Saturday, September 15, 2007

Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming

In 1975, while working for the University of Kansas, I was assigned to report on a dig in a cave in Wyoming. I didn't know the Miocene from the Eocene, but I was happy to be on the road, it was a week out of the office, and I wanted to get back to Wyoming.

It was thrilling, from the drive up the rock-strewn single-lane John Blue Canyon (below was the carcass of a Range River that didn't survive) to the descent into the cave either by rope or on the rickety scaffolding.

I soon got a crash course in paleontology. For thousands of years during the Pleistocene Epoch, mammals had fallen into an 85-foot-deep cave on the western slope of the Big Horn Mountains. Paleontologists from KU and the University of Missouri at Columbia were digging up the bones of thousands of animals, such as mammoths, cheetahs, camels, bison, bears and horses. (Some of these bones are now on display at the KU's Dyche Museum of Natural History.)

I lived for a week in one of a score of army surplus tents at "Armpit Camp," about a mile from the cave and the site of an old uranium mining camp. It was hot, it was dry, it was fabulous. The food was great, the scenery and views were spectacular, the crew was entertaining, and the work was fascinating. We didn't even miss showers.

In the first photo, I may not look too interested (I'm the woman propping up her chin, eyes closed, on the right), but a small group of us had been up most of the night exploring caves by rappelling. Dropping in is easy, jumaring out is exhausting.

The second photo is of nearby Horseshoe Canyon, which is about 900 feet deep.

The third photo is of the grate over the mouth of Natural Trap Cave, installed to keep modern specimens from falling in.

The bottom photo is of expedition workers waiting at the camp for the Cornish Game Hens to grill.

I've been hooked on paleontology ever since this trip. I don't mean that I love the dirty work of actually uncovering bones and fossils and trying to figure out what and how old they are, but the excitement of seeing discoveries made in exotic locales and learning about how these animals lived and died. I'm afraid that makes me a bone-digging voyeur.

For more photographs and information about Natural Trap Cave, go to my other blog,

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