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Site Profile: Vermilion Lakes

First Vermilion Lake

Today, traffic hums along on the Trans-Canada Highway above and the nearby town of Banff beckons. But blocking out present distractions while strolling 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 millennia. 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.

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 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 at the appointed places, many visitors wonder aloud whether the sheep can read.

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 View of Lake Vermilion 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, an ethereal outline of what might be Canada’s oldest house plan. The site was 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 at the foot of Mount Edith has drawn people ever since, and for centuries each occupation was sealed by the regular flooding of the river. 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 view of Lake Vermilion this way left behind spearpoints that served as Stone Age business cards. About 9,900 years ago, for example, a family of Agate Basin people camped here and feasted on mountain sheep, as their predecessors had nearly 1, 000 years before. Whether by design or oversight, when they packed up, they left behind several stemmed points and knives.

Closer to the modern surface the accumulated silt between occupation layers is thinner and the process of dating each visit that much more difficult. But 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 includi9ng 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.

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 it clear that by about 3, 000 years ago, the people who lived seasonally along the shores of the Vermilion Lakes had developed extensive trade relationships. Among the artifacts found were small fragments of obsidian which x-ray fluorescence analysis showed came from a source in what is now Yellowstone National Park, more than 830 kilometres (515 miles) from Banff as the crow flies.

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 and perhaps five metres (16 feet) deeper than it is today, but the things which make this place attractive now would have been even more 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-glacial Bison bison occidentalis, smaller than the mighty ice age bison but still larger than today’s plains bison, would likely have wandered its shores.

Vermilion Lakes in winterBountiful in the brief mountain summers, the Vermilion Lakes were also kind in winter. At third Vermilion Lake, a warm spring keeps 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 of the year. With its abundant animal life, clean water and wood for fuel and lodges, nearby stone for weapons and tools, this was a place of beauty, diversity and plenty, just as it is 108 centuries later.

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

Vermilion Lakes archaeological calendar

Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway’s In Search of Ancient Alberta with kind permission from Heartland Associates, Inc.

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