Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dinosaurs--Part 1

Ron was down to 2 more days and nights before he had to catch a plane in Calgary to return to San Diego.  Do you think he would just sit and relax?  Not Ron, it is in his nature to keep moving.

We left Canmore very early in the morning and took Hwy 1 through Calgary then headed northeast on some small country roads until we reached the tiny town of Drumheller.  Ron had picked out Dinosaur Provincial Park, located another hour away, to spend two nights and I had zeroed in on a museum in Drumheller that one of my guide books raved about.  We decided to go to Drumheller first.

The drive was an amazing contrast in a relatively short distance from the land of majestic mountains and vast icefields to the prairielands of Alberta.  The fields were alive with blooming rapeseed.

Rapeseed is the plant source for canola oil.  The name 'Canola' is based on two things--Canada + ola.  When the oil was first marketed their biggest competitor was Mazola oil.  Maz-ola.  I'm just glad they didn't choose Rape-ola.

We were starting to see signs of the Canadian Badlands along the rivers.

As we traveled along,  the land would be perfectly flat and planted in lush green fields of alfalfa and rapeseed, when suddenly the ground dropped away....

....and enormous canyons opened up.
Seventy five million years ago dinosaurs roamed this very spot, foraging for food along the western shore of the Bearpaw Sea (the huge inland sea that is now gone).  The dinosaurs vanished from the Earth 65 years ago, but they left behind, in Alberta, one of the most abundant fossil records in the world. 

On August 12, 1884, Joseph Tyrrell, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, while searching for coal, discovered a 70-million-year-old carnivorous dinosaur skull near present day Drumheller.  Tyrrell's find was named Albertosaurus Sarcophagus ("flesh eating lizard from Alberta"). So significant was Tyrrell's discovery that when the Museum opened in September 25, 1985 it was named the
 Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology

A member of the Tyrannosaurus Rex family, Albertosaurus predated its more famous cousin by over two million years.  Although smaller and more lightly built than T. Rex it was still a formidable predator.   

I did not expect to find a museum as amazing as this in a town that barely shows up on my map.

The museum now houses more than 100,000 fossil specimens and more are being added daily, excavated from the surrounding Badlands.

Any amateur paleontologist may join a dig...

...and who knows what you may find.
Two high school students were fishing in the nearby Crowsnest Pass area in the summer of 1980 when they noticed a curious black fossil in the sandstone above the river.  At first they thought it was fossilized wood but soon realized they had found a dinosaur.  Excitedly they showed the specimen to a teacher who in turn reported it to the government of Alberta.  After the arduous removal of over 500,000 pounds of rock, an incredible Tyrannosaurus Rex emerged.  

Tyrannosaurus rex--65 million years ago.

This genus of mosasaur is extremely rare and this specimen is the first of its kind found so intact.  Even more unusual than the nearly complete body are the stomach contents found inside--evidence that its diet included both sea turtles and large fish. Research on this animal is currently underway and scientists are working to determine whether or not it is a new species. 
(This guy simply must be the predecessor to the alligator.)

Wendy Sloboda was 18 years old when she discovered what she thought might be fossilized eggshell along the Milk River Ridge.  Her find prompted the Royal Tyrrell Museum to send a crew out in search of nests the following summer.
On the last day of fieldwork, a technician, Kevin Aulenback, sat to eat his lunch when he spied a piece of eggshell and a small femur nearby.  He followed the trail of bones and shells to a nest eroding out of the hill.  It was a defining moment in paleontological history.  The fossilized nests, eggs and embryonic remains were from a new species of duckbilled dinosaur later named Hypacrosaurus Stebingeri.  

After death, this Ornithohmymus body lay exposed under the hot Cretaceous sun.  Theory suggests the flesh decomposed, muscles dried and ligaments tightened, pulling the skeleton into a dramatically arched position.  Soon afterwards, sediment buried the body protecting its striking posture for millions of years.

...and another 'Death Pose.'

Work is ongoing as more fossils are liberated from the rock that encases them.

The work is long and arduous but the results are spectacular.


Large eyes and a slender neck allowed Ornithomimus  to scan its surroundings quickly and efficiently.  Armed with a sharp, narrow snout, this omnivore was well adapted to peck and rip both flesh and vegetation.

I have no idea.

Ammonites are extinct hard-shelled, coiled, squid-like marine creatures--abundant during the Mesozoic Era.  They were plentiful prey for marine reptiles that inhabited the same Bear Paw Sea waters.  In southern Alberta, some ammonites have a unique form of preservation.  Tectonic pressure, heat, and mineralization over spans of millions of years compress them into colorful, iridescent material used to create jewelry called Ammolite.  The ammonites preserved in this manner are both fossils and gemstones.  Fragments of ammonites are found in open pit mines.  While hoe operators claw carefully through the rock, trained 'spotters' watch for any glimmer of the organic treasures. This specimen, measuring over 2 ft in diameter, is the most brilliant ammonite ever recovered from Alberta.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The glaciers--part 3

It was late afternoon when we left the Icefields and we still had 65 miles to go to get to Jasper.

The Triple Divide.  There are only a handful of places on earth where this occurs--the melt from the top of this mountain drains into 3 separate oceans--The Atlantic, The Pacific and the Arctic.

The partial view of the backside of the ice field that feeds the Athabasca Icefield gave some indication to the size of that glacier.

We were seeing wildlife now and many signs saying, "Beware the Bears"...Promises! Promises!
Clouds were starting to appear ahead but we couldn't help ourselves--we had to stop at every waterfall and vista and get a picture.  You are so lucky that I am not putting every picture in this blog...

Sunwapta Falls

The Athabasca River links the freshwater ice of the Columbia Icefields to the salt water of the Arctic Ocean.  The waters here  journey through Lake Athabasca, Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River before spilling off the northern edge of the continent.

The trail meandered back and forth along the top of this canyon...

What is the difference between a mountain goat and a mountain sheep? 

Come on, Ron, we've got to get moving.

Wait--I need this photo.

It was raining in Jasper when we arrived.  We stopped for dinner and did a tiny bit of sightseeing...

This is a replica/ replacement Totem Pole, put in place in 2009.
The original Raven Totem Pole was carved in the 1870s in Haida Gwaii by an Haida Chief of the Raven clan.

For 94 years, a magnificent Haida totem pole stood proudly near Jasper's railway station.
The totem pole deteriorated over the years and in 2009 had to be taken down.  In 2010 the old Jasper Raven Totem Pole returned to its birthplace in Old Massett, Haida Gwaii and was repatriated to the Haida in a heartfelt ceremony.

The return trip to Canmore went much faster with only an occasional stop for a photo.

The wildlife was very accommodating...

Coming right up to the vehicle to get there picture taken.  Alas, we did not see a bear.

We arrived back in Canmore right at dusk--about 11pm.  Great day, Ron.  Thanks again.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The glaciers--part 2

This was not on my bucket list--but it should have been.

When I embarked on this trip I had a list that started with:
  Live and travel in an RV for two years (next Saturday is my 2nd anniversary of Sailing Down the

There were a lot of things on that list, like 'ride a Segway', find my father's family (Thank you, Dean), eat breakfast on the beach in Key West, and many more things.  But 'Walk on a Glacier'--I never even thought about it.

Athabasca Glacier, and Ron, changed my mind.   If you look very closely at the picture above you will just see two black dots on top of the ice--those are very large transport vehicles.

This photo was taken in 1919 when the Glacier extended all the way across where the road is now.

The Athabasca Glacier is monumental in scale and the view from here seems timeless.  However, the glacier is actually very dynamic, as you can see when you compare the 1919 photo to the view today.  Since 1844, when the Athabasca Glacier reached its maximum, the edge of the ice has retreated more than 1.5 kilometers (nearly 1 mile).

In 1844 the Athabasca Glacier covered the entire area where the parking lot is today.  This terminal moraine (the large gravel pile next to the road) was formed by the glacier when it paused here before it began to shrink to its current location.   

That retreat continues today as warmer local temperatures melt more ice each summer than is replaced by winter snow accumulation on the Columbia Icefield above.  

Ron convinced me that we needed to take one of those transports out on to the ice.

So, while we waited for our ride we played tourist and took a few pictures....

And made a few friends.

The Icefields own all but one of these mega-transports.  Note the size of the tire next to the person boarding the bus.

As we started toward the ice field the driver explained that these buses are built exclusively for the Icefields.  Only one other is in use anywhere-- it's in an open-pit mine in Montana (I think).

An important feature of this transport is that it can ascend--and descend--along a grade of over 30%.  I have driven on a grade of 11% and it scared the sass out of me...

Just note the transports that are at the bottom.

As we neared the bottom I began to see the amazing blue ice.  The driver explained that we would be driving onto ice that is deeper than the Eiffel Tower is high.  

"Could we fall through?"
"Well," he explained, "Fissures do open up--especially with the melting that is now occurring.  But we check it constantly to make sure no one is near a weak spot." I'm not sure that made me feel any safer.

Ron filled our water bottles with melt from ice that was from 100,000 to 10,000 years old.  The water was delicious.

Can I keep it for a souvenir?

I did not expect it to be so cold--Duh! You are standing on ice!

  The blueness makes the ice feel as though it is fragile even though you are looking into its amazing depths.

It is also pretty slick.

Next time I am wearing rubber sole shoes and a sweater.

Ice forms when snowflakes are compacted into icy granules.  The process is called 'firnification' and grainy ice is called 'firn'.  When about 130' of ice piles up, the bottom layer starts to move and slide downhill, at which point a glacier is born!

A ranger told us that, "Yes, the glaciers are melting...

...and it won't be many years before they will be gone."

(Jerry and Cherie, and Hattie, and Dean and Amanda, and anyone else out there who's contemplating a road trip...don't miss this. I am so glad my son urged me to make this trip, now I'm urging you.)