Exotic Canada: Dinosaur hunting in Alberta

“Hi, I’d like to go inside the dinosaur.” As soon as I’d said it, I knew it didn’t sound right. The mortified teenage boy behind the admissions counter knew it didn’t sound right, either, but there was no other way to put it — I wanted to climb the 106 steps inside the World’s Largest Dinosaur to get a sky-high view of Drumheller, Alta. At 86 feet high and 151 feet long, this particular beast is four times the size of the real Tyrannosaurus rex, but really, these are just mere details when you arrive at the top, emerge into the dino’s open mouth and take in the view of southern Alberta’s Badlands.

This particular T-rex is just one of many in Drumheller. And if you’re here, you’re here for dinosaurs. It’s just the way it is. Fossil stores and Reptile World, cuddly stuffed dinos and accurate toy replicas: Imagine it, and Drumheller’s got it. But I was here for the real deal, not “dinosaur droppings” (chocolate rosebuds), and so I headed to the region’s — the country’s, actually — foremost authority on these creatures, the Royal Tyrrell Museum. If anyone knew where I’d be able to find a genuine dinosaur, it would be these guys.

Having just celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, the museum is overflowing with dinosaur relics: 90% of its specimens are in storage. But what is on display is designed to impress — a thorough depiction of the world’s evolution, from Big Bang to Ice Age (complete with an exhibit devoted to Charles Darwin), that neither kids nor adults will tire of.

Most stunning is the Royal Tyrrell’s collection of various dinosaurs fossilized in their death poses. Heads thrown back, tails forward, legs bent tight, a haunting sense of agony pervades these fossilized creatures.

But I, too, died a little during this visit. I have long held a fascination with dinosaurs; it’s hard to wrap my head around their size and presence, how they cohabitated, their lifespans and lifestyles. Quickly, a few myths were busted.

First, the only creatures actually considered dinosaurs are those that traversed land. Pterodactyls? Flying lizards! I was shocked. Second,Jurassic Park wasn’t a documentary. (Spoiler alert!) The only thing that stopped me from crumpling backwards into my own death pose was the museum’s Preparation Lab.

Only a pane of glass separates visitors from the technicians as they prepare fossils for research and eventual display. The team endures a delicate and meticulous process to preserve as much bone as possible while separating it from the rocks in which it is found. The crew here works on fossils found in Alberta — the fossil record in the province is as vast as anywhere in the world, and paleontologists actively prospect here for dino gold during summer months. Just weeks before my visit, a dig crew at a Suncor mine in Fort McMurray unearthed a rare ankylosaur. If all goes as planned, the museum will have it on display in two years.

As I watched the technicians — hunched over, gloves on, hair pulled back, masks covering noses and mouths to prevent inhalation of million-year-old dust — a hush fell over the room. It was surgical theatre and it was entrancing.

Finally, I peeled myself away and headed to Dinosaur Hall, the largest display of dinos under one roof in Canada, including fossilized bones engraved with fossilized bite marks from other dinosaurs. I moved past creature after creature and eventually came to a replica bone bed — essentially a five-foot-long tray of earth packed with dino bones. I was told by one of the museum’s staff that that’s what one will find in nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park: “It’s like mecca for dinosaur enthusiasts.” Mecca? “You can drag your foot on the ground there and unearth fossils.” Excuse me?

If bones were so easy to find, that must mean there were creatures out there devouring them. The next morning, I headed two hours southeast of Drumheller, and my jaw dropped as the landscape did. Cresting the hill right after the main gate of Dinosaur Provincial Park, I grabbed my camera and jumped out of the car. This is as bad as the Badlands get, by which I mean the terrain here is fantastic. Over the course of millions and millions of years, an expanse of valley walls, hills and iconic hoodoos have been carved into the 80 square kilometres that make up this park, leaving us today with an undulating desert-like landscape. I climbed back in the car and headed to the Visitors’ Centre, soon passing a sign asking people not to stop their cars on the hill. Oops.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dinosaur Provincial Park entices paleontologists, photographers and nature lovers to its unmatched grounds every summer. Still smarting a bit from my Mesozoic reality check the day before, I wondered why I seemed to be the only living thing traversing the park. If dinosaurs are so big, why can’t I see any? Or at least hear them? I stumbled into the Visitors’ Centre to present my query and was directed to their exhibits. More bones and diagrams and educated theories. Suddenly, it hit me, kind of like a meteor hitting Earth and killing every living thing on it. Dinosaurs are extinct! All that’s left are their fossils. My mood suddenly became as overcast as the sky outside. If dinosaurs are dead, then I’ll have to be satisfied with walking on their bones. Many, many lovely bones. I headed back out to the ever-evolving landscape at this park in hopes that it would perk me up.

And the park really is ever evolving. Layers upon layers of sandstone, mudstone, iron-stone and bentonite clay, susceptible to the effects of wind and water, grow and crumble perpetually. Run your hand along some sandstone, and you will have left your mark on the park as sand unpacks itself under your touch. On one visit, of course, you won’t be able to see the change, but the Visitors’ Centre has striking examples of hoodoos here one day, and gone the next (with 25 years in between).

Along with guided hikes and bus tours, there are five self-guided interpretive trails that visitors can amble along, each offering a different benefit — the Cottonwood Flats trail leads explorers through lush habitat along the Red Deer River, while the Coulee Viewpoint trail takes hikers to ridge tops for expansive views.

Unfortunately, my timing didn’t work out for the park’s bona fide bone bed excavations. On select dates over the course of the summer, groups of up to six people can take part in one-, two- or three-day digs led by a paleontological technician. After a park orientation, groups are led into a working quarry to prospect for fossils — on your knees, in the dirt, with the hot sun on your back. Any finds are then sent to the Royal Tyrrell for analysis.

“This is real science happening,” explained Brad Tucker, who launched the program two years ago. So while genuine, live dinosaurs are out of the question, a chance to contribute to what we know about these beasts, to interact with millions of years of history, well, it’s just as good as the real thing. (Safer, too.)

This story appeared in the National Post (June 25, 2011).