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Volunteers Dig Fossil-Finding Vacations

July 29, 1994|BILL HARLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DRAGON'S GRAVE BONE BED, Wyo. — Bob Cassaday, 68, wields a cheap but wicked looking commando knife to scrape sandstone from around a bony protuberance on a hillside.

"This has got me mildly excited," says Cassaday, a retired Navy lieutenant commander from Escondido.

Paleontologist Kraig Derstler watches over Cassaday's shoulder. "That's a posterior rib for sure," Derstler tells him. "Way posterior."

Within an hour, Cassaday has uncovered about 10 inches of brown, shiny bone that once belonged to a duckbill dinosaur.

Like the nine other volunteers scratching at the ground on this hot July afternoon, Cassaday has paid Derstler's nonprofit ExcaVacations $495 to spend a week here at Dragon's Grave. (Additional weeks are $95 each.)

In return, volunteers get meals, a spot on the prairie to pitch their tents and the right to dig bones 10 hours a day under the blazing sun.

For Cassaday, it's a bargain.

"It's a marvelous field for a retiree who doesn't need to get paid," he says.

*

Cassaday, an electronics specialist in the Navy, came to dinosaurs late in life.

"You have to accumulate skills for retirement," he says, so he went to a library and looked up professional associations. "When I came to paleontology, it rang a bell."

The payoff? "Being around young people is good for you, physical labor is good for you and sleeping outside is good for you. I'm really blessed that they let me do this," he says.

Candice Knight feels the same way.

"This is the miracle of my life," says the 47-year-old New Yorker.

Last summer Knight had both hips replaced to relieve the crippling effects of arthritis. All winter she swam laps and lifted weights to prepare for the dig.

"I just started laughing yesterday," she says. "I thought, 'I'm healthy. I can do stuff.' "

Knight teaches elementary school in Manhattan, so she has to know about dinosaurs. During the school year, she brings a big wading pool to class, fills it with dirt, then salts it with real fossils. The young paleontologists spend the year working the dig in the pool.

But Knight had never been on a real dig herself, so when she saw an ad in Nature magazine for ExcaVacations, she signed up. Derstler is helping her make a videotape for the class.

The Dragon's Grave dig is sponsored by the University of New Orleans, the Friends of the University of New Orleans Vertebrate Paleo Lab and the nonprofit Dinosaur Society, which is based in New York.

But much of the labor comes from Derstler's nonprofit ExcaVacations program, which offers dedicated amateurs a chance to get their hands dirty for science.

Wimps need not apply.

The crew is up at 6 a.m. for bagels, Pop-Tarts or whatever else they can eat fast. They work until 12:30 p.m., then take a four-hour break to avoid the day's heat, which routinely reaches 100 degrees.

The afternoon "siesta meal" is the feast of the day.

The digging resumes at 4:30 p.m. and runs until 8:30 p.m. or until the light fades.

ExcaVacations provides the tools and supplies, such as X-Acto blades for fine digging and Satellite City Hot Stuff glue for preserving bones. But like Cassaday, most volunteers bring their own dull knives, which are perfect for the soft sandstone.

The remote campsite is 20 miles from the nearest paved road, then it's another 20 miles to the nearest town, Newcastle, Wyo. Visits to civilization are limited to once a week, so participants have to get along with each other, which didn't worry Knight. "Who else would come to something like this except someone like you?"

Probably no one, although some of the volunteers are more likely suspects than others--students of paleontology and anthropology, for example. But this summer's crew also includes a television broadcast engineer, a lab technician and a 58-year-old mother of 10 grown children.

*

Digging a fertile site like Dragon's Grave can be rewarding. The crew was finding bones at the rate of 60 a week by mid-July. Significant bones are logged in "the book" with the name of the discoverer.

Each day Derstler offers a free hamburger to the person who finds the longest piece of duckbill tendon. Cassaday wins the prize today, with a piece measuring 220 millimeters.

But he's not in it for the burgers. "I wouldn't work this hard for money," Cassaday says.

Knight agrees, and two hours later she proves herself right. "I found a bone!" she yells. "I'm in the book!"

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