Fossil collecting, frog catching and moose watching, oh my!
by Stephen Johnson
I didn’t know dinosaurs used to live in my backyard. Fifteen years after I moved away from Saskatchewan, it took a family trip to learn this fact.
My son has an obsession with dinosaurs. Sometimes, I think he could be the paleontologist in the Jurasssic Park movies. When I saw that Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park offered the chance to do a dinosaur dig with a real-life paleontologist, I knew this had to be part of our summer plans.
We arrived in Moose Jaw and immediately set out to explore. On our first stop we unearthed discoveries from another realm entirely. My parents suggested we check out a quaint cafe and art gallery in the small town of Assiniboia, so we did. The world-class Shurniak Art Gallery features Canadian and international artworks amassed by its founder, Bill Shurniak. After an international career in finance, Mr. Shurniak returned to his Saskatchewan roots and established the gallery to share his incredible private collection with the community where he got his start. The cafe offered up delicious fare and David loved the unique carvings by Yukon artist Dennis Shorty.
The following day, we were in for an adventure of a different kind. Grasslands National Park is one of the best places in Canada to find and study dinosaur fossils. For one weekend every summer, the general public can literally rub elbows with paleontologists from McGill University and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum while working on a dinosaur dig.
When we arrived at the visitor’s centre, it was a hub of activity as everyone was getting ready to head out to the site. We hopped in a truck and were on our way. After driving for about 45 minutes and hiking for 20, we arrived. The landscape was beautifully desolate with exposed ridges and scrub brush vegetation. Paleontologists Dr. Hans Larsson from McGill University and Dr. Emily Bamforth from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum gave us an overview of the site. We were also given instructions on how to collect the dinosaur fossils.
David was in paradise. There were literally fossils every step we took, so he quickly found the fossilized remains of a gar fish. He also found a crocodile fossil. The thrill was that we could immediately take our findings to paleontologists who would verify the fossils and provide explanations. It was like participating in a National Geographic documentary.
Later in the day, we had a chance to see where the students were excavating an Edmontosaurus fossil. (An Edmontosaurus is also known as a duck-billed dinosaur.) It was exciting to see paleontology up close and in practice, after having seen static displays of dinosaur bones in museums. When it was almost time to go, we had to give up the fossils we had found. David was fine with that, since he knew the fossils he’d collected could expand general knowledge about dinosaurs.
The drive back to the visitor’s centre was spectacular. We stumbled upon two red Adirondack chairs in the middle of nowhere. Many Canadian national parks now place red chairs at locations staff members think are the most scenic points. I could not argue with the choice at Grasslands. The chairs offered up a view of an area called Valley of a Thousand Devils. It was the most stunning badlands scenery I had ever seen.
At the visitor’s centre there was a barbecue to end the day, and we had the chance to mingle with the paleontologists, students and park guides as we all shared stories of the fossils we’d found. I’m sure David was imagining we were eating T-Rex steak or Edmontosaurus burgers.
The next day, we moved on to visit Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. Rising out of the prairies, Cypress Hills is the only interprovincial park in Canada with its boundaries in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is also the highest point between the Canadian Rockies and the Labrador Peninsula.
For our family, the park’s significance transcends its unique geography. My father spent almost every summer of his youth at Cypress Hills, since his mother was a cook at a summer camp. It was touching to watch David and my father retrace dad’s childhood hiding spots and play areas.
The following day, David set out to make a few childhood memories of his own. When we drove into Cypress Hills, David had spotted a small lake. He decided it was a perfect spot for frog catching. Armed with little more than a net and rubber boots, David stealthily approached the frogs and, with one swoop, he captured three. Since David is very respectful of nature, he gently let the hoppers go. There was plenty of catch-and-release, though.
That evening, we checked out a special stargazing event at the Cypress Hills Observatory. The park has been deemed a dark-sky preserve, which means artificial light is used as little as possible. Living most of my life in a city, I have never seen the night sky like I did in Cypress Hills. We had the added treat of having an astronomer point out some of the universe’s natural wonders with a high-powered telescope. David left the evening wanting to explore the solar system.
The next day, it was time for us to wrap up our trip and head back to Moose Jaw. Just as we were leaving the park, David hollered, “Look, a moose!” At first I didn’t believe him, as I did not expect to see a moose in southwest Saskatchewan. But sure enough, ambling slowly across the road were a mother moose and her child. It was the first time any of us had seen a moose. After about ten minutes, the pair finally made their way into the forest.
Fossil collecting, frog catching and moose watching: it was truly a trip we will not forget soon.