Hoodoo Hunting in Alberta

November 16th, 2010  |  Published in Headline, Hot off the press

(First appeared on the www.touristtravel.com website, 7/06 and www.takeoffeh.com on 8/06.)

We were no larger than specks of pepper in the dinosaur’s mouth. Drumheller really does have the largest dinosaur on the planet. At 26.2 metres (86 ft. tall) the Tyrannosaurus rex peers down at the town from almost every vantage point. Fortunately it knows its place.

Rex was born in October eight years ago and since then has been daily injesting hundreds of tourists. We hoped it had just eaten, as we crept up its ‘intestines’ – 106 steep, shadowy and eerie stairs, with the sounds of the prehistoric swamp pulsing around us as invasively as our hearts. We survived to stand agape in the beast’s jaws.

Even without dinosaurs, though, Southern Alberta’s Badlands are jaw dropping. We’d come across them suddenly, an unexpected, twisting dip in and out of a dusty coulee, a startling glimpse of hoodoos skewered on the wasteland, a mini grand canyon abruptly dropping away from the road.

We’ve seen those hoodoos advertising this edgy part of Southern Alberta, those eroded pillars of soft rock that have become a provincial symbol. To see them in situ, though, is way beyond cool. The hoodoos at Willow Creek, for example, have loitered here for thousands of years, although it seems they may be forced to move on soon. The mushroom-shaped caps protecting the structures from erosion are dissolving, and in some cases have disappeared. Once this happens, the hoodoo is doomed to disintegration.

That thought is sobering, but exciting too because it’s this selfsame sandstone erosion that makes the Badlands the perfect place for dinosaur diving. Formed 70 to 75 million years ago, and covered by rivers, swamps, marshes, and forested flood plains extending east to a shallow sea, this area had a climate like present-day Florida, making it a perfect home for its dinosaur denizens. Only 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, the flooding waters of the last ice age’s melting glaciers formed the Red Deer River Valley. Now the river whisks away about a half centimeter of it every year. As the soft rocks erode however, fossils are uncovered.

If you want to see how all these bones have been put back together, visit the Royal Tyrell Museum, six kilometers northwest of Drumheller in Midland Provincial Park. The only Canadian museum devoted exclusively to paleontology, it preserves 120,000 individual specimens in its nine lofty galleries. One spectacular specimen is the 21- metre Shonisaurus, a giant marine reptile painstakingly excavated by the museum’s past curator of Marine Reptiles, Dr. Elizabeth Nicholls. Found in northern British Columbia, and only displayed since last year, it’s considered the museum’s biggest discovery. There’s also showstoppers like Black Beauty, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skull ever found, and a young Theropod (fierce lizard) skeleton, the best example of its kind in the world.

We were kept busy fossil ferreting, dawdling in Dinosaur Provincial Park, driving the Dinosaur Trail, hoodoo hunting and museum munching. (There are over a dozen worthy museums in the area, chronicling the early days of the pioneers, First Nations heritage, coal mining, dinosaur nesting sites, reptiles and more.) Dinosaur Provincial Park, a world UNESCO Heritage site since 1979, is the world’s largest dinosaur fossil find in the world. Paleontologists think that the bone beds found here contain up to one thousand Centrosaurus (horned) skeletons, and speculate that they may have all been drowned in a sudden flash flood. You’re definitely going to want to book a guided hike or a tour in this park.

Camping and accommodations around Drumheller are good but limited in summer. We surrendered to the Heartland Inn and Spa’s hydrosonic massage and its plush beds, succumbing without a struggle. We give this place a 5-hoodoo rating after spending an exhaustive – and exhausting – too short a time in the Badlands. Its autumn may be a many-splendoured thing but there’s not enough daylight! Who can ever get enough of dinosaurs?

Sidebar: What’s so bad about the Badlands?

What do Alberta, Argentina, South Dakota, Mexico and the Gobi Desert have in common? They all contain unfriendly terrain, hostile to agriculture, and obstreperous to travelers as they are difficult to cross on foot or horseback, especially when wet. The Sioux called these lands Mako Sica, (land bad) while the French Canadian fur trappers called it maivaises terres a traverser (difficult land to cross).

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