Digging Into Dinosaurs

February 1, 2006
Filed under Destinations

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From the revolving restaurant atop the Calgary Tower, diners can see the 360-degree expanse
of southern Alberta’s vibrant city, Calgary’s downtown high rises and apartment buildings
giving way in the distance to suburban homes. By the time they finish dessert, diners will
have gazed to the west to see the spectacular and oft-visited Canadian Rockies, home to
Banff and Jasper national parks. As they look to the northeast, however, across ranches and
farms that define the prairie to the horizon, visitors to this first-rate, modern city may
not realize that within a couple hours’ drive they can travel back in time — many millions
of years, in fact — to a land richer in dinosaur fossils than anywhere on the planet. The
area around Drumheller, about 100 miles from Calgary, is called the Canadian Badlands, and
it sneaks up on travelers. Lulled into a prairie-induced trance by the endless tilled
fields they’ve encountered heading east on Highways 72 and 9, drivers may be surprised by
the sudden change in topography. Flat plains and gently rolling hills suddenly give way to
striated bands of color, as the land seems to drop away near the side of the road in
Horseshoe Canyon. With each descending layer of sediment, scientists can piece together the
area’s history as though thumbing through a textbook. Today, hoodoos shaped by wind and
water loom over coulees and sandstone cliffs, all of it covered by glaciers 10,000 years
ago, and all of it roamed by about 40 species of dinosaurs for millions of years prior to
their extinction. While mapping coal and mineral deposits in the area for the Canadian
government in 1884, Joseph Burr Tyrrell discovered a dinosaur skeleton, which was later
named Albertosaurus. Paleontologists have uncovered fossils of this slightly smaller cousin
to the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex throughout the area, including a bone bed in the nearby
Red Deer River Valley that may contain as many as two dozen Albertosaurus skeletons. By the
early 20th century, the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush was on; Barnum Brown, working for the
American Museum of Natural History, raced down the Red Deer River against Charles Sternberg
and his three sons, who were working for the Geological Survey of Canada, each team trying
to lay claim to the dinosaur skeletons with the most significance. Dinosaurs’ shadows
practically loom over Drumheller and the surrounding area today. In fact, at certain times
of day, one shadow actually does. Next to the Drumheller Information Centre, the world’s
largest dinosaur rears back on its powerful hind legs and exposes its frightening array of
teeth. Made of steel and cement, this stationary T. rex stands 86 feet tall, stretches to a
length of 151 feet and weighs 145,000 pounds. For a small fee, visitors can climb the 106
stairs that lead to its giant, gaping mouth, then look out over its choppers at the town
and the landscape far below. It’s difficult to imagine, while staring down from this static
dinosaur’s mouth at the tranquil Red Deer River, that the ground below was once teeming
with snarling, hungry carnivores like the one the sightseers are standing in — only far
more mobile. In their book About Tyrannosaurus, Don Lessem and John Homer put it this way:
“We’re lucky to have the opportunity to know T. rex, study it, imagine it and let it scare
us. Most of all, we’re lucky T. rex is dead.” This is certainly true, but that doesn’t mean
Drumheller can’t keep dinosaur tourism alive. And it does so in a variety of ways. Before
they play a round at the Dinosaur Trail Golf Club, see some living almost-dinosaurs in
Reptile World, eat a meal at Fred & Barney’s Family Restaurant (which asks the
question, “Hungry as a dinosaur?” in its advertising) or check into the Dinosaur Trail RV
Resort, visitors will inevitably pass streetlamps that display club-wielding cavemen or
some other dinosaur-related come-on. Yet travelers who have had enough dinosaur kitsch can
set out on one of many driving routes designed to highlight the region’s genuine history,
dinosaur and otherwise. In addition to the multi-day Canadian Badlands circle tour and the
Foothills to Prairies circle tour that Alberta South promotes, travelers can head southeast
on the Hoodoo Drive Trail, hop-scotching the Red Deer River as it passes through a number
of small towns. This trip is completely different depending on what time of day travelers
view the landscape, since pinks spring from the sandstone formations in morning light,
golds shine in the afternoon and rich oranges resonate at sunset. At noon, bone white
predominates. The Rosedale Suspension Bridge, the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne and the Atlas
Coal Mine National Historic Site south of East Coulee highlight this route. The Dinosaur
Trail, a 29-mile trip that begins in Drumheller, contains not only fun-filled family
attractions such as Funland Amusement Park, Badlands Go-Kart Park and one of the last
remaining cable-operated ferries, but it also includes the perfectly sublime Royal Tyrrell
Museum. The first three are self-explanatory, and words don’t do justice to the last. In a
land of over-sized creatures and grandiose claims such as “biggest” and “oldest,” the Royal
Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology should simply be called “the best.” Much more than a
dinosaur repository, the Royal Tyrrell Museum chronicles the history of life so thoroughly
that some visitors who fancied themselves aficionados in certain scientific fields will
realize that their prior knowledge had barely scratched the surface. Visitors who suffer
from science phobias will appreciate the step-by-step, exhibit-by-exhibit presentations of
how creatures evolved, from the first grains of pollen to the rise and fall of dinosaurs.
Interactive displays that present various laws of physics help explain how the gargantuan
species that roamed the surrounding terrain propelled themselves. Sea creatures that look
like they sprang from the mind of a lunatic on a peyote bender exist in the Royal Tyrrell
for visitors to gawk at, just as they once existed on Earth. Guests can watch as employees
excavate fossils from soil. As millions of years pass in eons, eras, periods and epochs,
visitors may be amazed by certain facts, such as the camel and the horse both having
originated in what eventually became North America. What they will definitely be amazed by
is the collection of dinosaur skeletons. Among its 10 galleries, the Royal Tyrrell displays
approximately 40 skeletons, the largest exhibit of its kind in the world. Paleontologists
found many of the more than 107,000 catalogued specimens the museum owns in Dinosaur
Provincial Park, about 75 miles southeast of the Royal Tyrrell near Brooks, Alberta, in one
of the world’s richest collection of fossils. The museum presents so much information that
visitors would be wise to buy a two-day pass, then negotiate the park’s galleries in easily
managed doses, rather than trying to cover it all in one walk-through and feeling
overwhelmed. To stand in the museum among these once-dominant creatures, to crane one’s
neck back to look up at the impossibly large jaw of T. rex is to contemplate the big
picture. Visitors who want to contemplate the cosmos and debate the dinosaurs’ demise
should hurry to the Royal Tyrrell before the next meteor hits.

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