The Bad Lands of Alberta
Thirty miles north of Brooks and along the winding course of the muddy Red River are a thrilling sight to visitors unfamiliar with this type of terrain.
There they stand with an awe inspiring grandeur all their own - great rugged barren escarpments of grey sandstone carved into weird fantastic shapes by time's tools, the immemorial winds, rains and frosts.
Over them is a grim bold faced rock resembling the impregnable fortress of Gibraltar, defying the forces of nature. Here close at hand as if to shade one from the beating rays of an Alberta sun, rises a single shaft of rock surmounted by a circular slab of stone, the combination suggesting a mushroom. Yet how unlike a mushroom in that it has taken centuries to grow.
Yonder is a pyramid and beyond that again a half-sphere like an old fashioned beehive. On the opposite side of a deep ravine a cathedral with jutting spires casts a hallowing shadow. All of these and many other formations are repeated in endless panorama, for the hills of the Bad Lands are all alike and yet how different. Mrs. Greene once suffered a slip of the tongue and called this region "The Bad Man's Land" - a fitting appellation for a wilderness that makes you want to shout for very fear of the unknown. There are hills of desolation where there is neither animal or vegetable life.
But interest in the Bad Lands exists not only in what first meets the visitor's eye. There is treasure lying buried underneath the mass of sandstone which attracts the scientists. It is neither gold nor silver nor precious stones. It is the petrified bones of extinct species, for the Bad Lands are in reality a pre-historic cemetery, the battleground and last resting place of dinosaurs or great lizards of bygone age. They were giants of the animal kingdom, exceeding in length and height any modern wild beasts. Judging by the number of skeletons unearthed they existed in great herds.
The scientist scrutinizes the hillsides for signs of a projecting bone, bared by the erosive action of weather on sandstone. If it is a large bone and promises to belong to a complete skeleton, he sets up camp and proceeds to excavate. He may work patiently for weeks with a shovel and tiny pick, carefully uncovering portions of bone. He gives each section of surface a coating of
shellac to protect it from action of the air. Each bone when completely unearthed and shellacked is
wrapped in cotton and the whole encased in plaster of paris. It is then loaded upon a stone boat and
hauled to camp on top of the hill. There assembled specimens are boxed for shipped to some distant
laboratory for scientific study. Besides dinosaurs, the scientist obtains the fossilized remains of
turtles, fishes, palm and fig trees.
These plants and animals belong to tropical climates and it is hard to conceive of Alberta with its forty below zero weather having once been tropical, yet that history is written there in the treasures which the Bad Lands yields to the intrepid explorer. Just how the changes came about; how the dinosaurs came to die herded together in this place; what were the boundaries of the ancient sea; what upheaval of nature brought about these changes in the climate and the surface of the earth pose a problem for the scientist to solve. To the casual tourist all is shrouded in mystery. Yonder reposes a sphinx-like figure. He has witnessed these strange processes. But he guards his secret as carefully as hi ancient brother who broods over Egyptian sands.
The man of science says it is his belief that at least three million years have rolled into oblivion since the owner of this thirty-one inch jawbone perished in dreadful carnage here. He bases his calculations on a study of the vertebrae of a petrified lizard and the pebbled skin of a giant turtle and the ringed trunk of a palm tree. Lacking a better basis of calculation the tourist accepts the learned man's opinion, though he may go away with a feeling that the expert tosses off those three million years with the casual nonchalance of the politician who asks, "What's a million dollars?"
I turn my face towards the setting sun. Silhouetted against the Western sky are some piers for a modern railroad bridge standing waist-deep in the waters of the Red Deer River. A grade is built through the fringe of the Bad Lands. Thus the pre-historic and the present stand cheek by jowl where the dinosaur sleeps and diesel locomotives whistle.
There are many places in Canada where the old and the new meet. The sites of the Indian villages of Stadacona and Hochelaga give place to modern cities. Brock's monument looks down from Queenston's heights upon ocean going steamers. The site of the old Hudson's Bay Company Post on the bank of
the North Saskatchewan and Alberta's Legislative Buildings in Edmonton connect two eras. But the
brief years spanned by the bridge of Time in each of these instances, compared with the ages brought
together, when I lay the toe bone of a dinosaur upon one of these concrete piers are but as moments
A man can project his mind backwards perhaps three hundred years to the birth year of his great grandfather but when he essays to conceive of three million years his imagination fails him utterly. So the tourist sits here and makes feeble casts into the ocean of time. He is forced to grant that he is beaten by the challenges of those grey hills. He takes one last long lingering look at this fascinating wilderness, waves success to the man of science digging down there in the quarry. I crank up my old Model T. car and quit this eerie place, where I have been indulging a modern version of the Valley of Dry Bones.
In the area about Steveville in the edge of the Bad Lands I visited a construction camp when three railway piers were being built. As a Missionary I conducted a Service in a crude shanty and baptized a baby. Several years later when I was Rector of historic Christ Church The Pas. Man., a stranger in the congregation from up Churchill way said he was glad to meet me seeing that I had baptized his grandson. I did not understand until he told me that the ceremony had taken place in a construction camp in Alberta.
During out time at Brooks and Bassano the Governor General, the Duke of Devonshire was paying his farewell visit to Alberta. One Saturday afternoon his trains moved out of Calgary and stopped at Bassano for the weekend. The royal party attended my service in the local church. The next day the train moved to Brooks where a cavalcade took the Duke and his party for an inspection of the irrigation system. Our itinerary included a visit to the Duke of Sutherland's holdings near Brooks, - a small group of Scottish settlers.
The tour ended at the Brooks Church which was also inspected. The Dutchess asked to see our baby girl but Mrs. Greene said she could not take up her baby who was ill, once she got the infant to sleep. The Dutchess commended her as being a wise young mother, but some of our friends were shocked to hear what the Vicar's wife had done to the Dutchess. Our first two children Francis and Leslie, were born at Brooks.