Dragons of the Great Divide
The Gonzo Shutterbug
June 2: River of No Return Wilderness Area
One year after the meteorites came down . . .
Those were just some of the names the press had hung on him. People Magazine had dubbed him the Digital Cowboy for his iconic videography work. The Entertainment Tonight interviewer called him the Wildlife Wild Man. Rolling Stone had done a feature article on him with the title: Jackson Lattimer: America’s Gonzo Shutterbug. His cover photo showed him in full profile. A safari bush hat shadowed his weathered, sunburned face. A leopard skin hunting vest adorned his broad chest. He cradled an automatic rifle under his left arm. In his right hand he clutched a zoom-scoped Sony Cyber-shot camera. A smaller videocam hung from his neck. Behind him a pride of lions looked ready to pounce.
Jackson Lattimer loved the attention. Reveled in it, in fact. He wore the labels proudly. That kind of reputation was good for business.
He mused on his public profile as he led his film crew along the uneven deer trail, alert for potential trouble. A bright full moon and a million shimmering stars illuminated the nightscape, casting a silvery sheen over towering western white pines and rocky gorges. The Salmon River whispered and gurgled in the distance. His team—Sam Beeson and Milton Haynes—huffed and puffed behind him, their LED miner headlamps casting wavy shadows along the path. Three pairs of hiking boots crunched out a rhythmic cadence as they ambled through the canyon.
Jackson Lattimer’s risk-taking fearlessness is what made him one of the world’s preeminent nature documentary filmmakers. His pet slogans were: “Anything to get the money shot,” and “No predator too dangerous.” He’d lost count of the number of times he’d narrowly escaped death to capture images of aggressive wildlife.
And if he was a thrill junkie, then his team of Sam Beeson and Milton Haynes certainly followed his lead. Trusted longtime employees of his production company, both men had nerves of steel under pressure. Both were well versed in still life photography and action videography in the field. They were always his first choice when shooting in North America. The three of them had done many wildlife shoots together working as a small, efficient crew.
This excursion, however, presented new and risky challenges. This trip was unlike any they had ever attempted—tromping through miles of remote Idaho backcountry under cover of night in search of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The Tyrant Lizard.
Jackson couldn’t wrap his head around it completely—going after prehistoric beasts.
Dinosaurs! It boggled the mind.
He had missed out on all the fun last summer when a cluster of meteorites had struck this part of the country. Meteorites that hatched out hundreds of Cretaceous Period dinosaurs. It had been the news story of the century—more accurately the biggest story since the beginning of recorded news—and he had missed out.
For much of last summer, Jackson had been on assignment in sub-Saharan Africa, filming a National Geographic special about hippos in Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. As much as he had wanted to return to the U.S. to get in on the dinosaur renaissance, he couldn’t. Especially not after the tragedy. One of his crew had been killed in a hippo stampede while filming underwater scenes in the Luangwa River. The dreadful ordeal was still fresh: A half dozen two-ton hippos, protecting their territory and young calves, charged the film crew in a churning, earthshaking wave of river water and massive bodies, their stout legs like the pillars of a huge building stomping the river bottom. All but one of the crew got out of the water in time. The loss of Manny Mulenga—a Zambian contract guide Jackson had used on several previous Africa trips—hit everyone hard. Especially Jackson, who would never forget the tears that had been shed when he informed Mulenga’s family.
Jackson had done everything he could to educate his team on the dangers of hippos, stressing their aggressiveness and unpredictability. Most people thought the beast Africans called river horse to be fat, slow, and lazy. They couldn’t be more wrong. The hippopotamus was the deadliest land mammal on the planet, able to move quickly through deep water and run at speeds up to twenty miles per hour on land. Hippos killed more than 500 people a year in Africa. He had drummed that into his crew. But even though he had prepared them, they’d still suffered a tragic loss. Accidents could happen so quickly in the wild. They had captured some remarkable footage of the giant aquatic beasts, but Manny’s death cast a dark pall on the shoot.
Jackson wasn’t about to be denied filming the Cretaceous creatures again this summer. He wanted—needed—to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex up close. It had been a desire burning deep within him all through the fall and winter as he worked a couple of other projects—photo documenting the decline of polar bears in Manitoba, Canada, and traveling to the South Australian Neptune Islands to film great white sharks and their migratory habits.
He had done a great deal of research before deciding on this vast nature preserve in central Idaho. He had watched a lot of what he considered to be amateur quality video of Dromaeosaur and Tyrannosaurus Rex hatchlings and juveniles. He’d read numerous scientific reports pertaining to The Great Dinosaur Hatchout. He’d studied maps and read the Hayden Fowler-Nora Lemoyne book published to great acclaim in April, Cretaceous Stones: The Return of Prehistoric Life to Earth, where Fowler surmised this Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness had potentially the largest concentration of T-Rexes. It was also where that crash survivor helicopter pilot, Russell Cavanaugh, had evaded a pack of Tyrannosaurs for a week or more. Hayden Fowler contended that this remote area—with its extensive cave systems and scant human population—was a good possibility for where T-Rexes might hole up and hibernate during the harsh winter. And many zoologists agreed that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a nocturnal animal. With the spring thaw well underway, and a full moon to illuminate their night work, Jackson felt certain this was the time and place to spot a Tyrannosaurus Rex or two. He wanted to be the first this summer to photograph one in the wild. He had to be first!
His reputation depended on it.
His self-respect demanded it.
He knew this was an entirely different level of danger from filming hippos. In addition to the risk of encountering flesh-eating dinosaurs, this area was known to be inhabited by bears and mountain lions and rattlesnakes. So far they had been lucky to avoid trouble. No snakes or mountain lions or attacking grizzlies. The three of them had been out here three days now, and they had not seen much wildlife. Just a family of black bears foraging huckleberries on the opposite side of the Salmon River. A few mule deer and elk. A small herd of bighorn sheep tight-roping ridges up along the cliffs. Last night they explored a cave network just above Cave Creek, packed full of active brown bats. Lots of bat guano there but no sign of dinosaurs. No prints or tracks. No piles of scat. No dinosaur prey carcasses.
The search for Tyrannosaurus Rex continued in this two-and-a-half-million acres of unspoiled nature. This was Jackson’s first trip to this part of Idaho. The area brought to mind a deserted planet. They had not seen another human being or a single dwelling on their three-day trek. Just a natural wonderland on the verge of breaking out in full summer glory. It was gorgeous, but he did have to admit, the isolation of the place spooked him at times.
They hiked on, headed for another cave system, this one larger than the one on Cave Creek, according to his research. The trail took an upward swing, the three of them breathing heavier with the increase in elevation. The rifle felt heavy in Jackson’s gloved hands. His bulky backpack—stuffed with camera equipment, camping gear, make-ready meals, and drinking water—weighed him down. He felt the miles they had slogged in his legs and feet, the lack of sleep dogging him.
He heard Sam behind him. “How much further, Jack?”
“We’re almost there, I do believe.” Jackson stopped and pulled his inReach satellite communicator from his pack. “Let’s take a short break, fellas, while I get our bearings.”
“My feet thank you, my friend, as does my ass,” Milt Haynes muttered, his words rolling out on puffs of tiny steam clouds in the chilly night air.
The three men lessened their backpack loads and propped their rifles against large stones that lined the path. Sam Beeson sighed as he took a seat.
Jackson looked up from his GPS device, pointed up the trail with his chin. “Our destination is up over that ridge. Another half mile, maybe a little more.”
Beeson munched on a protein bar, drank Gatorade from a water bottle. He wiped his mouth with the back of his arm and said, “I hope we run across one of those dinos soon. The boredom’s about to kill me.”
Jackson smirked at him in the dim light. “Those Rexes hunt in packs. You see a few of ’em coming at ya, you’ll wish you were still bored. I hope you brought several changes of clean underwear, Sammy.”
“Ha-ha,. You’re frickin’ hilarious, Jack. They’re just big dumb lizards.”
“So you think,” Milt Haynes said, lighting up a smoke. “I’ve seen enough of those videos from last summer to convince me we need to be on our toes. Those polar bears we tracked on Hudson Bay are child’s play compared to these Tyrannosaurs.”
Jackson said to Beeson, “He speaks the truth, Sammy. We’d best treat Mr. T-Rex with utmost respect,” he said, recalling the hippopotamus catastrophe in Zambia. Haynes and Beeson had not been with him on that trip. They had never experienced a situation like that. Jackson Lattimer knew just how quickly one of these wildlife shoots could run off the rails.
Sam Beeson waved him off. “Maybe so, but I refuse to fear a dumb animal. If things go south, I’ll just shoot the sonofabitch.”
“Not if he eats you first,” Milt said with a malicious grin.
Jackson shook his head. “Listen, guys, the only shooting we’re going to do is photographic.” He lifted the rifle from his lap. “These are last resort only. Self-defense, and only if it’s life or death. Understood?”
Both men mumbled their acceptance.
After a 15-minute break to rest and rehydrate, they were back on the trail. Forty-five minutes later they stood at the gaping mouth of a huge cave, marked as Moose Valley Cave on the topography survey map.
“So here we are, guys. Time to strap on,” he said, referring to their night vision goggles.
Jackson watched as Beeson and Haynes removed their headlamps and pulled on the EyeClops infrared stealth goggles. He did the same. His view brightened to a ghostly green glow.
“It’s showtime,” he said, hooking his rifle over his shoulder and grabbing a handheld spotlight from his pack. “You guys know the drill. Keep your cameras ready and your guns close. No telling what we might find inside.”
Jackson entered the cave. Wide enough to drive three Mack trucks through. His adrenaline ratcheted up.
This is what it’s all about.
The mortal gamble.
The fear . . . my lifeblood.
The darkness enveloped him as he moved further into the interior. Beeson and Haynes followed close, glancing left and right, attentive, vigilant, the moonlit entrance disappearing behind them.
Jackson heard Milt Haynes exclaim, “Awesome! Shine your spot over this way, Jack.”
Jackson turned and directed the powerful beam toward the far wall. Long columns of limestone stalactites drooped from the vast ceiling. Through the goggles they looked like giant emerald icicles. “Awesome is right, Milt. Grab a few frames.”
“Got it covered,” Sam Beeson said, snapping off a series of stills of the stalactite grouping, his Nikon shutter emitting faint click-wheeze noises with each shot.
They moved on. Jackson waved the spotlight side to side, looking for evidence of creatures. They rounded a sharp bend and paced down a long straightaway. He heard water dripping in the distance. The air was damp and smelled of mildew and dust, a hint of sulfur.
They had trekked another forty yards when he spied a pile of brush bunched at the foot of a large boulder. The vegetation looked odd in a cave that had been all rock and dust to this point. He led Beeson and Haynes to the tangle, his curiosity mounting. Took a knee and inspected what looked like a snarl of tumbleweed and sagebrush.
“Hmmm, what have we here?” he said, reaching out to dig into the twist of foliage.
“Wait, Jack,” Beeson said. “Could be snakes in there. Looks like some nasty thorns, too. Better glove up.”
“Here, take this, Sammy,” he said to Beeson, handing him the spotlight.
Jackson put his gloves back on that he’d removed when entering the cave. Gloves made it difficult to operate his cameras. His hands protected, he reached into the brush and pulled the top layer back. What he saw nestled in the center sucked the breath from his lungs.
Six very large eggs. Elliptical, elongated. Like a half-dozen colorful rugby balls laid out in two symmetrical rows. The shells were marked with distinctive swirling patterns, appearing as though they had been dyed with paisley designs.
They didn’t look anything like terrestrial eggs. At least none that Jackson had ever seen.
He pushed the goggle headset up on his forehead. The eggshell swirls glowed bright blue and green under the spotlight.
He touched one of the eggs. Tough and leathery.
Could it be?
“What the hell is that?” Sam Beeson exclaimed from behind the light.
Jackson’s voice carried a tenor of reverence. “Gentlemen, I believe we have found our dinosaurs.”
“Jesus H!” Milt Haynes said in a spellbound whisper. He lifted one of the eggs from the nest, needing both hands to extract it. “These things are damned heavy. Must weigh close to ten pounds. And the shells are tough. Feels like thick canvas.”
Jackson nodded. “I know. Can you believe it?” he said, his tone one of awe.
“I wonder how close they are to hatching out,” Beeson said.
Jackson stood, a foreboding uneasiness coming over him. He stared into the darkness ahead. “I’m wondering something else,” he said, looking back at the colorful egg in Milt’s hands. “I’m wondering how close Mama Rex is.”
A tremor in Sam Beeson’s voice. “You really think these are Tyrannosaurus Rex eggs, Jack?”
“Well, they certainly aren’t chicken eggs. Look at the size of ’em—the weird patterns, the thick shells. Gotta be dinosaurs. Big bastards like Rex. Shine that light up ahead, Sammy.”
Beeson swung the spot away from the nest and down the tunnel. The powerful lamp lit up the path ahead. Nothing but limestone and granite all the way to where the walls curved out of sight.
Then, as if on cue, they heard a long, caterwauling cry from behind them, coming from the entrance.
A reverberating warning.
The three of them turned in unison. Beeson jerked the spot around, throwing light on the cave walls back to the bend.
A slow anxiety began to rise in Jackson. “I believe mama bitch is here, fellas.”
“And she doesn’t sound happy,” Sam Beeson intoned with a nervous tic.
The lone cry was joined by others.
Strident trumpeting sounds, like the cries of imperiled elephants.
More than one animal?
The three photographers stood rigid, gazing into the void, questioning, incredulous. Deeply concerned by the cacophonous alien calls.
Jackson realized they were trapped with no way out. He should have known to keep close watch on their rear flank. Carnivorous dinosaurs like T-Rex were night hunters, and the hunt would be the only thing to take them away from their nest. Faint vibrations flowed through the soles of his boots as the creatures advanced. Apparently they were returning from their nightly feed. How many of them are there? he wondered.
He chastised himself for his lack of foresight.
And just then, three massive animals came around the bend. Blinded by the powerful spotlight, they stopped in their tracks, seemingly confused and irritated by the bright light.
Jackson looked on in stunned disbelief. Magnificent creatures, he thought, transfixed by the sight. They’ve gotta be nine feet tall and weigh five-hundred pounds! Definitely Tyrannosaurus Rex. Much bigger than the ones filmed last summer.
Standing on two heavily muscled hind legs, they were alien. Prehistoric predators. Bigger than mature grizzlies with oversized heads and wide shovel mouths. Rows of wicked teeth. Scaled hides that gleamed in the light. The one in the lead clutched a bloody deer in its deep mouth, a big buck. Flopping it around like it was nothing more than a lightweight rag doll. The two in back brayed like distressed donkeys. The three beasts glared at them through blood-red eyes in a malevolent stare down.
Jackson’s all-consuming professional drive to get the impossible footage overpowered his survival instincts. He grabbed his videocam and began filming.
“What the hell’re you doing, Jack?” Sam Beeson shouted, trying to keep the light steady on the beasts.
“Doin’ what we came to do. Keep the spot on ’em, Sammy. It’s holding ’em back.”
“They aren’t gonna stay put much longer,” Beeson croaked, his nerves evident. “They look mighty pissed off. I say we run.”
Jackson continued recording, eye fixed to the viewfinder. “Keep that goddamned light in their eyes, Sammy! You hear me?”
“This is insanity,” Milt Haynes called out. He glanced down, surprised to see the egg still cradled in his hands. He tossed it back into the nest where it bounced but didn’t break.
“I’m not gonna die here with you, Jack. No way!” He brought his rifle up against his shoulder.
Jackson turned away from the videocam, watched Haynes assume the shooter’s stance and take aim. “Don’t do it, Milt. They haven’t made a move yet.”
The unnerving braying and shrieking increased in volume, but the creatures remained frozen in the light.
“They’re . . . they’re all . . . jacked up,” Haynes yelled over the din, his finger firm on the trigger. “I ain’t waitin’ until they charge us.”
“I’m telling you, Milt, don’t do it,” Jackson warned. “We’re okay. The light has ’em stalled.”
“So you say. This is nutso, Jack,” Haynes boomed. “Time to take care of business.”
The videocam whirred in Jackson’s steady hands. He was capturing incredible footage and wanted to keep it going. But Haynes was going rogue on him. Milt was going to ruin the shoot.
“Jesus, Milt, get a grip!” Jackson snarled. “Stow the gun and get a frame on ’em. Do it now goddamnit!”
Milt Haynes ignored him, firing off a round, the rapid-fire blasts deafening. The first few shots sailed high and wide. Subsequent shots struck the lead animal in the throat and shoulder, making it drop the deer carcass, the buck’s rack clacking against the rocky floor. The Rex let out an indignant growl, followed by a sorrowful cry, then began stumbling toward Haynes, who fired again. Three more blasts found the mark in the Tyrannosaur’s chest and belly, the force knocking it backward. The beast let out an angry grumble before it went down on its back. The huge animal lay sprawled out beside the buck, blood pooling around its wounds, thick hind legs twitching spasmodically. It bellowed a loud death knell before finally eking out a weak sigh and going still.
Jackson felt the flush of anger as he watched Haynes reloading, fumbling the new cartridge and dropping it.
“Holy shit!” Beeson shouted as he backpedaled. The spotlight zig-zagged across the two standing behemoths, both of which trumpeted their anger.
Jackson barked at Beeson. “Hold that goddamned light steady, Sammy.”
“No way! Time to move, Jack.”
The two remaining Tyrannosaurs came out of their trance and charged, pouncing on Haynes so unbelievably quick he couldn’t get off another shot. Milt Haynes’ scream was snuffed out as his rifle and headgear clattered to the floor under the onslaught. Beeson dropped the handheld spot and sprinted for a nearby rock outcropping while the animals tore into Haynes’s lifeless body.
Jackson Lattimer was stunned and devastated. He thought he would lose it. He fought to maintain his composure as he continued filming, backing away swiftly from the T-Rex feeding frenzy. Through the night vision lens he witnessed the violent death of his longtime friend and employee, Milton Haynes. The Tyrannosaurs made quick, gruesome work of Haynes’s corpse. But some twisted sense of professional duty made Jackson keep videotaping. Have to get the money shots, no matter how painful, he thought, feeling some shame at his photojournalist’s creed.
In the viewfinder, he saw one of the beasts rise up from the feeding and turn its attention to him, blood and drool and stringy intestines dripping from its mouth. Jackson knew the time had arrived to cut bait and run.
Quickly, he shut off the recorder and jammed it into his pack, then turned and bolted to the rock pile where Beeson had fled. His heart racing triple time, he heard the Rex snorting and trumpeting behind him as he reached the grouping of large boulders.
Beeson, peering out from a narrow gap, shouted, “Climb up top, Jack! There’s an opening big enough to squeeze through.”
Jackson hit the rocks at full speed and leaped just as the Rex made a lunge at him, trying to take him down from behind, clipping his boot heel and knocking him off balance. Breathlessly, he regained his footing and crab-walked to the top of the rock formation, his lungs burning with each gasp. Found the entry point. His hands shook as he removed his bulky backpack and stuffed it through the narrow crevice, keeping his eye on the Tyrannosaur below, the animal repeatedly sliding off the smooth boulders in desperate attempts to climb up after him. Jackson bent and slid through the opening, dropping down into a dark claustrophobic enclosure and joining Sam Beeson.
Both men were silent, in shock, struggling to recapture their wind. They observed the pair of Tyrannosaurs through the narrow, floor-level fissure, the animals snorting, drooling, and braying, trying without success to get at them. The opening was just wide enough to give them a limited window on the cave. Jackson saw immediately that their vantage point was too narrow to get a rifle barrel through.
Sam Beeson’s voice was loud in their tight granite cubicle. “I wonder how long we’ll have to stay in this coffin.”
“However long it is, we’re better off than Milt, God rest his unfortunate soul.”
Jackson reached for his backpack and rummaged through it for his satellite phone. He pressed the red power button. The small display panel lit up the tight space. He was immediately crushed.
Beeson noticed his downcast expression. “We’re doomed, aren’t we?”
Jackson nodded. “Plenty of power but no service. Too much rock surrounding us.”
The two of them remained silent for a long while, watching as one of the Tyrannosaurs huffed and grunted and sniffed just outside the enclosure, frustrated at not being able to get at them. The space filled with a foul wild animal odor. Jackson shivered and scooted back as the big beast lowered its head and peeked through the narrow opening, its flame-red eyes searching for the human prey it could smell.
He heard Beeson say, “You’re insane, you know that, Jack?”
“Well, yeah. Tell me somethin’ I don’t know. But I will say this. It should have been me, not Milton,” he said, shaking his head, feeling the loss deep in his chest. “Poor bastard. Jesus.”
Beeson said, “Why do you think they went after Milt and not us? I mean, we were out there in the open with him.”
“Just guessing, but Milton was who they saw fondling one of their eggs. He’s the one who shot at them. He was a natural target.” Jackson glanced at the predatory crimson eyes peering in at them through the crack, listened to the Rex making high-pitched squeals like a startled horse. “You still think they’re just big dumb animals, Sammy?”
“Big, yes. Dumb? Absolutely not.”
More long quiet minutes in the stultifying dark. Jackson thought about what they’d just been through. He’d lost his second crew member in less than a year. Both in horrifying fashion. Milton Haynes had been a good man. A family man with a loving wife and two young children. One of the best young nature photographers in the business.
He felt tears pooling in his eyes. His emotions teetered on the edge. He tried to hold back a sniffle. Couldn’t.
“Are you crying, Jack?”
In answer, he let it go, erupting into a full-scale weeping jag. The gonzo shutterbug thrill junkie bawled like a newborn baby.
He was too devastated to be embarrassed.
Sam Beeson reached out and rubbed his shoulder. “It’ll be okay, my friend. Everything will be fine.”
Jackson Lattimer wanted so badly to believe him.