August 15, 2009
It all started on a small, secluded Texas waterway in the Jungle of Gigantism (you know better than to ask), we watched a log submerge with purpose... but, it was no log. Big reptiles were only a hint of the giant to come. Shortly afterward, we pulled into the bank and my friend Dan offered, "you want upstream or downstream?" Words he later said would influence a fossil career.
It was 7:45 in the morning. I headed downstream to low gravel ledge. Within a short time, I found an unusual shaped bone, a little over a foot long, wedged into the bank. It turned out to be a limb bone of a giant sloth! It even had gravelly sandstone attached to it. I laid my paddle beside it and continued to search the ledge. Finding nothing else, I thought that I should check out where the ledge dropped into the water...and there it was. A dinner plate-sized dome edged from the steep face, halfway down to the water. To the casual observer, it would seem to be another rock, but the shape resonated in my consciousness - bone...big bone.
I returned to the first bone and took a few in situ photos. Dan was working his way back toward the boat about 100 yards away. He hollered out that he was going to check out the opposite bank. I signaled a 'thumbs up', and decided to call my wife. I excitedly told her that we were well underway on our expedition, and that I had just found a good sized limb bone. I also told her that I might have found something BIG, and that I'd get in touch with her later. While Dan continued to wander the opposite gravel bar, I dropped over the ledge to take a few photos of the "dome" in the face of the bank. "Hey Dan, you need to come over here. I want your opinion on something." I grinned inside; there were logistics to work out....my mind was racing! We had over 2 dozen miles to travel...in Dan's nearly maxed out two man kayak. This was going to get interesting....
Proximal "dome" exposed on bank face
I spent the next several minutes going over the entire area again. The reason was twofold: I needed to work off some adrenalin, and it's easy to miss something when you're that hyped up. Dan finally arrived, and I guided him to the first bone. He reacted, "Whoa! That's significant! It looks like sloth to me." "I found something else," I replied. We scrambled over the bank and dropped into the mud below the small ledge. "What do you think this is?" I grinned. His eyes went wide and he started rubbing some of the dirt off the dome to get a better look at the details. We both shook our heads in awe. I scooped up some water and splashed it over the dome. Dan rubbed it like there was a genie inside. We both took a closer look, then shook our heads in amazement...BONE! I was a little closer to one of my dreams of finding another fossil giant.
We started digging...and the apparent became more obvious as the end of a massive bone slowly emerged from the soil. Suddenly, I turned to Dan, "Did you hear that?"
"I hear a boat coming."
Now, we are a bit protective of productive fossil sites, but the fishermen (that we eventually engaged in conversation) appeared to be friendly enough. It seems that a dentist, a chiropractor, and their friend wanted to do some fishing. They were also looking for some pieces of petrified wood, so we quickly obliged them with the location of a few large pieces we found upstream. A little later, they returned. We had just extracted the first few pieces of the bone. The largest was close to a saturated 60 lbs. In the time they had been upstream, Dan and I analyzed the transport logistics and boat capacity...we knew we had a dilemma. There was no way we could haul all of this bone more than 20 miles. So, we struck a deal on more fossil wood while I took down some phone numbers and a calculated risk. I placed the large proximal end securely into a corner of the floor of their boat. They thanked us for the wood, and we agreed to meet at a location downstream later in the day. Even with the phone numbers and brief rapport, I winced as they slowly rounded the bend. With a deep breath, I forced the what ifs from my mind; we still had a large piece of bone in the bank.
After two and a half hours of bruising, bloody digging into clay and gravel with improvised rock hammers and knives, Dan and I lifted out the final piece of the monster bone. This joint confirmed which part of the skeleton I had found. The "dome" turned out to be the proximal end of a nearly complete Columbian Mammoth humerus (top of the front leg)! It had angled directly back into the bank. Although fractured into several pieces, it was later re-assembled to be just over 48 inches long and around 120 lbs! It's massive and huge!
Author badgering the bone
Dan working to free the distal end
...Back in the water, we had to rearrange some things on the kayak to achieve proper trim. Tentatively, and with a little fine tuning, we continued our journey downstream. Several hours later, we passed our waterborne associates, and told them we would see them later. Along the way further downstream, we stopped periodically to check likely looking spots for more fossil bone. Occasionally, we would find a large chunk of petrified wood, and stand it up near the water. We hoped to show more goodwill toward our upstream transport team.
Author with the distal end
Reaching another prime location, we pulled in and started searching. There were many large pieces of fossil wood here, so we stacked them up. With a flash of insight, I reminded Dan that we weren't far from a nearby road. If I could persuade the fishermen to take me and the rest of the bone a short distance further downstream, then they would be free of any later rendezvous. We could pay them with all the petrified wood, and I would also be free of worry. Then, I could hike the pieces of bone to a hidden spot near the road, and go back to the water where he could pick me up. Dan agreed, and within a short time our plan went into action.
I profusely thanked the guys for their assistance and we parted company. Near the road, I scouted the area for a hiding place and promptly secured the fossil treasure. A quick survey from all angles left me confident it would be there later. Soon, Dan came into view upstream, and we were off to see what other bounty awaited us.
Several other finds were made that rounded out a spectacular adventure. As we loaded the boat onto my vehicle, darkness soon caught us. By the time we reached my hidden cache and got it loaded, it was 10:30 PM. It had been quite a day!
Over 48 inches long
Columbian Mammoth humerus