Great State: Muddy History

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PAULS VALLEY, OKLAHOMA -- It isn't a well traveled stretch of Washita River. The water is too low in late August for fishing or canoeing. But James Capers still walks this stretch of riverbank whenever he can. "As water washes things downstream, the river separates according to size," he says.

Capers doesn't come for the beauty of the place even though it's quiet. He's on a hunt for bones, the fossilized proof that other creatures walked the same path. "This spot is a honey hole," says James. "There have been camel found here, sloth, saber-tooth cat, all kinds of animals."

He keeps his eyes down looking for anything that sticks out. Caper says, "We're just walking along looking for a rock that doesn't look like a rock."

The riverbed stretches out. Mud caked rocks and garbage compete for any novice hiker's attention. "I hate to say this," complains a novice hunter, "but everything looks like a fossilized tooth." "It does," laughs James, "and we may not find anything today, but we're going to look anyway."

Capers combs this area over and over because it's always yielded great treasure. "Teeth, bones, lots and lots of petrified wood."

In his Pauls Valley business he keeps the latest haul from his river hunts. The most prized are pieces of mammoth tusk, shoulder bone, and huge teeth. James holds up a tooth fossil from a young mammoth. "This is a lower left tooth," he points out, "from the lower jaw."

After rains and during long dry spells, the Washita spits out all kinds of history. James keeps everything from earl settler on back. He says, "There's no telling how much stuff I've pulled out of here, at least a pick-up load."

He is a hunter who takes his time. A patient eye is the key to success. "As with all things in life sometimes you have to stop and turn around and look at things from a different angle," says Capers, "because you're liable to find something that you walked right past."

In this kind of hunt spoils belong not to the quick but to the slow.

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