Having arrived safely at the flying convention, we found that its first day's schedule was mostly "on-your-own" activity. So we decided on our own to visit Drumheller, about 75 miles southeast of Red Deer. Drumheller is home to some very unusual geological formations in the Alberta badlands. Many significant fossils, some of them quite large, have also been found there.
Drumheller has a good airport, but you can't rent a car there. We needed a car in the area, so we drove to Drumheller from Red Deer. But we did stop to visit the airport there. As you can see, they have a mascot. Some airports have birds to advertise them. In this prehistoric place, a pterosaur is a natural choice. Better yet if it's also a wind vane, like this one.
Here's an aerial view of the Red Deer River valley near Drumheller, and the
same spot as seen from the ground. The lighter colored fields are canola, a
crop that was developed in Canada (the name is derived from the words
Canadian oil). A couple of weeks earlier, those light green patches
were brilliant yellow.
They grow a lot of canola in the southern part of Canada's
prairie provinces and in the north central United States.
It was bred for a favorable fatty-acid profile, to
be used as a healthy source of protein. We humans use it for cooking oil and
margarine, but the product is also a key ingredient of livestock feed, pet
food, and fertilizer.
Over the course of a few million years, the Red Deer River has carved a broad valley, interacting with the particular rocks near Drumheller to form the Alberta Badlands.
There's a larger photo of the valley here.
We were in this part of Alberta to see the hoodoos. These odd rock formations are the product of ten thousand years of wind and water erosion. Acting like umbrellas, protective caps of hard sandstone have prevented the hoodoos from wearing away as fast as the surrounding rock. Erosion of the pillars is slowed down but not stopped; eventually, the hoodoos will collapse.
The brown shale layer at the bottom of the hoodoos was a sea floor 73 million years ago. Signs of marine life may be found here. The upper grey sandstone section was formed by sand deposited by rivers and streams about 70 million years ago – a time of swamps and dinosaurs.
Hoodoos in progress. The word hoodoo is from the West African Hausa language, meaning "to arouse resentment, to produce retribution." Hoodoo was a distinct magic practice introduced to North America in the 18th century, different in nature from the more familiar voodoo. Aboriginal people used "hoodoo" to refer to evil, supernatural forces. Some believed these hoodoos were giants turned to stone by the Great Spirit because of their evil deeds. In Blackfoot and Cree tradition, they come alive at night to hurl rocks at intruders.
There are a few potholes here and there among the hoodoos.
These boys have found a cave to explore. Nearby, a mother and son build an inuksuk. We have seen inuksuit all over southern Canada, where they're a bit out of place. People seem to like the idea of leaving a marker that isn't graffiti.
The coal mine at Rosedale was productive, but hard to reach; so the company built this suspension bridge for the miners to walk across the Red Deer River on their way to and from the job. Between the latticework walkway and the bridge's natural swaying motion, watching the river flow directly beneath you can be an enhanced experience in vertigo.
Of 139 coal mines in the area, only one remains, the Atlas Coal Mine in East Coulee. It's now a National Historic Site. When the mines closed, the towns that had sprung up around them quickly became ghost towns.
Not surprisingly, many fossils have been found around Drumheller. The city's visitor center claims to have the world's largest dinosaur, and they'll let you climb up into its mouth for a couple of dollars. The kids are at ground level, just behind the dinosaur's right hind foot.
Just outside of town is the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which is worth a visit all by itself. This active research center has exhibits of some of the fossils that have been found in this area. The display is organized as a winding path. The visitor walks through the museum from one geological era to another, oldest to modern times. The gatekeepers are replicas, of course.
Once you're inside, they show you where and how ancient bones are retrieved from the ground. There's a video camera above the young volunteer here, so we can watch the screen over her head to see how she brushes the dirt away from some very old bones.
After death, this Ornithomimus body lay exposed under the hot Cretaceous sun. Theory suggests that the flesh decomposed, muscles dried and ligaments tightened, pulling the skeleton into a dramatically arched position. Soon afterwards, sediment buried the body, protecting its striking posture for over 70 million years.
These animals are about knee-high. The assortment of bony knobs protruding from its skull gives this dinosaur its name, which means "horned roof." The domes are larger on what are believed to be the males. They may have been used to ram other individuals. In this mount, a male Stegoceras prepares to butt a rival in the ribs.
Found only in North America, Plesiobæna was unable to draw its head into its shell the way modern turtles do. The streamlined shell and long tail suggest that Plesiobæna was an efficient swimmer.
At right, a pair of Dimetrodon bask in the sun, their bones in three dimensions and the artist's conception on the mural. There is speculation that these creatures used their sails like peacocks' tails, to attract mates or discourage competitors.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum also houses a few "living fossils" – animals that live today, but have very ancient features. The Axolotl, native to Mexico, is one of the ugliest examples of these. The creatures are only two or three inches long. These amphibians are unusual because they remain in their larval form with gills and fins, but are able to reproduce. Sort of like prehistoric teenage mothers.
Ammonites were squid-like creatures that lived from about 350 to 65 million
years ago, when they died out with the dinosaurs.
Although the fossil is found in many locations,
the unique conditions in southern Alberta have combined to render some samples
of ammonite into a gemstone that is only found here. In addition to burial
beneath many layers of sediment, the fossils were heavily compacted during ice
Rene Vandervelde founded Korite International to mine, produce and distribute Alberta's unique prehistoric jewel.
In 2003, he donated this prize specimen (valued at $50,000) to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It was polished and lacquered for display, but otherwise left alone. It's about four feet across.
In the course of searching for more ammonites, the Korite company has discovered two previously unknown dinosaur species.
on to Red Deer