There's bones in them thar hills

Trip Start Jul 08, 2008
Trip End Oct 31, 2010

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Flag of Canada  , Alberta,
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Obliged to go exploring by the presence of a long weekend, regarded by most as the unofficial start of summer, we decided to head to the Albertan badlands, home to canyons, hoodoos and fossils. We had also planned on visiting Dinosaur Provincial Park, but in the end decided that this was one stop too far. Instead we spent three days exploring the Drumheller region in a reasonably relaxed manner. I found it a curious change.

We drove down on the Saturday morning, arriving around about lunch time after a stop at the oddly named horseshoe canyon, a surprising hole just off the main road into town, marked by multicoloured earth and eroded cliffs. The sign explained that once upon a time this area was swampy and home to crocodiles and turtles. It could not be more different now.

Drumheller itself could not have embraced dinosaurs more enthusiastically. I had read that there is a dinosaur model on every street corner, but I had not appreciated that this is literally true. The visitor centre is dwarfed by an inaccurate tyrannosaurus rex 13 meters high and 26
meters long. For a fee you may climb up more than 100 steps and peer down on Drumheller from the beast's mouth.

It certainly felt like summer had arrived. The temperature was in the mid-20s and children played in the fountain on the lawns outside the information centre.

That afternoon we made a driving tour of the Red Deer River valley, heading out along the river, stopping to admire Horsethief Canyon (a maze of steep hills separated by narrow gullies cut by periodic waterflow, striking coloured in reds, greys and brown), past fields equipped with oil pumps, and back into town. We then headed out to see the much photographed and famed hoodoos. Hoodoos are outcrops of limestone that have survived erosion due to a cap of something harder protecting the rock underneath. So much is made of these that we were expecting a large field of them. This isn't what you get. Although the area is interesting and attractive, there are really only three good hoodoos, and getting photos of them without people in the way is a challenge. They are neat though. We hung around till sunset and as the crowds dispersed as I was trying my luck for artistic hoodoo-silhouette-with-sunset photos. The sunset was pale and unimpressive.

Sunday was even hotter and we saw a thermometer claiming the termperature to be 27 degrees. We spent a little while exploring a park in honour of a coal mine (Drumheller's original raison d'etre) with rusting lumps of equipment left behind to memorialise the event, including one device that looks like an enormous chain saw.

Naturally Drumheller has a fossil shop and I spent a happy little while browsing through this. It is a strange thrill to touch the remnants of something 100 million years or more old. I had no idea how cheap fossils are - you may collect a slightly opalised ammonite for a mere $10 or $15, or a beautiful cross-section of one for as little as $25 (or as much as $1500). A two-foot long triceratops horn was available for a mere $8000 or a mososaur jaw (with teeth) for $2700. While those prices don't tempt me, neither do they strike me as outrageous, considering what it is you would be holding. Some of the items are works of art as with the ammonite shells whose inner chambers fill with different coloured minerals. A common feature was polished flat rock with beautifully polished fossils implanted into them. Finally - art that I could imagine myself collecting.

Drumheller also boasts Canada's biggest reptile collection, the stated goal of educating people about these critters. Education doesn't feature strongly to my mind, and the prisons are unattractively maintained so that I doubt that many people would come away with an improved opinion of the animals. The frogs looked hungry.We drove out to the so called "ghost-town" of Wayne. This is not very ghostly but it is in a lovely setting and the hotel/restaurant did good dinners (locally reared bison-burgers if you want to experiment). It was a very pleasant spot on a hot afternoon. We worked our way back to the hoodoos for another futile sunset shoot as the weather turned suddenly windy and cold.

But we were rewarded for our planning. Monday had been scheduled for a day at the museum based on the forecast of rain. Monday was freezing and we were pleased to be inside. The Royal Tyrrel Museum is famous for its dinosaurs, and I thought it was very good. Fully 75 percent of the bones on display are authentic fossils not casts. And while I would have appreciated more specific information at times (it is interesting to know that something is the earliest crocodile yet discovered, but I would like to know when it lived), sometimes it is best to relax and just appreciate what is there. There is plenty to keep anyone with the mildest curiosity about the past busy for a day. One of the nice touches for me was that they have a window into the workroom where real palaeontologists work on real fossils, and with a real palaeontologist available to answer questions while working on a fossil ("without glue there would be no palaeontology").

Some of the displays are truly spectacular. All of the classic dinosaurs I learnt about as a kid are here - t-rex, allosaurus, duck-bills, triceratops (along with many other ceratopsians), ankylosaurus, mososaurs ... and there were others I had not heard of. I was interested to see the skull of carnotaurus, a dinosaur that they made much of in Bolivia with the most unlikely bony crests above his eye sockets. I was also interestested to see the diffference in the shrinking of the forearms in the giant therapod predators. Allosaurus (145 mya) has quite functional looking forearms, the later Albertosaurus (just like t-rex but a bit smaller and earlier (70 mya)) has arms that are starting to look vestigial, while T-rex's arms are just ridiculous. I was thrilled to see several archaeopteryx fossils (possibly casts).

But the museum is not just about dinosaurs. It has an interesting section on the Burgess Shale, including an aquarium in which models of the creatures are scaled up 12-fold. We heard one man commenting that when he saw this exhibit as a kid it gave him nightmares. It is not surprising really - these creatures were weird.

I always find the Pleistocene exhibits sad. Here are some extraordinary animals (mastodons, mammoths, sabre-tooth cats, enormous ground sloths, gigantic bison) that were living so recently. I missed them by a mere 10,000 years.

We had a reminder of the Pleistocene age on the way home, as we drove through a late May snowstorm, through white fields. How much more exciting would the prairies be if we still had mammoths somewhere out there in the snow?
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