Northern Alberta dinosaur museum floats a different way to hunt for fossils

A hundred years ago it’s how fossil hunters spotted bones along river banks in Alberta’s rich dinosaur country. Now, staffers with the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum are offering tours by raft revealing the Secrets of the Wapiti.

'Rafting or boating was how a lot of fossil prospecting was done back in the day'

Visitors taking in the 'Secrets of the Wapiti' rafting program offered by the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum near Grande Prairie, Alta. (Submitted by Sydney Allison)

Vincent Doyle points to the banks of the Wapiti River near Grande Prairie, Alta. 

"We try to get outside of the walls of the museum," says Doyle, program manager at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum based in Wembley, a town 25 kilometres west of Grande Prairie.

This summer, museum staff took visitors on a new rafting tour in search of dinosaur fossils. 

"It's not like whitewater rafting — more like a float, it's called the Secrets of the Wapiti," Doyle says.

Dinosaur secrets of the Wapiti River revealed

8 months ago
Duration 2:10
Tag along on a dino rafting adventure with paleontologists from the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Wembley, Alta.

You can see more from the Peace Country this week on Our Edmonton on Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and 11 a.m. Monday on CBC TV and CBC Gem. 

Paleontologists guide patrons by raft on a journey lasting three to five hours. They point out interesting finds, answer questions and finish with a late lunch at the nearby Nitehawk Adventure Park.

Doyle said the first season has now wrapped up and that about 250 people took part.

The museum expects to double the number of participants for the $150 experience from mid-June to August of 2023. 

"Rafting or boating was how a lot of fossil prospecting was done back in the day," says Emily Bamforth, the museum's curator.

Emily Bamforth, curator of the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, working on the fossil dig site at the Pipestone Creek bonebed near Wembley, Alta. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Paleontologists floated down rivers and when they found exposures, that's where they would start looking for bones, Bamforth said.

Experiences like the rafting tour allow people to get a sense of discovery, as well as a glimpse into the painstaking steps involved in getting a specimen out of the ground and on display. 

"I think it's absolutely critical," Bamforth said. "When people go to a museum, what you see is the product of paleontology."

The Pipestone Creek bonebed is one of the richest deposits of Pachyrhinosaurus bones in North America.

This summer, Bamforth and her team unearthed surprises, including a juvenile hip bone of a Pachyrhinosaurus, along with some vertebrae, ribs and foot bones.

A paleontologist with the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum pointing out highlights along the 'Secrets of the Wapiti' rafting tour. ( Submitted by Sydney Allison)

Museum executive director Linden Roberts said the two biggest challenges the museum faces in attracting visitors are awareness and location. Wembley is about 480 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

"We are here because of Pipestone Creek bonebed but increasingly we're here because of all of the recent finds which go beyond Pipestone and they are unique to Canada and impressive," she said.

Roberts believes the rafting tours will drive a lot of people to the area next summer. 

"It's truly enjoyable, it's really resonated with the community and I think it's our first step in being able to promote the museum and the region as a multi-day tourist experience."

Linden Roberts, executive director of the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, surrounded by exhibits in the main gallery space. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)


Adrienne Lamb


Adrienne Lamb is the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. She served for several years as CBC Radio's national arts reporter in Edmonton. Prior to moving to Alberta in 2001, Adrienne worked at CBC in Ontario and New Brunswick. Adrienne is a graduate of Western University with a degree in English and Anthropology and a Masters in Journalism.