I love exploring the grand scale of things! And close to home, in a wildly eroded river valley park in south-eastern Alberta, there are fantastic opportunities to explore out into the infinite Universe and back into the depths of time.
For 100s of kilometres the Red Deer River in southern Alberta is flanked by so-called badlands – eroded formations of soft clay and rock – that are difficult to travel through and not suitable for agriculture, and hence were labeled “bad” by early Europeans. Dinosaur Provincial Park protects one of the most spectacular stretches of this river valley, and is located about 175km east of Calgary.
Although they are certainly worth preserving, the other-worldly forms of the eroded landscape are not the main reason this park exists: it exists to protect the incredible variety of dinosaur fossils that are found here. And that story takes us deep into history, to a much earlier version of North America…
75 million years ago
75 million years ago, this area was not dry praries, but a rich coastline along the Western Interior Seaway, a long stretch of shallow ocean that covered the middle of North America, stretching from present-day Yukon to the Gulf of Mexico.
This was the late Cretaceous period, the climate was sub-tropical, the Rocky Mountains were just starting to form, and the coastline was a lush ecosystem of tropical forests and rivers flowing through deltas out to the sea. The land and water was full of life – insects, turtles, crocodiles, marine reptiles, fish, and dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs!
To the west, the land was being uplifted and folded as island chains crashed into the western edge of North America – this was the formation of the Rocky Mountains! As the land was being uplifted it was also being eroded down, and much of the eroded material – sand, clay and mud – was washed down stream to the east, out river deltas, and into the basin that held the interior seaway.
This ancient coastline was prone to severe flooding, both from inland storms that overflowed the river deltas, and from tropical storms that came off the interior sea. These floods killed and buried many animals, which, while obviously tragic for them, rapidly buried their bodies, protecting them from scavengers and enabling them to eventually become the fossils we find now.
12,000 years ago
Fast forward through 75 million years – a giant meteor slams into the Yucatan peninsula, ending the Cretaceous and the dinosaur era, mammals evolve from tiny mouse-like creatures to the diversity we have now, mountain ranges, including the Rocky Mountains and the Himalayas are being built, Australia and Antartica split apart, Africa is moving north for a collision with Europe, and groups of primates who walk on two legs move out of Africa to spread throughout the continent of Eurasia. A lot of history!
A little nearer to the present day, for the last 2.5 million years the Earth has been going through cycles of glaciation, commonly called ice ages. The last glacial period lasted from about 115,000 to 12,000 years ago, during which most of Canada was covered in ice sheets over 1000m thick.
Two great ice sheets had met here – the Laurentide ice sheet from the NE and the Cordilleran ice sheet from the Rocky Mountains. As the glacial period ended, the ice sheets retreated east and west, opening a land corridor that rapidly extended north to the Yukon.
12,000 years ago, as all that ice was melting, huge glacial lakes were forming, and then bursting, creating massive floods. These floods scoured the new land, carving out river valleys, including the Red Deer river valley. Plants, animals and the first peoples of North America quickly moved into this new land, and Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan became the traditional territory of the Siksika Nation.
Late 1800s to early 1900s
When the Europeans arrived, they, like all people, were interested in exploitation and expansion, and the geology of the area was mapped with the intention of finding resources, especially coal. And coal was found, starting an economic boom in the region. The first mine was opened in Drumheller in 1911, and by 1930 the village had become a city of 30,000. While exploring for coal with the Geological Survey of Canada in 1884, Josef Tyrrell was the first European to discover a dinosaur fossil in the Red Deer River valley.
That discovery triggered a second wave of fossil exploration, with two expeditions launched by the Geologic Survey of Canada in 1898 and 1901 and led by Lawrence Lambe. The second major set of expeditions was led by American Barnum Brown, from 1910 to 1915. Brown was a famous fossil hunter who discovered the first two Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils in 1902, in Montana, and was exploring Alberta for fossils to be displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Brown made major fossil discoveries along the Red Deer valley, and when the Canadian government witnessed the quantity and quality of the specimens – some of the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever collected – being excavated and then taken out of country, they decided to resume their own expeditions and keep the Canadian dinosaurs in Canada.
To that end, in 1912 the Geologic Survey of Canada hired Charles Sternberg, a private fossil hunter, and the fossil rush intensified, with the Canadian and American crews in a friendly rivalry to find and extract the specimens. During the period of 1911 to 1925 more than 300 skeletons were excavated and carted off to various museums around the world.
These fossil hunting expeditions were usually based out of a “basecamp barge” that floated down the Red Deer river, first picking up supplies at Drumheller, “a small town at that time with a couple of stores”, as Charles Sternberg wrote. His 1917 book Hunting Dinosaurs in the bad lands of the Red Deer River is a fantastic historical read recounting the discovery, in-field preservation of massive, extremely delicate and usually shattered skeletons, extraction of those burlap-wrapped and plaster-protected skeletons by man-power and horse-drawn wagon, and finally painstaking reconstruction of the skeletons for museum display.
In case you’re wondering where “Charlie’s carnivore” is now: it was the first specimen of a new genus, named Gorgosaurus, in the family Tyrannosauridae. These apex predators reached 8 to 9 meters from nose to tail and weighted over 2500kg, making them smaller cousins to the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex – and certainly not something you’d want to meet in a jungle! Charlie’s carnivore now resides in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.
Of course, there is a much wider variety of fossils found here than just the terrifying Gorgosaurus. The strata of rock known as the Dinosaur Park formation is one of the richest fossil deposits in the world, and dozens of different species are preserved here, including herbivore and carnivore dinosaurs, flying reptiles, fish, mammals and plants.
Today’s Dinosaur Provincial park was established in 1955 with the goal of protecting the incredible richness of fossils found here, and in 1979 the 7825 hectare park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1985 the world-class Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology was opened, 100 kilometres away in Drumheller, so that the fossil treasures could be scientifically analyzed and displayed locally.
Approaching the park today, the road first stops at a viewpoint before dropping around 100m down into the river valley, where there is a small but interesting interpretive centre, guided hiking tours, and an RV campsite next to the Red Deer river. Deer wander through the stands of cottonwood trees growing along the river, and coyotes sing and howl all night long. Temperatures in the summer can be very hot, but now in early October it’s around 20C during the day, dropping to freezing at night.
While it was the incredible history of life in the Cretaceous, preserved here as fossil treasures, that created this park, my main reasons for coming here today are the fantastic landscapes and beautiful dark skies that are only visible far from civilization and the light pollution that we create.
Living in the city of Calgary means that I need to drive at least 1.5 hours to get to good dark skies – a 2 or 3 on the Bortle scale of darkness, which ranges from Class 1 (darkest sky possible on Earth) to Class 9 (inner-city, where even the brightest stars are barely visible). Here in Dinosaur Park, the glow from the town of Brooks (30km away) fills the lower south-west sky, but to the north and east it is beautifully dark, around a 2 or 3 on the Bortle scale, with the Milky Way clearly visible overhead.
Before leaving this morning, I wanted to build an “inverse” latitude wedge, which when mounted on a star tracker, levels the camera back to horizontal. Bit of background: a star-tracker is a motorized device which rotates at 1 revolution per 24-hours, counter acting the rotation of the Earth. The tracker is aligned to true north, parallel to the axis of Earth’s rotation, and allows for long exposures to be made without star-trails. Without the extra wedge, the camera ball-head tilts down, making photography of anything high in the northern sky difficult. With the wedge installed as shown, the camera sits horizontally, making it easy to pan across the horizon and to tilt upwards to vertical.
The wedge works really well, and because the camera is now sitting level on the tripod, like it should be, shooting night-scape images is much easier – I should have made one of these years ago!
It took a little while to build the wedge, so after packing up camping gear, camera gear, food, warm clothes, and then driving 2.5 hours, I don’t get to the park until late afternoon. That leaves just enough time for a rushed meal, and a bit of exploring to decide on a location for tonights photo session.
There is a road the runs in a loop from the campsite, providing access to several hiking trails, as well as two dinosaur skeletons, left in-situ, with interpretive displays. That’s plenty of terrain to explore and find some good-looking hoodoos for tonight!
The goal of nightscape photography is to align a scenic landscape with an also-scenic part of the night sky. This involves a bit of planning since different regions of the universe are visible at different times of the year. Dealing with light pollution is another big part of the planning process, as very few places have truly dark skies, and some viewing directions will be washed out by the light domes cast by nearby towns. On top of this, the moon washes out the stars for half of each month, and of course, the sky needs to be completely clear of clouds, including thin hazy ones that don’t usually register on the weather radar.
The result is that night photography opportunities are small, precious windows! They only exist in a few, special locations, and only open when the weather and moon allow.
In the fall, the Perseus region of the Milky Way is nicely high in the north-eastern sky in early evening, with Taurus and Orion rising a few hours later. The Milky Way runs roughly straight up from the NE, with Cygnus and Cassiopeia straight overhead. To the south-west, the core of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius, is sinking below the horizon by October. To help with planning, there are apps that display the night sky – one of the best is Stellarium, which simulates the sky from anywhere on Earth at any time.
By around 10:30, the Milky Way is rising nearly straight up from the NE horizon, the bright Pleiades cluster is about 20 degrees high, and Taurus is not far below, just above the hoodoos. It takes about 45 minutes to capture this image, which is a mosaic of 26 frames taken with a 50mm lens, and covers about 60 degrees by 60 degrees.
Any part of the Milky Way is rich with deep-sky objects, and this image includes dozens of star clusters, several bright red nebulae, and our two nearest galactic neighbours.
Click here to take a deep dive into this image and explore the incredible deep-sky objects found here.
Heart and Soul Nebula
After capturing the broad swath of the Milky Way, I put a telephoto lens on the camera to get a closer look at one of the most beautiful parts of this region of sky – the Perseus double star cluster and Heart and Soul nebulae, high in the sky tonight and clearly visible in the middle 3rd of the previous wide-field image.
For this image, I wanted to zoom in and go deeper, to better capture the details and relatively faint red nebulosity. Going deeper means capturing more light, which can be done with a longer exposure, or by capturing multiple frames and stacking them together. The stacking process involves digitally overlaying each frame, aligning them, and summing them together. Image stacking is one of the most common techniques using in astrophotography, and increases the image signal relative to the camera noise. This image is a stack of eight frames, each an exposure of 120 seconds.
These two nebulae are part of the same massive cloud of gas, about 6000 to 7000 light-years away, in the Perseus arm of the Milky Way. Our galaxy is full of these diffuse clouds of (mostly) hydrogen gas, which are usually cold and dark.
These gas clouds, however, are collapsing and forming new stars of all sizes, including massive stars that are 1000s of times brighter than our sun, shining blue/white and radiating intense UV light. That UV light has enough energy to ionize the gas of its birth cloud, causing it to glow red. These are called hydrogen emission nebulae.
Before heading back to the tent I wanted to image the California nebula in Perseus, but this time I only capture four frames for stacking because it’s getting late and the camera and lenses are starting to frost up in the cool air. This nebula, cataloged as NGC 1499, is about 1500 light-years away and is quite large in the sky, spanning about 2.5 degrees. That’s five times wider than the full moon! The nebula is far too dim to see with the naked eye – partly because our eyes are not very sensitive to the deep red hydrogen emission
The bright red glow is hydrogen gas that has been ionized by the torrent of energy from the nearby blue giant star Menkib (or Xi Persei). This is the bright star immediately to the right of the nebula. Menkib is about 30x the mass of our Sun, over 12,000x brighter (in visible light) and puts out 263,000 times the power of our Sun (including ultraviolet and other invisible wavelengths).
2.5 degrees at 1500 light-years means this glowing gas cloud is over 60 light-years long, with one light-year being 9460 billion kilometres… this cloud is incomprehensibly large, and being ionized by the torrent of energy pouring out of a single, massive star.
My four minutes of image capturing really doesn’t do this nebula justice – here’s a much more detailed California Nebula image by Terry Hancock which incorporates over 11 hours of imaging.
After staying up late photographing the amazing sky, I don’t exactly leap out of the tent at dawn this morning. It’s still frosty first thing in the morning, but warming steadily. The morning light is subdued by clouds that have moved in overnight, but is still very pretty after breakfast. Today is cloudy, as forecast – the night sky window has closed!
While cooking up breakfast, a lady from a neighbouring campsite comes by to chat, and asks if she can take my picture “to send to a friend to show that it’s OK to camp by yourself”. I laugh, and explain that while I certainly enjoy camping with friends, when I’m on a photography-focused trip like this one I prefer to go solo. That way I can fully focus on capturing images, and not be distracted by bored friends who don’t understand how I can spend an hour taking photos of a dead tree. And almost nobody understands how I can spend many, many hours freezing in the dark taking night photos!
After breakfast and chats with the neighbours I grab the camera and go for a leisurely stroll along the river, then up around the hoodoos, through gullies and washes, following good trails, faint trails or old footprints to avoid damaging the ground.
The arid environment, the wildly eroded clay and rock layers, the texture of the cracked mud, and the hardy plants make for endless photographic opportunities, and what was meant to be a quick stroll turns into several happy hours of wandering, exploring and photographing.
It’s hot and dry here in the summer, cold in the winters, and the rain often comes during torrential thunderstorms, turning the clay impossibly slippy and washing more of it away into the Red Deer river. But I so love these desert environments – the raw geology, the rich textures, the tenacity of the life that survives here, and especially the stunning night skies!
– Darren Foltinek, October 2021
Information for visitors Dinosaur Park website, including directions, tours and camping.
The UNESCO World Heritage site page on Dinosaur Park.
Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, one of the premiere paleontological museums in the world.
More information on the Western Interior Sea during the Mesozoic period.
Paleogeographic maps of Ancient Earth, including North America.
A good overview of the geology of Western Canada during the 187 million years of the Mesozoic period.
The Dinosaur Park formation, with a list of all the ancient species that have been found in this geologic formation.
The autobiographical book Hunting Dinosaurs in the bad lands of the Red Deer River, Alberta, Canada, by Charles Sternberg, 1917.
Great photos and more details of the Heart and Soul Nebula by Trevor Jones.
The 2020 Light Pollution Atlas by David Lorenz, the best tool for finding dark-sky sites.