The Alberta prairies, to the uninitiated, might seem like a land ruled by oil barons and cattle ranchers. Everything east of our legendary mountains might be a land of country conservatism and small-town simplicity, utterly devoid of anything enigmatic.
But my Alberta is intensely mystical. It is powerful, strange, brutal, and beautiful. The wind-battered gray barns, the howling coyotes, the harvest moon hung low in the sky… there’s an energy here that’s unexplainable. There are ancient voices carried on the prairie winds, ghosts in the grasses, and bones in the coulees. 75 million year old bones, actually, in one of the richest fossil deposits in the world.
We recently spent a few days in Dinosaur Provincial Park, an astonishing valley cut deep into the grasslands and stretching endlessly to the horizon. I’ve never seen anything like it. A landscape that exists outside of time, esoteric and arcane.
We set up camp on the banks of the Red Deer River. The day was too hot for exploration, the blinding, merciless sun draining all colour from the terrain. But the cool evening revealed a rainbow-hued garden of rock and brush, moody blue-green cottonwood and pinkish sandstone, the pale caramel of whitetail deer. It also revealed mosquitoes. You couldn’t open your mouth without swallowing a half-dozen of them. No amount of citronella oil or campfire smoke could deter the little bastards, and I’m now the reluctant bearer of 132 mosquito bites. Yes, I counted.
Nevertheless, we explored the coulees earnestly. We had a cheeky moonrise picnic off the beaten path, a close encounter with a beautiful mama deer and her skittish fawns, and we marveled at an impressive ceratopsian bone bed.
On our second night, we were woken by earth-shattering thunder and lightning, ankle-deep rainwater, and a bombardment of hail. I’ve never actually been frightened by a storm before – I revel in them, actually – but this was something else. It felt almost apocalyptic. Andrew bravely retrieved the car, and i began throwing our backpacks, books, and sleeping bags from the half-zipped tent flap into the open car window. Soaked and in disbelief, we waited in the car for about two hours for the rain to calm down, waded through the wreckage to disassemble our tent, and got the hell out of there. It was 5:30 in the morning. The minute we left the valley, the rain stopped. It was completely contained by the coulees, pulled in by air pressure or some prehistoric curse.
There’s a part of me (sounding very much like my dad’s voice) that’s a little embarrassed that we couldn’t hack it. But we’re gentle folk with a $30 tent.
Dinosaur is epic, with all the gravity of the classical sense of the word. It is cruel and gorgeous and completely worth visiting. Bring bug spray.