River of Life

The dirt road across the northern South Dakota prairie was bumpy, especially in a large flatbed truck pulling a trailer loaded with a bobcat skid-steer. The equipment and the truck were necessary to excavate a Triceratops skull and I was along as an employee of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research to help remove the skull.

fossil emerging from earth at dig siteAt first the skull was just the tip of a horn protruding from a low hill in the Hell Creek formation. Eventually one whole horn was uncovered, then two, then the nose horn and beak. Glinting, dark teeth were found here and there amid the tan soil and brown clay. Two conical, pointed and serrated Nanotyrannus teeth were found, suggesting that the small carnivorous dinosaur may have killed or scavenged the Triceratops. The other teeth were the strange, herbivorous teeth from Triceratops itself, teeth that grew in large batteries, new teeth aligned, waiting to replace the old as they wore out, much like sharks’ teeth today. On a hillside behind the Triceratops, the scattered pieces of knobby, armored skull were found a year earlier. These were part of a Pachycephalosaurus skull which sits in cardboard flats, embedded in dirt and rocks back at the lab piled on a table amidst power tools, glue bottles and various bones of other creatures from modern to Mesozoic. Cacti and sagebrush dotted the tops of small buttes and the sand of dry stream beds threaded between and around them flecked with tiny pieces of fossil bone, some turtle, some crocodile, some dinosaur and many indiscernible.

Uncovering the triceratops involves turning over chunks of sediment with a military surplus bayonet and brushing dirt away with a large paint brush. There is also the work of swinging a pick and scooping the broken earth away with a shovel. I sweat; my knees become sharp, raw things against the hard packed soil, rock and fossils.

One night at a dig when my boss and I are alone, drinking beer and eating chips and salsa we watch a doe walking through the prairie grass. The deer startled, at first we think we spooked the animal and then we see a coyote that surprised her slinking away in grass taller than the canid itself. The sun rising over the grass in the morning glows on the tops of buttes and makes the prairie grass glow. The stars at night are a chest of sparkling jewels.

It’s easy for the mind to wander as your eyes pan for the outline of a jaw, the sharp contours of a tooth. As I was sorting through soil and broken rock, looking for bone, I saw a small thing moving. A beautiful, tiny creature was cupped in my hand and I held it close to my eyes, peering. A reddish animal with long, grasping pinchers was in my hand. The whole arachnid was only about the size of an ant, perhaps smaller with intricate detail that could only be hinted to unaided human eyes. I smiled deeply; this was the first pseudo scorpion I’d seen in person. I had collected insects in a cave with a man who’d discovered a new species of pseudo scorpion in a Colorado cave, photographed next to a nickel, it made the coin enormous. We passed the pseudo scorpion around so everyone could get a view of the strange, rare creature and I delicately set it down, a little away from where we dug. Hopefully the pseudo scorpion had no problem making a new home in the soil.

It meant something to me that day to find a tiny arachnid, alive with the remains of a dinosaur. It meant something to see the deer and the coyote and to nightly hear them singing. Animals die. We are animals and we die as well. Everything that is alive succumbs to death. Yet, the same life that flowed through the dinosaurs persists in us. The life, the beauty and variety and power of this force that animates us is more important than us. Life is more important than species or genera, it is the river and we are mere flotsam to be carried for a while and spit out in the end. The river goes on.

Follow Zach’s explorations at Zach of the Jungle

Zachary Fitzner was educated in Biological Sciences in Colorado. He grew up in Wyoming and Colorado and learned to love nature and the outdoors at an early age. He’s done field work in conservation and biology in Alaska, The Caribbean, Africa, South America and the continental American West. He now lives in a small camper in South Dakota with his girlfriend and their Shih Tzu. He works in commercial paleontology and is currently working on an untitled essay collection about nature, conservation and outdoor pursuits. You can find links to his other works and read his blog at www.zachofjungle.com.

Photo by the author


Zach at cave entranceMy friend Matt was the one who got me involved in exploring a cave called Fire Pit. The cave has another name as well but I’m going to keep that as a secret name for those who know the cave or at least have visited it. Matt is short. When I met him, Matt had an enormous bushy goatee flaring out over his whole neck and closely cropped hair on the fast track to completely bald. The only person I know who was attacked by a bear and certainly the only person I know who could make a bear attack story funny is Matt. He stumbled upon a black bear with cubs and tried to climb a tree to escape as she rushed him. The bear rose up and took a bite of his buttock. Fortunately a friend of Matt’s scared the bear but the rural hospital staff that treated his injury looked upon him and his maligned posterior as if a minor celebrity.

Matt is almost magical when it comes to outdoor prowess. The man can take a lungful of cigarette smoke followed immediately by a hit of marijuana, all while hiking at remarkable speeds, fueled by nothing more than McDonald’s breakfast burritos. Matt is a world class caver and I met him through my interest in caving. His small size makes him perfect for crouching, crawling, and squeezing through meandering limestone passageways.

Although Matt isn’t universally loved in the caving community of Colorado, I’ve never heard a bad word about his talent or commitment to caving. He has strong opinions and demands strength from himself and those who take to the outdoors with him. Matt can and does spend hours looking over satellite images on Google Earth to find a sinkhole he’s sure will lead to a cave. If you go with Matt to find something, he’ll expect you to move quickly and surely over the landscape. I scaled cliffs with Matt once; on a whim as a quicker way to get to our destination. Climbing the cliffs was easy; the yellow sandstone cliffs were set with large pockets for hands and feet as well as wide ledges to rest upon. The real challenge of the cliffs was Matt’s large yellow Labrador Pokey. I had some webbing, so we tied a makeshift harness around Pokey and one of us lifted him from the ledge above while the other pushed Pokey upwards. Again and again we hoisted Pokey up together until we reached the top. On another small cliff we lowered ourselves down on an old length of fencing wire bent into a series of loops like rungs of a ladder and anchored to a piece of dead Juniper or Pinyon Pine.

Matt taught me how to rappel with caving technique. Cavers rappel with a friction device (called a rack) that will automatically slow the descent if the caver lets go of the rope. The rappel rack is a failsafe for rappelling into dark, slippery, dangerous places with cramped space and potentially toxic fumes. Then, there is Fire Pit. Fire Pit wasn’t much of a cave as far as could be seen. There were no stalactites or stalagmites in Fire Pit; no delicate calcite box-work, nothing to attract much attention. The cave was just a vertical tunnel long enough to require rappelling and a small, underwhelming, dirty room at the bottom. Matt saw something in Fire Pit; something I frankly doubted. The floor of Fire Pit was mud. Plain mud, wet, viscous, dirty; and it covered the bottom of the cave for unknown depths. Matt looked at the mud floor of Fire Pit and he recognized something subtle. The floor of the cave was slightly sloped as if it were an extremely gradual funnel. Matt was sure that the low point of that funnel floor was leading somewhere.

On the first trip to Fire Pit, there were four of us, Matt, me and two other guys I didn’t know. We all took turns with a small shovel and a five gallon bucket, tunneling deeper and deeper, pushing buckets full of mud out with our feet. The first weekend produced a rough, muddy tunnel disappearing into the floor of Fire Pit. The next weekend only Matt and I returned to Fire Pit and wriggled into our makeshift tunnel for hours more of excruciatingly cramped digging, our bodies pressed into the mud. As we dug, we started noticing the edges of limestone protruding into the end of our tunnel and we knew that soon we would see how Quixotic our quest for more cave passage was.

Zach in narrow passageVirgin passage; that’s the term cavers use for a part of the cave undiscovered, a tunnel, a room, a place not one human has set foot in. When you think about exploration, most explorers were simply the first white person or the first European or the first person to map or write about their journey. There are notable exceptions to this general view of exploration, the first person on the moon or to the bottom of the ocean were really the first people there. Likewise mountaineering once held out an abundance of first summits that are now greatly diminished with mountains like Everest now seeming more like tourist destinations for the mega rich to play god with the lives of Sherpas than the realm of explorers. Without millions of dollars and highly specialized training, caves are one of the few places a person can realistically be the first person to see a place.

Matt and I were hoping as we dug through the muck to find such a place, a cave passage never seen before. As the limestone closed in on both sides of our tunnel of mud, doubt crept in. Eventually we were faced with a small hole in a limestone passage, a hole just a bit too small to squeeze through. Matt and I deliberated for only a moment before taking to hammer and chisel. After only a few minutes of work, Matt and then I wormed our way through the stone tunnel. My helmet caught on rock and I had to turn it just right, exhaling to make myself smaller, pulling slowly with finger tips, pushing with the tips of my boots. Eventually I awkwardly slumped out of a short tunnel onto the floor of a room. The room was an inverted fairy garden, where thin, translucent formations grew down from the ceiling, as eerie and delicate as strands of glow worm silk. I’d seen better examples of soda straws but none that wowed me like the room at the bottom of Fire Pit.

I finally set foot in a place no one but Matt and I had seen before. White calcite tubes hung everywhere from the ceiling. Millions of years in the making the soda straws dripped and grew, imperceptibly before my eyes. Less than an eighth inch wide, the straws hung two and three feet long, glimmering in our headlamps beams. The room itself was the soft, rounded shape of flowstone, looking like the inside of a melted candle. The walls, the floor, the ceiling was a solid single piece of limestone; at last this room was the end of Fire Pit cave.

After leaving Fire Pit, questions have pestered me for years, like mosquitoes you can’t merely swat or shoo away. What became of our new passage? Did a different breed of people come and carve names, initials, hearts and dates into the walls? Did selfish collectors follow the path we blazed and break the soda straws from the ceiling leaving stubby lumps behind? Did opening the new passage change the environment of the cave, drying up water even as it slowly expanded the delicate formations? I haven’t been back to Fire Pit. I can’t answer any of these questions. I’m not sure I really want to go back, Fire Pit was my first taste of real exploration and seeing it desecrated would hurt.delicate cave soda straws

Since Fire Pit, I’ve mapped caves with biologists; I’ve set recording devices to monitor bat movement and behavior. I caught invertebrates for museum collectors in caves. I was never the first to step foot into a cave I mapped or helped research. The mapping and science bring up more subtle questions.

Recently I attended a caving club meeting in South Dakota, far from Colorado where I explored caves with Matt. A well intentioned man at the meeting gave a presentation of a virtual cave he’s creating, something made with clever programming and a laser mapping system. The virtual cave makes me think of all the people sitting in front of a TV, casually sifting through documentary films with the click of a button. Would you rather watch lions hunt in Tanzania or see the Great Barrier Reef? The virtual cave makes me think of people who would rather visit a zoo to see a tiger in a tiny cage than wander the Taiga to find nothing more than a footprint in snow and clench a rifle close to ward off the glaring truth of their own mortality. A virtual cave takes away the vital, visceral reality of a cave. A virtual cave demands nothing from you and gives you 360 degree access to everything without a flashlight. There is no mud, no banging your head into rock or scraping blood from your shin. A virtual cave is a fake. I have been asking myself if mapping, if photographing, if talking even replaces, bit by bit, caves, mountains, forests, animals with data.

Unexplored cave passageway is called virgin passageway. Virgin; it’s the same term used for untouched forests and of course untouched sexuality. Virgin implies something special to be given; to be taken only once. I wonder what it means that by our own definition a cave passage is no longer virgin as soon as we set foot in it. What does it mean to be the first to explore something?

Follow Zach’s explorations at Zach of the Jungle

Zachary Fitzner was educated in Biological Sciences in Colorado. He grew up in Wyoming and Colorado and learned to love nature and the outdoors at an early age. He’s done field work in conservation and biology in Alaska, The Caribbean, Africa, South America and the continental American West. He now lives in a small camper in South Dakota with his girlfriend and their Shih Tzu. He works in commercial paleontology and is currently working on an untitled essay collection about nature, conservation and outdoor pursuits. You can find links to his other works and read his blog at www.zachofjungle.com.

Photos provided by the author