Yesterday I flew across western North America, on my way to a conference in Oregon. I was able to once again see portions of the grand landscapes that overwhelm human-made features across so much of the west: the undulating surfaces of the great sand hills, the badlands incised into the high prairies, and of course the mountains and Pacific coast. And this reminded me that I had been meaning to finish some pieces about doing fieldwork around Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills. But perhaps I might also stick in a completely unrelated photo from yesterday at the end of this piece …
For the past few weeks we have been working at the Manitoba Museum to complete the second and final set of exhibits for our revised Cretaceous Life area. I am very excited about one of the pieces: a sample of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (formerly called the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T). It was particularly rewarding to see this exhibit installed, because this completes a process that has been long, involved, exhausting, and occasionally painful.
When we were discussing an exhibit to depict the end-Cretaceous extinction, one possibility that came up consistently was the idea of displaying a sample of the sedimentary succession across the boundary. Ideally we would have shown people what the boundary looks like in Manitoba, but unfortunately it is only known in the subsurface here, in the Turtle Mountain area. To collect the sort of large sample that would work in an exhibit, we would need to travel westward.
Some years ago I had visited one of the classic K-T sites in the Frenchman Valley near Eastend and Shaunavon in Saskatchewan, so I suggested to the museum that we could consider sending a crew out to collect from this site. Thus it happened that just over a year ago, I drove to southwest Saskatchewan with museum artists Betsy Thorsteinson and Debbie Thompson, and cameraman Bruce Claydon. The plan was that I would locate the appropriate horizons for our sample, and would then assist Betsy and Debbie as they packaged it for removal from the ground. Bruce would film our work. It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
As I will explain in the next piece, it was not simple, of course. New types of field projects never are. But right now I just want to talk a little bit about Eastend.
Most human settlements are “one ofs.” When I visit a small town on the prairies, I am usually able to say that it is “one of” many prairie towns, all of which share similar characteristics (stores along a straight main street, curling rink, diner, Co-op …). They may not be identical, but they are certainly familiar, members of a recognizable group. The same could be said of villages in the Maritimes, or industrial cities in the US Midwest, or villages in central Scotland. I’m sure you know what I mean.
Eastend is not a “one of.” Instead, it is a “one off.” It is one of those rare locations where, when you are there, you have the feeling that you could not replicate that experience anywhere else. Of course world cities like London and Beijing are “one offs” – it would only be natural when you are at one of the crossroads of history that you would be in a unique location. But for a small place to be a “one off,” it has to be really special. And very often it has to be the end of the road, a jumping off point, the last place before you enter terra incognita. Churchill, Manitoba is like that, and so is Eastend.
Eastend was apparently named because it is at the eastern end of the Cypress Hills. And the hills, which I think are among the most beautiful anywhere on this planet, give to the town their wondrous colour, light, and form. Maybe without them Eastend would be an ordinary prairie town, but I don’t think there is any way you could separate the town from the hills. The hills bring to Eastend a modest number of tourists, but they have also brought many unusual individuals: artists, writers, and craftspeople. Eastend is a centre for ranching and farming, but with a twist. It does not have the typical tourist town’s affectation of brushed-on faux sophistication. Rather, it gives subtle hints of hidden complexity. Hints that, if you hang around for a while, maybe it will let you in on some of the secrets.
Some of the secrets are under the hills, and they have brought the town much of its modern-day fame. In this dry country, a hill that is steep enough will have its surface crumble and erode, exposing the layered sediment that is hidden so close beneath. Along the river and creek valleys, these crumbling surfaces form badlands, and the badlands radiate outward beyond the hills themselves. The bones of dinosaurs and other long-dead creatures poke out of the exposed sediment in places, and these have attracted fossil-hunters, both amateur and professional.
Dinosaurs are not “thick in the ground” here the way they are in some parts of Alberta, but when they are found they can be quite unusual. Most unusual of all is Scotty, a near-complete Tyrannosaurus rex that was collected near the Frenchman Valley a few years ago. And Scotty has, in its own way, given the town a special gift. Eastend is now home to a beautiful little dinosaur museum, an interpretive centre that houses exhibits about the T. rex and other fossils in this area, and a substantial facility in which the bones are prepared and housed. I realize that this was not a pure and simple gift, since people from this region and other parts of Saskatchewan had to do an immense amount of work to ensure that the museum came to be. But now that it is done, surely that just makes the gift even more special?
© Graham Young & The Manitoba Museum, 2009
I would like to thank Tim Tokaryk of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and Sean Bell and the other folks at the T. rex Centre, for their very kind hospitality and assistance during our stay in Eastend.
As I promised (or threatened) at the start of the piece, I couldn’t resist posting one completely unrelated landscape image from my trip yesterday: