobscot Bay, you’ll feel like a sailor of yesteryear, traveling by sea without creating carbon emissions.

The Isaac Evans sails past the Rockland Breakwater. Photo by Annie Higbee, courtesy Maine Windjammer Association

Through the Maine Windjammer Association you can book one- to six-night sails aboard 13 historic tall ships. Some cruises have a special focus—lighthouses, pirate adventures, photography, knitting, stargazing, food and wine, family trips.

But regardless of the type of trip, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the views and feel the breeze without a noisy engine or gasoline fumes to spoil the experience. (However, schooners have motor-powered yawl boats to push the ship on windless days.)

Sailing, Sailing

My husband and I sailed for four nights aboard the 126-year-old ship Isaac H. Evans, now a National Historic Landmark. We arrived, settled into our cabin—teensy but cozy—and Captain Brenda Thomas and her crew oriented us 18 passengers to life aboard a ship. When we set sail, we glided along like magic. No worries about seasickness here.

A schooner trip is a little like camping on water—no need for fancy clothes, just a mix of foul-weather gear for rain and a swimsuit for hot days when you feel like diving into the clear ocean water.

Here are just a few excellent reasons to sign aboard one of these beautiful sailing ships for a unique Maine getaway:

  1. Be the captain. Take the helm and learn how to steer the ship.
  2. Kids have a blast. Regardless of your age, you’ll learn something about maritime history and be enchanted by life at sea. (Not all ships take children; the Isaac H. Evans specializes in family trips.)
  3. Help hoist the sails: Lend a hand with the sails and anchor.
  4. Learn sailor lingo. After a day or two, you’ll be throwing around terms like “fore,” “aft,” “bow,” “stern,” and “jib” like a pro.
  5. Be entertained as porpoises and seals frolic around the boat.
  6. Feast on fresh-baked lobster on the beach.
  7. Sit on deck and watch as the pine-covered islands drift by.
  8. Row ashore small islands and explore them on foot.
  9. Explore picturesque fishing villages.
  10. Eat heartily. Menu highlights include blueberry pancakes, fish chowder and cornbread, crab-stuffed haddock, fresh green salads, homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie.
  11. Enjoy the peace and quiet of traveling “unplugged.” No TVs, phones or computers on this vacation!
  12. Master the art of coiling lines so they don’t tangle.
  13. Ask the captain to tell some sailor’s tales. Captain Brenda Thomas can recount stories of notorious female pirates!
  14. Spot loons, gulls, osprey and other sea birds through the ship’s binoculars.
  15. Watch the moon rise over the water as the ship is anchored in a quiet cove.

Crew member Aiden Ford takes a break from her sailing duties on the Isaac H. Evans. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

P.S. The crew of the wind-powered Isaac H. Evans is eco-conscious. They recycle everything, collect food scraps and give them to a local pig farmer, and practice Leave No Trace principles when visiting islands. They even encourage guests to collect any trash they see, leaving islands cleaner than when they came. When you spend as much time outdoors as these sailors do, you learn to appreciate and protect nature.

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Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor