Digging in the Dirt

by E.B.Klassen

It was one of those mornings that looked perfect. It was warm without being hot yet, and clear as only a prairie sky can be. We were waking up in a motel in Lethbridge Alberta, a motel room paid for by a local television station. This was to prove to be the coolest stop to date on Paula's book tour. But while she was getting ready for a mid-morning interview, the twins and I were getting ready for dinosaurs.
After a quick breakfast, we left Paula to wait for the limousine that was to pick her up, and we headed even further south to the small town of Warner, Alberta. The day before had been spent at Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump (an unexpected delight) and the evening in the perfection of the Lethbridge Nikka Yuko Centennial Japanese Garden -- which we hadn't known existed until we were leaving Head-Smashed-In. The buffalo jump had been a destination for me, but Paula had found out about tours to Devil's Coulee that left from Warner. And now she wasn't even going with us.
Driving into a new place is always a bit confusing for me. You never know how close or far off a turn is, you don't know the landmarks, and worst of all, you never know when you're going to get there or whether you've already driven past. It's hard to imagine Warner having this effect on me; Warner is a town of a couple of hundred sitting like a slight bulge on an otherwise uniform highway cutting straight across the prairie from Lethbridge to the U.S. How could you miss anything? But I worried about it, as I always do
The ubiquitous grain elevators, subject of so much mediocre mall art, rose out of the horizon marking another knot of civilization on the prairie. Warner. We turned off the highway and drove down the main street. Main street Warner looks a bit like a movie set; old buildings, a few cars, dust, lots of for sale for rent signs. The only thing missing was the tumbleweed blowing through.
The one exception to this ordinariness was a gas station / general store. The first thing you see, pulling in to Warner, is a building covered with garish dinosaurs. We drove down the main street, turned around, and pulled in at the dinos. After stocking up on drinks for now and drinks for later, I asked where the Devil's Coulee Interpretive centre was. Looking at me a bit strangely, the woman behind the counter replied that it was the building right next door. I looked out the door opposite the one we'd come in by, and sure enough, there was a brand new building with that distinctive architecture that says "here be something paid for by the Alberta provincial government". It couldn't be anything BUT the interpretive centre. See what I mean about me and new places? But in my own defense, I want to say that I was trying not to miss any stop signs, and it was hidden behind the garish dinosaurs, so I really couldn't be expected to see it right off, could I?
We parked at the interpretive centre and yes, I found the door without asking. The interpretive centre also houses a number of municipal offices and a real estate office, but we found the centre all right (first door on the left). We were greeted by a friendly woman who happily took my money for the tour (about $20 Can) and invited us to look around.
The centre itself is broken up into a number of smaller rooms. One for video presentations, another houses a display of fossils and interesting stuff found by a local group of rockhounds, and another holds a number of displays on loan from the Royal Tyrrell museum in Drumheller. There were also a number of staff milling about doing various things, but mostly talking over coffee. And they were more than happy to chat with us. I suspect that this was a natural friendliness, as we arrived in mid-august and the season still had another month to run. We chatted with the staff, watched fossils being removed from their surrounding matrix, and checked out the displays. The kids naturally found the gift store, which surprised me by having a lot of reasonably priced things to buy. Lots of stuff under $2, including excellent plastic replicas of Albertosaurus tooth casts (one of which currently resides in Ben's collection of stuff).
Ten o'clock finally rolled around, and the staff courteously hustled us into the video room to watch a short film of the dig site we were going to visit. The dinosaur eggs at Devil's Coulee were discovered in 1987 by (who else?) an amateur. Wendy Sloboda was a 17 year old volunteer at the Royal Tyrrell, and was asked to do an area survey. She was told what to look for; layering with bits of bone washing out and , oh yeah, you might see these little bits of black stuff with pebbling on one side and smooth on the other. Them's dinosaur eggs. So off she went. And sure enough she found these little bits of black stuff that were pebbled on one side and smooth on the other. And there were tonnes of the stuff. Alberta's first dinosaur nesting site had been discovered.
The gang of us piled into the bus (actually, the five of us piled into a van) and headed out to Devil's Coulee. I was kind of surprised; there were Ben, Lila, and myself, and another woman and her daughter (roughly the same age as my kids) and that was it for paying customers. Yet the staff seemed happy at the response they were getting. I was to see later that the 1:00 pm tour had a couple more people in it, but nothing like the response I had kind of expected. Which was great. I like smaller groups over larger ones anyway. But does make me kinda worry about the future of the program.
The drive out was nothing short of....well, lots of southern prairie. Hills to the south, foothills and mountains to the west. Beautiful, but beautiful in a severe, exposed kind of way, so different from the lush wildness of my beloved west coast.
It was the hills to the south that the driver first mentioned. "That's the Milk River Ridge." I had noticed the name on a road sign, but it meant nothing to me.
"Sorry," I said, "I don't get the reference."
"Well," said the fellow driving, "that's the hills that stick out at ninety degrees to the foothills." I still didn't get it, so he continued; "Ninety degrees. Why would there be hills at ninety degrees to the range of mountains?" Obviously not enough coffee yet this morning. My mind was back in the late Cretaceous, not on anomalic hills in southern Alberta. "See," says the driver, "Those hills mark the southern-most point of advance of the last glaciers." And my mind exploded.
I turned my head to look south, began to take in the hills of Milk River Ridge, and suddenly the landscape was covered in ice. Ice rising up over our heads, smashing the ground flat (and incidentally killing all the native earthworms. The one's which are here now are all imports. The ecological niche formerly filled by earthworms was taken over on the prairies by centipedes and millipedes). There, at what are now hills, was the ragged edge of the ice, the mess it was pushing southwards. I could see the blue ice rising, the dirt and rock mixed up at the indefinite edge, the mud and melting, hawks soaring overhead in the sunlight. Then the ice began to recede, and I slowly came back to the present. "Ah," I said, not too brilliantly. "That's Milk River Ridge."
I'm not really certain what I was expecting a dinosaur dig to be like, but what it was, was nothing. We drove a tattered dirt track beside a barbed-wire fence to the top of a slight rise. The grass was burnt down to nothing in the way all grasses are burnt down to nothing in the late summer in Alberta. To the north was a faint glitter of blue; a reservoir, I was to find out later.
And as we got out of the van, seven large white birds flew towards us. They weren't too high up, and cut in over the coulee that lay to the east and began to circle. They formed a large wheel, and all circled it once. Then two birds broke off almost as if thrown by centrifugal force, and stuttered northwards. They almost paused, and then one flew back to the wheel and the other flew north to the reservoir. Another circle, and two more birds were thrown off. One returned and one flew north. And again. And again, until only one bird remained, and then it too flew north to the beckoning water.
I have no idea what this display meant. I don't know the behaviour that prompted it, I don't know if it was some kind of omen, I don't know if it was a message from god/dess. But it was damned strange. And it fascinates me still.
I looked south and saw...nothing. Two small hoodoos on a hill on the far side of the coulee. White clay. Alkali deposits. I looked down the trail that lead into the coulee. A man was just coming up. "Hey!" He called. "Did you all see the pelicans?"
I was to find out later that this was Wendy Sloboda's dad. As I understand it, he spends a fair bit of time in the summer helping out at the dig site by walking tourists like us around while the folks from the Royal Tyrrell try and get some science done. And he showed us around the site.
We walked down the trail into the coulee and saw...not much. Some metal stakes, a bit of rope, a couple of tarps, and a large white blob. And a couple of people shooting the breeze. I began to get excited.
We walked part way down the trail, and our guide (I never caught his name--just later, Wendy Sloboda's dad) mentioned that we were now at the point that, as we went down, there would now be fossils. As he talked about the site, what was being done, and what we really shouldn't do, my daughter looked down at her feet. Then she picked up a rock. "Dad," she said, a bit under her breath, "is this a fossil?" It was. A beautiful leaf print. I suggested she show it to the guide, who commented that it was indeed a fossil, a leaf print, and didn't it just go to show that all you had to do is look down at the right time? And then, with tremendous self-control, Lila returned it to the ground. As we were supposed to.
It turned out that the large white blob was a hadrosaur nest. They had jacketed the top, flipped it, and jacketed the bottom. And that was all the hadrosaur nest we got to see. But I did get to ask a question that I hadn't ever had answered before. See, I remember reading that you put a plaster of paris jacket over/around fossils you were going to move. But I had used plaster since I read that, and I knew it stuck like anything to whatever it touched -- especially after hardening. So why take off all the matrix and replace it with something equally difficult to remove? Therefore, there must be something between the plaster and the fossil. But I couldn't remember ever reading just what it was. So I asked. And found out that it's paper. Any kind you happen to have on hand, wetted, and slopped all over the fossil. You know, that question had been ticking away in the back of my head for nearly 25 years. Never bothered me enough to spend time researching the answer, but there nonetheless. And now it's gone. Of course I later mentioned this to Robert Runté, and he said, without missing a beat, "Wet paper. Seen it everywhere." Naturally. Everyone knows this but me. Bloody typical.
We were shown what Wendy noticed, what lead to this dig being funded. Little tiny pieces of black stuff, ranging in size from one to six millimetres across. And so many of them that they looked like really fat black sand. There were dozens of flattened fossilized eggs eroding out of the coulee banks, spreading these little scraps of shell down the hillside in the spring or after a rain. Once you saw what to look for, you couldn't miss the stuff.
We toured the dig site (unremarkably small area, that), and heard about the current understanding of the site. A riverbank with lots of soft mud and sand, so that hadrosaurs could bury their eggs (like the sea turtle) and let Mother do the work. Eventually the little ones would hatch, and they would be near a source of water and food.
But every so often things would go wrong. There would be a late season downpour and the river would flood after nesting, leaving the eggs and developing hadrosaurs under way too much mud. They would be crushed by the weight, or starved of oxygen, and lay under layers of slowly hardening muck. We were told that there were two basic ways that the fossil eggs were found; the first was simply crushed with shell and skeleton in layers. The second was squeezed like a grape, with the embryo squirted out from one end of the egg.
But the flooding wasn't a regular occurrence. If it were, then the hadrosaurs would simply have found a less dangerous nest site. Floods could occur a year or a century apart. So the paleontologists at Devil's Coulee don't have a continuous record of the local hadrosaur population, but an intermittent one.
After the tour, we were told to wander freely about, look at stuff, ask any questions we wanted. My kids and the other ten-year-old girl on the tour were positively bursting to get across the coulee and up the hill on the far side to the small hoodoo. I told the girl's mother that I would go with them, leaving her to talk with Wendy's dad (whom she apparently knew). I followed the kids, who were making terrific time up the hill
I stopped them about halfway up, mentioning that this put us about even with the dig site, and might mean that we could find a few fossils if we looked around. They spent an amazing five minutes looking about before heading up the hill to the hoodoo.
The view from the hoodoo was stunning (as was the three metre drop on the far side). Miles of Alberta, a future did site (marked) where a young carnivor had been found, and the reservoir off to the north. While I was drinking this in, the kids were commenting on the volumes of marmot crap we were standing in. Significant details, that's what kids notice.
The three wanted to head over to another hill joined to the one we were on by a small ridge. I agreed, and off they went. Of course my daughter and the other girl got along. You have to assume a certain community of interest with any other kid whose parent hauls them off to see a dinosaur dig site. As we were making our way to the other hill, crossing the ridge, I happened to pay attention to where I was walking. No, that's not strictly true. I was paying lots of attention to everything. After all, this was a dig site. Fossils were to be found here. So I was looking. And I started picking up small chunks of stuff that really did look like they should be fossils. I pocketed them and followed the kids.
When we got back to where the grad students were lazing about in the sun, I pulled the bits out of my pocket. "I was wondering, " said I, "if these might happen to be the sort of thing you're looking for?"
"Infant hadrosaur bone fragment. Infant hadrosaur bone fragment. Infant hadrosaur bone fragment. Freshwater turtle shell fragment. Beats me, but probably hadrosaur. Where'd you find them?"
"Just over there, where the two hills come together.
"Ah. On Fossil Ridge."
Don't mind saying, it blew me away. Even though, as it was a dig site, I had to hand over the bits, I had managed to find fossils. And find out what they were formerly a part of. this was exactly what I wanted to do when I was ten. And the desire had never really gone away during the intervening decades. I wanted to find fossils, dammit! I wanted to be a part of this great dinosaur-finding community. And now I've done it. At a dig site, in the company of professionals, I reached down to the ground and picked up bits of nothing and knew what they were. And even though they were relatively unimportant, even though the place was well known enough to have been given a name, I still did it, and it just doesn't get better than a moment like that. For a brief and shining moment, I was ten years old, a part of it all, and in heaven.
The rest of the day, I was high on excitement. I passed on information to the interpretive centre that the Alberta Provincial Museum paleontologist(s) were recovering masses of bones out of the gravel pits surrounding Edmonton. A bit of information that hadn't filtered down south. And I babbled almost uncontrollably to Paula when we picked her up. And to Robert Runté when we got together with him. And for the next couple of days.
But even now, when I look at the tiny black fragment I discovered at the bottom of my pocket that night, I get that deep sense of having been a part, however small, of that long line of amateurs who somehow keep turning up amazing discoveries of these unimaginably ancient creatures.

Two and a half months after this trip, we were putting in water and sewage to our new house. The backhoe was digging between eight and ten feet down. As I was directing the backhoe, Ben was checking out the few rocks that were coming out with the sand and clay. Sure enough, he pulled one out slightly bigger than my fist. And full of fossilized miniature sea creatures. The amateur tradition continues.

Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Eleven – June, 1995

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