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The Uplands: October

October 17, 2009

Dave Rudkin and Michael Cuggy were here for a research visit this week. Dave and I had just enough time for a quick collecting trip to the Grand Rapids Uplands.

Leaving the snow behind on Wednesday morning

Leaving the snow behind on Wednesday morning

October fieldwork in central Manitoba is always a tricky proposition. Sometimes you can be lucky and have fabulously crisp, sunny days. In previous years, however, we have had to cancel trips due to autumn storms, and this year we discovered just how quickly lake-effect snow can change the landscape.

Dave’s plane was late arriving in Winnipeg, and by the time we gathered his baggage and left the airport it was getting toward noon. We drove almost nonstop to Grand Rapids, pausing only for gas and “road food,” but still just managed to get to the field site at 4:30 pm.  A flock of juncos skittered away as we bumped the vehicle across the gravel, reached our parking spot, and unloaded gear in the slanting light.  The air was clear and cold, maybe just above freezing. On our drive north we had seen areas with significant snow on the ground; there was no snow on our site, so we really weren’t going to complain too much about the weather.

It was chilly collecting in toque and gloves, but what was much more striking was the change to basic field conditions in comparison with a previous visit just two months ago. On the positive side, there were no biting flies, we did not overheat or sunburn, and little dust was generated as we hammered and moved the thin slabs of dolostone.

But there was one negative aspect that surprised me. Many of the slabs that would have been easily extracted in the summer proved almost immoveable now. Pounding on the chisel produced a strangely dead, heavy thump, instead of the usual heartening ringing. We were to discover that this was caused by the mud between the layers, which had frozen into a remarkably adhesive mortar. And when a slab was finally extracted and flipped, the underside was usually coated with a a thick layer of rime and mud.

We began to realize that we could not follow the summer approach, in which we would patiently clean off and examine each surface of the rock. Rather, all likely looking slabs were grabbed and packed up for cleaning back in the lab. As it turned out, this “lucky dip” approach would pay dividends. But perhaps I will save that for the end of this piece.

The low angle of the late afternoon sun makes some fossils "pop" out of the rock ...

The low angle of the late afternoon sun makes some fossils "pop" out of the rock ...

... but other fossils are rendered invisible by the frost-covered surfaces.

... but other fossils are rendered invisible by the frost-covered surfaces.

By 6:30 the light was fading, and we packed up so that we could find our way back to the highway before complete northern darkness set in. In two hours of collecting under unusual conditions we hadn’t done badly at all. We had gathered enough fossil slabs to nearly fill one Rubbermaid tub: jellyfish, a horseshoe crab, and parts of eurypterids, all snuggled into foam wrappings for their trip to Winnipeg.

Rose hips

Rose hips

Back in Grand Rapids the Chinese restaurant was doing a fine job, and we enjoyed their black pepper beef and chicken. It was still clear and cool as we wearily made an early night of it, but by morning things had changed considerably:

An "interesting" dawn outside the Grand Rapids Lodge

An "interesting" dawn outside the Grand Rapids Lodge

We were up early to take advantage of all the daylight available. Light flurries were falling as we headed to the Pelican Landing for the traditional breakfast of eggs and bannock toast. By dawn, heavy lake-effect snow was swirling across the highway. Grand Rapids sits on a short stretch of the Saskatchewan River, between Cedar Lake and Lake Winnipeg. This location makes it prone to summer fogs, and, in fall, to lake-effect snow and rain. The cool winds passing over relatively warm water can pick up an immense quantity of moisture, forming unpredictable, billowing grey clouds.

What a difference a few minutes can make! Fortunately for us, the weather improved dramatically as we moved away from the lake.

What a difference a few minutes can make! Fortunately for us, the weather improved dramatically as we moved away from the lake.

We drove out of the snow, the clouds replaced by a bright morning sun. Along the roadside, the larches (tamaracks) put on a wonderful show of autumnal colour, as within a stand they varied from delicate lime green to a deep orange yellow. Dave slowed the Jeep to a crawl as we passed two flocks of sharptail grouse, but the numerous frames we shot did not result in a single useable photograph. We didn’t even attempt a picture of the swirling flocks of snow buntings; it was far more worthwhile just to observe and marvel at their coordinated chaotic flight.

Back on the site, the good fossil-hunting luck continued, in spite of the cold. Unlike the summer, when we were tempted to use the vehicle’s air conditioning to cool us during breaks, we now got into the Jeep at midmorning to warm cold-numbed fingers. Still, by early afternoon we had filled another bin and two large bags with unusual fossils.

Collecting fossils in -3°C weather required appropriate layering of clothes (note the cup of essential hot coffee).

Collecting fossils in -3°C weather required appropriate layering of clothes (note the essential cup of hot coffee). (photo © Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

We were intrigued by this huge burrow-like structure, which was on the underside (sole) of a slab.

We were intrigued by this huge burrow-like structure, which was on the underside (sole) of a slab. (photo © Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

South toward Grand Rapids it was still snowing. A considerable thickness of wet whiteness had accumulated, and the curves north of town were slick and icy. The snow diminished as we continued southward away from the lake, but patches of flurries extended well into the southern Interlake.

In the lab on Thursday and Friday our focus was on some of the unusual arthropods we had collected on previous trips, but we also managed to unpack and clean most of our trophies from this week.

And the fortuitous outcome of that “lucky dip” approach? On the back of one of the jellyfish slabs, covered with a thick layer of mud, was a large and beautiful eurypterid. Sometimes I think it might work just as well to collect at random as many slabs as the vehicle will hold, and haul the lot of them back to the lab. Sometimes.

Passing one of the Twin Creeks on the way home

Passing one of the Twin Creeks on the way home

© Graham Young & The Manitoba Museum, 2009
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