By Patrick Winderl
SOMEWHERE NEAR THE CANADIAN BORDER - A dozen of them are gathered here, men and women covered in dust and sweat, working around an excavation site carved from the side of a coulee.
They are scholars, museum curators, paleontologists and grad students who spend their summers digging through mountains of rock and dirt in search of the ultimate prey - dinosaurs. Together they endure blistering heat and mind-numbing boredom. They sleep in tents and cook food in a camper. They share hot weather during the day and cold beer at night, and a little bit of themselves with each other and with the land they work.
They wake before dawn and labor for hours armed with little more than ice picks and paintbrushes. They struggle against time, heat and dehydration, and they do it because they love their job. Some earn a minimal salary, but most work for nothing more than the satisfaction of being part of the team.
They are dinosaur hunters, and the hunt has been good.
Just good friends
It began as a hobby more than 30 years ago, with farmers finding small fossils along a former flood plain running through a stretch of farmland. The area is filled with fossils of all types: ancient sea creatures, plants, dinosaur teeth, and the occasional complete skeleton.
Farmers Dan and Lila Redding discovered that their land north of Rudyard was rich with prehistoric treasures in 1974 - the year family friend Bob Makela found a number of fossils on their property. Makela soon enlisted the help of another Montana native and dinosaur buff - Jack Horner.
"It was real early and there wasn't much of a budget for that type of thing," Dan Redding said. "They were just amateurs back then."
Makela would later be killed in a car wreck. Horner went on to become a world-renowned paleontologist. Born in Shelby, he spent much of his childhood combing north-central Montana for dinosaur bones. What began as a hobby evolved into a lengthy and distinguished career for Horner, now regarded as a leading authority on the subject.
So respected was Horner's work that he was asked to be a consultant for the "Jurassic Park" movies. After a stint as a researcher with Princeton University, he became curator of the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Horner visits the Reddings' farm frequently to assist in digs and further his research. His trademark teepee presently adorns the Reddings' lawn.
"Throughout the years we've got to know each other a little better and became good friends," Dan Redding said.
Although the Reddings' farm is considered to be one of the richest dinosaur sites in the region, the couple has opted not to sponsor commercial dig operations on their property. For several decades the Reddings have allowed paleontologists, researchers and grad students onto their land to excavate fossils. For Dan Redding, dinosaur excavation is more meaningful than making a quick buck. He emphasizes the importance of using the fossils for research rather than profit.
"We have a pretty significant find here," he said. "It's important to keep it a research site. So far we haven't allowed any commercial digs and don't have any plans to allow them. I'd rather keep it so our kids can come back and say, 'My dad helped dig here,'" Dan said. "There's some satisfaction to us in that sense, rather than having someone come in and remove it and never seeing it again."
Since the late 1970s, groups of dinosaur buffs have arrived at the Reddings' farm to unearth fossils. Students from University of California at Berkeley and Montana State University are a common sight during the summer months, when crews of them work for weeks on end to remove fossils for research.
The Reddings and the people using their land have a close relationship, Redding said.
"They're just good friends," he said. "We have good times together. They share the same common goal - digging dirt with an awl."
The oldest sorehead
All of the bones recovered by the crews go to the Museum of the Rockies where they are studied and displayed. So far the crews have found one complete dinosaur - a promising skeleton of a hadrosaur, the so-called duck-bill. More than 30 feet long, the beast lived about 78 million years ago and survived by eating plants and avoiding carnivores.
The Reddings have affectionately named the dinosaur "The Oldest Sorehead," in tribute to Rudyard's tradition of selecting a resident for the honorary title of "Old Sorehead."
Dig crew chief Ewan Wolff said working on a specimen of The Oldest Sorehead's caliber has been exciting.
"The completeness of the dinosaur is pretty much unprecedented," he said. "We don't get skeletons this complete that often."
The dinosaur was discovered last summer by some friends of the Reddings. They stumbled across what appeared to be a large vertebra partially sticking out of the ground. Careful digging unearthed another vertebra, then another. Ultimately, a 7-foot section of tail in near pristine condition was recovered.
This summer, a four-person crew has expanded the dig site, removing tons of earth and exposing the legs and arms of the dinosaur. The bones are carefully wrapped in gauze and plaster, preserving them from damage. The crew has yet to find the skull, but Wolff said he is optimistic it will be uncovered near the other bones.
"My best idea is that this animal is getting carried by a current across a flood plain," he said, adding that one can never be certain about a skeleton until it is unearthed. "Our idea of what's going on with a dig constantly changes. You have to keep an open mind."
Once the the fossils are removed, they are carefully transported off-site to a research center where they are pieced together to form a complete skeleton - a difficult, time-consuming task.
"We take a lot of effort to stabilize the bones in the field," Wolff said. "You don't want them to turn to dust when you try to move them. It's pretty meticulous work. We have very talented people working to put these back together. They can do some incredible things. We're very fortunate to have them."
Stabilizing and removing the fossils quickly once they are uncovered is essential, said crew chief Nels Peterson, a researcher with the Museum of the Rockies. Peterson is working a second dig site where bones belonging to another hadrosaur have been recovered.
"It's a high priority once you unearth them to get them out of the ground," he said, adding that the elements can quickly take a toll on exposed 78 million-year-old fossils.
Discovering and removing the bones is only part of the satisfaction for dino diggers. The fossils are of considerable scientific value when used by scientists to learn more about dinosaurs.
"These two sites contribute to the scientific knowledge of hadrosaurs that lived in this formation. It's very important to learn what type of environment these dinosaurs lived in," Wolff said.
The Reddings are offering the public a rare glimpse of excavation work this weekend, when they will sponsor tours of the sites for a minimal cost. The tours will leave the Rudyard Depot Museum at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Groups will be taken by bus to the sites. The cost is $5. Refreshments will be available. All proceeds will go to the Rudyard Historical Society.
Local support for the digging crews has been strong, Redding said, adding that a Fort Benton car dealership donated vehicles to use, and a Havre construction company provided portable toilets.
In the end, the labor of crews pays off. It's visceral, hands-on hard work that produces tangible results. For Peterson, discovering the unknown is the most rewarding aspect of his job.
"It's kind of interesting," he said. "You don't know what's in the ground until you dig. It's a mystery."
Contact Dan and Lila Redding at 355-4958 for more info about the tours.