Grande Prairie, population 50,000, didn’t know what hit it. For the first time, Northern Alberta’s oil, gas and agriculture centre could taste the sweet nectar of Hollywood glam. Dan Aykroyd was in town, along with Hollywood producers, famous authors, artists, even some TV stars. There was also a rumour Leonardo Di Caprio and Catherine Zeta Jones might show up.
The cause of the hubbub was a fundraiser for the new $26 million museum to house many of the fossils unearthed in nearby Pipestone Creek, one of the world’s richest bonebeds. I’m invited along to join the dig. After spending a couple days chipping away at 70 million year-old dinosaur ribs, drinking with celebrities and taking in the gorgeous landscape, something interesting is definitely being unearthed here.
It is called the The River of Death. 73 million years ago, a flood trapped a herd of horned dinosaurs into layers of mud and rock, for eternity. Today, these bonebeds sit about a 45 minutes drive outside Grande Prairie. It is one of the richest dinosaur bonebeds ever discovered, with some 3500 bones and 14 skulls already extracted. Dan Aykroyd and his family learned about Pipecreek from legendary Canadian palaeontologist Dr Philip J Currie, who invited them to dig on the bonebed. They loved it so much they invited their friends to join them, and offered help rustling up the last $5 million needed to build the Phillip J Currie Dinosaur Museum. Bones this rare need a place to live, and for us to study where they come from.
Besides a global cast of ace palaeontologists (all dashing, tanned, and not at all what I expected), the Aykroyd’s had gathered, amongst others, bestselling author Patricia Cornwall, Hollywood producer John Goldwyn, artist John Alexander, the Canadian Tenors, Roots co-owners Michael and Dianne Buddman, hotelier Jeff Klein, Criminal Minds star Matthew Gray Grubler, and former Explorer’s Club president Lorie Karnath. All were staying in caravans at the humble Pipestone Creek Park campgrounds, now hosting an unlikely media circus.
It’s early morning and I’m standing at the fire outside the Cookhouse HQ, eating s’mores kindly prepared by friendly on-site RCMP. I’m discussing with Top Chef finalist Connie DeSousa what she thinks dinosaur might taste like. I’m thinking chicken, she’s leaning towards ostrich. Aykroyd, the Ghostbuster himself, bursts forth from the forest, roaring like a bear. He’s well prepared for the media scrum, and gives terrific sound bites about the importance of protecting the region, Canada’s archeological legacy, and just how damn cool it is to be working with Dr Phil Currie, who inspired the Sam Neill character in Jurassic Park. I didn’t know it at the time, but a year later I would present Dr Currie with the prestigious Explorer’s Medal at the Explorer’s Club Annual Dinner in New York. But that’s another random adventure.
The group is split up and we head out to the Charlie Young Bonebed, which is carved on the side of a hill overlooking the beautiful Wapiti River. It’s about 20m long, 1.5m wide, exposed to the elements and covered in mud. Here I joined Patricia Cornwall, Bobby Kennedy Jnr and some cheerful Aykroyd kids with a dental pick, awl, paintbrush and hammer to dig out dinosaur bones. It’s tough work, especially with the hungry mosquitos, and hot sun beating down on my neck.
Patricia Cornwall strikes first with a couple of impressive bones, and what Derek believes is the best tooth fossil found in 4 years of digging. It takes me a couple more hours before I hit some tendon, and the top of a rib bone. In that time, I develop a man crush on Federico Fanti, a PhD student from Bologna, Italy who has become the leading expert on the geology of Grande Prairie. Federico looks like someone you’d find in a fashion magazine, not a muddy bonebed. “You see that hill there? Where I’m from that would be a different country,” says Federico, clearly enjoying the vast open space of the prairie.
By nightfall, I’m tucking into a skull-shaped glass bottle of Crystal Head Vodka with its owners Dan Aykroyd and artist John Alexander. Clearly, they take their vodka as seriously as their dinosaurs. Everyone appreciates the effort it takes to excavate fossils, and organize and promote an event to raise enough money so one can continue to do so.
Finally, I share a jetboat and helicopter survey ride with explorer Lorie Karnath, and her husband Robert Roethenmund. These are people who long ago stopped counting how many countries they’ve been to. This week Grande Prairie, next week Mongolia. We can all appreciate the region’s sweeping beauty, even as it sits above one of the richest gas fields on the planet.
At $25,000 a table, I didn’t crack an invite to the evening’s Black Tie Ball, so I can’t confirm if A-list celebrities did in fact show up. It didn’t matter. The Philip J Currie Museum is now a reality. Excavations will continue, and future generations of Canadians, and tourists, will no doubt love it.