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Chasing Dino Dreams in Alberta
When Randy Lyons was in the third grade, he told his teacher that he wanted to be a palaeontologist when he grew up.
"She thought that hunting for dinosaurs sounded like a boring job, and besides, all the dinosaurs had already been found," says Lyons. "So I gave up the idea." Instead he went on to a successful career in sales and marketing. But then came his 50th birthday, and with it a renewal of those long-ago dino dreams.
"For my birthday present, my wife sent me on a dig for dinosaur bones in the badlands of Alberta," recalls Lyons, who lives in West Chester, Pa., and has gone on a dig every year in the six years since that milestone birthday. "I was thrilled. It's real science and in some ways the most important thing I do all year."
Dinosaurs - the terrifying lizards - disappeared from Earth 65 million years ago, but they hold enduring fascination. "I think people love dinosaurs so much because they are like mythical creatures, almost like dragons," says Peter May, whose Ontario firm builds dinosaur replicas for museum exhibits. "It's hard to believe these enormous, ferocious creatures once wandered our world."
For the last decade, the Royal Tyrrell Museum outside Drumheller has been making it possible for people to take their interest one step further by actually participating in the search for dinosaur bones. Founded in 1985, the Tyrrell is among Canada's pre-eminent museums. The big draw is its spectacular Dinosaur Hall, showcasing one of the world's largest displays of dinosaur skeletons. Situated near some of the richest fossil deposits on the planet, the Tyrrell offers both daylong and weeklong digs in which visitors can work alongside palaeontologists in their ongoing fossil hunting in the area.
The weeklong Field Experience digs, as they're called, take place mainly in Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site two hours west of Drumheller. A stark stretch of sandstone carved into weird shapes by wind and water, the park was once a kind of lush Club Med for dinosaurs.
"About 75 million years ago, this area was our version of Florida, " explains Kevin Kruger, the museum's Field Experience coordinator. "The temperature was just right and there were rivers, plants and small animals - the perfect spot for dinosaurs." As the Rocky Mountains began to push up from the earth's crust, they shed sediment into rivers that flowed east. As a result, many dinosaurs that died in water in what is now Alberta were buried and preserved in the sediment.
Field Experience participants, who can choose to either camp out on the land or sleep in air-conditioned trailers, might find themselves doing six different jobs during the week. "You can be scanning the rock formations for bones, chipping and brushing the fossils, working the ropes and pulleys or mapping and cataloguing the finds," explains Lyons, whose wife began joining him on the expeditions three years ago. "I go on the trip with the attitude that whatever you want me to do, I will be delighted to do."
One personal highlight for Lyons was getting to working alongside Philip Currie, head of dinosaur research at the museum, for three days on a dig. "I unloaded about 40 years of questions on Phil," he remembers. "It was a real honor to work beside him." And Lyons has made his own share of discoveries. "I've come across the teeth of a Tyrannosaurus rex. A single tooth stretches right across the palm of your hand and all these millions of years later you could still feel the serrated edge. It was amazing."
Another attraction is the fellow participants. "I really enjoy getting to know the geology students," Lyons observes. "They are trying to decide whether to go into the oil and gas industry or make a career in palaeontology, which is all about hard work and discovery."
The museum's day digs are a little less demanding, but equally exciting. Things kick off with a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum to see recently collected fossils, after which the group is transported to a fossil bed of bones. Throughout the day, palaeontologists instruct participants on how to uncover the fossils, map their position and wrap them in plaster. At the end of the dig there's enough time left over to explore the exhibits at the museum. Over the past decade, day-dig participants have excavated more than 2,500 significant specimens, including last year's find of a four-foot femur bone from a duckbilled dinosaur.
Edmonton paediatrician Andrew Stewart and his 14-year-old grandson Brian Burley have gone on day digs for the past four summers, and have signed up again for one this year. Brian lives in Dallas and dreams of becoming a dinosaur hunter. He's even switched from studying Spanish to studying Latin.
"Each year his dad and I ask Brian if he wants to do something different in the summer, but he always chooses the dig," his proud grandfather says. "It's a wonderful experience. The guides are so enthusiastic and you really feel like you are doing something, not just digging holes in the dirt."
About the Author...
Ian Cruickshank is a Toronto-based freelance travel and golf writer. He has contributed to publications across North America and Britain, including Golf Digest, The Sunday Times Magazine, Maclean's and the inflight magazines of Air Canada and American Airlines.