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Beyond The Paleo
In Western Canada's Badlands, Scrounging For Dinosaur Bones Is Just Part of the Fun

By Howard Schneider and John Schwartz
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 1998; Page E01
   


We had hiked along narrow, winding ridges to a hilltop in the middle of Horse Thief Canyon, in the Badlands of Alberta in western Canada. At our feet, prairie sage and cactus flowers grew. Above us, the walls of the canyon rose, banded with evidence of the ages.

It can be a difficult trek. Crusts formed from grayish-green smectite, mineralized volcanic ash, turn as slippery as Vaseline when it rains. In that day's dry weather, orange-red pebbles of ironstone slid like ball bearings under our feet. Black coal seams stood out against the other muted bands of rock, exposed by the scraping progress of glaciers and the steadier erosion of wind and rain.

This eerie landscape is a trip across the eons. Standing two-thirds of the way down the canyon, the strata mark a point about 68 million years old, an era distant enough to bring us close to our prey. Guided by a group of entrepreneurial paleontologists, we were hunting game that's as big as it gets: dinosaurs.

"Imagine the plains of Serengeti, with wildebeest coming to the edge and trying to cross. There are predators. There is a panic," said Mike Waddell, a guide with Exposaur Excursions in the nearby town of Drumheller. "Imagine the same thing happened here" between herds of large plant-eating hadrosaurs and the large meat-eating Albertosaurus that pursued them and scavenged their corpses, back in the days when these same Badlands were lush forests and river delta.

Finding, extracting and displaying the remains of those ancient reptiles has become a chief industry of Drumheller, an otherwise unremarkable town of around 7,500. Founded on the promise of its numerous coal seams, prosperous more lately due to oil exploration, the small western Canadian town has also become one of the world's most important centers for paleontology, and a growing center for science tourism.

Indeed, the same prehistoric conditions that cause oil and gas to pool under layers of stone also make this excellent dinosaur-hunting country. The geologists who explored the area 100 years ago for coal found dinosaur bones as well; Joseph Burr Tyrrell (TEER-ell) discovered a particularly nasty meat-eater that he named Albertosaurus sarcophagus, for the province. That creature is now the mascot of Drumheller, and Tyrrell its patron saint.

The idea of a science vacation might send most families running in the other direction, fleeing the taint of good-for-you homework in favor of water parks and roller coasters. But Drumheller's quirky blend of solid science and cheesy tourism can appeal to both sides of the brain, particularly youngsters who might be dino-obsessed at one moment and clamoring for water slides the next.

Like our two 8-year-old boys, Jack and Sam. They had long been able to tell a Parasaurolophus from a Pachycephalosaurus. We figured that these pre-kindergarten pals separated by their dads' careers could have a memorable reunion among the fossils. Jack, a lanky towhead, eagerly chose the dig trip over summer camp. Sam, stocky and mercurial, was excited about seeing Jack and accepted the dinosaurs as a bonus.

It was a good time to head north. The Canadian dollar is at its lowest point in history, which makes travel for Americans a bargain: The American dollar is currently fetching around $1.41. Drumheller is reasonably close to other major western Canada tourist destinations, such as Banff and Waterton Lakes national parks, and is less than a two-hour drive from Calgary International Airport. Savvy travelers could add dino days to, say, a white-water rafting or camping excursion, a visit to one of the province's dude ranches or a trip to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a museum devoted to a site where Plains Indians drove buffalo herds off a cliff.

In the town itself, you can wake up at the Best Western Jurassic Inn (it's the one with the re-created "Jurassic Park" entrance, complete with flaming torches) and then visit the striking Royal Tyrrell Museum. You can golf in the afternoon on a course carved out of the Badlands hills, take the kids to the local Go Kart track, or visit a working dinosaur excavation at Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The museum, a modern building molded into the Badlands hillside, has during its 13 years in operation found that delicate balance between legitimate science and Nintendo-generation glitz. A warehoused collection holds more than 100,000 specimens, and its staff of paleontologists and technicians are strong voices in global scientific debates about the history of life, the path of evolution and the still-murky fate of the dinosaurs themselves.

That research forms the backbone of the museum's displays and interpretations of fossil riches drawn from Alberta, and imported from around the world. But the museum has also developed song-and-dance routines, hands-on camps for kids and other programs to popularize its work and keep the stream of tourists--currently about 400,000 annually--coming.

An eye-catching display of meat-eater skeletons is introduced with a flashy graphic of the exhibit's hip title: "Extreme Theropods." Probing the mysteries of an ephemeral group of creatures discovered in western Canada's Burgess Shale, the exhibit is a multimedia marvel of soft music, black lights, computer animation and 12-times-life-size renderings of animals for whom names like "Hallucigenia" are quite appropriate.

"We have everything," said museum spokesman Scott Meller. "The schlock to the pure science."

Along with the expected skeletons and dioramas, the museum has placed computer terminals throughout its building that let visitors try their luck at surviving in Paleozoic times, or at interpreting different sets of footprints for conclusions about behavior. After a morning in the museum, kids can spend the afternoon making plaster dinosaur casts, digging through pails of dirt for molded fossil pieces and playing dinosaur games with the staff.

This is no locked-in-the-display-case science. Like many of the best paleontology museums, the Tyrrell's scientists collaborate with researchers worldwide, and the museum conducts several area digs. Current excavations at nearby Dry Island might shed light on whether some species of carnivorous dinosaurs traveled in packs. Even the specimens in their own museum are constantly under review: An exquisite skeleton of what appears to be an undersized Albertosaurus could soon be classified as a new species. Chemical etching techniques developed by Tyrrell scientists dissolve the rock surrounding some specimens, leaving astonishingly detailed trilobites whose wispy extremities could never have survived a human preparer's pick.

Unlike a visit to the Smithsonian, or other urban museums, when you walk out of the Royal Tyrrell you are in the middle of the very landscapes from which the fossils come.

Better yet, the museum and a budding cottage industry of local firms let tourists actually "do science" alongside experienced paleontologists. Visitors can sign up for one day of field work, or camp in with museum staff for a whole week of full-bore digging.

On a recent visit, our trip out to a dig site was canceled because of rain, and so participants in the museum's "Day Dig" were instead put to work in an immense fossil preparation lab. There, using an assortment of picks and other tools that would look at home in a dentist's office, we helped free specimens brought from the field still encased in rock and a protective coating of plaster.

This is the slow, repetitive, grunt work of paleontology, but it is the best way to understand the effort taken to reconstruct the full skeletons on display just outside the lab door. No one hunched over the lab table looked bored.

Drumheller has embraced its new identity as a paleontology center. Alongside the grain elevators and pumpjacks that dot the area, the locals have decorated their buildings with dinosaur murals, painted an enormous, toothy carnivore face over the entrance to the farmers' market, and placed gaudily painted dinosaur statues throughout the city. A large meat-eater graces the town square, and there's a downright cuddly ceratopsian across the street from the Sizzling House Chinese restaurant, which advertises itself as "One of the Country's 500 Best Restaurants."

If you should arrive in town on a festival weekend, you can also get a heartening dose of western Canadiana, including (in our case) the town's July 1 Canada Day celebration and rodeo. Along with the morning parade, there were chuck wagon races and a touring wrestling show.

Rowdy from the day's events, Drumheller's professional wrestling fans took over the Stampede Grounds arena building, their shouts and taunts rattling the corrugated metal structure. Wooden school chairs were arrayed around a colorful ring, and chunks of insulation dangled from the roof as wrestlers with names like "Jamaican Jack," or the vinyl-clad American longhair called "Hot Shot," did battle.

By the time the language got too coarse for our boys and we dragged them out, they had learned a valuable lesson about fakery and showmanship. We, on the other hand, had determined that no American fighter could possibly best a Canadian on Canada Day. As the reputably polite Canadians on our row kindly informed us, "U.S.A. sucks!"

Those who tire of such city pleasures can drive one of two "Dinosaur Trail" loop tours that cover more of the odd terrain and even stranger tourist attractions of the area. The Little Church just beyond the Royal Tyrrell seats only six people, and a stop at Horse Thief Canyon features a trail leading to a hilltop lookout point. The nearby Bleriot ferry, which the locals encouraged us to experience, crawls across the narrow Red Deer River, winching itself along a cable for an agonizing three minutes. A sign boasts that it represents a return to the "slower pace of life" in bygone days. No kidding.

A longer but more important day trip from Drumheller is to Dinosaur Provincial Park, about a two-hour drive into the "baddest" of Canada's Badlands, so named because their near-barren maze of hills proved great for cactus and thieves on the run, but torture for early explorers and settlers.

The park is the site of many of Alberta's most spectacular dinosaur finds, including examples of at least 35 species. The Tyrrell has a field station and a small exhibit hall there--not much compared with the Tyrrell itself, but quite a collection by the standards of most other museums. The real star here is the setting: deep gorges cut into the pastureland and miles of layered hills below, cactus spread across prairie grass and colorful warnings to hikers about rattlesnakes and northern scorpions.

Driving and walking trails recount the history of the place. One leads to the quarry maintained by Barnum Brown, the paleontologist who plundered these lands for the American Museum of Natural History during the "Canadian dinosaur rush" back at the turn of the century.

During those years, tons of fossils from this area were excavated and sent to become the centerpieces of museums around the world. Only in the 1970s did Alberta's provincial government move to preserve the local geological heritage. Because of those laws, Dinosaur Provincial Park is tightly regulated, with warnings posted against prospecting, or even stepping too far off the four maintained hiking paths.

Despite the controls, it's not impossible to take back a little bit of history. Excavated fossils belong to the Crown, but taking a handful of finds from "surface prospecting"--picking up bone chips or other small artifacts lying around on the ground--is still allowed. And the hills and canyons surrounding Drumheller are rich with such small treasures.

If you're not in the mood to get your hands dirty, the Fossil Shop in Drumheller offers sharp therapod teeth, dinosaur eggs and even whole reconstructed dinosaur limbs for sale. Prices range from a couple of Canadian dollars for fossilized shark's teeth to $150,000 for a Triceratops skull, sold a few years ago. The clerk at the store explained with a smile that all of the samples are legal, having been collected before the restrictions went into effect, or purchased in other countries, where the restrictions are not as tight. The store also features jewelry fashioned from ammolite, a multicolored, shiny mineral that comes from a kind of fossilized ammonite. Spiral-shelled relatives of today's squid, ammonite had a tendency to fossilize with an iridescent sheen that renders them useless for study but lovely to the eye.

The density of this area's fossil remains is one of nature's happy accidents, Tyrrell guides explained. The entire region was covered and uncovered repeatedly by a vast inland sea, and in that era had a climate similar to modern-day Louisiana.

Networks of rivers, deltas, swamps and floodplains ran through the lush woodlands, attracting a wide variety of dinosaurs, including horned grazers such as triceratops and the duck-billed creatures known generally as hadrosaurs. They in turn drew predators like Albertosaurus and smaller meat-eaters who attacked or scavenged the old, the weak and the dead. As these animals died, their bodies were covered so quickly with silt that the bones were preserved; over the ages, minerals permeated or replaced the original bone, leaving fossilized proof of their existence.

During the Ice Age, glaciers cut deep gashes into the landscape and washed away more sediment as they melted 10,000 years ago, leaving that rich record so close to the surface that scientists initially disbelieved the tales local farmers told about bones sticking up in their fields.

What remains is an evolutionary narrative open to any experienced guide. On our trip, Waddell walked us through the details. During the hike into Horse Thief Canyon, he relayed the geological basics of the region, and the rudiments of careful fossil excavation--how to cut away the thinnest layers of soil and rock, remove it with a brush and feel for harder or sharper bits that can be evidence of something interesting.

After we completed the hike into the canyon, the intense prairie sun baking our necks and a maddening cloud of summer gnats collecting around our heads, Waddell put us to work on the company's latest find, a hadrosaur skeleton exposed along a high shelf of rock.

A leg bone, ribs and a piece of the lower jaw had already been partially uncovered, and were protected by "dino-wrap"--a plaster jacket separated from the fossil by a layer of wet toilet paper.

Our job was to prepare the jacket for one exposed piece of bone, and continue the dig on the off-chance we might find more of it. Waddell offered no guarantees. Fossil hunting is like fishing; you can know where to cast your line, but there's always a good chance you'll return home empty-handed.

It was sweaty work, and the gnats and the sun grew more and more annoying as time passed. "I'm tired of dinosaurs!" Sam shouted heretically, and headed off to explore the hills and "hoodoos," mushroomlike formations created when wind and water eroded the soft limestone columns under harder caps. Jack continued scraping away layers of crumbly shale with a tiny pick, but was also swatting away the flies and asking when the snacks would come out of Waddell's backpack.

Waddell sensed it was time to guide us down to the valley floor with the promise of souvenirs we could keep. After the heat of the hike, and the tedious time spent scraping through dirt with nothing yet to show for it, we had our doubts. But at the bottom, he promptly began pointing here and there among the tumbled rocks and pebbles.

"There's bone," he said. "Bone. Bone. Bone. Bone. Bone."

We got the point, and it was bracing to see the embarrassment of fossiliferous riches, tens of millions of years of life and death, washed down from the side of the cliffs. We scrambled up and down the slopes, choosing the few bits of yellowed bone we were allowed to take home.

Then we headed back up for a last bit of digging, with Waddell offering little hope that we would uncover anything new. As he began packing his sack and finishing his record-keeping for the day, the two grown-ups on the tour continued brushing away at a layer of crumbling shale.

"What's that?" one asked, as a shiny enameled cone suddenly stood out against the dull rock. As the other reached for the item, Waddell quickly came over and took it in his more experienced hands.

"Right on!" he hollered with real enthusiasm. "I've been expecting this."

It was, it turns out, the oversize tooth of a meat-eater (probably an Albertosaurus) that had perhaps been feeding on the hadrosaur remains, replete with flesh-tearing serration on one side. It was not just a find, but a good one, more evidence of the behavior and lives of the animals that once walked this land.

Catalogued, recorded and turned over to the company for its research, the tooth could later end up at the University of Calgary, or as part of the Tyrrell's collection if it proves scientifically valuable. It wasn't a souvenir that could go with us; but the thrill of discovery was undeniable, and the memory was a keeper.

The kids crowded in to see and hold our treasure. After reading about these animals in books and seeing their sometimes exaggerated likenesses take starring roles in Hollywood and at amusement parks, it was humbling to pull a piece of one from the ground and place it in the hand of an awestruck child.

Amusement parks are great. But nothing beats the real thing.

DETAILS: Dino Days in Alberta

GETTING THERE: Air Canada is among the airlines offering connecting service to Calgary from National or Dulles airports; it's quoting a round-trip fare of about $500, with restrictions. Calgary International Airport is serviced by all major car rental companies, and travel from there to Drumheller takes about two hours.

WHERE TO STAY: Drumheller has two new hotels, the Super 8 (1-888-823-8882) and the Jurassic Inn (1-888-823-3466). For kids, the Super 8 has the advantage of an indoor water slide. A room for four is around $85 per night. There are also numerous other hotels and bed-and-breakfasts near the town, and for those with an even more adventurous spirit there is camping available at Dinosaur Provincial Park.

WHERE TO EAT: If you don't arrive expecting world-class cuisine and super-efficient service, Drumheller, for a small town, has a quite acceptable selection of restaurants. For breakfast, we had good luck at Smitty's and the Corner Stop. The menus were basic--eggs and pancakes--and the service was slow, but the food was good. For lunch, we twice found ourselves at park or museum cafes, both fine, and once at the local pizza parlor, 249-Pizza--a popular stop in Drumheller, and for good reason. For dinner, try the Sizzling House for good Asian food, or the Old Grouch, where you can get a decent hamburger, or, surprisingly, cabbage rolls and perogies.

WHAT TO DO: Admission to the Drumheller's Royal Tyrrell Museum (403-294-1992, http://tyrrell. magtech.ab.ca) is $4.30. Camping at Dinosaur Provincial Park (403-378-4342, http://www.gov.ab. ca/env/parks/prov_parks/dinosaur/ index.html) is $8.60 a night; interpretive bus tours and hikes are $3.

INFORMATION: Travel Alberta, 1-800-661-8888, http://www.dicoveralberta.com.

--Howard Schneider and John Schwartz

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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