Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spartan Sprint

Event Date: August 2015

I decided to enter the Spartan Race again this year.  I really enjoyed it last year when Rob and I ran together, so I was looking forward to this year's event.  Unfortunately it was raining in Calgary before and during the race, which created extremely muddy conditions.  Not that we wouldn't be getting wet and muddy anyway, but this ultimately slowed progress throughout the course and made the obstacles that much more difficult; read slippery!  This year I ran with Andrea, one of the guys I train with on the weekends at Inliv here in Calgary.  It was nice having someone to rely on for the difficult obstacles and to offer encouragement throughout the race.  

The barbed-wire army crawl
Like last year I entered into the Sprint event, which is 5km with 15+ obstacles.  Many of the obstacles were the same as last year's race, but there were a few new ones, which was a nice change of pace.  If, for whatever reason, you weren't able to complete an obstacle you had to complete 30 burpees before continuing the race.  After having to do 60 burpees last year (spear toss and rope climb) I was pretty happy to only have to do 30 this year; that damn spear throw has my number though!  I was really excited that I was able to complete the rope climb this time around!  

Climbing the cargo net with Andrea
Up and over the top
Taking a breather
This was the last obstacle before the rope climb
As previously mentioned the muddy course made for slower times overall.  I was definitely slower this year, finishing in 1:18:08, but I placed 387th overall, which is a significant increase from last year's event.  I was also 58th overall in my age category.  I'd like to get my overall time under an hour, so I guess that means I need to get back in the gym and train harder for next year's Spartan Sprint!

Leaping over the final obstacle!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Guided Excavation

Trip Date: August 2015

"If you throw your hat and it doesn't come within twenty feet of a dinosaur bone,                 then you're not in Dinosaur Provincial Park." 
I returned to Dinosaur Provincial Park in early August to participate in their one-day Guided Excavation Program; meaning I was going to be digging up actual dinosaur bones inside the park!  I was secretly hoping the above quote was true because I really wanted to unearth a fossil or two.  If you recall, I was in the park back in July for the Centrosaurs Quarry Hike, which you can read about right here.  Due to previous commitments, this was only going to be a day trip from Calgary, but one that was well worth the effort!

Welcome to Dinosaur Provincial Park
I was on the road early as the program started at 9AM and the park is approximately 220km east of Calgary.  When I arrived, our guide David was ready and waiting at the Visitor Centre.  He did a brief orientation, complete with a tour of the lab, which is also a field station for the Royal Tyrrell Museum.  After last minute bathroom breaks we boarded the bus and headed for the Natural Preserve, which is an area of the park that's off-limits unless accompanied by a guide.  

The Visitor Centre doubles as a Field Station for the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller
This carnivorous Dromaeosaurus was part of a larger display showing how they were pack hunters
This is the skull of a Styracosaurus and it was assembled by our guide.  This was the first piece he's ever had displayed in a gallery.  It took David 14 months to get it ready to be featured and it was originally excavated in the park in 1987.
Our first stop featured a short hike to a couple of ancient clam beds.  Here we discovered hundreds of divots where prehistoric, freshwater clams had once resided.  Scattered across the soil were thousands of fragments of crushed clam shells and the odd intact specimen.  The clams would have lived at the bottom of a freshwater river that flowed through the area.  Near the clam bed is Quarry Number 221 that was excavated back in 1995.  They found a full skeleton of a Ornithomimid that is now on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

A solitary hoodoo perched in the badlands
The divots from the freshwater clams
Bits and pieces of ancient clam shells
This Nuttall's Cottontail was hopping by while we were looking at the clams
Beautiful badland scenery
Quarry Number 221 where the Ornithomimid skeleton was found
This leaf impression was also found in Quarry No. 221
Before reaching the dig site we made one more quick stop, which is also part of the Explorer's Bus Tour.  There was a spinal column of a duck-billed dinosaur on display, just as it was found in the late 1980's when they were building the road through the Natural Preserve.  Since there was no skull found at or near the site, researchers are unsure what species of duck-billed dinosaur it was.

Several intact vertebrae from a duck-billed dinosaur
It was a short walk to the dig site, which is one of several Centrosaurus Bone Beds that have been found in the park.  Our job was to excavate different areas of the dig site and carefully remove any bones that were found.  Large parts of the site had already been excavated from previous expeditions, but there was still lots of overburden to remove.  There were seven of us on the tour and David assigned each of us different tasks in different areas of the site.  It was my job to remove untouched soil that was immediately next to several exposed bones that were waiting to be removed from the ground.

If you look closely you can see the dig site just to the right of centre in the above photograph
Another view of the Centrosaurus Bone Bed dig site
All the materials we'd need for our day of excavating
David giving us a site orientation and assigning us our jobs
We were each given a set of tools that would help in the excavation process.  I was obviously excited for what might lay beneath the surface, but I was careful not to re-bury the previously exposed bones that were being removed by other members of the group.  Before lunch I had uncovered a small piece of Centrosaurus bone and several pieces of plant material, but nothing too substantial.

There were exposed bones scattered all around the dig site
Once a bone has been fully excavated a jacket of plaster is put over the bone to protect it from being damaged
A large fossil that was coated in plaster prior to our arrival
A few examples of the planet material I was uncovering during my dig
We stopped to enjoy lunch while David showed us several different fossils that had been uncovered in the park.  Teeth, claws, tendons, pieces of shell, and armour plating were some of the most interesting.  Before resuming work on the dig David lead us to a micro-site that was a short distance away from the main dig site.  Here it's common to find much smaller fossils, such as teeth or bits of tendon, instead of the large bones.  I found the tooth of a small plant-eating dinosaur, as well as turtle shell fragments and other pieces of bone.

On the way to the micro-site we passed this petrified log that's slowly deteriorating
Petrified Log
The bone bed as viewed from the micro-site
A group member spotted this tooth from a Gorgosaurus; a close relative of both Tyrannosaurus Rex and Albertosaurus
After our micro discoveries we returned to the site and resumed digging for the remainder of the afternoon.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to discover any large fossils, but that's all part of the experience.  I still had an incredible time and the possibility of finding something with each scoop of soil was very addicting.  I didn't want to leave!  It's worth noting that as fun as this experience is, participants are part of an ongoing scientific dig and will be handling real dinosaur fossils.  As a result of this the minimum age for participation is fourteen.

Some of the bones that were uncovered by members of our group
Limb bones from a Centrosaurus
The bones appear shiny because once they're exposed we coated them with glue to help preserve them.  Bones that are exposed to the elements after millions of years can be extremely fragile.
This is a piece of a horn from a Centrosaurus
The day concluded at the Cretaceous Cafe where we all enjoyed some ice cream.  One of the group members even spotted a Little Brown Bat enjoying his late afternoon snooze!

Little Brown Bat
I highly recommend the Guided Excavation program that's offered at Dinosaur Provincial Park.  If you have a keen interest in paleontology or just a passion for dinosaurs this experience should be on your bucket list.  To be honest, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect going in, but the bone beds offer such a wealth of opportunity that the odds of finding something are very high.  Plus we didn't just spend the entire day digging; we were also granted access to different areas of the park that are normally closed to the public.  To top it off, David's knowledge about the park and his passion for the work were infectious!  It was just an awesome day overall and I am extremely happy to have been apart of it.

I posted a brief story, titled Jurassic Province, about my time in Dinosaur Provincial Park on the Calgary Guardian website. In addition you can read about Canada's first and largest dinosaur nesting site by visiting my post called Devil's Coulee.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park

Trip Date: August 2015

Writing-On-Stone, or Áísínai'pi as it's known in Blackfoot, is a provincial park in the southeast corner of Alberta near the United States border in Montana.  The park is home to the largest collection of First Nation rock art on the Great Plains of North America.  The park sits in the heart of the Blackfoot's traditional territory and the area holds great spiritual significance for their People.  

The entrance to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park
Writing-On-Stone is located 340km southeast of Calgary, but only 42km east of Milk River, the closest town to the park.  The Government of Alberta is working with Parks Canada and the Government of Canada to nominate Writing-On-Stone for World Heritage Site status with UNESCO under the name Writing-On-Stone/Áísínai'pi, meaning "it is pictured/written" in Blackfoot.  The Áísínai'pi National Historic Site of Canada is synonymous with Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park.  I briefly mentioned Writing-On-Stone in a previous post titled Milk River.  I spent one night in the park several years ago after paddling from the town of Milk River with my co-workers from Enviros Base Camp during a staff training/retreat.  

Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park Map
Christine and I drove down to the park on the Sunday morning of the August long weekend and would be camping for two nights.  We arrived, settled into our campsite, and then headed out for an afternoon hike with Rome.  There are only a couple of official trails in the park, so we decided on the 4.4km Hoodoo Trail that featured a little bit of everything; hoodoos, viewpoints, rock art, and some beautiful scenery.  Since the trail winds it's way through hoodoos and sandstone the temperatures can be extremely hot.  While we were there the temperature amongst the sandstone was reported as 66.7°C!  Make sure you are dressed properly and carry lots of water.   

Hiking the Hoodoo Interpretive Trail
The trail offers a few chances to spot rock art.  This panel wasn't featured in the Self-Guiding Trail Brochure, but with keen eyes you can spot it from the trail, like we did!
Christine standing in the trees along the Milk River
The sandstone cliffs that are unique to this valley
Hoodoos are another rock formation that are prevalent in the park
This is a petroglyph of a bear paw, a sacred animal to many First Nation groups
The Milk River
If it wasn't for the brochure we probably would have walked right past this panel of pictographs
After running them through DStretch they're a little more vivid.  According to the brochure, the artist painted a hunting scene complete with horses, bison, humans, and the sun.
One of the largest panels in the park is the Battle Scene, which can be accessed via the Hoodoo Trail or the Battle Scene Trail, depending on your starting point.  The interpretive sign in front of the petroglyph panel reads:
"The petroglyphs carved on this cliff make up the most extensive and complex rock art scene found at Writing-On-Stone.  Over 250 characters are depicted in the most complex composition of any Northwestern Plains rock art scene.  It includes 115 warriors, some of which carry bows or guns, 17 horses, some pulling travois, and 44 guns.  A stream of bullets issues from the muzzle of nearly every gun. 
The scene may represent an actual battle described by an Aamsskáápipikáni (South Peigan or Blackfeet) elder named Bird Rattle.  He directly linked the rock art of Writing-On-Stone to the "Retreat Up The Hill" battle, fought somewhere along the Milk River in 1866.  It was one of the most decisive of the Aamsskáápipikáni victories.  Bird Rattle described this battle during a visit he made to Writing-On-Stone in 1924.  The drawing was likely carved in the late 1800s."
This is what the Battle Scene looks like, but it can be difficult to see depending on the light conditions.
Photo from a Buzz Bishop blog post.

The Battle Scene panel as it's viewed from behind the protective fence.  You can tell it's difficult to see at certain times.
A close-up of a section of the Battle Scene
Sandstone cliffs along the river
Sandstone Cliffs
Hiking back to the campground
A solitary hoodoo perched on a hill
The mounds in the background are the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana 
The Visitor Centre can be see in the background on the left
After our hike we took a refreshing dip in the Milk River, which flows through the park and is easily accessible from the campground.  After dinner we took a drive up to the rodeo grounds as the 50th Annual Writing-On-Stone Rodeo was taking place while we were there.  Unfortunately we were a bit too late as they were already wrapping up for the evening.  

We spotted this Nuttall's Cottontail hopping through the campground
The Sweet Grass Hills, the Milk River, and those white buildings are the NWMP Post
After breakfast the next morning Christine dropped me off at the Visitor Centre as I was going on a tour of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Post that sits in the park, but on the south side of the river.  This was a rare and very unique opportunity as the post hadn't been open to visitor's in roughly ten years!  They were using this day as a chance to pilot a new program with the intent of opening the NWMP Post on a more regular basis for tourism.

Vistor Centre
Outside the Visitor Centre are the weathered remains of a sweat lodge, used at the opening ceremonies for the Visitor Centre
The reconstructed NWMP Post
The post, positioned at the mouth of Police Coulee, was originally built in 1889 and was occupied for twenty-nine years before closing in 1918.  It was built with the intention of combatting whiskey smuggling and horse raiding that was reportedly happening in the area.  Once the post was established the police soon realized that the aforementioned crimes weren't much of an issue and they adopted more tedious tasks like fighting grass fires, herding U.S. cattle back across the border, and riding long patrols along the boundary.  The post reached it's peak in 1897 with twelve horses, five Mounties, and two hired range riders.  From that point the post slowly declined until there was only one Mountie stationed there in 1905.  In 1918 the federal government closed all police posts along the border as the fear of criminal activity was quite small.  The post in Writing-On-Stone shuttered it's doors in May of that year and was burnt to the ground a short time later by unknown arsons.  It wasn't until 1975, in conjunction with the North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP) centennial celebrations that the post was rebuilt according to original specifications.  

The post sits in the Archaeological Preserve area of the park
The stable and cold storage building
Part of the reason the post has been closed is its accessibility.  Like at Dinosaur Provincial Park, a large portion of Writing-On-Stone is classified as an Archaeological Preserve, meaning it's off-limits to the public unless accompanied by a guide.  The NWMP Posts sits within the preserve portion of the park and is also on the opposite side of the river from the campground and Visitor Centre.  For the pilot program park staff used a raft to transport guests from one side of the river to the other, negating the need to wade through the shallow water.  Once across we were greeted by our guide, Becky, who proceeded to offer a glimpse into what life was like for the Mounties stationed at the post all those years ago.  

The inside has been furnished to recreate the late 1890's
After touring the post we were given an opportunity to take a short hike into Police Coulee to see Signature Rock.  It was here that many of the Mounties who were stationed at the post carved their names into the soft sandstone cliffs.  Some are elaborate carvings that obviously took a lot of time and energy, while other are more simple.  Although carving your name into the cliffs is now illegal these carvings are considered historical graffiti and are embraced by staff as part of the park's history.  For the hike we had a separate guide, Aaron, who provided additional details about the Mounties and how they spent their time while living at the post.  Both guides offered excellent insight to the history of the area, the NWMP and their roles, as well as some background information on a few of the men whose names were inscribed on the rock.  

The entrance to Police Coulee
This is just a small section of Signature Rock
A couple of hours later I was back at the Visitor Centre and ready for another dip in the river followed by some relaxation in the campsite.  I was scheduled to attend the early evening Rock Art Tour, which was again located in the Archaeological Preserve area of the park.  I met my guide, Stella, at the Visitor Centre and boarded the bus for the short drive into the preserve.  Stella was a wealth of knowledge about all the different artwork we'd be seeing throughout our tour.  She informed us that there are over 1,000 pieces of artwork that have been found in the park and some are estimated to be over 5,000 years old!  There is evidence that First Nation People camped in the area as long as 3,500 years ago, but it remains unclear when the first appearance of rock art truly was.  Researchers believe that the Blackfoot People created the majority of the artwork, but other groups such as the Cree, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Crow, Kutenai, and Shoshone are thought to have also contributed. 

These pictographs are barely visible to the naked eye...
...but after being processed with DStretch the images of three shield-bearing warriors are instantly recognizable.  There's also a fourth character visible top left.
This panel, immediately next to the above pictographs features several figures including both animals and humans
This is a v-neck human holding a quiver of arrows
Many of the petroglyphs that were created before the introduction of stone tools were incised or scratched onto the cliffs using antlers or bones.  The pictographs were painted using red ochre, which is crushed iron ore mixed with animal fat or water.  Sometimes even a piece of charcoal was used to create a painting.  Unfortunately there is no technique that can accurately date rock art sites, instead researchers can approximate the age based on objects depicted in the artwork or by analyzing changes in rock art styles.  

Here is a solitary piece that depicts an arrow with two feathers attached to it
The figure in the centre of the circle is a representation of Napi
The small tick-marks on the outside of the large circle are an indication of counting, possibly tracking the passage of time
A large petroglyph panel with many human-like figures including a Medicine Man (right of centre in a circle)
For many years this was thought of as vandalism, but that has changed and is now recognized as the earliest depiction of automobiles within the park
Much of the rock art is still shrouded in mystery as the exact meaning for many of the pieces may never be known.  Using a variety of methods, such as legends, archaeology, historical records, and the help of First Nation elders, researchers can hypothesize some of the meanings behind the art.  It is believed that much of the artwork was probably ceremonial, created during different rituals like vision quests.

The human-figure left of centre is depicted wearing his finest clothing.  The lines coming off the body represent mink furs, which adorned clothing for special occasions.
These are horses and the lines at left represent the number of horses that were likely obtained during a raid
Another panel featuring shield-bearing warriors.  The figure just left of centre that appears to be laying down with another smaller figure between his/her legs can be interpreted in two ways: (1) someone who has died and his/her spirit is leaving the body or (2) it's a mother giving birth to her child.
You can read more about the pictograph and petroglyph sites I have visited by visiting my Western Canadian Rock Art section on the Bradshaw Foundation's webpage.

Sandstone cliffs and wildflowers
Sunset at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park
Writing-On-Stone is a very special place filled with great spiritual significance, unique landscapes, historical sites, legends and lore, prehistoric artwork, and endless adventure.  We arrived on a beautiful summer weekend in 2015, but the place has been visited since the beginning of time.  Who knows what other secrets have yet to be uncovered?