Yesterday, for the twenty-fourth time since being hired on as a history teacher at Greenville Christian School, I loaded up my junior high history class and headed out with a gaggle of parent drivers convoyed up behind me towards the North Sulphur River. For those who don't live here in North Texas, the Sulphur is a large, artificially channeled river bed. Once a winding East Texas creek, looping all over the bottom like an epileptic snake, in 1928 local farmers got tired of the Sulphur overflowing its banks and drowning their crops every year. So they hired the Army Corps of Engineers to come in and straighten the river, cutting a smooth, straight channel for over 40 miles to help the rich bottomland drain faster and spare their crops. Of course, when you straighten flowing water, you also speed it up, and when flowing water speeds up, it erodes the banks faster and carries more debris downstream. The channel that was completed in 1929 was about 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep in the middle. Today, the North Sulphur Channel is about a hundred yards wide at the top - wider in places - and it cuts down through 30 to 40 feet of topsoil, Pleistocene clay, and Cretaceous ocean floor. It gets deeper and wider every year as the floods carry more and more bank and river bottom away.
What was an absolute disaster for soil conservation proved to be a wonderful boon to those of us who collect fossils and Indian arrowheads. Thousands of Native American points, knives, and tools have fallen into the river and been deposited on the gravel bars that cover its bottom over the years. Many have been recovered by collectors, but many remain to be found. Fossil bones and shells from a variety of upper Cretaceous marine fauna, ranging from the fearsome fifty foot long mosasaurs to giant oysters and tiny seaworms, are also scattered throughout the gravel. To the searcher with sturdy boots, a keen eye, and the patience to focus on staring at rocks for hours on end, the quest is nearly always rewarded with something amazing.
Of course, more importantly for 7th graders, the river is also swarming with frogs, baby ribbon snakes, the occasional turtle, and lots of that lovely and mysterious substance that somehow finds its way onto skin, hair, and clothing during the course of the day - MUD! I have watched 7th graders find lots of cool things over the years - fossilized shark's teeth, mosasaur vertebrae, Indian arrowheads, mastodon enamel, you name it - but the one thing they seemingly ALL find is a way to get completely coated in mud! They scoop it, throw it, roll in it, get stuck in it, and do everything but EAT it!
Every Sulphur River trip is different. Last year, the river was just coming off of a 30 foot rise, and there was only one set of tracks ahead of us. The gravel had been thoroughly tumbled, and the river bottom ripped up and redeposited. We found eight mosasaur vertebrae, five arrowheads, and dozens of other bits of bone, teeth, shells. Every student went home with something! Water was flowing freely, and the kids got muddy but were able to wash it off in the flowing stream. It was one of the most successful river trips in recent history - and I had my friend and videographer, Holly Rice, along to chronicle the day. You can see the video footage from that day on my YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbZoE8p1m8E
Of course, I doubt anything will ever equal the field trip I took back in 1997. Conditions were dreadful, it had been a dry summer and only one small rise had happened since school started. The water had just come up a couple of feet, enough to put a thick coat of mud on top of the gravel bars and make it that much harder to spot fossils! But then I happened to look in one of the small flowing water channels between the gravel bars, and just enough bottom had been peeled up to expose a complete Mosasaur skull just coming up out of the shale! I screamed myself silly that day, and with the help of one student and a couple of parents, I dug up the entire skull and hauled it out of the river before sunset! I don't have any video footage from that day, but you can see the skull and hear me tell the whole story of finding it at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7Z28c2LdbE&t=17s
Yesterday's trip was unique. Conditions weren't great - the river hasn't had a solid rise big enough to turn over the bottom since early July. The gravel bars were covered with weeds and grass burrs, but the last rain had put just enough water in the river to rinse things off a bit. There were footprints everywhere; many, many hunters had scoured the gravel ahead of us. But no one can find everything; we started finding small fossils almost right away, and by the end of the day we had picked up an impressive collection of shark's teeth, one mosasaur tooth, one arrowhead and one preform, numerous invertebrate fossils, and many small fragments of fossilized bone.
But the thing that will stand out in my memory from this trip was the SNAKES! Right away when we got there, I spotted a small ribbon snake that had grabbed a frog in its mouth as I entered the river. I grabbed it and it spat out the frog, and I showed it to all my students and posed for pics before letting it go. Then I caught a small banded water snake not five minutes later, and after that it was on. Eight snakes, two water snakes and six ribbon snakes, were caught before the day was out. It got to the point that the kids would holler: "Here's another snake, Mr. Smith" and I'd holler back: "Is it striped and little?" and when they said "Yes!" I'd say "Then you can go ahead and play with it!" One girl, named Avery, caught a baby ribbon snake and carried it around with her for over an hour, naming it "Salazar" and planning to take him home and keep him. Their relationship tragically ended when Salazar got tired of being carried and nipped her on the hand; it didn't break the skin but she did get the message and released him. Junior high romances rarely last!!
All in all, it was another memorable trip. We got back to the bridge, and the kids changed into dry clothes (under the careful supervision of chaperons of the same gender!), and then we posed for pictures in front of a bit of graffiti that's now been painted on the bridge for a decade or more - some optimistic soul wrote: "Meagan, prom?" and someone else - possibly Meagan - wrote a huge "NO!!" next to it. I now have eight straight years of pictures of my kids posing by that painted exchange. They are all hilarious!
And of course, the favorite part of the trip for the kids AND sponsors is the stop for burgers on the way home. Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Store serves hamburgers and fries (good ones, too!), plus some of the best ice cream in Texas. The kids chowed down and the weary chaperons joined them, happy that another year's worth of memories had been successfully made. Best of all, we got back to school at 3:10 - five minutes before the bell that marks the end of the school day!
Over the last twenty-four years, many students have come and gone through my classroom, and many wonderful and fun memories have been made. But the one day that they all remember, long after they graduate, is the day of the Sulphur River trip. Speaking of which, only 364 days or so till I take the next batch of kids up there . . . .