Foraging for Fossils

There’s a geologist, a metal worker, a veterinarian, and a computer technician who lives in a trailer almost as snug as his old cubicle.

They come from Louisiana, California — even Germany — and just down the road.

Their enthusiasm is boundless, though their experience and qualifications are limited. In short, they enjoy getting down on all fours — toothbrush and dental pick in hand — and digging in dirt for hours on end. Bone fragments make them giddy; words ending in “saur” evoke downright delirium.

They are kids in a candy store, savoring the sweet taste of discovery. And, like children, their pleasure is divulged in boyish smiles and delighted giggles.

Part Indiana Jones, a little more like the Nutty Professor, they are among a smattering of explorers conquering the new West by way of the old: Grown men trading 9-to-5 jobs and steady salaries to dig for fossils in the foothills of Wyoming.

The Ultimate Business VentureThis is no hobby or weekend project. For these entrepreneurs, it is the ultimate business venture in an era of high-stakes stocks and dot-com millionaires — one that unites childhood fantasy and adult ambition.

“If I could make a living doing this,” Bob Simon says with a wistful sigh, “that’d be awesome.”

He is squatting on a sandstone hill high above a cattle ranch outside Shell, a 50-person speck of town in northern Wyoming. He wears a T-shirt splashed with pastel-colored dinosaurs, a bronze belt buckle in the shape of an Allosaurus and a baseball cap with the insignia of his fledgling company, Dinosaur Safaris.

He looks like he cleaned out a Jurassic Park souvenir shop.

Simon, 44, has spent almost half his life — 19 years to be precise — as an oil and gas geologist for Chevron in New Orleans. He earns a “good salary,” owns a four-bedroom house and commutes regularly to Washington, D.C., where his wife works as an environmental health scientist.

Yet Simon is trading security for uncertainty to make a go of his dream: leading dinosaur digging expeditions in Wyoming’s Morrison Formation, with rock layers dating back to the Jurassic period.

“I’m working two jobs, basically,” he says. “Hopefully, this thing’ll fly.”

Simon started Dinosaur Safaris in 1998 after his own weeklong digging vacation to the 80-acre site he now leases. On the third day of his trip he hit the jackpot, unearthing an Apatasaurus tibia and rib.

Simon negotiated a six-year lease with the landowners and, after a year spent exploring and developing a Web site, he is opening the dig site up to tourists through Aug. 11. A handful have signed up for one, three or five-day digs costing $90 to $450.

A New Career? If the business takes off, Simon plans to quit his job and spend his summers in Wyoming, overseeing digs, and winters in Washington, preparing bones. For now he can spare only a few weeks a year at the site.

When he’s not there, Roger Rousu is. Rousu is the so-called director of field operations for Dinosaur Safaris, although his own job description is less fancy: “I just move dirt.”

The longtime owner of a bronze foundry in nearby Cody, 52-year-old Rousu now spends his days digging, excavating and making cast molds of bones. He stumbled onto the job after meeting another fossil collector who needed a mold-maker. Eventually he met Simon, who gave him a full-time job and stacks of books to help him learn what to look for.

On Simon’s most recent visit to the site this summer, Rousu astounded his boss with his latest find — the 22-foot backbone of a plant-eating dinosaur, with more vertebrae still to be uncovered.

“That’s exciting,” Simon says, his eyes widening with pleasure as he knelt down for a closer look. “Finding something like this is nice — pretty darn nice.”

A satisfied smirk pinching his lips, Simon stood and surveyed his temporary workplace, raising his arms as if to embrace the land and all its hidden treasures.

“You can see what it’s like out here,” he says. “New Orleans to this? Come on.”

For Simon, New Orleans to Shell would be the fulfillment of a fantasy. A few miles south of him, one amateur fossil collector already has seen his dream realized. A few miles west, another is struggling to survive.

In 1993, Burkhard Pohl was on the verge of moving from Switzerland to his native Germany to open a veterinary practice. After an eight-week vacation to Wyoming, Pohl returned home and packed up his wife and two children.

Changes in Direction Only instead of heading to Germany, he relocated to Thermopolis — a central Wyoming town of 3,500 people known for its trout fishing, elk hunting, hot springs and, now, dinosaur fossils.

“It is a little bit strange,” admits Pohl, a jocular fellow with curly hair and a bushy mustache the color of nutmeg, and chubby cheeks to match.

Stranger yet is that this veterinarian from Frankfurt went on to become the benefactor of Wyoming’s first facility dedicated to excavating, preparing and displaying dinosaur bones discovered within the state.

An amateur fossil hunter who had collected the remains of birds and small mammals, Pohl had never been interested in dinosaurs until he ventured to Wyoming with friends seven years ago and found dinosaur bones embedded in the mountains of a private ranch in Thermopolis.

Pohl purchased the land and, in 1995, opened the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

“I made this into a temporary business, and it got permanent,” Pohl, 44, says in a still-thick accent.

Five years later, as director of the center, Pohl oversees a 16,000-square-foot complex that includes a museum, working dig sites on two main quarries and a preparation laboratory. The center draws about 40,000 visitors each year and has a staff of nine.

Among Wyoming’s amateur fossil hunters, Pohl is the proof one can make it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bernie Makowski.

A year ago, Makowski was making $8 an hour as a computer technician in California. Then his wife divorced him, and he lost his job. Makowski sold a target rifle, bought a pickup and a trailer and headed east.

He landed in Cody, on the western edge of Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park, and found work at the Wal-Mart. On the side, as he had done as a hobby since childhood, he scoured the surrounding hillsides for fossils.

When he found a few marine deposits on ranchland south of Cody, he offered the landowners 10 percent of any profit he earns to gain access to 500 acres. Last September, he moved his trailer onto the property and began digging full time.

“When I found this I thought, ‘This is my opportunity,“‘ says Makowski, 45.

Ten months later, he has discovered dozens of bones and fossils, mostly of marine mammals. On one recent weekend, he was hunched over a hillside working to unearth what he believes is a crocodile skeleton. About a dozen volunteers from local rock clubs pitched in.

Makowski tried to sell some of his finds to publicly funded institutions for further study, but that’s when he learned an important lesson in the world of amateur paleontology: Professionals are ethically bound from working with novices who intend to profit off their discoveries.

To date, Makowski has sold nothing. Instead, he lives off donations, eats cheese sandwiches and pilfers water from his landlords’ hoses. His trailer is powered by a wind generator he built from a car alternator and plane propeller. Even his eyeglasses were donated by a local ophthalmologist.

“To be honest,” he says, “I thought I could make a decent amount of money. I didn’t expect to be a millionaire, but I was looking to have a piece of property, a nice home and a reliable vehicle.”

Not Risk Free Simon and Pohl agree fossil hunting is a financial risk. Simon has poured more than $30,000 into his business, and hopes to simply break even. Pohl won’t say how much money he sank into the Dinosaur Center but acknowledges the venture was more costly than expected.

And there are other drawbacks. Amateurs are restricted to collecting on private land, forcing them to negotiate leases with the landowners. Anyone other than a paleontologist or an educator caught collecting fossils on federal lands can face fines.

Then there’s the criticism from professionals who accuse novices of sacrificing science for money.

Are there big bucks to be made off a big find? Could there be a Sue “Tyrannosaurus rex” Hendrickson is this group? Probably not, but these guys say the financial risks, restrictions and ridicule are worth the thrill of trying.

The Sue fossil was found near Faith, S.D., in 1990. Named after the fossil hunter who found it, it is believed to be the largest and most complete T. rex fossil ever found.

“It’s just an amazing feeling when you start opening the ground and you find something that’s never been seen before,” Makowski explains. “It’s like coming on a crime scene and taking all the clues and figuring it out. It’s seductive. It’s solving the mystery.”