© Myrna Pearman

Lower River

(Drumheller to Confluence with Saskatchewan River)

Between the town of Delburne and the Saskatchewan border, the river cuts into the sediments with a vengeance. Approaching from the surrounding prairies, the traveler is not conscious of the impending scene to be revealed. It comes quickly and with a huge sense of awe. The Red Deer River Badlands open to the visitor like magic, as though a blindfold is suddenly removed to reveal features from another world, another time, and another place. Stark landscapes punctuated by deep clefts and ravines create an otherworldly feeling for those who explore.

Dinosaur Provincial Park 1

Dinosaur Provincial Park Photo by W. Heinsen

Truly, it is one of those places that have to be seen to be believed. And what a treasure the river uncovered! One of the world’s premier beds of cretaceous dinosaurs bones stretches for 200 kilometres along the river’s valley. Complete and nearly complete specimens from here are represented in museums throughout the world, and one of the greatest museums is at Drumheller, the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology. It is a research facility renowned worldwide for the study of dinosaurs and the creatures that lived beside them. Even the casual tourist can have the thrill of finding a dinosaur bone lying just where the incessant erosion left it. And for a few lucky ones, there is the chance of an once-in-a-lifetime thrill, winning the paleontological lottery of finding a large piece of bone or even a complete skeleton.

Dinosaur Provincial Park 3

Dinosaur Provincial Park. Photo by W. Heinsen

Dinosaur Provincial Park 2

Dinosaur Provincial Park. Photo by W. Heinsen.

Albertosaurus, camptosaurus, edmontosaurus, stegosaurus, stenonychosaurus, and tyrannosaurus rex, they were all here. And in a way, they still are. At Dinosaur Provincial Park, visitors can see specimens still resting in the rocks where they were encased over 65 million years ago. At the Tyrell Museum, they stare down at you from the dioramas showing them and their lives. And the valley is not just home to creatures from the past. Some areas have become havens for bird watchers. Ranchers use parts of the rich valley floor to raise the beef cattle for which Alberta is so famous.

Dinosaur Skeleton

Visitors to Dinosaur Provincial Park can views skeletons still embedded in the rock. Photo by W. Heinsen

But the Badlands are not the only fossil trove on the river. The Blindman and the Red Deer Rivers just outside the Red Deer City limits have become known worldwide for the excellence of their Paleocene age fossils. Plant fossils were first collected at the confluence of the two rivers in 1888. These fossils beds lie in the Paskapoo Formation, aged about 60 million years ago. The Alberta Formation was named for the original site on the Blindman River. At Burbank Junction, where the Blindman empties into the Red Deer River, the first fossils found were excellent carbon plant imprints and petrified wood. More recently, many insect fossils, including the oldest record of the crane fly, have been found. During the Paleocene, this area was a semi-tropical swamp with ferns and water-tolerant trees present. Descendants of those trees are now found growing in Southern China and Japan. Vertebrate fossils, including primate jaws, have been recovered on the Blindman River

East of Red Deer, a mollusk layer on the riverbank contains the remains of many extinct fish species, turtles, campsosaurs, crocodiles, mammals including primates, and plant material. This horizon is on a near-vertical bank approximately 25 metres in height. Also present above this horizon is a layer of ash from Mount Mazima, the Oregon volcano responsible for the formation of Crater Lake 6600 years ago.

red deer river lower prickley pear plants and animals basin

Prickly Pear (Opunita fragils) is a common plant in the badlands. Photo by W. Heinsen.

White-tailed deer

White-tailed Deer call the badlands home. Photo by W. Heinsen

Nearby on a roadcut, an outstanding site contains an almost complete ecosystem of fossil remains. In the layers, excellent examples of plant, mollusk, insect, and vertebrate bones are found. There is a bed of articulated fish fossils that includes specimens of trout and perch. A skeleton of a pantodont, an extinct mammal that was about the size of a small cow, has also been removed