–Originally published in the St. Marys Independent–

I was afraid.

The trail was steep and smooth from a recent rainfall. I took a couple of clumsy steps down, slipped and gave into my own fear by retreating to the top. I was angry at myself and more than a little embarrassed, but rather than fall into self-pity I took the opportunity to breathe in the beauty of Horsethief Canyon from above.  A mama and baby prairie dog popped in and out of their den and I crept closer to capture their photos. The mama skittered away to a nearby den and snacked on a leaf while keeping a close eye on us. Unlike me and his mother, the baby prairie dog had no fear. He ran over and climbed atop my running shoe for a brief second before running around my leg. I crouched to get some close-ups of his antics and he posed before scampering away. While wandering around on my own, I found a second trail leading down into the canyon. It appeared to be more stable than the first and I debated trying but decided going down alone wouldn’t be the smartest choice. In hindsight, I believe I was just giving into the fear again.

My travel partners had made the full descent into the canyon then climbed a new peak. I snapped their photos from afar and admired their youth, confidence and physical abilities. While youth isn’t something I can get back, confidence and health most certainly are. I vowed I would return to this place and make that descent with bravado.

The next day we returned to the badlands, this time at Dinosaur Provincial Park. Located over two hours away from Calgary, the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the largest archeological site in the world for dinosaurs from the late cretaceous period and everything taken from the park goes to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. While fully intact dinosaur skeletons are not a regular discovery, over 300 of them have been found in Dinosaur Provincial Park.

We started our tour with a few stops just off the road so we could take photos and look for bones lying about. Our guide told us “If you throw your hat and don’t find a dinosaur bone, you’re doing something wrong”. She certainly had no difficulty spotting them, and after a few minutes of figuring out the difference between a fossil and iron stone, I started to find them too. I asked if we would report where we see bones and she shook her head and laughed.

“No, we have enough bones.”

Soon we reached our destination and I was faced with a new hiking opportunity into the canyons. It wasn’t a terribly challenging descent, but I felt somewhat redeemed from yesterday. My enthusiasm for the upcoming dinosaur bone dig far exceeded any fear that may have prevented me from pushing forward.

The guided excavation is something that anyone can take part in with pre-booking. A one-day dig is a seven-hour adventure that includes two hours of training before heading into an authentic dig location and assisting the paleontologists to find and exhume dinosaur bones. There are also two and three-day digs that include accommodations and food, but we were doing a quick two hour dig just to get a taste of how it all works.

Once we reached the dig location we met a woman from France and a couple from England who were working on some exposed bones. Using dental tools and a paint brush, they were carefully brushing the dirt and sand off bones that are 75 million years old. Some of our group joined them while three of us were taken to an area to dig in search of new bones in a new area. Using a small trowel and hammer, we carefully moved through rocks and earth that no human had ever touched before. Every rock that appeared a little different was examined carefully before we gathered the excess, loaded it in a small bin and tossed it over the side of the canyon. We were told that the likelihood of finding something in that exact area was slim, since it wasn’t as deep as they usually find them, but it had happened in the past. We dug on. It is a job that requires patience.

My two companions moved to help with the exposed bones and I carried on alone, enjoying the quiet of the badlands. Working in this breathtaking location is calming. It helps me re-center. I could have stayed and dug for hours and I believe I would have found something had I continued, but time was not on my side.

Before leaving, I also moved to the exposed bones and took a turn with the dental tools. I don’t know what type of dinosaur I was unearthing, but it didn’t matter. I was helping to expose something that could lead to future discoveries and that was knowledge enough.