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Patty the Teenage Triceratops
The initial discovery of Patty, the Teen-age Triceratops, occurred during the first Spring trip in 2014. Typical of an expedition like this we spend the week before getting all of our gear ready for the field; plaster, camping gear, snake bite kit, field glue, etc. Once in the middle of the prairie it can be very hard to secure necessary items and it is always best to have everything you might need when you arrive. To maximize our time in the field we left after closing our shops and drove to Sioux Falls, spent the night and left before sunrise to arrive at the ranch before noon. The sun was out, the air warm and we were looking to have a good day on the hunt. We were excited to explore a ravine that we had looked at briefly the year before. It was a deep gully cutting towards Deer Creek with large knolls and lots of promising layers to look at. The year before, we had found part of a very weathered braincase of a large triceratops just before leaving and we had hopes of finding more to go with it. This, however, proved not to be the case, as nothing further was revealed. This is not uncommon when hunting for dinosaurs.
We continued to hunt the rest of the ravine as the sun grew higher and hotter. There is very little in the way of shade in the badlands and the sun can become relentless. It is essential to always pack adequate water supply. We carry our canteens, as well as several bottles in the pack. Unlike rocks, bottles of water get lighter as the day progresses. Unfortunately, our investigations turned up nothing and we determined that we needed to move along and explore other areas. There were still numerous cuts and breaks on the ranch to hunt, so we were confident that exciting finds were lurking around the next corner. Feeling a little disappointed with the lack of material at this location and much of the day spent, we went over the hill to an area that we had some luck the year before having found a Triceratops foot. It was preserved like it had just stepped in the mud. We also found an impressive Nanotryannus tooth. This was one of our favorite draws, as it had a history of producing dinosaur bones. We had found parts of several vertebrae and ribs washed out and bone fragments washed out here and there. The rancher had found several nice pieces in the past as well. So, with great enthusiasm, we delved into the breaks to spend the last hours of light searching for the extraordinary. After much crawling and hiking, the twilight began to seep across the Plaines, leaving it too dark to hunt and forcing us to resign for the evening. We would have to return to the ranch house empty handed. It really is not unusual to not find anything after a long day walking in the hot sun. If dinosaurs where lying all over the place, they wouldn’t be rare. Tired, dirty, hungry and thirsty, we headed back for a shower and a fantastic ranch dinner. The meal was warm and hearty, made with farm fresh veggies and lamb that was raised on prairie grass and sage that grows in this area of the country.
The ranch is a wonderful place and we are fortunate to get to share in their hospitality. The land has been in the family since it was homesteaded. They raise sheep, Border Collies and Akbash Australian Sheep Dogs, chickens, and a group of peacocks. The peacocks roost high in the trees that surround the house. The local population of wild turkey has noticed this and now come to join them at night, figuring there is safety in numbers. Besides, what other wild flock has guard dogs? In the early morning the massive birds will launch from the branches, soar to the earth and land at a full run, looking every bit like a group of dinosaurs. They trot off across the ancient landscape in search of food or a nest.
A visit out here always feels like a trip into past history. Life begins in the morning at 4:30 am. On a working ranch it is important to take full advantage of the light hours of the day. This means making coffee in the dark. Coffee made, lunch packed, water filled, and gear gathered, we were off to see what the new day would bestow. There was another set of badlands about a mile west of the draw that we were on the previous day, as well as another large tract to the south. There would be ample ground to hunt today.
The morning began sunny with a slight breeze and we were nearly giddy with excitement as we headed out for unexplored territories. We decided to start in the western set of breaks. After leaving the main gravel road (locally known as the highway), we headed off across the grassland on one of the “prairie roads”. These roads are a series of ruts, swallows, mud holes, and weedy knolls that traverse the countryside. They can be treacherous for travel in the best of vehicles and often we would borrow the ranchers Polaris, but this week all we had to use was our mini-van. Like fools on an errand, we took the trail south for about a mile before heading west for another mile. We parked on the ridge next to the gate to the next pasture. From there it was a short walk to the set of breaks on our right, and down a shallow, grassy draw. The west draw opened up like a jagged gouge on the hillside. The draw was quite deep with a lot of steep crevasses. We had to take precautions to avoid slipping and falling as we hunted the slopes. After a couple hours, we stopped for a break. The sun was now quite hot and still not a trace of bone had shown itself. We decided to do a little more searching and this spot would be finished. If nothing turned up we would try our luck to the south. The next hour also proved fruitless, so we stopped back at the van for lunch and a nice sit down break with some shade.
Though not as steep and rugged, the south breaks where just as void of discovery as the prior breaks had been. A mile and a half down the draw, we came across a couple of very weathered logs of petrified wood. They were too fragmented for collecting, but it was certainly nice to finally see a fossil. By 5:30 the sweltering sun threatened to addle our brains so we headed back lest we risk exhaustion. It will be better to hunt fresh the next day.
We arrived back at the ranch about the same time as the rancher was pulling in from the field.
“What did you find?” she asked, stepping out of the Polaris with a big smile.
“A whole lot of nothing”, we sadly replied.
“Hmm, let’s take a little ride”, she said, motioning towards the Ranger. The three of us crammed into the small cab and headed down the road, taking a right near a station of feeders. “There’s a set of badlands back here that hasn’t been hunted in probably 10 years, but it is 6 miles across the prairie.” We rounded the feed bins and suddenly dropped off a steep bank into the creek below, tore through the muddy bottom and raced up another rugged incline. “This isn’t a road I would typically recommend”, she said smiling, “but we’ll be fine in this.”
We passed through two field gates on the way, opening each and closing them behind us. “I’ve got a couple thousand ewes and lambs in the back pasture. The grass grows well along the river bottom and really fattens the lambs.” We began our decent off the ridge between a couple long hills and arrived at the river bottom. A sea of lush tall grass lay ahead of us. The westward leaning sun cast a golden glow across the plain, highlighting a tall bank of badlands a mile or so to the east.
“You know, when I was a little girl,” Patty reminisced, “I used to ride down here and think, this is where I want to build my house, it is so beautiful. My Dad would wonder what on earth I want to do that for. It is too far from anything. We take it for granted that we can just ride down here in an half and hour in the ranger. It took a couple of hours on horseback. It was a real commitment to have to work back here and you would always pack a good lunch.”
We made our way east towards the tall wall of breaks. As Patty pulled along the side of broken ground Jenise pronounced, “I see bone!” Jumping out, we rushed to the slopes, spotting fragments of washed out bone along the face of the bank. There was more here in a brief glance than we’d seen in 3 days of walking!! We gazed about, filled with renewed excitement. Regretfully, the waning daylight forced us back to the ranch, leaving the hunt for the next day. It would be hard to sleep tonight thinking about the new breaks. At least we would be dreaming of dinosaurs!!
We started out early, eager to begin the hunt. Imaginations can run wild when it comes to what you may find and we had grand visions of great dinosaur discoveries as we headed off. Normally, we would not drive into the prairie in our minivan. Not only were the roads very rugged and hard to see, but primarily because the low clearance and catalytic converters can cause prairie fires. The dry seed heads can light with the slightest spark and a fire can run for 50 miles, destroying homes and livestock. Luckily for us, it was still early June and there had been ample spring rains. The grass was still lush and green. We finally came to the spot where the road cut down from the ridge toward the river and from the trip out there the night before, we knew that there was no way that we could continue down the rutted and washed out trail in the van. We pulled over on the hilltop next to a fence and prepared to walk the rest of the way. We still had over a mile to go to get to the breaks, so we would have to pack heavy, not wanting to come back for minor items. We loaded a good lunch, extra munchies, water, all the gear we could possibly need, more water and we were off. We followed a sheep trail over the hill, down through a small valley and up over the next hill. As we crested the ridge we caught our first glance of the badlands, still over half a mile away! Our goal in sight, we quickened our pace feeling a renewed sense of energy and excitement. We took a branch in the trail that led in the general direction we wanted to go, meandering down a valley and passing through a small stand of Cottonwoods before entering the sea of tall grass that made up the Monroe River bottoms. We approached the break and at the nearest end, settled on a small knoll that protruded from the wall. It felt amazing to drop off the packs and refresh with some cold water after the vigorous hike. Looking around we could see pieces of bone scattered all over the place! This was an excellent sight and a great way to start the hunt!
We decided to explore the entire set of breaks, marking points of interest as we went. That way we could better spend our time investigating the most promising sites. The bones in this spot appeared to be the exceptionally weathered remains of a small Duckbill. The past 10 years had certainly done it’s best working on their destruction and only shards were left. The creature had met its end on the banks of an ancient riverbed. The ends of some small limb bones and broken pieces of rib could be differentiated from the mix, the ball off the end of a femur being the best piece.
The wall of badlands rose perhaps 80 to 100 feet on our left and ran for a couple hundred yards along the hillside. The face of the breaks had eroded into 3 or 4 “steps” that could be walked along. Some layers had numerous small pieces of petrified wood lying about. We collected some of the nicer agatized pieces as we went. Over the next couple of hours we came across a few pieces of washed out rib, a metatarsal from a Hadrosaur, several utterly weathered and destroyed bones and what appeared to be a nice large rib still running into the ground. We paused to snack on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, made with homemade cherry jam when Jenise decided she’d like to quit climbing for a bit and further investigate the rib bone. Grabbing her glue, brushes and small pick, she set about the slow and delicate process of exposing the fossil.
The day had shaped up fantastically, cooler than the two days prior with a nice breeze and soft white billowy clouds drifting over offering occasional shade. We were therefore shocked by the crack of thunder that came roaring from over the ridge and went grumbling down the valley. Storms in this area tend to trail in a south easterly direction and looking northwest there was nothing but bright blue sky. What was going on here? This storm was coming out of nowhere and backing up on us from the wrong direction hidden by the hillside. A couple flashes of lighting and another roll of thunder made us realize that we needed to get out of here and FAST! We placed some tinfoil over the exposed section of rib and re-buried the piece. Gathering all of the loose gear and grabbing our packs, we headed out on the long trek back to the van. No sooner had we stepped off the dirt and onto the prairie than the skies decided to unleash their full furry upon us. A wall of water rolled over us like a wave striking a cliff. The landscape disappeared leaving nothing except the obscure grey of the driving rain, with water running up past our ankles. Jagged lighting lashed at the sky and thunder roared at our backs.
“Run for the trees!!!!” Jenise yelled through the howling wind. “There may be hail!” she screamed! We were drench instantly. Our packs and clothes gained 20 pounds and a gallon of water sloshed in each boot. We dashed under the cottonwood trees, but they offered little shelter. We need shelter! We frantically ran for the van. We ran up the hill and the water ran down. Reaching the top of the first hill, the second was still obscured from our view. We could not see our van! The sheep trails that guided us back turned into small rivers of rushing water. The dim silhouettes of the minivan finally appeared on the horizon, giving us hope that this torturous journey was nearing an end. As we approached our vehicle the rain subsided as abruptly as it had begun. Drenched to the bone, it felt like we had gained 50 pounds in our rain soaked clothes and packs. The temperature had dropped drastically with the passing storm and the wet clothes made it absolutely freezing. We realized that in our morning enthusiasm we had broken one of the cardinal rules of fossil hunting. Always pack an extra set of clothes! We hung our jackets over the van doors to drip dry and started the engine to run a little heat. Slightly warmer and marginally drier, we began to assess our situation, which as looking increasingly grim.
“This isn’t good,” I stated. “I’m not sure we can drive back out of here.”
Water and badlands dirt mix into what is known locally as “gumbo”. It’s the slickest, messiness mud of all mud. It is hard to maneuver in and wet badlands are impossible and dangerous to hunt. Two inches of rain makes a lot of mud. The alternative to getting out of the area and back to the warmth of the ranch house was staying put. This was an unappealing option. Besides leaving our dry clothes behind, we had neglected to bring any camping gear or bedding and no extra food besides our pack lunch. A couple of cold PBJ’s seemed less than satisfactory to sustain for any great length of time.
“I can’t even believe it!”, Jenise exclaimed. “I have tower on my phone!! I can’t get a signal at home, but I can six miles in the middle of nowhere! I’m going to call Patty and see what she thinks we should do!”
“Well, it is not good”, Patty responded after hearing the situation. “Those roads get real bad after a rain, but I think you need to try to get out. You’re going to want to stay out of the mud tracks and ride the prairie, just RIDE THE PRAIRIE!!”
“Ride the prairie?” I asked with a look akin to horror.
“That’s what she said! There is more rain on the way”, Jenise said apprehensively. “I mean, I don’t think we have much choice. It’s either that or stay here and the ground is so wet we won’t be able to hunt anything and it would be good to have a shower and a hot meal.”
“Yeah, I suppose. The roads are just going to get worse as the water soaks in. I’m just afraid of getting stuck though. The last thing we want to do is have to waste Patty’s day tearing up the pasture with the tractor trying to drag our van out of six miles of mud. Plus, the idea of walking back to the ranch isn’t very pleasant. We can see how close we can get.” Later we would find out that “back in the day”, those thoughts and realities, were common when traversing the prairie roads.
We sat awhile, staring out at the short grass, silently contemplating vast stillness that is the prairie after a storm. “Alright, here we go”, I sighed, starting the van and shifting into low. We headed down hill towards where we intersect the main road out. This was a ninety degree turn at the bottom of a small valley that headed back up hill around the corner of the fence. I hit the corner with a wide arch, hoping to swing with enough momentum to catch a grip in the two foot tall wet grass. We rounded the corner and caught the road a foot and a half deep rut between the front wheel.
“GO! GO! GO!”, Jenise yelled.
“I AM!!” I hollered and gave more gas. We peeled up through the tall grass, trying to keep on the road without getting sucked in the ruts. Driving the prairie road is rough enough in normal conditions when you can see how bad it is. The thing about plowing through hood high grass is that you can’t see the hidden sink holes, rocks, bumps and ruts, while dodging sage brushes and yuccas. After about a mile we came to the next of our many obstacles with the first gate. It sat in a low area and had accumulated a small lake of water around it. I would have to wade just to get the gate open. We plowed through, sliding through the gate, half sideways as the van tried to grip the ever softening mud underneath.
We pulled over on a relatively flat spot so I could close the gate and take a moment to relax in a stationary and manageable position. The next couple of miles was along the ridge and would require staying out of ruts, but was on otherwise harder ground. We worked our way across, dodging trenches and flushing out grouse along the way, until we approached the next hazard. The next gate sat on a muddy slope across a long, shallow draw that was cut with deep slimy ruts and eroded crevasses. We had to jump from one side of the “road” to the other, trying to avoid the worst pitfalls.
We parked a fair distance away from the gate to give ourselves a chance to gain some momentum on our way through. We grubbed our way up through the gate and over the next mile of pasture before coming to our worst and final hurdle. Before us lay a quarter mile of deep swampy lowlands, water filled ruts, rushing gullies and small lakes befell the road before us. We had no choice but to plow ahead. There was little safety to the side. The grass was taller here and deep treacherous sink holes where hidden all around. We revved the engine and began to hurdle the ruts, bound though the gullies and grind our way up and over the greasy knolls. As we came barreling over the track ways, the front tires were swept sideways into a narrow gully, slamming the underbelly of the van into the ruts with a loud bang. Thankfully our velocity pushed us through, shoving us out and over the ravines until we came flying up out of the swamp with our destination in sight. The final gate was just ahead and in a couple minutes more we were out of the prairie and back on the road.
We waited a few moments outside the gate to catch our breath and marvel at our escape. Starting the van, we headed to the ranch. A hot shower, wholesome meal and soft bed would indeed be appreciated tonight. This was certainly a day that we would never forget.
The next day the roads were completely impassable and all the badlands were a thick and slippery gumbo that could not be walked on. We decided the only spot we had to work on was where a wash we had found a few teeth and various bones. It was within walking distance of the road and right over the bank so we wouldn’t have to cross a bunch of mud. We removed the tarp that we had placed over the site and cleared away wet material so we could work in dry dirt. This was an exploratory site that we had marked for just such an occasion when we couldn’t hunt anywhere else. We spent most of the day picking and sifting through the matrix without any luck, although except finding one little theropod phalange. The rest of the day failed to turn up anything.
Being tired of the wash, we spent the next day on miscellaneous small breaks that could be walked to from the road. The prairie was still too wet to drive in and most of the badlands were still a messy gumbo. Only the more porous sandy layers could be walked on. This allowed us to move around and look at some cuts. Regretfully, we had nothing show itself and the day proved fruitless. The dinosaurs were hiding themselves well.
With only a couple days of our trip left, it had been turning into quite a disappointment. Nothing was showing itself and the only possible productive place was cut off because of the weather. All those bones down on that bank by the river began to haunt us and a growing sense of urgency and desperation began to bend our thoughts.
“What do you think our chances would be to drive back down to the site?”, we asked Patty.
“Well”, she replied “it has had a couple days to dry out, so all you can do is try.”
Enough said! Having made the trip once, we were confident of making it again. The siren’s call of that distant hillside was too much to deny. The road was marginally better and should have been considered impassable. Some areas were drier and firmer, but the low sections had time to become sloughs of deep mud, making for some tricky maneuvering. We parked on the hilltop and began our mile trek to the breaks.
The day was beautiful! The sun shown playful and bright and the temperature was less than brutal. A pleasant breeze drifted in from the southeast, bringing with it the scent of sage and wildflowers. As we headed down hill we spooked a mother dove from her nest. The sudden warning whistle from her wings as she jettisoned from the ground gave us quite a startle. We saw that there were two small white eggs in the nest so we hurried along, hoping she would see that the danger was gone and could return to her nest.
We decided to spend the day exploring the breaks, marking any exposures and then spend the last day working on the most promising prospects. The breaks ran in a long wall that rose from the valley floor nearly to the ridge. The combination of hard and soft layers had eroded into a series of steps on the hillside that gave us three or four good horizons to hunt. It was a fun day of hunting. We collected several nice pieces of petrified wood and marked a number of bone exposures. Most of the bone was sound along one layer that ran the length of the hillside. This layer had been stained a pale, rusty yellow from the weathered iron stone nodules that prevailed in the upper portions of the deposit. This part of the badlands had likely been river deposits and miscellaneous disassociated bones and bone fragments were exposed periodically across this section. One area had parts of a couple highly eroded leg bones that had been reduced to rubble. Another area had a piece of rib bone approximately one foot long and we also found part of a toe bone another fifty yards along. Nothing seemed to lead to any thing better than bits and pieces scattered here and what appeared to be a couple of rib bones. One was in the layer we were on and one was found about 25 feet lower towards the bottom of the breaks. Both bones continued into the ground and would require more digging, so we decided to leave them for the next day and finish the evening scouring the wall and picking up some of the small pieces.
The next day proved to be equally as gorgeous. Jenise began working on the rib bone, carefully removing small layers of flakey, shale matrix from the fossil’s surface. I went over to collect the small rib fragment and section of toe bone while she worked. After awhile I heard Jen say, “Umm, this rib is doing something weird!”
“What do you mean, weird?”, I called back.
“Well, it’s not acting like a rib. It has this big knob on the side of it!”
I hurried over to take a look and see what was going on. It was certainly not a rib. It had developed a round knob on the left and the other side hooked sharply to the right and flared out into a thin, wide section. Instead of a rib, we had part of a Hadrosaur pubis. We finished excavating the piece and gathered the other small sections i had been working on before stopping for lunch.
After a nice break, we went to check on the one other rib that we had seen down on the lower section of the bank. The westward leaving sun gave us good light, but also reminded us how few hours we had left to work. Jenise began to uncover the matrix from over the rib section and I continued to explore further along the wall.
It wasn’t long before I heard, “Ah, this rib is acting weird too!” I scrambled back over to check it out and saw that the exposed bone dove into the bank with a wide arch giving it the appearance of a scythe blade. The center section flattened out before curving up to end in a very “un-rib” like fashion.
“You’re right, that’s no rib. I have no idea what that is!”
Looking up we noticed the sun was leaning low over the ridge to our west and that the light was waning fast. We knew that we would barely have time to finish getting this piece out before dark! Jenise began to carefully brush off the grit and dust from the exposed bone in preparation for adhesives and extraction from the ground. In the process of picking up extra tools and packing up supplies, stepping over to inspect an iron nodule that was protruding about three feet from our mystery bone and at about the same level. Gently prodding at the loose matrix surrounding it, a small piece knocked loose from the exposure. The freshly broken face of the chip had a brown color more like bone that iron nodule and also the small pattern of dots on the surface.
“Look at this!”, tossing the piece to Jenise. “This is as weird as that thing you’re working on, I mean, it has to be bone, but it looks different! It is spotted like Palm wood.”
Catching the piece, Jenise held it up in the dimming sunlight, “Yeah, it’s gotta be bone!” she agreed.
“It is something large and round, maybe the weathered end of a leg bone?”
“Could be”, she said “that would be awesome!”
“We better focus on getting your piece out before it gets too late.” Remorsefully stating, “We’ll have to cover this one up and find out what it is next trip.”
“Man, isn’t that just how it goes!!” Jenise exclaimed, “you walk for days and find nother and then just as it starts getting good you have to leave! By the way, this piece is all cleaned off and ready for glue.”
“Alrighty!” I said, beginning the process of gluing the piece and preparing it for extraction.
It would take a few minutes for the glue to cure, so we finished gathering and packing all the gear. We applied some glue to the “nodule” bone end, placed a layer of tinfoil over it, covered the site with a tarp and then buried it all with a layer of dirt. All of this preparation needed to be done in hopes that it would protect it from further damage and erosion until we could return.
We carefully lifted the other bone from the matrix and prepared for our final walk back to the van. We paused a moment and stared dreamily at the tall banks that we would not see again in any certain time. Numerous questions swirled through our minds as we made the mile hike out. What is this bone we’re carrying out? What dinosaur does it belong to? What is that other bone and do they all go to one critter? What happened to the dinosaur and how did it get here? Sometimes it seems in life that for every answer that there are a hundred more questions. We had just unearthed a whole pile of mysteries!
The sun had long sunk over the horizon and twilight had rolled into night by the time we were through the last gate. Tomorrow we would be back in the “modern world” and the sublime, mysterious feelings of that ancient era would feel as distant as time it’s self. At the same time, in our hands we held proof of a story eons in the making.
What is this story? Only time will tell.
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