From the Field: Finding “Miss Piggy” and Late Ordovician fossil fragments

Posted: September 12, 2011 - 09:43 , by David Rudkin

July 24

Away to the airport this morning to see Ed off to Winnipeg - there goes our ace bear protection and GPS expert! At least we had a chance to do the firearms familiarization before his departure, so all are up to speed on handling various pyrotechnic deterrents. I’ll ride shotgun in Ed’s absence, with Matt as backup, and incoming member Sean adds another pair of sharp eyes to the fossil team.

The team testing the bear detterant guns on a range.

Safety drills for emergency bear deterrents. Left - On the range, Debbie demonstrates perfect form with a "cracker" pistol, using .22 cal. blanks to push a small, but very loud explosive charge about 30 metres downrange. Right - Matt, under Ed’s watchful eye, runs through procedures for the more powerful 12 gauge shotgun crackers; this will place the pyrotechnic device about 90 metres away - a much safer distance at which to convince a bear to move off. I should point out that although we are licensed, trained, and required to carry firearms as normal fieldwork protocol, we have NEVER had to resort to using these during our forays around Churchill

On our way back from the airport we stop briefly at the crash site of C-GYHT, a C-46F “Curtiss Commando” of 1945 vintage, that made a forced landing about 400 metres short of the runway on November 13, 1979. Amazingly, there were no fatalities. The wreckage, locally known as Miss Piggy, remains largely intact … a somewhat disconcerting sight when viewed from the air on an inbound flight!

An old air plane wreckage stranded on the rocks.

Miss Piggy on the rocks - the wreckage of C-GYHT

A man stands on the wing of an air plane wreckage.

With the waters of Hudson Bay in the background, Graham Young does his wing-walking act; Inset - starboard engine in its final resting place.

For the remainder of the day we concentrate on fossil-finding at our main site, using search techniques refined by taking into account what we’ve learned about the subtle characteristics (colour, texture, internal lamination, fracture patterns, etc.) of the most productive rock type. Initially, we had hoped to locate the exact outcrop layers that yield rare horseshoe crab and eurypterid remains, but the beds are shattered and poorly exposed, and we are unable to match up the rocks in place. Our efforts are refocused on scouring adjacent debris (which clearly hasn’t been moved very far), and it pays off. We steadily build up a nice collection, even through the sun’s glare and clouds of biting insects do their best to distract … yes, even good weather has its drawbacks!

The crew sorts through rocks on the shoreline looking for fossils.

At work on the foreshore. Left to right: Graham Young, Matt Demski, Debbie Thompson, Sean Robson.

A selection of rocks sorted by the crew.

A typical return after hours of searching and splitting rocks; the collection includes two fragmentary eurypterids, the "head shield" of a horseshoe crab, and several specimens of small, delicate "bottle-brush" green algae.

David Rudkin and bugs floating around his head.

Self-portrait, with black flies, mosquitoes, and bulldogs!

Down the shorline in Churchill, Manitoba.

Shoreline of "polar bear alley" in the evening (left - east view; right - west view)

Shorter grasslike plants grow in the foregound with large rock formations behind.

A view southeast towards the ridgeline. This beautiful embayment contains an important sequence of rocks containing some very interesting fossils, but it is the one stretch of the coast that really gives me the willies ... far too many places for aforementioned bears to lurk undetected!

This evening, after unpacking the day’s fossil take and breaking for dinner, we return to the coast with insect repellent and shotguns to walk the tidal flats of “polar bear alley” – the method in our apparent madness boils down to re-examining yet another section of Upper Ordovician rocks that helps tie together the local geological story. Well worth the slog through a flooded section of the track, and the 40 additional mosquito bites, but after an hour or so of straining my eyes for the sight of furry boulders I’m very happy to call it a day and trundle back to the Studies Centre.