Site Profile: Vermilion Lakes
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.
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 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 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
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.
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
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.
Bountiful 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
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.
Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway’s In Search of
Ancient Alberta with kind permission from Heartland