Three Men in a Canoe – A Fossil Legacy

Over the phone, Don Bell is matter-of-fact and modest, as if just about anyone could have accomplished what he, Henry Isaak, and David Lumgair did. But others didn’t – at least not initially, nor to the same degree – and you don’t have to look far to find proof of their legacy. It’s a floor below the indoor hockey rink in Morden, Manitoba, in a sprawling space called the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (CFDC).

During my research for ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life (Turnstone Press), Don Bell’s name came up often. “He knows more than almost anyone,” someone at CFDC told me. “You should call him.”

So I did. “Can you tell me how this all started?” I asked.

“We were on a canoe trip,” Don said.

(L to R) David Lumgair, Henry Isaak, Don Bell taken on the day they heard about the fossil find (Photo courtesy of Don Bell)

In quick steps, Don covered the story of a 1972 canoe trip involving a group of paddlers. Don, Henry and Dave were in one canoe, keeping leisurely pace with the others. At a stop for lunch, discussion ensued about a recent discovery of dinosaur bones in the Morden area.

“Hank and I were interested,” Don said.

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Bitten by curiosity, Don and Henry, both teachers, struck out at 6 a.m. on a later weekend to search for the fossil. A mile west of Morden’s Stanley Park, they turned south and drove another 300 metres. Lying exposed in a field, they discovered a large fossil skull. Immediately, they realized that it was not a dinosaur, but a long-extinct – and very large – marine reptile.

“We knew it was important,” Don added.

Ill-equipped to bring the skull home, Don and Henry drove back to town to regroup. By the time they returned, two young fellows were there, hammering the fossil to pieces.

The Manitoba Escarpment near Morden, Manitoba.

The Morden region lies at the edge of the Manitoba Escarpment. Eighty million years ago, at the time of the dinosaurs, the Western Interior Seaway sliced across North American dividing it in half. The escarpment is a by-product of Manitoba’s watery past and a rich source of marine fossils from that period.

At the time, the Pembina Mountain Clays Company had been mining the area for bentonite, a type of volcanic clay used in detergents and other products. Fossils turned up frequently, often crunched to bits by heavy equipment.

Realizing the scale of destruction, Don and Henry embarked on a mission to save as many as possible. The two got to know the miners and struck up a deal. When fossils surfaced, miners placed a call to the pair. In the evening, after the miners shut down for the day, Don and Henry salvaged what they could before operations resumed in the morning. Sometimes they worked through the night, excavating and jacketing fossils by the glow of headlights. They carted their prizes home and stored them in Henry’s garage and Don’s basement.

Knowing the demands of teaching, I couldn’t imagine a life of all-nighters. “What kept you going?” I asked Don.

“To me it was exciting, discovering something that hadn’t been discovered before,” he said.

A plesiosaur on display, one of many collected  by Don and Henry.

What started as a small-scale operation mushroomed. Interest spread. Volunteers joined the effort. Henry tapped into government grants and hired university students to help. The pair consulted paleontologists and made weekend field trips to Kansas City, Drumheller, and the University of Calgary, places with Late Cretaceous fossils and people with the necessary know-how.

Early on, David Lumgair – the third man in the canoe – got involved, too. He lived on a farm near Thornhill, a few kilometres from Morden. Fossils often surfaced on his land, and Dave had an open-door policy when it came to the growing brood of fossil hunters. He welcomed them and let them set up shop on his property.

In just two years, the ambitious team unearthed 30 mosasaurs, 20 plesiosaurs, and hundreds of other fossils from the region around Morden. In 1974, David’s farm yielded a spectacular prize – an immense mosasaur. Nicknamed Bruce, it took several seasons to unearth and jacket the entire creature.

Bruce, the world’s largest mosasaur, on exhibit at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre.

Eventually, the collection of fossils outgrew Don’s basement and Henry’s garage. It was moved to the Morden and District Museum, and then in 1976 to its present quarters in the lower level of Morden’s Community Centre.

Two university students with Victoria Markstrom (R), Field Collection Manager
for the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre at a dig site along the escarpment

Today, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is a world-class institution. It houses Canada’s largest collection of Late Cretaceous marine vertebrate fossils. The undisputed star of the Centre is Bruce. The sprawling 13-metre-long mosasaur is the world’s largest exhibited mosasaur and a Guinness record-holder..

The Morden area continues to yield fossil treasures, and new finds are constantly being added to CFDC’s holdings. The place is a buzzing hive of research and educational programs, and a fitting reminder of what three people hooked by passion and persistence can achieve.

This post was previously published on the Sci/Why blogsite where “Canadian children’s writers discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?”

Links:
Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre   
Turnstone Press  

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