A team of paleontologists and volunteers is at work in northeastern British Columbia, peeling back a layer of dirt to reveal a sandstone shelf containing tens of thousands of dinosaur tracks.
Although research is only in the early stages, it is already thought to be one of the biggest collections of fossilized tracks ever found in North America, with footprints left by dinosaurs more than 100 million years ago.
"In the U.S., they have sites like this, but not in Canada," Richard McCrea, director and curator of Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre (PRPRC), said recently while taking a break from excavating the site near Hudson's Hope.
"Oh, it's big. It's up there with some of the bigger sites in the U.S. for sure," Dr. McCrea said. "The area we could probably reasonably excavate over the next couple of years is about 2,500 square metres with the staff and equipment we have. … It could be expanded in the future. It could be 12,000 to 18,000 square metres. So you are probably looking at 25,000 to 30,000 dinosaur tracks and goodness knows from how many individuals … from hundreds for sure."
Most of the footprints are Allosaurus, a genus of massive carnivores that grew to more than five metres tall and weighed more than 1,500 kilograms.
"Right now, the majority of them seem to be from meat-eating dinosaurs. Big ones. So footprints 50 centimetres long, that's common, and they have three to 3 1/2-metre stride, right foot fall to right foot fall. Big animals," Dr. McCrea said.
The team he is leading, along with Lisa Buckley, collections manager at the PRPRC, began work recently. They expect to expose about 500 square metres of tracks by Friday, when they will give the first public tour of the Williston Reservoir Dinosaur Trackway, which was discovered by a local resident and reported to the researchers in 2008.
"What's exposed now is enough. It will be jaw-dropping for people," Dr. McCrea said.
The site has been kept under wraps until now because the research centre didn't have the funds to do a proper excavation.
"We showed extreme caution and restraint in this. There's nothing we wanted to do more than to work on that site and we held off for eight years because we didn't want to give away the location until we were ready to actually do something over a period of time, like to be able to occupy the site for a number of years," he said.
This year, the Peace River Regional District extended core funding to the PRPRC for four years and then the Toronto-based Dalglish Family Foundation stepped in with a donation of $200,000. That allowed the small research centre, which is based in a former schoolhouse in Tumbler Ridge, to begin excavating the site, which Dr. McCrea hopes can become a major tourist attraction for the region.
"The PRPRC paleontologists consider this fossil track site as being exceptional in preservation and internationally significant, as well as being accessible and visually appealing – a combination of qualities that are rare indeed," he stated in a recent report to the Peace River Regional District.
Dr. McCrea said the public unveiling is being held in the hopes of raising funds to put a large building over the site, both to protect the exposed tracks from the elements and to serve as a tourism facility.
"We don't wave our arms this excitably very often," he said of the tour. "In fact, we've never done it before. This is one we are pushing … we are trying to get as many as possible from industry and the provincial government to look at the site in person."
He said the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, in St. George, Utah, could serve as a model. There, a facility was built to house a major track site that was discovered in 2000; it now attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually.
Dr. McCrea said the Williston Reservoir Dinosaur Trackway could be promoted as one of several dinosaur fossil stops in northwestern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia and the Yukon.
"The idea is if we can get a few other attractions, we could create something called the Northern Dinosaur Trail," he said.
The PRPRC paleontologists have researched several sites in recent years, unearthing tracks, bones and teeth, and the region is turning into a dinosaur discovery hot spot in Canada.
Dr. McCrea said the number of finds is increasing because members of the public and resource workers in the area are aware of the PRPRC's interest in dinosaurs, and are flooding his office with tips.
"If I had a career that I could just follow up on tips, I'd be busy constantly," he said. "We get people sending us photos, sending GPS locations. … Last year, we had a mammoth tusk reported to us from a gravel pit [worker] … we had 100-million-year-old crocodile tracks [found at Teck Resources Ltd.'s Quintette coal mine]. This kind of thing just goes on and on."
Dr. McCrea said the footprints at the Williston site are between 115 million and 117 million years old, and are about the same age as some 400 tracks that were discovered along the Peace River in 1922. Those were the first dinosaur tracks ever found in Canada, but they were later drowned when a reservoir, now called Dinosaur Lake, was created by a BC Hydro power project.
"Because the Peace River trackway was flooded between the two dams, there was never any educational or tourism or any [commercial] benefits that came out of that discovery," he said. "I thought now there's a chance to do something … we get another crack at this."
Although BC Hydro is now building a third dam on the river, the new trackway is out of the flood zone and is not threatened.
Hudson's Hope Mayor Gwen Johansson said the Williston Reservoir Dinosaur Trackway is stirring interest among local and provincial elected officials.
"A lot of people are looking forward to going out to see it," she said.
Ms. Johansson said she's hoping government funding can be found to promote the site as a tourist attraction.
"If there was a dinosaur trail to follow [across northeastern B.C.], it would draw more tourists to the region and provide some economic diversification," she said. "It would be nice if [Dr. McCrea's] dream could come to fruition."