A Decade of Discoveries

It’s May 17th, 2012 and we (Cory Schabacker and I) are on our way to open up the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry for our summer field work.  As I am sitting in a Days Inn outside of Denver, I am reflecting on the 10 + years that have led up to this.  I can remember in early 2000, being approached by former Curator and my friend, Michael Henderson about the possibility of starting a field program to collect dinosaurs.  At the time I was still a Deputy Sheriff for Ogle County, but had volunteered as a young man for Burpee in the late 1980s and early 90s and always believed that Burpee could do anything if it set its mind to it.  Mike had been in contact with geology students from the University of Wisconsin who had been conducting late Cretaceous dinosaur field work on public lands in the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana and Burpee had a chance to go with them to “see how it was done”.

Scott Williams, Andriana Villa-Gomez, and Mike Henderson preparing to leave for the first trip to Ekalaka, MT

Initially, there were some hurdles.  First, as the museum was well into its FY budget, nothing was set up to fund the project.  Also, Mike was the only staff for the Collections so he needed help organizing an exploratory trip.  I was very confident that this endeavor could lead to big things, I believed in Mike’s idea and above all, I believed in Burpee Museum.  So, I made a modest donation to help fund a 10 day exploratory trip to visit the U of Wisconsin’s program and did what I could to help Mike organize the trip.  Toward the end of May 2000, Mike, I and a former Burpee Board Member traveled to Ekalaka, Montana.  We met up the folks from the University and camped with them.  It was a real crash course and learning experience.  For one, I hadn’t camped in a tent since my Boy Scout days, so just getting our “too big for 2 guys” tent up was a real fiasco.  Also, as luck would have it, it rained for 7 out of the 10 days were there and as anyone knows, in the Hell Creek, if it rains, you cannot walk, drive or pretty much do anything.  So several days consisted of us being stuck in our tent.  Every night at about 3AM, some little creature would wake me up as it would tap my head through the tent wall. It took me several days to realize why the unknown creature was trying so desperately to get in…..Mike had open soda cans and half eaten candy bars on his side of the tent.  As long as I am telling tales out of school, I should point out that Mike mumbled to himself a lot, which also made sleeping a chore.   Finally, May night temperatures can drop well below 40 degrees….in fact two nights in a row got down to 30 degrees.  Did I mention our toilet was a 5 gallon plastic bucket with a hole cut in the bottom and a toilet seat taped to it?? Needless to say…it was a miserable experience, but we loved every second of it.

On the 5th or 6th day it cleared and warmed up to the mid 70s.  The next day we were able to go with the UW crew to see their localities.  I was able to spend two days at a Triceratops excavation, where they had a disarticulated specimen they were working on.  I can remember clearing sitting next to a four foot long “Trike” femur, looking out over the Hell Creek badlands and thinking to myself “this is what you always wanted to do”.   We returned to camp with some new finds and in a few days the Burpee visitors had to leave.   But we were pumped.  We were certain we could do this on our own.  On the 1100 mile drive home we formulated our plans for the next season, which would include Burpee getting its own BLM Permit to work public lands.  So, we returned home, I went back to my “cop job” and continued volunteering in the lab at Burpee.  We could not wait to get out there a make a big discovery.  Of course we had no idea at the time, that we would…eventually find. “Jane”, our famous juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex would have to wait one more year to be “discovered”….but that’s my next blog so stay tuned!!

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