Echoes of life gone by
John 'A' heads to the Badlands for international fossil hunt

Jorge Barrera
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 24/00) - John Alexander has shelves full of echoes. There's a little spider trapped in amber -- petrified tree sap-- that you need a magnifying glass to see.

There's a starfish (now nothing more than a thumbprint in rock); a bone; a fish the size of your middle finger -- each one a remnant of something that moved, ate, bred and lived.

"Echoes of life," is what he calls them. Fossils. The other lives of rocks.

Alexander digs for these lives. It's a hobby turned obsession. He found his first fossil when he was 12 beside a road cut; a petrified shell. He still has it.

Now he's going to a place called Dry Island near a hamlet called Trochu, Alta., in the Badlands.

It's a private dig. An international group of paleontologists are digging up the remains of 10 Albertasaurus.

This is ground- breaking stuff. The Albertasaurus were carnivorous, and theory has it that they hunted alone. But this dig, if it is successful, could prove that carnivores hunted in family packs.

"I can't wait to go, this is big," says Alexander.

"It's like having Eric Clapton asking if you want to play with John Lennon."

Alexander's home sits on the government dock down in Old Town. His porch overlooks water and boathouses. Someone is paddling a canoe around sheets of ice still clinging to winter. The Norweta is still moored at the harbour waiting for tourists.

He lights up a smoke and leans back, "I'm sure you've heard this story a hundred times. I came up here for a two-week holiday on April 1, 1979, and I'm still here 20 years later."

Alexander lived in a little hippie shack commune in the Woodyard, paying $30 in rent a month. It's not there any more he says and he points in the direction it used to be.

He and a friend moved into a houseboat they built. It was the first houseboat on the lake.

Alexander went on his first dig in 1997 as a volunteer. He worked on a site in Dinosaur Park, north of Brooks, Alta.

"It was 40 C in the middle of July. I drank four litres of water a day," he says, adding, "no shade."

All his digs have been with the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta.

"Essentially, you pay the museum to volunteer," he says.

"It's a way the museum raises money."

A typical day on a dig begins at 7:30 a.m. with breakfast. Then there's a 20-25-minute hike up to the site from camp. Digging goes on all day until 4 p.m., with the only break being at lunch.

"You just hang out after that until sunset," says Alexander, fishing out another cigarette from his pack. "It's going to be really cool this time cause it's a true campsite, with tents."

On the other digs they stayed in trailers.

"It's a great honour to be invited on this dig," he says.

"It's paid for and we're digging for something that is very rare."

Alexander will be sweating and scraping with Phil Curry, a well-known paleontologist and director of paleontology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

He's also working with paleontologists from Mongolia, Argentina, China, Czechoslovakia and the United States.

"We're adding something to overall knowledge," he says. "That's very cool."