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18 - 22 August 2015 - Canada - Alberta - Brooks

Tuesday 18th August

Packed up camp this morning and left Calgary on Canada Highway 1 East. The landscape is now rolling prairie land with cattle ranches, arable farms and very flat, not a mountain in site. There are also pump jacks working in the fields to extract oil which was discovered here early last century and is part of the economy with ranching, agriculture and tourism. We are heading for the Canadian Badlands and the town of Brooks. The area is quite arid and has a lot of irrigated farmland and rangeland for cattle grazing. We called in at the Visitor Centre and they telephoned the local campgrounds to check where they have space. There was also quite an interesting World War 1 exhibition there, complete with mock up trench. The campground we chose was at Kinbrook Island Provisional Park on Lake Newell about 13 km out of town. The lake is large with a beach and a boat launch area. The park has plenty of grass and trees, and along the back of the beach there are hammocks strung between the trees for resting in the shade. There are trails through the extensive wetlands where there is excellent bird watching, lots of different species. I like the yellow headed blackbird – looks like a canary at the front and a blackbird at the back. Went to Safeway to get provisions. Called in at a liquor store (supermarkets do not sell alcohol) where Tony was delighted to find some cans of Kilkenny bitter.

Wednesday 19th August

Woke up to a lovely sunrise this morning, lots of pink fluffy clouds over the lake.

Today we went to Dinosaur Provisional Park (in our car) which is a 45 km drive from the park through the prairie land. As we approached the park the terrain suddenly changed, it was as if the prairie grasslands had just fallen into a hole.

The land just dropped away into a stark dessert landscape with striped hills and rock formations. The Park covers 81 sq. km of Badlands and prairie along the Red Deer River and is one of the richest fossil beds in the world. We drove down into this valley land and stopped off at the Visitor Centre for a guide of the trails that crisscross the area. I understand that the name ‘Badlands’ came about because the first explorers crossing this region found it difficult to navigate across this suddenly arid, uneven dip in the land. Reflecting the dessert landscape there are rattle snakes, scorpions, Black Widow spiders and cacti in the park. The temperature is often 5 degrees hotter in the park than on the prairie. We followed the trails around amazing sedimentary rock structures, it was as if we had stepped into another world. There were interpretive boards at points around the trails explaining how the landscape of the park had been formed.

75 million years ago it had been a land of lush vegetation, rivers, marshes and warm humid weather. Over the years the rivers deposited thick layers of sand, silt clay and volcanic ash. As layer upon layer accumulated it was transformed into the sedimentary rock we could see with the stripes indicating different types of material, the most common being sandstone.

After the layers of sediment were deposited, burying the bodies of many dinosaurs in the process, they were covered with a protective layer of till. Eventually glaciers covered the region and smoothed the till across the land. About 14,000 years ago the glaciers melted and the force of the melt water swept away the till in the valley and exposed the rocks and dinosaur fossils from 75 million years ago.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum still have active digs on the site and examples of fossil digs have been protected and left in place along the trails. Many complete Dinosaur remains have been found and are now in the museum. After a hot morning on the trails we settled down by the river for a picnic lunch (with the need of a hat).

Thursday 20th August

Woke in the night to hear the call of Coyote’s hunting out on the prairie. Went north in the car this morning to the town of Drumheller to visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. From Brooks we went across Highway 1 and followed the 56, a very quiet rural road past isolated farmsteads and ranches. We saw several birds of prey on field fence posts along the road. It was most unusual to see so many birds of prey like this, positioned every few miles. We think they are prairie falcons but we need to check this out with Charlotte.

On the way we stopped off at a small community called Dalum where there was a lovely Lutheran church.

As we approached Drumheller the landscape changed to the familiar Badlands terrain that we had seen yesterday.

The Red Deer River runs through the town which was built around the coal mining industry early in the last century. Stopped off to eat a picnic lunch and then went on to the museum which is in Midland Provisional Park in amongst a Badlands setting. Sandy was not allowed in the museum so I went in and Tony took Sandy off for a long walk. Most of the fossils found in the Badlands are sent to the museum for preparation, storage or display. First thing was a visit to the amphitheater to see two short films about the work of the museum and then a tour around the exhibits. The displays of animals and plants go back through time over 4.6 billion years and are well displayed and explained. There was an intact small Tyrannosaurus rex found by two high school students in 1980, displayed still within the sandstone block where it was found.

Another mostly complete skeleton of a rare tyrannosaur was found in Dinosaur Park by a park employee. The body is folded in a death pose with legs beneath the torso and the neck twisted back.

There was also views into the Preparation Lab where technicians were painstakingly uncovering fossils from the surrounding rock.

It was a fascinating walk through time amongst one of the world’s largest dinosaur collections.

To finish I went for an hours walk around some of the Badland terrain within the park with Maggie a member of the museum staff. Maggie has worked at the museum every summer since she was fifteen. At present she is at the University of Toronto studying evolutionary biology and theoretical mathematics.

As we walked around she explained the geology of the Badlands and pointed out the more interesting rock formations and explained what the different layers of rock were. I could clearly see a seam of coal in one of the hills. I had a fun, entertaining hour with Maggie and leant a lot more about geology and fossils. She had couple of fossil samples to see, a hadrosaur vertebra and an albertosaurus finger bone. It was incredible to handle these bones that are 75 million years old.

Tony arrived to pick me up. They had walked along the river and explored the town, then driven out to the small town of Wayne, across nine of eleven (Eleven Bridge Road) bridges traversing the winding Rosebud River to the Last Chance Saloon.

Friday 21st August

Very windy overnight. The wind got stronger this morning and eventually it started to rain heavily, therefore, we didn’t venture very far today. The lake resembles an inland sea with white capped waves.

Saturday 22nd

Sunny but cold and blustery this morning. Weather improved in the afternoon and we went out to have a look at the Brooks Aqueduct. The aqueduct was built a century ago by Canadian Pacific Railway as part of their irrigation network. It stretches 3.2 km across the prairie and is 20 metres above the ground, the largest concrete structure of its kind when built, quite a feat of engineering.

As we were leaving we notice a young rabbit sunbathing.

That evening we had a beautiful sunset.

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