Monday, February 29, 2016

Dinosaur Hunters in the New Mexico Desert

First published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA.

Fossil Plants
Have you ever imagined traveling back in time and meeting a real, live dinosaur? It’s more possible than you might think – except for the “live” part.

Alan Erickson has been interested in paleontology – the study of fossils – since childhood, because, “I have always enjoyed digging for treasure.” He looked up scientific papers on New Mexico paleontology and visited an area where fossil bones had been found. “After a week of hunting I finally found a vertebra [back bone]. I called the museum and reported the find.” Eventually staffers from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) came out to see it. It was a phytosaur, a pre-dinosaur that looked like a crocodile.

The museum staffers “brought me into the fold,” Alan says, and he began joining official museum digs. “I enjoy the exposure to new knowledge and places, and the comradery. Each dig is like a whole semester of school packed into a couple of days, but much better.”

On one museum dig, “I spotted a hillside and I just knew I’d find something there. I walked straight to the hill and I saw bones poking out of it.” The bones have not yet been studied in detail but may be a tyrannosaur.

He also continues to hunt on his own. “I love finding bones, but one of the coolest things I’ve found is a piece of sandstone with 10 or 15 different leaves or seeds in different colors. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

For others interested in dinosaur hunting, Alan advises, “It takes a long time to find this stuff. You have to learn how to see them.” If you do find something, “Check the GPS coordinates and call the museum. You’ll have more fun with the museum than without them.”

ammonites at the museum 
Field and Lab

Some volunteers work in the museum as well as in the field, almost turning their hobby into a full-time job. Paul Sealey is a museum research associate, an official but unpaid position. “I was one of the first volunteers here,” he says. “I’ve been collecting fossils for 45 years.”

Paul is best known for his discovery of the “Bisti Beast,” a new species of tyrannosaur. He knew right away he had something special. “There was part of a jaw with a tooth eroding out. Parts of the ribs and legs and femur were exposed too. It turned out to be a partial skeleton.” The skull is now on display at the Smithsonian, while the rest is still in the NMMNHS prep lab. Some of Paul’s other finds are on display in Albuquerque as well. The science comes first, “But it’s good that they are on display so the public can see it too.”

Paul’s specialty is ammonites, an extinct marine animal related to octopus and squid. “I’ve been all over the state. The most fun is always making a discovery, but that’s just the start. Then you have to curate them.” He cleans the fossils, makes labels, photographs them, and catalogs everything. He’s been working on a monograph about ammonites for years. He keeps finding new things, like one known from Texas that had not been found in New Mexico before. “It’s hard to stop.”

Going Pro

Amanda Cantrell took her hobby even farther. “When I met my fiancée, we started going on hikes and finding fossils. I got obsessed with it.” She volunteered at the museum, worked as an intern, and finally got hired as Geoscience Collections Manager. “I’m a librarian of fossils,” she says. Her fiancé is now the prep lab manager, and they’re both still passionate about fossils.

Amanda warns amateurs not to move or collect anything. It’s illegal to collect fossils of vertebrates (animals with a spine) on public lands. Besides, the find is most valuable if the scientists have a chance to study it in place. “Once you pick up a fossil, you take it out of context. It’s important if someone finds a [vertebrate] fossil, don’t touch it,” Amanda says. “Give us a GPS coordinate and call us or send a picture.” It is legal to collect certain fossils, but know the laws and “When in doubt, take pictures and GPS, and ask. There is a legal way to collect, and that’s through us.”

Amanda encourages interested people to join the New Mexico Friends of Paleontology. The museum hosts field trips 2 to 4 times a year, led by a professional paleontologist. Volunteers often find exciting fossils, from giant plants to dinosaur bones. “It’s often the only way they can find vertebrate fossils and touch them,” Amanda says.

On a Dig, photo by Alan Erickson 
A Cool Contribution

Denise Elvrum has been on several museum digs. “I have been interested in paleontology since I was a little girl. When the opportunity came up to go on real digs, I jumped at it. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

On one dig, they found an aetosaur, a relative of the crocodile. “I was off scouting with a senior volunteer and we noticed a group of what looked like white rocks in a pattern in the dirt of a small arroyo. After testing it and deciding that it was in fact bone, we started very carefully removing dirt around the pieces. We keep digging, using small scoops and dental picks, and found a right hind-quarter of the critter. At that point our hearts were jumping around! We got the head paleontologist to come look at it and he was super excited; it was the best one of these things he’d ever seen, too.” 

The most complete aetosaur skeleton ever found anywhere, it is now on display at the museum. “I felt that by helping to uncover this creature, I was contributing something to paleontology in New Mexico and maybe to the greater world. It makes you feel special. I’ve gone to visit ‘my’ dino, and taken my picture with it. It’s really, really neat!”

Jurassic Park may be a fantasy, but dinosaur lovers can meet these beasts in the wild – with a little help from museum friends.

For More Information

The Bureau of Land Management has guidelines for collecting on public land. Vertebrate fossils, such as dinosaurs, mammals, reptiles, and fishes, may only be collected by trained researchers with a BLM permit. Trace fossils – footprints and coprolites (poop) – are also protected. Common invertebrate fossils, such as plants and wood, may be collected “for personal use in reasonable quantities, but may not be bartered or sold.” For more information, see this page.

Kris Bock with a fossil shell
Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Skeleton Canyon Treasure Preview

I've been working on book 3 of my treasure hunting series, The Skeleton Canyon Treasure. Hopefully I'll have it out this summer. In the meantime, here's a preview of the first chapter.

The first book in the series, The Mad Monk’s Treasure, is 99 cents at Amazon and FREE at Nook, ARE, Smashwords, Kobo and Apple/iTunes. One reader said: “Great balance of history, romance, and adventure. Smart romance with an Indiana Jones feel. Well-written with an attention to detail that allowed me to picture exactly in my head how a scene looked and played out.” The Dead Man’s Treasure is book 2. Each novel stands alone and is complete, with no cliffhangers.
The Skeleton Canyon Treasure: Chapter One

Camie let herself into the darkened building, reveling in the silence. At 10 PM on a Friday, the engineering department was abandoned, just the way she liked it. A few hours of work without distractions and she’d get her invention running.
A faint light shone in the darkened hallway. The glow spilled through the small square of glass in her door, a warning beacon coming from inside her machine shop. She hesitated. Had she forgotten to turn off the light when she left for dinner two hours before? Plausible but unlikely. She put the probability at no more than 5%. Slapping the light switch on the way out was habit, and she’d been extra careful since the break-in a few nights earlier.
A few other people had keys to the college’s machine shop, but the cleaning staff would be long gone, and her student interns spent Friday nights at the bar. Camie returned after hours to work on her own projects because inspiration required solitude. So why was her light on?
She crept forward, as silent as the sleeping building around her. The ten-inch window was cloudy with age and threaded with wire mesh, but it didn’t completely hide the sight within. A large man stood on the far side of the room, hunched over one of her workbenches. She didn’t recognize him. Easily several inches over six feet and a good 220 pounds of mostly muscle, he would stand out in any crowd. Among the young geniuses of a science and engineering college, he’d stand out like a mountain lion among prairie dogs.
Her eyes narrowed and she gave a low growl. What was he doing here, in her machine shop, after hours, messing with her equipment? He had to be connected to the earlier theft. Why would he come back when he already had her invention? He couldn’t know she’d already started rebuilding it. Maybe he wanted to steal her notes and the provisional patent application forms. Without them, she’d have a much harder time proving she’d been the original inventor.
She considered her options, calling campus security or the police being the most obvious. Campus security would be faster, but the police would have guns. Problem was, she’d left her phone inside the machine shop. She’d have to leave to find another phone, and he might escape in the meantime, with her notes, and the new version of her device. She didn’t trust the authorities to track him down once he got out of the building. More likely they’d take a report and do nothing. And she did not want to start over from scratch yet again.
And then the man actually reached out and picked up her baby, her new version of the invention, only partway rebuilt. All thought of options and smart choices vanished.
She barreled through the door.
The man spun around, still holding her machine. At least he didn’t drop it, and his hands were occupied so he couldn’t easily go for a weapon. But if he tried to get past her, she’d have to risk damaging her invention in order to stop him.
He gaped at her, several expressions flitting across his face as if unsure which one belonged. Finally he settled into a cocky grin. It didn’t make him good looking. But despite his size and her own keyed-up nerves, she didn’t get a sense of threat. She was usually good at reading people that way.
Still, she didn’t relax. “Well?”
He looked momentarily startled. What kind of greeting had he expected, a warm welcome?
He gave her a careful once over and then something like recognition lit in his eyes. He said cautiously, “You wouldn’t happen to be C. Dagneau?”
That was how she was listed on her nameplate outside the door. Ah, of course. He’d assumed that anyone who ran a machine shop had to be a man. Jerk.
She nodded once.
He turned and put her machine on the long table. She shifted so she could see enough of his hands to make sure they stayed empty. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, fitting closely enough she didn’t think he had anything in his pockets besides a wallet. She shot a glance at her filing cabinet, closed, and as far she could tell, still locked. Her notes appeared to be safe.
“What are you doing here?” she snarled.
“I was looking for you, actually.”
She raised one eyebrow. She’d spent weeks perfecting that particular move when she was fifteen, and it still came in handy when she needed to express skeptical disdain. “You expected to find me in the shop on a Friday night?”
He shrugged. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Couldn’t argue with that logic. She tried again. “How did you get in?”
He hesitated a fraction too long. “The door was unlocked.”
She studied him, but the cocky grin was back, covering up any lies with attitude. He had the face of an Irish boxer. Not ugly, exactly, but definitely not handsome. Not that it mattered either way.
She knew she’d locked the door behind her. She remembered reaching back to twist the handle, testing it. The lock was loose since it had been damaged during the previous break-in and not yet replaced. Someone could have popped the lock with a credit card or a little force, but she doubted he could have gotten through without knowing he was breaking in. One chance in twenty maybe.
And she wasn’t ready to give up the offensive. “So you found me. Now what?” She crossed her arms under her breasts. His gaze flicked down a moment but returned to her face before the perusal could get rude.
“It’s a bit complicated. How about a cup of coffee or something?”
“How about you tell me why you’re in my office in the middle of the night?”
“You must keep early hours. It’s barely past ten.”
She rolled her eyes. “Get to the point.”
“All right.” He leaned back against the workbench and crossed his arms, but where her stance was intentionally aggressive, his at least pretended to be relaxed. Still he studied her without speaking. Trying to decide how to handle her.
She didn’t like being handled. She grabbed her cell phone from where it was plugged in near the door and started dialing.
That got him moving. He took a step toward her. “OK, I’m looking for someone.”
“A minute ago you were looking for me.”
He blew out a breath. “My uncle. He’s missing and I’m worried something happened to him. The trail led me here. I wasn’t sure at first which side you were on, and that’s why I wanted to look around before talking to you. But now that I see you, I can tell you wouldn’t have had anything to do with his disappearance.” His blue eyes twinkled, and the confident smile gave him a certain appeal. But if he thought she’d fall for shallow flattery, he was much mistaken. Even assuming one could consider it flattering to be told, “You’re probably too harmless to have kidnapped my uncle.”
She was sure he was lying about something, and probably about everything. His appearance shortly after the theft of her invention, a machine that might be worth millions, could not be a coincidence. One chance in 10,000 maybe. He, or his uncle if he really had an uncle, had to be connected somehow.
If she could figure out how, she might get her invention back. Let him keep underestimating her, as 98% of men did. Camie turned on her own charm. She flashed a smile that had him blinking as if the light were too bright. “Let’s get that cup of coffee, and you can tell me about it.” That would get him out of her shop, and into a public place where it would be easier to get help if needed.
He nodded. “Lead the way.”
Camie and Ryan visit the Tombstone historic cemetery in The Skeleton Canyon Treasure

Except there wasn’t any place to get coffee on campus on a Friday night. The disadvantage of a small town with a small school. She wasn’t about to get in a car with him, or let him out of her sight if they took separate vehicles. Since “coffee” was nothing more than an excuse, she led the way to the student center. No food or drink service at that time, but at least a few students would be hanging around, watching the big-screen TV in the lounge or playing pool in the game room down the hall.
Camie dropped into one of the soft chairs clustered near the main doors. No one else was in the foyer, but the glass windows meant anyone outside could see them, including campus security when they made their rounds. The spot provided plenty of privacy without the isolation of her building. She gestured to the man as he sat across from her. “Explain. You might start with your name.”
“Ah, didn’t we get to that? I’m Ryan McGloin.” He grinned. “Age 33. Occupation, mining geologist. Currently between contract jobs. References available upon request.”
She almost asked to see a driver’s license and a business card if he had one. But that could wait. Better to let him think she trusted everything he said for the moment. “Tell me about your uncle, Ryan.”
He hesitated, but this time she didn’t get the impression he was stalling or making up lies. Rather, he didn’t seem to know how to start. Finally he said, “He’s brilliant. A genius. But, well, he doesn’t quite fit in with normal society.”
Camie nodded. A few of her geek friends fit that profile. Some people would say she did as well. She didn’t consider it a bad thing, since  “normal society” tended to suck.
“His hobby is treasure hunting.”
Camie tensed slightly, but she thought she hid her reaction well enough. Things were beginning to make sense.
“He’s always chasing after some treasure or another, trying to put together clues from old manuscripts, sort out rumors from facts, and so on. Once in a while, rarely, he’s actually found something.”
“What has he been working on lately?”
“The Skeleton Canyon treasure.” He snapped the phrase and stared at her, as if expecting to surprise a reaction, but this time she didn’t even have to hide one. When she simply gazed back, he added, “Heard of it?”
She shook her head. Her friend Erin was the expert when it came to history and legend. Camie brought the technology, and a certain wilderness experience. Together they’d found one long-lost treasure several years before and gotten some fame for their success, but since then they’d done no more than offer occasional advice on treasure hunting. It wasn’t a vocation, or even a serious hobby.
He watched her for several more seconds, eyes narrowed in suspicion, before he went on. “Skeleton Canyon isn’t too far from here. Southeastern Arizona, near the New Mexico border. But no one knows where exactly the treasure is, of course. My uncle was trying to piece together some clues. He kept a journal. A few days ago, I received the journal in the mail. No explanation except for a note that said to hold onto it for him.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that the plot of the third Indiana Jones movie?”
Ryan shrugged. “Maybe that’s where he got the idea. Anyway, in the normal course of things, I might only hear from my uncle once or twice a year. I wouldn’t worry, or even notice, if I hadn’t heard from him. But this got me wondering. I tried to track him down. Not easy for someone with no permanent address. But he does have a cell phone. My mother, his sister, insisted on it. The deal is that he’s supposed to check his messages every Wednesday, no matter what, and respond within a day. I left a message on Tuesday.”
“No response yet?”
He shook his head, looking honestly worried. “A day or two late, I could understand. Maybe he’s somewhere in the wilderness where he didn’t have reception. Maybe he forgot what day it was. But it’s been too long. I started reading through his journal, trying to make sense of things. I followed the trail this far, but now I need help.”
She studied him. He’d dropped the cocky charm that had grated on her nerves, leaving something appealing. But the puzzle was still missing a lot of pieces. “What makes you think your uncle came here?”
“He said as much.” His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, as if he’d caught her in a lie and was going in for the kill. “One of the last entries in the journal said ‘New Mexico Science and Engineering College – Dagneau has what I need.’”
He glared at her, as if waiting for her to break down and confess everything, whatever crimes he thought she’d committed. She studied him with a slight smile to show she wouldn’t be disconcerted so easily. She said almost casually, “Sunday night someone broke into the machine shop. They stole something of mine. Your uncle part of that?”
He drew back. “Uncle Donnie isn’t a thief.”
“Ah. I suppose I’ll have to take your word for it.”
He frowned. “What was stolen?”
“A machine that can see under the ground.”
“You mean like Ground Penetrating Radar?”
“This doesn’t use radar. It’s better.”
He shrugged. “My uncle isn’t a thief. If he thought this wondrous machine could be useful, he’d try to buy or rent one.”
“There only is one – mine.” She leaned forward, glaring. “And I want it back.”
“You have the only one in existence?” He gave her a skeptical look. “What makes this one machine in all the world so special?”
“It’s a lot cheaper and more portable than GPR. One person can carry it. And it picks up on different things than radar. It’s more like an ultrasound for the ground.”
Ryan frowned. “I haven’t heard of anything like that on the market, or even in development. Nothing small and cheap, anyway, nothing an amateur working alone could afford and use.”
“Of course not. I just built it.”
He studied her, and she could almost see the wheels turning in his brain. He seemed surprised by her claims, but that didn’t prove he hadn’t known about her invention. Maybe he was merely surprised that a pretty, young, blond woman had invented it.
Finally he said, “If you have something like that, I can see why my uncle wanted to find you. The Skeleton Canyon treasure is supposed to be hidden in a cave, possibly with a collapsed entrance.”
“Yes, my machine would work for that. If you were in the right area, you could identify empty spaces underground.” No point in hiding that fact now, with the horse long gone from the barn.
“But is it really small enough? Portable even over rough ground?”
“Absolutely. One person can carry it easily enough, all day, if they’re fit. The question is, who carried it away on Sunday night?”
Ryan slumped back. “I’m sure my uncle wouldn’t have stolen your machine. He’s a fanatic, but he’s not a thief. He would have tried to buy or borrow it.”
Her eyes hardened. “He wouldn’t have succeeded. But he didn’t even ask.”
“Then it wasn’t him. Has anyone else shown interest in it lately?”
“Not many people know about it. The patent lawyer in DC is making his fortune by charging me for the legal stuff. A few friends know what I’ve been working on, but I trust them. They know not to talk about it too much.”
She drummed her fingers on her thigh as she thought through the possibilities. “A couple of months ago, I made some comments on a discussion board. Nothing too specific. I was trying to do some market research, asking some questions about what people needed to make my machine useful. Wait a minute, your Uncle Donnie wouldn’t have been Donald Johnson?”
He sat up straighter. “Yes. So you do know him!” He gave her a triumphant look, as if he’d finally tricked her into confessing to a major crime.
She shrugged. “We’ve never met in person, but he was active on the discussion board. Asked some questions. Sent me a private e-mail. Wanted to know if I really had such a machine. I didn’t gave him a straight answer, but I can see why he might have wanted to follow-up.”
Ryan sat back and nodded, a bit begrudgingly it seemed. “All right, that makes sense. If he couldn’t pin you down by e-mail, he might have come in person. Only to ask questions, not to steal anything.”
Camie wasn’t sure whether she believed any of this, but at least they were making progress. “This is getting complicated. It’s time to call in reinforcements. Give me a number where you can be reached. While you’re at it, hand over some ID.” She gave him a smile a lot sweeter than her words. “Just to make sure you really are who you say you are.”
He handed over his driver’s license and a business card with a cell phone number. She studied the license, him, and the card, before handing the license back. “You staying here in town?”
She gave a quick nod and rose. “I’ll give you a call in the morning. We’ll meet with a few of my friends. I’d like to get a couple more opinions on all this.”
He rose as well and took a step toward her. He stood close and looked down into her face, a position that could be considered looming. She lifted her chin and gazed back. Something sprang between them that might have been attraction or might have been a challenge.
He nodded. “I’ll be waiting for your call.”
Camie smiled. Yeah, this was going to get interesting.