First things first: Dinosaur Provincial Park is not Drumheller.
This is an important fact to know, because ever since I went on a dinosaur dig, every time I’ve told someone about it, they always replied: “Oh yeah, I’ve been Drumheller.”
While both Drumheller and Dinosaur Provincial Park both have a dinosaurs in common, they’re actually almost two hours a part.
I’m telling you this because if you think you’ve experienced dinosaurs in Alberta just by visiting Drumheller, then you’ve been missing out!
Dinosaur Provincial Park is about a two and half hour drive from Calgary, near the city of Brooks. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and if you think Jurassic World was cool, well, you haven’t seen anything yet. The provincial park is actually home to more than forty dinosaur specimens, that are said to have lived in the area 75 million years ago. I’ll repeat that: 75 million years ago.
One of the cool thing about the park is that it’s actually a fantastic camping ground in the summer time and the park also offers up some pretty amazing experiences, including everything from bus tours of the badlands to a three-day dinosaur excavation experience.
The road to the dig site.
My friends Mike Seehagal and Chris Amat and I signed up for the one-day guided excavation which gives people the opportunity to work in a real quarry, do some hiking and prospecting for new fossil finds.
Driving up to the dino dig site, my goal for the day was to see at least one dinosaur fossil. I had seen some in museums and things like that, but I wanted to see one in real life, one still in the ground. Well, the Dinosaur Provincial Park is such a rich wealth of dinosaur bones, my day’s only goal was met within the first 45 seconds. “There’s a fossil right there, and another one there,” our guide said casually walking by them. Our group stopped and immediately took a hundred photos. “Aren’t we going to get these out of the ground?” I shouted excitedly. “Nope,” said the guide. “There’s too many around here to get all of them.”
History right at your feet.
And even though I was only two hours from my home, it was at that very moment I knew I was about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime.
It’s hard for me to tell you what it’s like to spend seven hours working on digging out dinosaur fossils (yes, there’s shorter experiences available.) Was it difficult? A bit, yeah. It was challenging, but I was digging out dinosaur fossils. Like actual dinosaur fossils. Who would complain about that? And it was hot. But they don’t call it the badlands cause it’s like Disney World. However, if you know me at all, you know that if I can do it, pretty much any one can do it.
I was pulling fossils out of the ground that literally no other human had ever seen before. Not to sound dramatic, but that changes a person, that changes a lot of things. It changes your concept of time, it changes what you think you understand about history and it changes what you think about a lot of things.
Our office for the day.
Chris and Mike getting down and dirty.
Part of the fossil I uncovered. Still early to tell exactly what it is, but I’m telling people it was a horn, because that would be cool.
The experience of excavating a dinosaur bone is meticulous. You work slowly and patiently because the last thing you want to do is disturb the fossils of a dinosaur that has been in the ground for 75 million years. Going into the experience, I didn’t know it would be as hands on as it ended up being, which I loved. I thought we’d spend most of the day watching the guides working on the fossils, but that wasn’t the case at all. Within minutes of arriving on the site, we were down on our knees, with our tool kits and we were put to work.
Sometimes, you’d all be working on a big fossil together, other times you’d start on a whole new patch of land and hope to find something, which you likely did because there were just so many fossils around. Some other people in our group actually found the tooth of a carnivore. The tooth was pristine and looked like it had already been in a museum. As long as I’m alive, I don’t think I’ll ever forget holding the tooth of a dinosaur which had just been pulled out of the ground. Like I said earlier, it changes you.
Look at the little grooves on this still razor sharp tooth.
The other cool thing about finding the tooth was that because it was the tooth of a carnivore, and we were all working on excavating a plant eating dinosaur, that meant that this dinosaur likely met a his or her maker at the hands of the carnivorous dinosaur. So cool.
The other part I didn’t expect was how addictive the whole experience was. Sometimes you’d work on an area for an hour or so and not find anything, but you knew something was there and you wanted to find it. So you kept chipping away and then…maybe you wouldn’t find something, but maybe you would. And when you did, it was another incredible moment. The day was filled with so many unexpected finds, it’s actually hard to appreciate all the things we saw and discovered.
Tools of the trade
Just a fraction of the fossils uncovered at our site.
The other part of the day that I can’t stop thinking about were the seashells. Yes, in the middle of Alberta there were thousands, if not millions of pieces of oyster shells just sitting on the surface of the land. If you know Alberta’s geography, that doesn’t make sense. But millions of years ago, the area was subtropical, with lush forests covering a coastal plain, and the shells are the biggest clue that the climate was dramatically different. So how were there shells just sitting on the surface level for millions of years without being swept away? Don’t ask me. This world is amazing. You can pick up the shells, but it’s illegal to take anything off out of the park.
Seashells not by the sea shore.
To add to the excitement of the whole experience, we were digging in the middle of the badlands, which for my money are just as beautiful of the rocky mountains, simply because there’s very few places like them on earth. Every now and then, Mike and Chris and I would take a break just to walk around and appreciate the scenery, because it’s really quite beautiful and mesmerizing.
And the end of the day, we have dug about about a dozens fossils, but countless more ready to be discovered and I’m so excited for the people who sign up for these dinosaur digs, because what they don’t know yet is that not only will they learn things about dinosaurs, they’ll uncover an unforgettable piece of history, 75 million years in the making, and how many people can truly say that?
And whether you do the one hour excursion or the three day one, make sure you leave time to take photos both to and from the park, it’s truly an amazing drive. One of the world’s best, I’d say.