Rich dinosaur history makes Coates Conservation Lands an Edmonton-area find

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Nikki Paskar carefully navigates the hiking trail at Coates Conservation Landsone hour southwest of Edmonton.

“This place is so special to me,” says Paskar, conservation coordinator at the Edmonton and Area Land Trust. “You can sit in the serenity of the forest and just relax and reflect.”

This 32 hectare space includes a 1.3 kilometer trail, which winds through the forest to the bottom of Willow Creek which joins the North Saskatchewan River a few kilometers away.

This land is a wildlife corridor for fox, coyote, moose, snowshoe hare and is also home to a variety of birds, Paskar says.

“An immediate sense of tranquility”

Join a tour of Coates Conservation Lands, a natural area with a rich dinosaur history, one hour southwest of Edmonton. 1:39

You can see more of Coates Conservation Lands on Our Edmonton Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and Monday at 11 a.m. on CBC TV and CBC Gem. You can also find it and 55 other green space gems in the Capital Region on this map.

Opened to the public in 2016, the land was donated to the land trust by Ethel Coates who wanted to see the place “preserved in perpetuity”.

A natural heritage

Born in 1922 to a farming family in Carbon, Alberta, Coates spent 45 years working for Imperial Oil and traveled the world.

His niece Cheryl Bissell says Coates taught her family about birds, skiing and canoeing.

“She made you pay attention to nature and all of its offerings, while savoring it herself,” Bissell says.

Adventure and nature lover Ethel Coates donated the land to the trust. (Submitted by Edmonton and Area Land Trust)

Coates decided to retire to the Calmar area and found “his little slice of heaven” in Willow Creek.

For nearly 30 years, she gardened, raised bees, hiked the hills and valleys, and skated the creek.

“She loved her land with a passion and never wanted to leave it,” Bissell says.

Coates died in 2014 at the age of 92.

In addition to his zeal for nature, there was another reason to protect space: dinosaurs.

A dinosaur bone identified at Willow Creek in the summer of 2015 on Coates Conservation Land. (Submitted by Edmonton and Area Land Trust)

Discoveries of dinosaurs

“In the early 1990s, hadrosaur footprints were extracted from the area by helicopter and brought to the Royal Tyrrell Museum“, says Paskar.

“Soon after, they found Albertosaurus skin prints as well as a number of dinosaur bones.”

Philip Currie remembers it well.

“It’s a pretty cool story,” says the professor of paleontology at the University of Alberta.

The world-renowned dinosaur hunter was called to the area in 1994 to investigate a discovery made by 12-year-old Tess Owen and her father Tom Owen.

The imprint of the skin of an Albertosaurus, a type of tyrannosaur, was found at the bottom of the creek. The fossil may have fallen from the cliff above, although according to Currie they were unable to locate the exact spot.

It is now in the old collections of the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, where researchers are still studying it.

“It’s actually gotten a lot of attention over the years, because tyrannosaur skin prints are pretty rare,” Currie says.

Philip Currie leads a team of University of Alberta students digging up dinosaur bones at a quarry south of Edmonton in 2017. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Alberta is rich in specimens and the Edmonton area is no exception.

“Even people who dig sewers periodically hit dinosaur bones,” Currie says.

Protected areas like Coates where people can walk and watch are fantastic.

“I think it’s an exciting place for paleontologists and it’s a cool place to walk around.”

Coates and 10 other natural areas are open to the public under the direction of the Edmonton and Area Land Trust.

The day-use area has interpretive signs along the trail and a small parking lot at the intersection of Township Road 502A and Range Road 280.

A view of Willow Creek running through Coates Conservation Land. (David Bajer/CBC)

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