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Vermilion Lakes

Today, traffic hums along on the Trans-Canada Highway above and the nearby town of Banff beckons. But blocking out modern distractions while walking beside the Vermilion Lakes is easy, for in many ways little has changed since early Albertans stopped here nearly 11, 000 years ago.

Mount Rundle still dominates the view to the south, its angular, west-facing slope mirrored in the lakes fed by the Bow River, ospreys and bald eagles nest here, as they have for thousands of years. Tundra swans still arrive spring and fall, joining the flocks of geese that breed in the marshes, and mountain sheep still come down to drink.

It may have been the bighorn sheep that first drew people here. Today’s Ovis Canadensis (Bighorn Sheep) creates such well-worn routes between mineral licks and favoured grazing areas that Parks Canada has been able to accurately signpost its favoured highway crossings. As the animals parade across the highway at the appointed places, many visitors wonder aloud whether the sheep can read. I wonder if anyone has asked them! You never know!

Were their larger, heavier ancestors – Ovis Canadensis catclawensis – such creatures of habit? Would early inhabitants of the valley have been able to predict when and where they might appear? Perhaps so. When archaeologists, who began digging here in the mid-1980s in anticipation of the twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway, reached the lowest level of this unexpectedly rich site, they found a surprisingly large number of mountain sheep bones, as well as small amounts of what might have been caribou and elk. Many of the bones were burned and some were broken in a way that suggested they had been used as tools. And on the floor of this lowest level were a pair of postholes which followed an arc of concentrated stone debris surrounding a hearth, a ghostly outline of what might be Canada’s oldest house plan. Now that is pretty spooky! The site was carbon dated to about 10, 800 years ago. Though no spearpoints were found, some believe this was a Clovis camp.

And that was just the beginning. The sunny riverside terrace at the foot of Mount Edith has drawn people to it ever since. In the small areas chosen for excavation, archaeologists found as many as eight separate campsites older than 9,500 years, preserved in neat layers or strata, separated by blankets of silt. Sometimes the people who passed this way left behind spearpoints that served as Stone Age business cards. About 9,900 years ago, for example, a family of ancient people camped here and feasted on mountain sheep, as their predecessors had nearly 1, 000 years before. Whether on purpose or by accident, when they packed up, they left behind several stemmed points and knives.

One date marker is unmistakable. The archaeological team led by Parks Canada’s Daryl Fedje found a layer of ash between 10 and 20 centimetres (four and eight inches) thick, which came from the eruption of Mount Mazama in Oregon about 6, 850 years ago. When the mountain blew its top, it spewed an enormous plume of ash across much of North America including southern Alberta and Saskatchewan (and in the process created Crater Lake, Oregon’s only national park). Where Mazama ash is found, it’s an absolutely reliable indicator of age.

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Vermilion Lakes

Vermilion Lakes