It’s being dubbed informally as the “Dinosaur Highway”. Once an inland sea that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the foothills around Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, have been home to some of the largest dinosaur track discoveries in the world, including the first tyrannosaurus trackway.
The first fossil tracks were discovered in the Peace River Canyon in the 1920’s near the town of Hudson’s Hope. Despite being afforded provincial protection in the 1930’s, the tracks were lost once again with the construction of the WAC Bennett and Peace Canyon Dams, the fossils now buried beneath the reservoir known as Dinosaur Lake.
There wasn’t another significant find until the summer of 2000 when two boys tubing down Flatbed Creek noticed what appeared to be dinosaur tracks in the bedrock. The discovery of the ankylosaur trackway, until recently the longest accessible trackway in British Columbia, renewed interest in the region and reinvigorated the resource community reeling from the loss of its only industry.
It’s raining my first day in Tumbler so I make my way to the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery in town. Opened in 2007 and expanded to a former elementary school in 2009, the gallery exhibits and interprets many of the local discoveries, rotating the displays regularly to ensure a new experience with every visit. The centre of the gym has been transformed into a Jurassic landscape complete with models and footprints of tyrannosaurs, ankylosaurs, and small theropods. Around the outside of the model are interpretive displays of dinosaur tracks and trackways, as well as plant and triassic marine vertebrate fossils, including a complete coelacanth.
A member of the staff gives me a short tour, explaining the local history and some of the regional discoveries. She hands me a heavy, fossilized bone recovered from the area, pointing out the striations that could have been caused by a predator’s tooth. Until the first discovery in 2001, it was believed no dinosaur bones existed in British Columbia. Since then, palaeontologists with the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre have unearthed B.C.’s most complete dinosaur skeleton, a 73 million year old hadrosaur. It is anticipated more complete skeletons will be discovered in the bone bed not far from town.
I have to see the tracks for myself. A few hundred meters out of town on Highway 29, I pull off onto the gravel parking area for Flatbed Pools. It’s a short and moderate hike to Cabin Pool where the boys’ discovery remains accessible to those willing to wade across the rock strewn pool. Unfortunately, the creek is high from heavy rains and too risky to cross to view the tracks firsthand. I have to content myself with the stone slab beside the picnic area that contains over a hundred dinosaur and bird prints.
To my untrained eye, I can only make out the deepest, filled with water and pine debris washed in by the rain. These theropod tracks (featured image) are easily identifiable with their three forward toes, dewclaw and heel print. There’s at least a dozen visible in the slab by the swimming hole, inspiring me to once again to evaluate the risk of crossing the rushing creek to view the ankylosaur tracks. The trackways are unprotected and at the mercy of the elements; erosion and repeated spring flooding will eventually claim some of the prints.
For those interested in developing a keener eye than mine, the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation offers educational day programs, camps and tours that focus on identifying and preparing fossils. The most unique is the lantern tour to the Wolverine River track site. Difficult to see in the light of day, the evening tour allows the use of lanterns to enhance the delicate skin impressions left behind in the stone.
Discoveries continue to be made every year. In 2015, the PRPRC unveiled to the public a 1300 square metre slab near Williston Lake, north of Tumbler Ridge, containing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of tracks dating back more than 100 million years. Excavation continues and the extent of the trackway remains to be unearthed.
Inspired by my visit to the Gallery and the trackways, I find myself studying every rock and slab during my hikes in Tumbler, seeking out a discovery of my own, without success. Tracking dinosaurs, though, adds a whole new and exciting element to exploring the trails and peaks of Tumbler Ridge.
If you find a fossil:
- Do Not remove it from the area – it is illegal to remove fossils from Provincial or National Parks in British Columbia
- Photograph the find from different angles, including the surrounding area and overlapping the photos
- Use an object for scale when photographing, such as a coin, tape measure or the lens cap of the camera
- Mark the location on a map, using satellite positioning or GPS coordinates if possible
- Notify the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre at 1-250-242-4051