The 2015 Dinosaur Track Season

Charles Helm


At the beginning of each summer as the dinosaur-tracking season approaches there is a time of angst-inducing questions. Have we already found all the dinosaur tracks in the region? Will there be nothing palaeontologically exciting for future generations to discover? Will we just be covering old ground in the hope of something we previously missed? Yet so far, each fall there has been time to reflect with satisfaction and gratitude on yet another astonishing season of discoveries. The summer of 2015 was no different.

First there was the crocodilian trackways discovery by Kevin Sharman that made headline news around the continent. Not quite dinosaurian, but also Cretaceous, also trace fossils, and some of the finest of their kind in the world. Teck Corporation has been generous in providing staff time and equipment to eventually relocate these to the museum and Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre (PRPRC).

Next there was Tentfire Canyon. We had explored it way back in the nineties, before dino fever hit Tumbler Ridge. We have since learned that while the initial flood of dinosaur trackway discoveries close to Tumbler Ridge were all from Upper Cretaceous rocks, the Lower Cretaceous has its own track secrets waiting to be found. Tentfire Canyon fit the bill, as its 140 million year old rocks could contain some of the earliest traces of dinosaurs in the Geopark. The canyon trip, involving the ascent of ten small waterfalls and much wading between high vertical cliffs, is an amazing experience. But throw in someone with the keen eye of Carina Helm, and it becomes a dinosaur day as well.

Carina discovered two new trackways, one of which is enigmatic. None of us have seen the likes of footprints like these anywhere before. Unfortunately the high creek levels late in the season made it impossible to return there with the PRPRC scientists. This will just have to wait for the summer of 2016, and we will have to see if an expert helicopter pilot can extricate this block from the depths of the canyon. Jack Carrigan logged his first footprint, a nice, portable theropod track, which went into his day pack after the GPS locality had been taken. It now resides in the PRPRC collections. A crocodilian track discovery rounded off a great day of exploration.

Rich McCrea and Louis Keroack re-examined old haunts in Quality Creek, and identified a new crop of footprints which have manifested themselves. Louis acted as beast of burden, hauling out a superb ornithopod footprint that weighed in at just under 100 pounds. Meantime old faithful, Flatbed Creek, showed that it too has not been exhausted, yielding two new footprints.

In early August a rock quarry that had been bypassed many times was finally investigated. Right there beside the road, amongst some large broadleaf fossils, was a fine, portable ankylosaur footprint cast. The easiest footprint retrieval ever accomplished! Other footprints were then found at this site, including a debut discovery by Museum President Jim Kincaid. Trionichid turtle shell fragments followed, as well as an agglomeration of rare Cenomanian fish fragments (ribs and vertebrae). The site is fortunately suitable for field trips for kids in the ever-popular summer Dinosaur Camp.

Soon after this there were reports of large sandstone blocks being unearthed at the Meikle Wind Energy Project, containing enormous ankylosaur tracks. Again, industry could not have been more helpful, and some of these have already been relocated to the PRPRC. Others may contribute to the henge feature that is being planned downtown.

An expedition to Sukunka Falls yielded the first dinosaur footprint from within a provincial park in the Peace Region. And on the same day, a few kilometres away, another footprint was found right in the middle of the ATV track to Hidden Lake.

Then there were the two forays into what has come to be known as Speedo Creek. On the first trip Linda Helm had her eye in, just when the rest of the group were abandoning all hope, and the result was the smallest, and perhaps one of the oldest, footprints yet discovered in the region. Its length was just seven centimetres. It was subsequently moulded with latex, and Thomas Clark heroically went back in freezing conditions to retrieve the latex peel, which will allow replicas to be made.

The second trip up Speedo Creek involved another canyon-crawl. We knew we were going where no human (or Speedo) had ever gone before, because it was clear on climbing the first waterfall that some serious rock clearing and cleaning needed to be done to make it safe. Upstream we enjoyed the privilege of scouting a virgin canyon, and ours were the first eyes to see a spectacular, unexpected waterfall. Fully equal to this thrill was the excitement felt by Brandon Braam, another emerging dino tracker (in addition to his duties as Secretary on the Museum Board), when he spotted his first footprint, a theropod cast, up on the side of a cliff. We could climb up to it, and touch it, but not see it up close. Not a problem for Brandon, the regional drone king: soon the drone was hovering over and photographing this fine footprint.

Towards the end of the season, Carina Helm discovered the fourteenth known tyrannosaur track in the world just ten kilometres from town, and the media release which followed did the rounds across Canada. And finally, Tiffany Hetenyi (one of the new Directors on the Museum Board) showed off her favourite trails on the Kiskatinaw River near her home. Her suspicions of a neat dinosaur trackway were confirmed.

A fine season indeed, in which virtually every targeted expedition was successful. And this is just the exploration. Within the PRPRC previously discovered tracks and trackways were being casted, prepared, researched, and exhibited. The research findings are published in the international scientific literature, including Richard McCrea’s seminal work on the dinosaur tracks of western Canada and Lisa Buckley’s avian track studies. All of this cements the status of the PRPRC as a cutting-edge research institution that in turn enhances the Geopark and contributes to the 50 percent increase in visitor numbers in 2015 over 2014.

If the past is key to the future, we can expect the summer of 2016 to be no less fruitful.