28 Oct 2012

SPOTting the Deep Past

This summer, I went journeying Into The Deep Past again. This time, it wasn't a chance to walk through my home neighbourhood again and see the geological changes that have shaped the world around me. Nope! This time, instead of the familiar hills and ocean shorelines of Vancouver Island, I was exploring the Alberta Badlands along the Red Deer River.

See that tiny dot mid-river, below the bluff? That's me in my kayak!
There are so many ways of showing that process of being in a place and learning to understand what we are seeing. My daughter Lila Kladreau is a professional photographer; she took the photos above and below, which show me setting out on the river in an inflatable kayak that has served me well in many places close to home, and now on the river.

These photographs contrast well to the painting artist Suzanne Robb made of another location a day's paddle downstream from my launch point. Here, Suzanne shows the striking patterns of weathering that are so visible from the river. The deep runnels that cut into the layers of sediment expose fossils from millions of years ago, when this area was under the shallow Bearpaw Sea.

Suzanne's painting shows the colours as they are felt, instead of the muted way they are shown in Lila's photos. Eroded hillsides looked like dinosaur bones sticking out of the clay and sand -- and yes, there are dinosaur bones all through the sediments from 65 million years ago and older! Other eroded bluffs along the river banks have round faces like Mount Rushmore, and some crumbles have sharp broken edges like profiles of faces looking up-river at the Buffalo Jump.
It's wonderful how different people can be in the same place and create different ways of showing what they have learned. I'm not the photographer that Lila is, nor the painter that Suzanne is. I use other technology to help show people where I've been. One of my best tools is the SPOT device. It's a small electronic device a little bigger than a cell phone. Press the OK button, and it sends a signal to any passing communications satellite to send a pre-written message to up to ten of my friends, with a link to my GPS location on a map.
This is a map of the first message I sent from the Red Deer River.

The map of my second day's travels shows that I went through Dry Island Buffalo Jump Park and camped near Tolman Bridge. The spot marked 4 on the next map shows where I looked at the buffalo jump and the mesa called Dry Island. Some maps look better on a satellite photo, like this one that even shows the shadow of a few little clouds.

The buffalo jump is impressive if you know what you're looking at; a cliff becomes a cliff where the buffalo would fall, not just a crumbly bluff. And below wasn't just a jumble of muddy crumbles mixed with old bones. It was the place where people would have been waiting with spears to finish off the buffalo, after the runners had driven them off the cliff. Falling a hundred feet onto its head doesn't kill a buffalo. But the fall does stun it or break a leg, so it's easier to kill. And then, there's lots of water here from the river and a nearby stream, for the butchering and cooking. The science of buffalo hunting makes sense when you can see the cliff and the water.
The river makes more sense in some ways, too, when I see it on the map that shows how few roads there are in this part of Alberta, or on the satellite photo that shows how the river gouged out its little canyon through this dry land. The SPOT is no substitute for a camera, but it's a good tool to have for keeping track of where I've been. Ultimately, nothing matches being there, feeling the slippery clay clinging to my feet, or the tea-brown river quietly slipping between banks where cattle graze and swallows dart.

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