Rule of the Road #3: Alberta

Another province, another Starbucks to mooch WiFi from for hours over one lonely cup of dark roast, black, no room for cream (just to make sure). This one is in Medicine Hat, Alberta, “The Gas City.” The community of 60k-plus Albertans is located in the southeastern corner of the province in the Palliser Triangle, at a significant bend in the South Saskatchewan River. Historically, the area was used by several distinct First Nations bands as a hunting and foraging grounds–the lush river valley with its cottonwood groves attracted bison herds handily. The CPR railway came through the locale in 1883, where a town was formed and the first hospital west of Winnipeg was built just six years later. Rich natural resources from the surrounding badlands (coal, clay, and others) ensured rapid growth into a city. It was Rudyard Kipling, travelling through the region’s bounteous natural gas fields, who described Medicine Hat as having the only trapdoor into “all hell of a basement.” (In the same address, the esteemed author urged residents to never change the name of their town, because it was “the only hat of its kind on Earth.”)

drumhellersign     We woke up today in Drumheller, about a 2.5 hour drive northwest of Medicine Hat in the bottom of the Red Deer River valley. This town is not only the “Heart of the Canadian Badlands” but is also the self-described “Dinosaur Capital of the World.” It is a title not without justification, however: the same eroded sediment formations that allowed the resource industry to prosper here also yield excellent fossils of dinosaurs and other fossils. In fact, the prehistoric biological richness of Alberta is likely responsible for its present-day richness in petrochemical deposits. Drumheller is home to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which boasts a growing collection of over 130,000 fossil specimens. The entire town is a collection of dinosaur-related paraphernalia, from the World’s Largest Dinosaur (a 4x scale fibreglass-and-steel T. Rex from whose mouth one can see a beautiful panorama), to smaller creatures at every gas station, restaurant, practically every street corner. We met a man in the McDonald’s (they didn’t have a Starbucks) there who told us that, according to some theories, the mass extinction was caused not by the impact of a meteor or asteroid but rather by massive solar-electrical discharge. Such discharge can apparently cause huge terrain shifts and dig Grand Canyon-sized trenches in a matter of weeks. We cannot substantiate these claims, but it was interesting to hear about.

Chinook_wind     Like most of the Canadian interior, Alberta can be dizzyingly cold in the winter. We have been fortunate to find it very pleasant, with a great amount of sun and only a handful of snow flurries. We’re told that these weather patterns are due in part to “chinook winds,” a type of meteorological phenomenon in which moist Pacific winds sweep across British Columbia, deposit their moisture as snowfall or rain on the interior Rocky Mountains, and subsequent adriatic heating warms the resulting dry air for its rush down the lee side of the range and on to the plains. Chinooks can cause extraordinarily rapid changes in temperature and snowpack–a typical chinook can dispose of a foot of snow in a day, due to a combination of melting and evaporation. This formations can be quite dramatic and unpredictable because their appearance is usually conjunct with southbound Arctic air masses, and the oscillation between below-freezing and above-freezing temperatures causes problems for those trying to raise many species of plants and trees. And although “chinook” is a term fairly specific to Canada and Alberta in particular, foehn winds such as these occur as far south as my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico and, in fact, in many parts of the world where oceanic air currents traverse a land mass containing mountains. In any case, the people of Alberta have come to depend on the chinooks for midwinter salvation, and though we left Drumheller under a blanket of snow, the look of the land all around Medicine Hat was indistinguishable from what you’d expect from a late spring day.

Alberta is often characterized as something wholly separate from the rest of Canada, the Quebec of the West, as it were (although I know many Albertans and Quebecois who would take umbrage at that comparison). Indeed, there is a fierce streak of independent spirit here, and maybe a touch more fiscal and social conservatism than you’d find elsewhere (Calgary is, after all, the home of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper). But for that same individualistic bent, there is also a pervasive sense of welcoming, of pride in one’s achievements that the Albertans are more than happy to include visitors in. The tenets of acceptance and warmth that date back to the province’s cowboy heritage are still alive and well. Albertans might not always agree with you, but they will gladly have you over for dinner.

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