Alberta’s Badlands

I don’t know who came up with the name Badlands, but I like it. To me, the name conjured images of a sparse and beautiful land where outlaws hide from the law, a place best explored by horseback with a bottle of whiskey in hand.

It wasn’t quite like that, but neither was I too far from the mark.

Badlands refer to type of geography like the one below – dry areas where years of erosion have exposed alternating layers of clay, silt, shale and sand. The colors are incredible; stratified shades of rusty deep reds, chalky whites, and thin layers of coal. The resulting terrain often resembles how Mars is depicted in movies.

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In Alberta, they appear suddenly from the plains of wheat and canola, dropping into deep canyons that stretch west into Saskatoon and over the border into Montana and the Dakotas. The grassy tops tumble down into gently sloping ridge lines called coulees. In places they rise into oblong formations called hoodoos, which are hourglass shapes topped with a hard cap of rock.

Little wonder that outlaws did use them as hideaways back in the day. Standing atop a coulee it seems like the badlands go on forever, like some surrealist painting.

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But it’s what lies beneath these formations that brought us out here. 100 million years ago, Alberta had a climate similar to that of Bangladesh – wet, marshy lowlands with lush tropical jungle that made it the perfect habitat for dinosaurs. Herbivores came for the salad bar, and T-Rex came for them.

The erosion that forms the Badlands also revealed dinosaur fossils. Such was the story of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a geologist commissioned by the Canadian government to prospect for the coal deposits that appear as a thin black line in the multi-layered hoodoos. Supposedly he popped around the corner of a coulee and found a dinosaur skull staring back at him.

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Since then, this region of Alberta has become a center of paleontology for experts from around the globe. Alberta has one of the strongest deposits of fossils from the Cretaceous Era, the last one before the mass extinction that ended the days of the dinos. The best fossils are assembled in the Royal Tyrrell museum in Drumheller, which doubles as a fascinating museum and a world-class research center.

Countless fossils continue to be discovered across the province, many of them in large mass graves that reminded me of a dino version of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. What happened? A giant dinosaur war of attrition?

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The reason behind it is more prosaic, explained ranger Jarrid Jenkins at Dinosaur Provincial Park. “100 million years ago, this place looked more like Bangladesh – low lying fluvial areas with a lot of swamps. When dinosaurs fell into the swamps, their skin decomposed but their bones were preserved.”

He led us into a canyon where a live dig was going on. A femur-like bone protruded from the clayish earth, and we spent a little while scraping away sediment with a dentist’s pick and a brush. It was an incredible hand-on experience available only to a few people at a time. But with guided hikes, bus tours and comfort camping nearby, it’s pretty easy for visitors to dive into the dinosaur world.

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After a few days of hiking around the Badlands and capturing a few gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, we decided to round out the trip with a visit to the Atlas Coal mine. As I mentioned, the exploitation of coal and the discovery of fossils in Alberta are very closely connected. Miners were some of the first people to discover dinosaurs, as coal is formed from the lush vegetation that ancient Alberta such an ideal habitat in the Cretaceous period.

The Atlas mine is the last standing tipple in Canada. (In case you didn’t grow up in a mining community, a tipple is the wooden superstructure where miners would sort the coal and tip it into waiting trains or trucks.)

The mine opened just over a 100 years ago, and went through all the history of the province – from the turbulent and violent days of labor organizing, through two world wars, and into the latter half of the 20th century, when the price of coal steadily dropped until the mine shut down in 1979.

“This was a great place to work,” said Bob Moffet, a guide who grew up working in the mine. “I started work when I was 16. My dad was 12 and my grandpa was 8.”

Times had certainly changed since then – and not only in regards to child labor laws. When the mines shut down, the surrounding communities collapsed.

“There were a lot of fires back then,” said Bob with a chuckle and a wink. “Finally, the insurance companies said, ‘If you don’t build your house back up after a fire, we ain’t payin’ out!’”

The historic houses that survived arson were mostly bought up by out-of-towners and shipped in their entirety to bigger cities. The population dwindled, leaving once-lively places like the Last Chance Saloon as little more than historical curios for tourists to enjoy. We stopped in for a beer ourselves, and inspected the black and white pictures, artifacts and bullet holes of an era that would never come back again.

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While the boom-days of coal may have gone forever, there are still many dinosaurs to be discovered. The gradual erosion that forms the coulies gently exposes fossils, fueling ever more scientific exploration of another bygone era, but one that we are only now discovering for the first time.

At our final stop, at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, I walked through the exhibits and marveled at the remains of a dinosaur kingdom that once stood in my place. There were crowd-pleasers like the T-Rex and new discoveries like the “Hellboy” fossil, but the thing that struck me most was the myriad of smaller animals that composed an entire ecosystem that vanished from the earth. Hours flew by quickly, my sense of time humbled by the eons since these dinosaurs lived.

IMG_0260By the time I emerged into the sunlight, I stared upon the landscape with a newfound appreciation for the shortness of life when measured against such fossils. Life could end as abruptly as it did for the last dinosaurs, our entire existence erased for millions of years.

All the more reason, I concluded, to spend what little time we have in beautiful places like these.

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