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Site Profile: Vermilion Lakes

First Vermilion Lake

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

Mount Rundle still dominates the view to the south, itsangular, west-facing slope mirrored in the lakes fed by the BowRiver, ospreys and bald eagles nest here, as they have formillennia. Tundra swans still arrive spring and fall, joining theflocks of geese that breed in the marshes, and mountain sheepstill come down to drink.

The mountain sheep (Ovis Canadensis) that gather at the edge of the lakes are smaller than their ice age cousins were and humans (Homo sapiens) are more numerous than they once were, but in 11, 000 years, much is unchanged here at the foot of Mount Rundle.It may have been the bighorn sheep that first drew people here.Today's Ovis Canadensis creates such well-worn routes betweenmineral licks and favoured grazing areas that Parks Canada hasbeen able to accurately signpost its favoured highway crossings.As the animals parade across at the appointed places, manyvisitors wonder aloud whether the sheep can read.

Were their larger, heavier ancestors - Ovis Canadensiscatclawensis - such creatures of habit? Would early inhabitantsof the valley have been able to predict when and where they mightappear? Perhaps so. When archaeologists, who began digging here inthe mid-1980s in anticipation of the twinning of the Trans-CanadaHighway, reached the lowest level View of Lake Vermilion of this unexpectedly rich site,they found a surprisingly large number of mountain sheep bones, aswell as small amounts of what might have been caribou and elk.Many of the bones were burned and some were broken in a way thatsuggested they had been used as tools. And on the floor of thislowest level were a pair of postholes which followed an arc ofconcentrated stone debris surrounding a hearth, an etherealoutline of what might be Canada's oldest house plan. The sitewas carbon dated to about 10, 800 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene or glacial epoch. Though no spearpoints were found,some believe this was a Clovis camp.

And that was just the beginning. The sunny riverside terrace atthe foot of Mount Edith has drawn people ever since, and forcenturies each occupation was sealed by the regular flooding ofthe river. In the small areas chosen for excavation,archaeologists found as many as eight separate campsites olderthan 9,500 years, preserved in neat layers or strata, separated byblankets of silt. Sometimes the people who passed view of Lake Vermilion this way leftbehind spearpoints that served as Stone Age business cards. About9,900 years ago, for example, a family of Agate Basin peoplecamped here and feasted on mountain sheep, as their predecessorshad nearly 1, 000 years before. Whether by design or oversight,when they packed up, they left behind several stemmed points andknives.

Closer to the modern surface the accumulated silt betweenoccupation layers is thinner and the process of dating each visitthat much more difficult. But one date marker is unmistakable. Thearchaeological team led by Parks Canada's Daryl Fedje found alayer of ash between 10 and 20 centimetres (four and eight inches)thick, which came from the eruption of Mount Mazama in Oregonabout 6, 850 years ago. When the mountain blew its top, it spewedan enormous plume of ash across much of North America includi9ngsouthern Alberta and Saskatchewan (and in the process createdCrater Lake, Oregon's only national park). Where Mazama ash isfound, it's an absolutely reliable indicator of age.

Once part of the ancestral Bow River, the three Vermilion Lakes are fed by warm and cold springs and have long sustained a remarkable diversity of life. Today, a captive herd of plains bison can be viewed nearby; early Albertans likely stalked their big-horned forebears, like this one, along the verges of the lakes.

Some of the upper layers of Fedje's excavation also made itclear that by about 3, 000 years ago, the people who livedseasonally along the shores of the Vermilion Lakes had developedextensive trade relationships. Among the artifacts found weresmall fragments of obsidian which x-ray fluorescence analysisshowed came from a source in what is now Yellowstone NationalPark, more than 830 kilometres (515 miles) from Banff as the crowflies.

Woodland caribou and wooly mammoths were among the large mammals that populated the mountain valleys in the wake of the retreating glaciers; skilled hunters would not have been far behind. The size and strength of the North American elephants were no match for the cooperation and cunning early Albertans mustered against them.What was life like for early Albertans who stopped by the lake?Eleven thousand years ago, Glacial Lake Vermilion was larger andperhaps five metres (16 feet) deeper than it is today, but thethings which make this place attractive now would have been evenmore important then. In the wake of the retreating ice, moose,deer and caribou, even mammoths, would have grazed in the valley.As the climate warmed and the lake level dropped, the post-glacialBison bison occidentalis, smaller than the mighty ice age bisonbut still larger than today's plains bison, would likely havewandered its shores.

Vermilion Lakes in winterBountiful in the brief mountain summers, the Vermilion Lakeswere also kind in winter. At third Vermilion Lake, a warm springkeeps a pool by the shore open in even the most frigid weather,allowing water to be drawn and fish to be caught at any time ofthe year. With its abundant animal life, clean water and wood forfuel and lodges, nearby stone for weapons and tools, this was aplace of beauty, diversity and plenty, just as it is 108 centurieslater.

GETTING THERE: Though the archaeological excavations were alongthe Trans-Canada Highway, it's easy to view the Vermilion Lakesat close hand by following Mount Norquay Road north from Banffacross the railway tracks. Just before the junction with theTrans-Canada Highway, turn left onto Vermilion Lakes Drive. Thisis a dead-end route, 4.3 kilometres (2.7 miles) long, and wellused by runners and bikers, so caution is needed when driving.There are places to pull off and viewing areas at each of thethree lakes in the chain. A parking area and washrooms can befound at the Third Vermilion Lake.

Vermilion Lakes archaeological calendar

Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway's In Search ofAncient Alberta with kind permission from HeartlandAssociates, Inc.

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