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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Prospecting in the Smoky Hills Chalk

As we had done last August my daughter and I took a trip this spring to the Smoky Hills Chalk for a day of fossil hunting with Chuck Bonner owner of the Keystone Gallery. We were in Hays Kansas visiting with my wifeƂ’s sister's family and so we were only 110 miles or so from the gallery. Actually, we were in the westernmost part of the Smoky Hills region, the Niobrara Region, composed of late Cretaceous chalks laid down in inland sea some 70 millions years ago that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. The chalk is made up almost entirely of the remains of microscopic marine plants and animals that lived near the surface and later sank to bottom covering the remains of dead and decaying clams, fish, marine reptiles, flying reptiles, birds, and even an occasional dinosaur washed out to sea.

Laura and I drove from Hays to Scott Lake State Park just a few miles south of the gallery on a Sunday evening so we could camp and get an early start on Monday morning. We were wondering what the lake would look like since the land is very flat and treeless for as far as the eye can see. However, as we rounded a small knoll the road dropped sharply into a canyon at the bottom of which was the lake surrounded by trees and nestled in the beautiful canyon. As soon as we saw the lake we wished we had gotten there earlier so that we could enjoy the lake and take walk through the canyons. However, we quickly pitched our tent as it was getting dark and enjoyed our supper of beef jerky, bananas, pop tarts, and water before settling into our sleeping bags with wrapped in multiple layers of clothing in the hopes of staying warm. Before dozing off I cracked open my copy of Charles Sternberg's The Life of a Fossil Hunter (bought early in the weekend at the natural history museum named for his son George in Hays) written by Sternberg in 1909, who hunted fossils for E.D. Cope in the same area back in the 1870s. After reading Sternberg's tales of trying to find fresh water and encountering Indians I was glad to be cozy and warm and able to fill up our bottles at the water fountain. Of course, along with his hardship he also was able to collect large and fairly complete specimens since he was among the first to prospect in the area.

We both awoke before the alarm went off at 5:50AM due to the brisk temperature in the 40s and were glad when the appointed hour came. We quickly struck our little camp and headed for the gallery 10 miles or so north of the lake. On the way out of the park we saw six white tail deer through the early morning mist that had come down to the lake to drink.

By 6:45AM we were pulling into the gallery, greeted as before by their big dog Shiloh. As we stepped out of the Jeep we got a warm welcome from the rooster. Chuck was just getting up and invited us in to the kitchen. He quickly lit the burner on their wood stove and was soon making "cornycakes" (thin pancakes with corn) and a fried egg for each of us. We appreciated the delicious, not to mention warm, food and drink and were shortly outside packing our gear into his 1949 Suburbun affectionately nicknamed "Spiker".

We were soon headed a mile or so north of the gallery to a pasture that contained what Chuck had named "hidden canyon". We disembarked and headed down into the canyon. It had rained the several days before and so the bottoms of the canyons were somewhat muddy. However, the wet rock allowed the fossils to be more prominent (a point Sternberg makes in his book as well) as the fossils stand out against the chalk. This, in addition to our previous experience made finding fossils much easier than last August.

It wasn't long before Chuck had spotted a string of fish vertebrae (probably Cimolychtes) eroding out of the surface of the chalk near the bottom of one of the little canyons. The matrix was quite crumbly and it's likely the fossils would have broken apart had we tried to remove them. So we marked the spot and kept searching.

Laura and I broke off and searched a bit on our own. Laura's eyes were especially keen and she was easily able to pick out small fish vertebrae, ribs, and scales that were abundant and she had a good time filling her collecting pouch with these treasures. As always there were lots of clam shell fragments with their characteristic oysters. And just as last August the canyons were full of swallow's nests. This time we were too early to see them but did run into a variety of small lizards.

By mid-morning we had made our way through several of the smaller canyons and were examining a gently sloping hill when Laura found more fish vertebrae. Here Chuck and Laura work to see what remains of the creature. Typically, the procedure is remove the rock above where the fossil sits in order to see how far back into the hill the fossil goes and to determine if the head end is still in the rock. In this case the head had already eroded out of the rock and so we collected some of the vertebrae and moved on.

It wasn't 10 minutes later as were then walking down the slope of the hill that Chuck mentioned that he'd like to find some reptile bones. As he finished his sentence he looked down, pointed, and said "Like those!" Upon further inspection he had found arms bones of a pternandon sticking out of the rock.

Not wanting to disturb the fossil, he walked back to Spiker to retrieve his shovel and proceeded to remove dirt and rock above the fossil to see if more could be found. He didn't remove what was there the day we were along but noted that he would come back and finish the job later. After scouting the area for a few more minutes we headed back to Spiker for a satisfying lunch of sandwiches, pop, apples, and chips.

After lunch we set off again into a part of thecanyone we hadn't yet explored. On the very bottom where the canyon led out into the pasture it was grassy and we could see lots of large bones littering the ground. Their bleached appearance made it obvious they were of more recent vintage. In all we found leg, vertebrae, skull, scapula, and other odds and ends of a buffalo that had apparently been killed or scavenged by coyotes as the teeth marks in the bones made apparent. We were able to locate one of the horn cones and took it and a vertebrae home with us.

After re-entering the canyons and climbing up a small knoll I noticed several large vertebrae weathering right beneath my feet. There were four or five loose vertebrae as well as some other pieces in the loose dirt. I called Chuck over and began to excavate the layer in which the bones sat. After examining some of the loose pieces which included part of the jaw and few small teeth, Chuck noted that it might be a 6 to 8 foot Ichthyodectes ctenodon. The four vertebrae we kept were characteristically spool shaped and measured several inches in diameter.

We didn't have time dig out the rest but Chuck was going to return and see what else he could find.

We had plans to pick up the rest of the family in Hays and drive back to Kansas City that evening so by 1:30 we had to head back to the gallery. On the way we stopped along the fenceline to look at the buffalo herd in the next pasture. There were about 200 head altogether and many of the females were pregnant. Several of the animals also wallowed in the dirt for us but were uninterested in the Doritos we tried to coax them with.

All in all it was a fabulous day with great weather and good company. Although we didn't find that elusive mosasaur (like the one in the picture below) our spirits weren't dampened and we're ready to try again someday.