Walking with dinosaurs

Toronto Star, Feb 3, 2017, WEMBLEY, ALTA. You spin through hundreds of millions of years of the earth’s history in about 30 seconds. As you turn a dial, you watch the reassuring shapes of our continents merge into strange blobs of land where the dinosaurs roamed.

The more you turn the dial, the more the shapes on the screen — blue water, green land and white ice — morph back in time, through the Cretaceous, 145 million years ago, the Jurassic 201 million years ago all the way back to the Devonian, 419 million years ago.

The Time Machine display at the award-winning Philip J Currie Dinosaur Museum is a big hit with the kids.

This adult has to wait for two separate families to finish (and two separate siblings have little hissy fits because they had to go second) before sitting down and watching the planet change before my eyes.

I’d already watched a thrilling dinosaur chase over three big colourful screens. When the T-Rex takes off after the hadrosaurs, I swear you can feel the thump, thump of its feet on the ground — and in your chest. Yet another chase is overhead with fossils hanging in a frozen pursuit of each other. Down on the ground, you can get up close to real dinosaurs behind glass and put your hand in their footprints cast on the wall.

 

“It’s tantalizing. It’s partly the fascination of the past, I suppose. These things are gone and we can’t access them anymore except through the fossil record,” says Corwin Sullivan, the Chair of the Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Alberta who works with the museum.

“It’s a bit like detective work. We have to follow up clues and interpret them in the most sensible way possible.”

People love the drama around dinosaurs. Little kids, teenagers holding hands and plenty of adults are wandering through the museum’s interactive displays, casts of skulls and the real deal — fossils of dinosaurs recovered in the area.

 

The museum, a partner with National Geographic, opened near Grande Prairie in September 2015 and saw 110,000 visitors in its first 11 months.

Dinosaur bones (and fossil fuels) are a big deal in this region. “We’re right in the middle of it here,” says Sullivan.

Another screen in the museum recreates a herd of horned dinosaurs wading through a river and being wiped out in a flood. Their “jumble of bones,” along with teeth of the carnivores that feasted on their remains are buried at Pipestone Creek, 20 minutes from the museum down a ribbon of highway that cuts through yellow canola fields.

The museum gives two-hour walking tours to the site — the densest bonebed of horned dinosaurs in the world — where paleontologist Philip Currie (whose name is on the museum) supervises digs every summer.

An enthusiastic university student, Heather Gerow, starts the tour with a fake moustache pretending to be Al Lakusta, an amateur fossil hunter and science teacher who discovered the bonebed back in 1974 when he walked a little further than usual (for his trouble, the species discovered here was named for him, Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai).

Gerow stops along the way and digs into her backpack for little blue plastic boxes of fossilized teeth and bits of bones. She passes them around, along with laminated drawings of the beasts they belonged to. At one stop, she has us recreate the flood in an elaborate game of tag — some of us are the lumbering beasts, a few are carnivores and she’s the flood.

On a bridge, she points upstream where a metre-long footprint was found and just downstream where there was a giant skull. The bone bed itself is draped in burlap to keep the clay — “Peace Country gumbo” — in place.

“It is football fields big,” says Gerow. “They could dig here for a century.”

As we look around the site, amid poplars swaying and chickadees singing, it’s a little discomforting trying to imagine the tropical land the dinosaurs roamed 66 to 100 million years ago. Like looking for North America in the blobs of Cretaceous continents back on the museum screen.

“What finding a dinosaur bone means, of course, is that a dinosaur died right there or close enough that its bone got transported there,” says Sullivan, the paleontologist.

“You don’t feel sorry for these poor dinosaurs as you might if you were to see a herd of wildebeests drown in the river. It’s all so remote in the past, those negative emotions don’t come into it.”

And while you don’t feel grief for the dinosaurs that ended up here, you do feel respect, maybe, and an awful lot of wonder about the exotic beasts that are so close, and yet so far.

When you go:

  • Get there: The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum (dinomuseum.ca) is just outside Grand Prairie and it’s about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Edmonton, or a quick flight from either Edmonton or Calgary. It’s also right on the way if you’re driving to Alaska.
  • Seasons: The museum is open all year round. If you’re lucky, you may be there when Dan Aykroyd, one of its big supporters, is in town for a visit. If you miss Aykroyd, you may catch a scientist give one of the regular lectures in the museum’s Aykroyd Theatre.
  • Dine-O-Saur Café: The fully licensed, family- friendly dining room has a wide ranging menu, giant patio and a great sense of humour. Check out the Pebbles and Bam Bam children’s menu, Herbivore section for salads, Carnivore for burgers and Sweetosaurus for dessert.
  • Bonebed tour: The Pipestone Creek bonebed tour runs every summer several times a day. It costs $5 and takes about two hours.
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