Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 16, 2017
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Dinosaur attack!

Explore Canada's prehistory in Alberta's badland

On a late summer morning, the Alberta landscape was elemental. Fluffy cumulus clouds arced over flat brown prairie stretching in all directions. The road ran as straight as an arrow seemingly forever - or at least to Saskatchewan. Suddenly, we dropped sharply into the Red Deer River Valley. We had entered Dinosaur Provincial Park in the Alberta badlands. Our two grandchildren in the back seat sat up and began to take notice.

The abruptness of the transition from prairie to badlands is astonishing. The prairie horizon of a few minutes earlier had become the highest level among strange hoodoo landforms shaped by millions of years of flood and erosion. Along the valley floor, lush stands of cottonwood contrast sharply with patches of sagebrush and yellow gumweed on bare slopes.

Almost 20 years had passed since we visited the area with one of our own children and it seemed the right moment to see it all again through young eyes. This was the first time that Kelsey, aged 10 and Calum, aged 8, had travelled without their parents, so they were relieved to see us waiting for them at Calgary Airport. For our dinosaur adventure, we planned to divide our four days with them between Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks and the Royal Tyrrell Museum at Drumheller.

We had booked both an early morning fossil safari hike and a bus tour through parts of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO designated preserve since 1979. Our guide for the hike was Jane Werry from Regina, a student in her econd year at the park with a talent for bringing things alive for kids. Stopping the bus after a short drive, Jane stood and held up her hand: "Before we go into this area to look for fossils, I want you all to repeat after me: I promise not to touch, pick up, turn over, kick, squish, squash or otherwise disturb anything except with one finger. And if I do, I promise to buy Jane all the ice cream she can eat."


A Bone to Pick
Having all solemnly made our pledge, we hiked a short distance to a site where we could look for ourselves. It didn't take long to find fossilized pieces of ancient turtle shells and a partly exposed leg bone of a small dinosaur. "It's always exciting to come out after a heavy rain storm," said Jane. "The material washed down from the slopes may cover some fossils, but it can just as easily expose more."

Kelsey asked what sort of dinosaur a piece of bone she had found might have come from. "Probably a plant eater" said Jane. "See how dense the bone is? Plant eaters had dense bones, whereas carnivorous dinosaurs had lighter bones with a more bubble-like structure."

The next morning we returned for our bus tour and were delighted to see that Jane would again be our guide. This time we went deeper into the reserve, making several stops along the way. At one stop, Jane explained the effects of glaciation by lining up about six of the children in our group. "Now shuffle forward together," she said. "Imagine you are a glacier grinding its path." Then she asked a slightly embarrassed Calum to go a few steps forward by himself. "You are a piece of the glacier that has broken away," Jane said as she explained its impact.

The final stop was the most memorable. Protected by a glass roof is one of four duck-billed dinosaurs located by Charlie Sternberg in 1958. A few metres away, a gap in the ridge shows where the fossil was found. The entire section of the ridge was lifted out and the fossil exposed so that it could be viewed in situ. Originally from Kansas, Sternberg had looked for fossils all his life, together with his father and brothers, and had participated in the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush in the Red Deer River valley beginning in 1913.

A new visitor centre at the park entrance has interactive displays, dinosaur skeletons, an astonishing piece of rock once embedded with clams, fossils of complete turtle shells and a replica of the Sternberg camp in 1914.


Down to a T. Rex
The next day we drove to Drumheller, about two hours away. Just outside town is the Royal Tyrrell Museum which contains one of the world's finest displays of dinosaurs. Through the museum's website, we had booked two activities for the kids: one was an opportunity to excavate fossils, the other was to make a cast of an actual fossil. Unfortunately the "Excavate it!" activity could not be held at the outdoor site because of heavy rain the night before.

Instead, Kelsey and I were in a group led to a building containing several tables where fossils had been concealed under plaster. Our task was to try and find one and carefully expose it. Our tools were a dental pick, awl, toothbrush and a small brush.

Some of the group found their fossil, but Kelsey and I weren't so lucky. We were almost sure we had located one towards the end of our session, but didn't have time to uncover it. We both learned that excavating for fossils can be hard meticulous work. Meanwhile, in another part of the museum, Calum had made fine cast of a shark fossil tooth.

The afternoon was spent in the museum galleries with Calum rushing from one dinosaur skeleton to the next. He was suitably awed by the huge Tyrannosaurus Rex. Twelve metres long and weighing 6.5 tonnes, it was a formidable predator and the largest carnivore ever to walk in Alberta. "It says it had teeth as big as bananas!" read Calum. Even standing beneath the huge creature, it was hard to comprehend what it must have been like when these animals roamed a once tropical Alberta.

One fascinating exhibit displayed the strange underwater creatures that came from the Burgess Shale, another UNESCO site near Field, BC, while the steamy Cretaceous Garden gives a hint of what Alberta's landscape was like when dinosaurs ruled 75 million years ago. Future exhibits are planned on Ice Age mammals as well as an introduction to the Mesozoic world.


A Budding Theatre
That evening we had tickets for the Rosebud dinner theatre in the tiny hamlet of Rosebud, about half an hour from Drumheller. To be frank, I wasn't expecting very much, but the production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat promised to be fun for the kids.

As it turned out, we were pleasantly surprised. After an excellent buffet dinner in the nearby Mercantile Dining Room, we walked to the 200-seat theatre that was once a granary. The performance would have done credit to any stage in Canada. So much for big-city conceit.

The theatre grew out of the Rosebud Camp of the Arts, a fine arts camp for junior and senior high school students. The first live performance in 1983 was organized as a fund-raiser and, five years later, Rosebud was offering a full season of productions and now plays to over 30,000 people a year. The theatre employs a resident company of actors and support staff dedicated to providing opportunities, wherever possible, enabling students at the Rosebud School of the Arts to show their potential.

We had one more must-see stop to make before leaving for Banff to hand the kids over to their parents. In the centre of Drumheller is what is billed as "The World's Largest Dinosaur." Erected in 2000, the four times life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex is over 26 metres high and for a small charge you can climb up 106 stairs inside the creature for the view from its gaping jaws. The kids raced ahead and by the time I reached the top, they had taken in the view and were ready to climb down again.

On the way to Calgary, we talked about the things we had seen and done. The bus tour with Jane at Dinosaur Park was a big hit as was the way she demonstrated how dinosaurs got stuck in the mud. Kelsey liked the way Jane used the kids in the group to make her point.

Seeing the huge T-Rex skeleton at the Tyrrell was another highpoint, as was the view from the big dinosaur's jaws. Arriving at our lodge in Banff for the next two days, the kids spotted their parents and ran to greet them. But they stopped long enough to say: "We really had fun, Grandpa." And for me, that was more than enough.

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