Published in Canadian Family magazine

A Kid's Dinosaur Safari to Alberta

By Steve Pitt


Dinosaur Provincial Park swallows us whole. One minute we are driving across an endless prairie, "Big Sky Country" as the Alberta tourist bureau likes to call it, the next we are plunging down the
gullet of a pink and orange canyon. Sandstone cliffs sculpted into fantastic shapes close in on us. Spiky patches of cacti line the roadside. A reptile glides across the road. Was that really a
rattlesnake? I feel like an extra in a Roadrunner-Coyote cartoon.

"Meep! Meep!" A small bus full of sweaty tourists chugs by, windows open. It is 38 degrees centigrade and still only ten in the morning. I guess we should be grateful. The park website said it can get up to 50 degrees centigrade here and besides rattlesnakes, we are warned about scorpions. There is a hefty fine for anyone who molests THEM.

This trip, I should mention, is my son Kevin's idea. He is 10 and has been planning this Alberta Dinosaur Safari since his diaper days. First we will visit Dinosaur Provincial Park, to roam where the
deer and centrosaurs once roamed. Next, we will go to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller to see the world's largest collection of complete dinosaur skeletons. Then we will spend a whole day at a dino dig, unearthing yet another dinosaur one bone at a time. Finally, we will drive 500 kilometers south to Warner, near the Montana-Alberta border, to see a dinosaur egg display and visit the place where the first Canadian baby dinosaur skeletons were discovered.

Adults might call this overkill but there is no such thing to a kid bitten by the dino bug. All a dad can do is scratch.

Dinosaur Provincial is 78 square kilometers large. Because of its tremendous deposits of fossils and its unique ecological environment, it is a designated World Heritage Site. Much of it can be explored on well-groomed foot paths that wind over rocky ridges and between hunkering hoodoos. On the trail, we see actual dinosaur skeletons still imbedded in the rock with small concrete pavilions built around them to protect them from the weather and vandals. Other areas are still active fossil sites and off limits to the general public unless you sign on for a special guided tour.

Sunscreen and mosquito repellant are definite assets on any walking tour. Hand fans and underarm deodorant will make you popular on a bus tour. Admission to the park is free and guided tours are dirt cheap (starting at $2.25 per person). There is definitely more than a day's worth of hiking and touring to be done here. Fortunately, there are campsites both on and near the park.For the less out-doorsie, the town of Brooks is just half an hour's drive down the road.

Knowing that we had a dino dig ahead of us, my son and I decide to just walk the trails. The landscape is like nothing else in Canada. Kevin explains that this area was once a lush subtropical
landscape where huge reptiles once grazed by the tens of thousands. Now, nothing moves except a few sunbaked mammals and the tallest vegetation is sporadic prickly pears and knee-high sage brush. After a few hours on the trails, even Kevin is ready for a little air conditioning. We find it at the park's field station, a superb mini-museum that whets the appetite for the big collection at the
Royal Tyrrell Museum.

Day two, we depart for Drumheller, just under three hours drive northwest of Dinosaur Provincial Park. The city's museum is named after Joseph Tyrrell, a geologist who discovered an
Albertosaurus skull in the area in 1884. A "Royal" designation is bestowed upon only world class museums and it is easy to see why Drumheller's museum is considered top rank. Nestled among the badland coulees where dinosaur bones still abound, the museum houses 35 complete dinosaur skeletons and over 150,000 fossils. All the big names are there, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaur, Triceratops and a huge supporting cast of critters with names only kids can seem to pronounce.

During the summer months, the museum offers a wide range of programs from half a day to a full week. The programs are not dirt cheap. A Day Dig for adult and child costs $140. A week-long program costs nearly a thousand. But for this price, you get fed, transported and a chance to work beside an actual professional scientist. A bargain if you want a taste of real paleontology.

At 7:30 the next morning, we join 13 others outside the museum front door. After a short bus ride, we arrive at the scene of a disaster. There is death and carnage everywhere - fortunately, we're
nearly 70 million years too late.

Vien Lam, the museum's field technician, pulls back a tarp to reveal a long shallow trench. "Once upon a time," he says, "a small herd of juvenile Hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) tried to cross a
rushing river. They didn't make it. Their bodies came to rest exactly here."

Looking down, we see a lot of brown rock and a few black stones. The stones have vague familiar shapes to them. Vien points out a rib here, a vertebra there. The reality of the ancient death scene
suddenly sinks in. These scattered stone bones were once actually part of something alive. Hadrosaurs were the size of an elephant with the I.Q. of a chipmunk but they walked and breathed just like us. We are each given hammers, chisels and whisk brooms and assigned a position
along the "kill line" and we begin to dig.

But separating a 2-ton beast from ancient bedrock is not easy. Most bones were buried in ironstone (an extremely appropriate name) that must be removed with extreme care. Sometimes, it is even hard to tell what is a fossil and what is a just weird looking rock.

Vien recites the three ways to identify a fossil. "First you check the rock for striations; fossils usually have lines running through them like a piece of wood. Next check to see how much it
weighs; if it has striations but is too light to be a rock, then it's a piece of wood. If it passes the first two tests, the last is to taste it with your tongue. If it is a fossil, it will stick to your tongue."

Dinosaurs stick to your tongue? Now there's something Steven Spielberg forgot to mention in his movies.

After 3 hours of pounding a chisel, Kevin finally finds a single, black tooth that was almost thrown out with our waste debris. Although the offering is tiny, Vien is thrilled. "This is only the
fifth hadrosaur tooth we have found on this site!" He exclaims. Although every duckbill had hundreds of teeth, because they are so small, they are often very hard to find.

The bad news was that after being allowed to hold the tooth for 15 seconds, Kevin must give it up. Every specimen recovered on the dig belongs to the museum. No exceptions. "We never know when a routine fossil we find today will unexpectedly reveal itself to be something much more significant someday in the future." Vien points out.

At 4:40 p.m., we depart the bone field, exhausted but happy.

Our last stop on the dino safari is the Devil's Coulee Dinosaur Heritage Museum in Warner, a small town five hour's drive south from Drumheller. The tiny museum is nearly lost in the shadow of a row of giant grain elevators but what the museum lacks in size it makes up in user-friendliness.

Ninety per cent of the displays are hands-on; visitors are encouraged to pick up or run their fingers over the exhibit. Twice a day, during the summer months, guides will take visitors to the
Devil's Coulee, a trident-shaped rock formation where over 500 dinosaur skeletons have been recovered since 1987.

Fossil bones abound in this area. Nearly every square foot is covered with tiny, fossilized fragments of dinosaurs, reptiles and ancient mammals. Visitors are allowed to look, touch (and even
taste) but then it goes back on the ground where you found it.

After stalking dinosaurs all week, Kevin desperately wants a souvenir to take home. Unfortunately, Alberta's law prohibits the digging or taking away local fossils without a permit. Fossil stores
flourish in the province but the bulk of their stock is imported from China. It is an act of masterful-self control to discover a wonderful fossil and then just put it back. But, just think, maybe a hundred
other people picked up the same fossil but left it there for you to rediscover.

Fortunately, all dino Safari sites in Alberta are equipped with gift shops. After 5 days, 1,000 kilometers and 200 mosquito bites, Kevin bags a t-shirt.

THE END


SIDEBAR


To visit Alberta's past, you need to plan ahead! The following phone numbers and web pages will help you organize your own safari.

To book a dino dig or find out more about the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, contact http://www.tyrrellmuseum.com, or call the museum Bookings Office at (403) 823-7707. Call toll free within Alberta at 310-0000 and then 823-7707. In North America, call 1-888-440-4240.

To book a camp space or park tour at Dinosaur Provincial Park, surf http://www.gov.ab.ca/env/parks/prov_parks/dinosaur/index.html or phone
(403) 378-3700 for a campsite and (403) 378-4344 or toll free within Alberta at 310-000.

To book accommodation in Drumheller, visit their website at http://www.dinosaurvalley.com.

To find out about accommodation possibilities in Brooks, visit their website at http://www.discoveralberta.com/AlbertasSouth/Brooks/


To find out about accommodation in Warner, visit their website at
http://www.discoveralberta.com/AlbertasSouth/Warner/.

To contact Devil's Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site Interpretive Centre in Warner, phone (403) 642-2118.

Two more extremely useful sites are http://www.albertasouth.com/index.html (Alberta South Tourism) and http://www.discovercalgary.com/ (Calgary Tourism).

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