Volunteers who play in the dirt

“I don’t do manicures!” Kay Fredette said with a chuckle.

She’s far too rough on her hands for fancy nails. For 31 years, she’s worked as a volunteer at the Rabbit Valley, Mygatt-Moore fossil quarry. You will find her there three days a week in the summer, on her hands and knees in the heat or carrying buckets of rocks.

When she’s not at the dig site, Fredette, 79, works in the lab at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita. In 2016, she volunteered 865 hours. She’s had her picture in various publications so many times, the staff members at the Museum of Western Colorado joke that she is more well known than they are. Her story has never been told, however, until now.

Life as a dino digger

“I was always interested in life sciences, but not necessarily dinosaurs,” said Fredette. “I went to the museum in 1986 thinking I might be a docent. I had never even been to Dinosaur Journey, which at that time was in the old Penney’s building on Main Street.”

A volunteer position was available in the paleontology lab and they asked if she was interested.

“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try,’” Fredette said. “Now here I am in the quarry, working on real dinosaur bones with toothbrushes, dental picks, screwdrivers, air scribes and paint brushes.”

Fredette had a basic knowledge of anatomy before volunteering, but would soon discover many dinosaur quirks—for example, some dinosaurs have three long sets of vertebrae in their neck, back and tail.

“It’s very exciting!” said Fredette. “When you find a bone, you are the first human to lay eyes on something that is 152 million years old.”

She is now the Museums of Western Colorado’s volunteer laboratory supervisor. She directs the cleaning, preparation and identification of fossil specimens to be studied and exhibited. These skills take years of training to develop.

“Some find lab work boring, but not me,” Fredette said. “It’s the same eye-hand coordination as knitting or other hand work.”

She said some days out in the field are just about moving rock, but volunteers tell themselves they are moving rock to get at bones. This labor-intensive work has paid off with some noteworthy finds.

In 2010, the world’s largest apatosaurus femur was discovered in the Mygatt-Moore quarry. And it wasn’t found by a professional paleontologist—it was found by Fredette.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, another vertebra,’” said Fredette.

But it wasn’t just another vertebra.

“It was the longest and most complete femur ever found, weighed 2,400 pounds and took us four years to carefully uncover, cast and move to the lab,” she said.

After three more years of cleaning, it’s now ready for exhibit—that is, if they can find a large enough display case.

The Museums of Western Colorado said Fredette’s assistance is significant in making Dinosaur Journey into one of the leading paleontology museums in the nation.

“I would encourage people if they’re interested in being a volunteer,” said Fredette, who has no intention of quitting any time soon, “don’t be intimidated. It’s fun!”

Sense of discovery

Every hour Janice Shepherd spends volunteering for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a chance to go somewhere she hasn’t been before, and to challenge her sense of discovery.

The Grand Junction office manages nearly 1.3 million acres, so there’s a lot to discover.

“I like to approach every outing being aware of what’s around me,” said Shepherd, 59. “The things I discover are about history, and a connection to the land and people who came here first.”

In 2016, there were 27,000 volunteers for BLM-managed lands in the U.S. Shepherd was one of just seven to be honored with a “Making a Difference” national volunteer award. She averages 500 volunteer hours per year, working in a variety of capacities.

“The people at the BLM are dedicated and knowledgeable about balancing resources for recreation, wildlife, habitat, oil and gas, grazing rights, et cetera, and I wanted to be a part of that,” said Shepherd. “The BLM has a small staff to manage so much land.I can leverage that by bringing back information they can use.”

Shepherd considers herself the eyes and ears of the BLM.

In 2010, the bureau was looking for public input on a new resource management plan. She helped staff members realize its inventory of roads and trails was inaccurate and stepped up to help. She also got involved in archaeology field trips, documenting historic sites, such as camps of miners, cowboys and sheepherders.

“The learning possibilities out there are infinite,” said Shepherd. “There’s always the potential for seeing something I haven’t seen before. I’m always wondering what’s around the corner.”

When Shepherd finds something, she does research, learns more and then researches some more. At one site, she found a dated sardine can, which led to her learning that in 1900, 200 million cans of sardines were consumed in the U.S. because of their ease of transport and high protein value.

Shepherd is an avid traveler and hiker who completed an inventory of climbing sites within the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. She regularly contributes to trail maintenance, construction and restoration projects, as well as annual National Public Lands Day cleanups.

“Janice stands out because she takes time to see where her efforts would help us the most,” said Alissa Leavitt-Reynolds, Grand Junction BLM field office archaeologist. “She asks herself how her work will be meaningful to our goals. She also has an intense attention to detail and processes, and is great on projects with kids.”

Mesa County is a better place because of Shepherd’s energy and passion for public land stewardship.

Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman is passionate about writing and loves sharing the stories of family, love, volunteering and adventure of the people she interviews. Raised in Wisconsin, she has called western Colorado home for more than 30 years. She loves traveling, reading, photography, hiking, camping, biking, cross-country skiing and exploring the outdoors with her husband, Dan, and Papillon, Abby.
Melanie Wiseman

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