The Red Deer River rises in the mountains of Canada's Banff National Park and follows a winding course across the south of the Province of Alberta. After flowing through the city of Red Deer, the river drops ever deeper into the valley it has cut, forming what are called the Bad Lands of the Red Deer River. At the heart of this forbidding valley lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dinosaur Provincial Park.
'The Ancient, Towering Cemeteries of Creation'
More than 65 million years ago, what is now an arid valley of sage brush and cactus was a swampy, subtropical woodland on the shore of a warm inland sea. The swampy land, as well as supporting a diversity of species, proved to be very effective in fossilising the remains of a great many of those creatures. Millions of years later, as the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated, what would come to be called the Red Deer River began to sculpt its Bad Lands, slowly exposing what Canadian poet Tim Bowling – channelling George H Sternberg – has termed the ancient, towering cemeteries of creation1. Every day, fossil bones tumble out of the soft rock of the valley walls, crumbling from the shafts of the eerie, hard-capped hoodoos2. For millennia the First Nations of what would become Canada lived along the river. In at least one place in the valley, Dry Island Buffalo Jump, these people tumbled live animals from the cliffs, making their livelihoods from the inconceivably vast, now inconceivably lost, bison herds.
Since the retreat of the glaciers, the river has carved its way down through the young (less than 24 million years old) Hand Hills sedimentary rock formations of mixed shales, marls and conglomerates. Going deeper, it has cut down into the sandstone, mudstone, siltstone, clays, shales, ironstones, limestone, bentonite and coal of the charmingly named Scollard, Horseshoe Canyon, Oldman, Hand Hills and Paskapoo Formations, which are up to 100 million years old. It is in the Upper Cretaceous beds of 65 to 100 million years ago that the great dinosaurs have been found resting – hadrosaurs, tyrannosaurids and ceratopsians. A great many fossil turtles, fish, molluscs and plant species have been discovered as well.
Whiskey Traders, Mounties, the Bad Black White Man and the Geologist
In the 1880s, as the Canadian Pacific Railway was making its way across Western Canada, there was an invasion of sorts from the United States. First came the notorious Whiskey Traders, who caused untold misery among the First Nations People and who helped to spur the creation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Later, fossil hunters – 'Bone Sharps' – came north, having heard that the Bad Lands of the Red Deer River held unguarded fossil riches, waiting to be shipped south to museums in the US.
Between the coming of the Whiskey Traders and the Bone Sharps, in 1882 the man who would come to be called Matoxy Sex Apee Quin – 'Bad Black White Man' – arrived in Alberta. John Ware, as he was known in White society, was a slave freed by the US Civil War who came north on a cattle drive, settled and married in Alberta. For a time Ware worked near Longview at the magnificent Bar U Ranch, now a National Historic Site, where Harry Longabaugh – more famous as the Sundance Kid – also worked for a time. Two decades after arriving in Alberta, Ware homesteaded with his wife, Mildred, in the Bad Lands just west of the present Park. Strong and skilled in all the arts necessary to ranching in the dry lands, Ware became both a highly respected citizen of the province and something of a legend, even being compared to the fabulous Paul Bunyan of US fame (but apparently of Canadian origin). While working at the Bar U, Ware is said to have single-handedly rescued a herd of cattle from a severe winter storm. He has been credited with inventing the rodeo sport of steer wrestling, a non-lethal (usually) but full contact sport with parallels to Spanish bull fighting. The creek which his cabin overlooked is now named after him, as is a mountain near Turner Valley, a Junior High School in Calgary, and a building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. On 1 February, 2012, Canada Post honoured Ware by putting his image on a new postage stamp. Tragically, despite his great skill as a horseman, in 1905, a few months after Mildred succumbed to pneumonia, John Ware was crushed to death when his horse fell on him after stepping in a gopher hole.
Because of its owner's importance in the early history of Alberta, Ware's cabin was relocated for preservation to the Park in 1959.
In 1884, Joseph Tyrrell, a Canadian geologist and cartographer, chanced upon an Albertosaurus skull near the town of Drumheller, upriver from the present Park. The ultimate result of this discovery was his name being attached to the wonderful Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller. The research staff at the Tyrrell today conduct expeditions in partnership with institutions around the world. Later in life, Tyrrell discovered and published field notes and other writings of David Thompson, the 18th Century explorer of Canada's West. On two expeditions to Canada's Arctic in the 1890s, Tyrrell made a number of important discoveries as well as making first contact with the Ihalmuit Inuit of Nunavut.
The Bone Sharps
A more immediate result of Tyrrell's discovery was that the Bone Wars which had raged between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope a generation before on the US Plains migrated north of the border in a slightly more peaceful manner. In response to the discovery of dinosaurs, Canada appointed its first official palaeontologist, Thomas Weston, in 1888. In 1909, American Barnum Brown (discoverer of the second T Rex fossil – and named after circus impresario PT Barnum) started promoting the presence of dinosaurs in the Bad Lands and, as a new decade opened, the Bone Wars, soon renamed the Canadian Dinosaur Rush, moved north. WG Anderson, a doctor and local homesteader, began advocating for the establishment of a National Park in the area.
In 1912, the Geological Service of Canada hired one of Edward Drinker Cope's students, Charles Sternberg, to collect fossils for the nation. Both Barnum and Sternberg and their crews took to floating about on the Red Deer River on flat-bottomed boats with tents pitched on deck prospecting for fossils along the banks. In the relatively polite Canadian atmosphere, they were able to perform something akin to modern palaeontology, free from the mad competitions, self-promotion and character assassination of the American Bone Wars. Although the two bone sharps worked more or less side by side for three seasons in what was then called 'Dead Lodge Canyon', Barnum's major discoveries were upstream in the area of Drumheller and what is now Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. Sternberg spent five seasons excavating in the Bad Lands, amassing a huge collection for the Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Canadian Museum of Nature (and for a brief time from 1916 - 1919, the House of Commons of Canada) in Ottawa. He spent most of his five seasons on the Red Deer River at the centre of what was to become Dinosaur Provincial Park.
Before moving to Dead Lodge Canyon, Sternberg set up his first camp on the south bank a few miles below and opposite the town of Steveville. He later remarked that this camp was the richest one he had ever made due to the luxuries available in the little town and weekly deliveries of farm-fresh eggs, butter and chickens3. Steveville at the time was less a town than it was the thriving family business of homesteader Steve Hall, who ran the post office, the general store and the boarding house as well as operating the ferry across the river and giving the town his own name. Like so many villages and towns founded in Alberta's early days, Steveville faded away to a dim memory and a few marks on the ground as the 20th Century rolled on. Unlike the dinosaurs which made Steve Hall's town famous, Steveville left few fossils. The nearby city of Brooks has preserved, in the city's museum, a replica of the Steveville general store along with many buildings and artefacts of early Alberta life.
A Park and a World Heritage Site
In Alberta's 50th anniversary year, the Provincial Government put into action WG Anderson's half-century-old advice, creating the Steveville Dinosaur Provincial Park in 1955, putting the dinosaur fossil beds of a long stretch of the river under government protection. The park was opened to the public in 1959 and, as Steve Hall's town no longer existed, three years later 'Steveville' was dropped from the name of the park. Apart from John Ware's cabin, little remains of the early days of homesteading, ranching, and bone warring in the Park today. When the Alberta Government first designated the boundaries of the Park, a small area on the Steveville river flat, outside the Park's boundary, was set aside as a campground for the Park. Campers staying in the little-known Steveville camp-ground today find far less luxury than did Sternberg a century ago: no hotel; no general store; no post office; and certainly no weekly delivery of farm-fresh food.
On 19 June, 1980, Dinosaur Provincial Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the large number and wide range of important dinosaur fossils preserved in the park, for its largely undisturbed Bad Land habitat, and for its 'outstanding aesthetic value'. Most of the park has returned to the untouched, unpopulated labyrinth of butte4, coulee5 and hoodoo it was when the First Nations walked lightly, the bison roamed, and the Bone Sharps first noticed the bones of long-dead giants crumbling out of the cliffs in what Charles Sternberg described as 'the richest Cretaceous fossil field in the world...the great gorge of the Red Deer river, 500 feet deep, and as many miles in length'6.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is well away from major urban areas. The nearest international airport is in Calgary, 200km to the west. From the airport, take the Trans-Canada east to the city of Brooks. From Brooks, take Highway 873 north and watch for signs. It is a bit of a winding route which finally brings you into the Bad Lands and the Park facilities, which are very centralised. There is restricted access to most of the Park and it is absolutely forbidden to remove any fossils. But the trails near the campgrounds and the interpretive centre provide magnificent views and a wealth of information about the geology and palaeontology of the valley.
While in South Eastern Alberta, it would be very worthwhile to also visit Drumheller and spend a day or more at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. And, further upstream, the little-visited Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park near the town of Three Hills is a sublimely beautiful location.