It may be the first day of school, but some students have been busy learning outside of the classroom this summer. The D.C. region is unusually rich fossil hunting territory, and children at Dinosaur Camp have spent the hot, humid days digging around for cool fossil findings.
Along this industrial cul de sac in Hyattsville Md., there is a strip club, a bakery, and a construction site. This is an unlikely place for a classroom, but it is where Dr. Peter Kranz is leading a group of children and their parents on a journey through time.
Bug spray? Check. Sunblock? Check. Collecting bags and geology hammers? Check.
Kranz is a paleontologist, and this is just another day at dinosaur camp. He wears a worn safari hat and his bright blue eyes shine from behind a scruffy mop of white hair and a curly white beard.
"This site that we're going through, it's been used for over 50 years," says Kranz. "Several of the landowners around here have illegally blocked access to the site."
It's no problem; the crew marches right through a gate and a muddy construction road. Before the bakery and the trucks were here, about 110 years ago, this was a different place.
"It would've been a swampy area with things like fish, crocodiles, turtles, frogs, and then of course dinosaurs of various sorts including raptors, big things like T-Rex, big sauropods like brontosaurus and things of that nature," Kranz says.
The D.C. region is well situated to catch glimpses of that former world, he says.
"Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area is the best place in the whole United States to look for dinosaur fossils because 25 miles from downtown Washington, D.C., we have represented every time period from dinosaur times," he says.
The group reaches a muddy hillside, and the children and parents alike are unleashed. One intrepid 6-year-old, Stassia Pruden, claws away at the dirt as her mother Elisa Pruden looks on.
"Mommy, look I just pulled this out," Stassia says.
Stassia has pulled out what looks like a large piece of charcoal, and her mother excitedly supposes what it could be.
"Oh my gosh it's like a ..." Elise says, trailing off. Her encouragement is cut short as she lets out a laugh -- Stassia has thrown the log of fossilized wood down the hill. Stassia is on a mission.
"I wanna find a buried tooth," she says. "A dinosaur…"
Stassia loves dinosaurs, says her mother.
"We thought maybe it was something she'd grow out of, but she's been into them since she was three -- it's been dinosaur birthday parties, the whole nine yards," she says. "They’re all over her room, it's what she wants to do when she grows up."
But there are no dinosaurs this morning. Dinosaur bones are rare, says Kranz.
"If dinosaur bones were as common as grass we'd go to the museum to see grass and we'd have dinosaur bones on our front lawn."
There are thousands of other fossils here, though, lying in plain view, including the log that Stassia threw out. It's lignite, which is a type of coal formed from a 110 million year-old tree branch.
One of the children hands Kranz a flaky piece of dry mud. The fossilized pine needles inside represent an age dominated by conifers, when most flowering plants hadn't evolved yet.
The dark clay used to be a riverbed where things were buried under the muck and preserved. A little further up, orange oxidized soil is all that's left of the banks of the ancient river. Above the water, things quickly rotted out, but their outlines remain in another layer.
One young man presents Kranz with a pair of possible footprints from this section of the site. "I think I found one," he cries.
Kranz seems unconvinced, but he tries to sound encouraging. "Well, it's possible," he says.
"I think it's a great education for the kids because they get to be out in the field and learn hands-on," says Suzanne Duffy, explaining why she brought her son along for the second year in a row. "They're getting to live it and experience it."
The biggest haul was back in 1989 when a parent found an 11-foot long marine reptile.
Kranz knows many of these kids -- even the ones who are obsessed with dinosaurs -- won't end up as paleontologists. Dinosaurs are a transitional fascination for many children, he believes. Many will grow out of the phase. But he does want them to learn and to have fun.
"I want them to realize that science is not magic; it's hard work and thinking," he says. "And I hope it will interest them to have a life long love affair with science."
And just like that, such an affair may have begun. At another site, on a beach in Fort Washington, one of the campers finds a shark tooth the size of a silver dollar.
"Wow, that's what I really want to find ... stuff like that," he exclaims.
About 110 million years ago, this stone was a shark tooth. Today, it's a twinkle in the eye of a 6-year old.