Badlands and Hoodoos

When I mentioned last week that I planned to drive from Calgary to Drumheller more than a few Albertans cautioned that this particular drive would be exceptionally… boring. One even used the word ‘desolate’ to describe the area northeast of Calgary.

Personally, I think that’s a bit harsh. Sure, the scenery is different from what you’ll encounter to the west of the city in the foothills, Kananaskis Country, and eventually the Rockies. And until you actually get close to Drumheller the scenery is pretty – pretty flat – but it’s anything but desolate. If you’re like me and used to driving in Southern Ontario where there’s an Esso or a Tim Horton’s every 200 meters a leisurely drive through this area might be a refreshing change.

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So with that attitude I synced my iPod with the sound system in the rented Chevy Cruse, selected a playlist of Corb Lund and Ian Tyson songs, set the cruise control at 120 and hit the northbound Deerfoot.

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I had no particular reason to stop just north Calgary in the hamlet of Balzac other than it allows me to say that I’ve been to Balzac. And doesn’t every man want to say he’s been to Balzac? No? Okay, maybe it’s a gay thing.

In a past life I would have stopped to check out the racetrack that is reported to be under construction adjacent to the Crossiron Mills shopping mall near Balzac. I didn’t feel so inclined this time. I think it’s safe to say that I have moved on.

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After Balzac came the sleepy towns of Irricana (an acronym of “irrigation canals”), Beiseker (self-proclaimed “World Wheat King Capital”), and finally Acme. As a child of the 60s who was raised on Roadrunner cartoons, I just had to stop in Acme. A sign at the edge of town says, “Acme: The Name You Can Trust. Beep, Beep!”

I thought about popping into the Acme Hotel for a quick one but I knew that in 30C weather, “one” could easily turn into two or three and I had a long drive ahead of me so I settled for a glass bottle of Dr. Pepper from the corner store.

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Anyone with a photographer’s eye for the rusted, decrepit, and derelict could spend a day checking out the dozens of vintage tractors, thrashing machines, pickup trucks and abandoned farm buildings that line the back roads of Southern Alberta. This area is far from depressed and I get the impression that any old machinery that happens to be sitting around has been dragged to the end of the lane for the amusement of tourists and photographers like myself.

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Just east of Beiseker I pulled into the Sandhills Hutterite Colony. As I drove up the lone lane towards a cluster of commercial buildings that I imagined might offer farm produce and the like, I had a flashback to 1982. I recalled Gordie Bryce, the starter at Assiniboia Downs, trying to persuade me to volunteer for service on the massive Homewood Hutterite Colony near Starbuck, Manitoba. And by service, I mean, well… let’s just say that close-knit colonies have to widen the gene pool every so often. I wasn’t interested when I was 19 and I’m even less interested now, so rather than be mistaken for a “volunteer’, I backed down the lane and got back onto the 806 north.

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After turning east toward Drumheller I took a short detour into the town of Carbon, Alberta. With a bit of advance planning I could have timed my arrival for a Saturday night and caught the moving picture show at the Farmer’s Exchange. I’ll put that on my list of things to do if I ever tackle a 100 Saturdays in Canada trip.

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About 30 minutes east of Carbon lies the town of Drumheller, population 8029.

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Not many towns of this size can boast of having a World class museum, but Drumheller certainly has one in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. Some of the most important dinosaur discoveries in the world were unearthed within a few miles of Drumheller.

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The 121,000 square foot museum is located in the middle of the fossil-bearing strata of the Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon and is home to 130,000 fossils from the Alberta badlands, Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site.

If you’re an adult and feel the need to read every single sign and storyboard in a museum, you could easily kill several days here.

If you’re in the 5-10 bracket you’ll love “Dinosaur Hall” with its 40 mounted dinosaur skeletons, including specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex, Albertosaurus, Stegosaurus and Triceratops.

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Teens apparently love this stuff too. I overheard a boy of about 13 say to another boy, “Why can’t you hear a Pterodactyl going to the bathroom? The other boy knew the answer and quickly replied, “Because the ‘P’ is silent.”

A window into the “Preparation Lab” allows you to watch staff prepare newly discovered fossils for exhibition.

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After a few hours at the museum I was itching to get back on the open road – and let me tell you, there’s plenty of open road in Alberta. One interesting stretch is known as The Dinosaur Trail so naturally I checked it out. The 48km circuit takes you north from Drumheller, past Horsethief Canyon and Orkney Hill, over the slow moving Red Deer River on the cable-operated Bleriot Ferry, and back down the west side of the river to through the Drumheller Valley.

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I continued south on the Hoodoo Trail (Hwy 10) which takes you 25 km east of Drumheller to the hoodoos site.

The French refer to their taller and narrower hoodoos as demoiselles coiffées (“ladies with hairdos”) but in Alberta the hoodoos have a distinctive mushroom-like shape as the base is eroding at a faster rate than the capstone on most hoodoos. These formations date from the Cretaceous Period, or about 75 million years ago.

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As I had taken a pass on the cafeteria-style food at the museum, and I knew there might not be much between Drumheller and Calgary, I took a detour off the main road and crossed 11 single-lane bridges on a 5km drive to the hamlet of Wayne.

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As you might have guessed, the culinary offerings in a town of 23 were somewhat limited. Thankfully the lone business in Wayne appeared to be the Rosedeer Hotel (c. 1913) and the adjoining Last Chance Saloon. This was just what the doctor ordered after a few hours of hiking around hoodoos in the blazing sunshine.

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The locally raised bison burger was good but not exceptional, the side of baked beans may or may not have been Heinz (hard to tell) but in 30C weather, the icy cold Big Rock Brewery IPA certainly went down quickly.

As I didn’t want to drive right away, I sat back and waited for the ‘live’ entertainment that was promised by the waitress. After a small crowd gathered, the call was made to ‘strike up the band’.

(Band video to come when I have broadband internet access.)

That was an awful lot of excitement for one night so I decided to head back to the relaxed atmosphere of my Calgary hostel. I arrived ‘home’ around midnight, which was just in time for the start of ‘movie night. The four large leather sofas in the common room were rearranged into rows and provided great theatre style seating for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Another 5 star end to a another 5 star day.

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