A Big Rock, a bit of Spock and a very short river

I picked the wrong night to stay at the Hotel Blackfoot a few kilometers south of Calgary’s town center. There wasn’t a problem with my room, the meal or any of the service. It was the wrong night simply because I happened to stay there on Monday. You see, on Thursday nights in, as the hotel’s website describes it, “the Hotel Blackfoot’s trendy Lobby Lounge”, they have regularly scheduled live jazz. There’s no jazz on Mondays.

But if live jazz doesn’t suit your entertainment needs, you can “Drop by on Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays for sidesplitting laughs at Calgary’s premier live standup comedy venue” The Laugh Shop which offers an optional dinner buffet on Friday and Saturday. The one name on the schedule that I immediately recognized was Tom Arnold who’s performing there on October 20-21. (I can’t attend because I’ll be in Spain but tickets do seem to be available for those who want to make the trip.)

Perhaps it’s just as well because, facing a long drive ahead before I reached my stopping point in Billings, Montana, I planned an early start Tuesday.

Big Rock Okotoks

My first stop of the day will be in Okotoks about 20 kilometers south of Calgary’s city limits. (The site I’m visiting is actually about 45 kilometers from the hotel. You have to keep in mind that while its population is a bit more than one and a quarter million, Calgary is a sprawling metropolis covering more than 825 square kilometers. For comparison, Toronto, with more than double Calgary’s population has an area of about 630 square kilometers.)

In my first post, when I described glacial erosion in Banff, NP, I wrote, “As glaciers advance and retreat, they can grind down mountains, scatter strange rock formations across the countryside and reduce solid rock to fine dust.” These “strange rock formations” are properly called glacial erratics and they are formed when dislodged rocks are treated to what one might think of as a glacial piggyback ride. The rock is sitting on top of the glacier just going with the flow and enjoying the ride. But sometimes the ice melts. When that happens it deposits the now far-flung rocks in places they don’t belong leaving them no way to return to their place of origin.

As it turns out, one of the world’s most extensive scatterings of glacial erratics lies along a one kilometer wide path that stretches for approximately 980 kilometers in Alberta, Canada.  This north to south scattering of these abandoned migrant rocks, extending from Jasper National Park to Northern Montana is known as the Foothills Erratics Train. If that southernmost point is the train’s engine, the Okotoks (pronounced OH-kuh-TOHks) Big Rock erratic considered by most to be the luxury carriage car of the this train, is about one fourth of the distance between that engine and the caboose in Jasper.

Here’s how geologists tell the story of the Big Rock. It begins with layers of sediment comprised of sand, silt and small pebbles deposited between 600 and 520 million years ago in a shallow sea. As time passed, the sediment built up layer upon layer as part of what geologists call the Gog Formation. While much of the sediment (and thus much of the composition of the Rockies) is limestone, in some places the heat and pressure generated by the weight of the overlying sediments compacted the sand grains compressing them into an extremely hard, durable rock called quartzite.

Big Rock was originally part of a mountain in what is now Jasper National Park 400 kilometers or more to the north. Sometime between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago, a large rock slide crashed debris onto the surface of a glacier that occupied the present day Athabasca River valley. This debris, including Big Rock, was the carried out of the mountains on the surface of the glacier. The valley glacier slowly moved eastwards to the mountain front, where, confined by the Cordilleran ice sheet to its west, it collided with the other huge continental ice mass known as the Laurentide ice sheet on its east. The valley glacier was deflected to the southeast, parallel to the mountain front and, as the ice melted, it deposited this atypical linear string of erratics.

The notion of the erratics receiving a piggyback ride is important because being on top of the glacier allowed them to retain much of their bulk and shape. Alternatively, had the rocks been transported by ice at the bottom of the glacier, by water or by ice-rafting they would have a much different appearance. They would have been either quickly broken up into much smaller fragments, significantly rounded, widely dispersed over the landscape, or some combination of these.

Comprised of 16,500 tons of quartzite, the Big Rock, is the largest known glacial erratic on the planet. It’s nearly nine meters high, 41 meters long and 18 meters wide. Because the area’s native rocks are largely sandstone, the quartzite composition of the rock identifies it as an alien.

The Big Rock is known not only for its great size but also for the large split down the middle. Naturally, the mysterious appearance of a gigantic, apparently misplaced rock in the middle of the prairie with a great split down its middle, has drawn a number of legends. One of them, a cautionary tale against taking back what you have given away from the Blackfoot tradition, describes how the split happened:

One hot summer day, Napi, the supernatural trickster of the Blackfoot peoples, rested on the rock because the day was warm and he was tired. He spread his robe on the rock, telling the rock to keep the robe in return for letting him rest there. Suddenly, the weather changed and Napi became cold as the wind whistled and the rain fell. Napi asked the rock to return his robe, but the rock refused. Napi got mad and just took the clothing. As he strolled away, he heard a loud noise and turning, he saw the rock was rolling after him. Napi ran for his life. The deer, the bison and the pronghorn were Napi’s friends, and they tried to stop the rock by running in front of it. The rock rolled over them. Napi’s last chance was to call on the bats for help. Fortunately, they did better than their hoofed neighbours, and by diving at the rock and colliding with it, one of them finally hit the rock just right and it broke into two pieces.

This site is of great spiritual significance to the Blackfoot people, and the name of the town and the rock are derived from the Blackfoot word for rock, “okatok.”

Live long and prosper

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word meme and developed meme theory – the notion that ideas are subject to evolutionary pressures similar to those found in biology. For Dawkins, a meme was any cultural entity that could self-replicate. Today, some 40 years later, enhanced by the internet’s ability to spread ideas at the speed of light the idea of the meme is commonly used and accepted.

A decade before the publication of Dawkins’ book on September 8, 1966 to be precise, NBC Television debuted a show that, despite its limited early success, would become not only a meme but a cultural touchstone. That show was Star Trek. (Wikipedia’s article  about the series notes: “Star Treks first-season ratings would in earlier years likely have caused NBC to cancel the show.”) In fact, the season three renewal came about largely due to a letter writing campaign and the series only produced 78, 79 or 80 episodes. (The number of episodes is dependent on whether you count the two parts of The Menagerie as one or two episodes and whether you include the episode called The Cage which didn’t appear in the initial run.)

I think it’s fair to call Star Trek globally iconic. In September 2017, the sixth television spinoff (Star Trek: Discovery) had its debut. The original series generated six feature films with the original cast. Thus far in the 21st century, three more films using the original characters have appeared with a new cast taking the roles of the original characters. One of the spinoffs, Star Trek: The Next Generation produced four feature films. The number of novels, short stories and comic books reaches into the hundreds or thousands. Even the split infinitive of each episode’s opening voice over – “to boldly go where no man has gone before” has become a meme.

One Star Trek fact many people might not know is that the original television series did not have its world premiere on NBC but rather, the first show aired on CTV in Canada two days earlier on September 6, 1966. If you look at the map posted in my first entry, and follow the route for 90 kilometers south and east from Okotoks, you’ll spot the town of Vulcan. And, yes, the town of Vulcan has made the most of the fortuitous coincidence that it shares its name with not only the Roman god of fire but with the home planet of Mr. Spock.

 (Please enlarge this picture so you can read the sign.)

The town’s attachment to the Star Trek franchise had its birth some time around 1990 when the town council established the Vulcan Association of Science and Trek or VAST. In 1992, they held their first official Star Trek convention and called it Vul-Con. Then, on June 10, 1995, the town unveiled

 its own starship – modeled after the ship from the original series. Unless you enlarge this picture, you won’t notice the call sign – FX6-1995A. Per the Vulcan Tourism website, “The X6 stands for the Vulcan airport identifier from the Canadian Flight Supplement, 1995 represents the year of it’s release, and “A” signifies the first project launched in pursuit of development of the Science and Trek theme throughout Vulcan County.”

The building you see in the first photo from Vulcan is the town’s Visitor Center. It opened in 1998 and it’s filled with Star Trek memorabilia. By 2009, Vulcan signed a licensing agreement with CBS (now the owner of the franchise) and became the Official Star Trek Capital of Canada. Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, “came home to Vulcan on April 23, 2010”.

Vulcan’s tourism website also provides the top 10 answers to the question, “Why Star Trek?”.

Why Star Trek on the prairies? If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that…well we’d be sitting pretty that’s for sure. So why take that leap of faith into the final frontier? Well for lots of reasons, not the least of which is our fortuitous name link. So below you will find the top ten reasons we have adopted a Star Trek theme in Vulcan AB…drum roll please …

10. It is logical…yeah, I went there. Our name makes it a perfectly logical Enterprise (yeah, I went there too) to go for
Bringing in thousands of Trek fans every year has been wonderful for our small communities.

9. Getting excited about Roman Mythology is one thing…The God of Fire, which Vulcan was actually named after, sounds just a wee bit dangerous…even though we have some stellar fire departments in Vulcan County!

8. Star Trek is cool. period.

7. Our agricultural past is awesome. In fact, we were at one point known for having the largest grain capacity of any primary grain shipping point in Canada. Now Vulcan County has production rate of 261,000 tones of wheat annually. Truthfully though, all of Alberta has a stunning history with agriculture. Star Trek has given us something that is all our own, and we love that Vulcan’s stand out in a crowd.

6. Everyone loves a chance to get up close and personal with the characters they have grown to know and love over the years. Fans of Star Trek especially love meeting their favorite personalities and we love that in Vulcan people can really get to know who the people who are attached to the faces and names they know. Spock Days, our annual convention, allows for a really close encounter that no fan will soon forget.

5. The prairies in Canada were settled by people who were ready to take on a new frontier. It was wild, unknown and filled with adventure. Anyone who knows the Star Trek cannon at all knows that it was about facing the unknown bravely and justly…coincidence? We think not!

4. Star Trek fans are among some of the most diverse people you could encounter. From young to old, across all cultures and beliefs, you can…and will…find Star Trek fans! This means that each and every day the community welcomes a new face with their own story. No day is ever like another and we wouldn’t have it any other way!!

3. It is a long drive heading some places in Alberta. While the mountain and prairie vista are phenomenal and such a treat to both the local and visitors, some times even a Trekkie needs to find the loo. When nature calls we happen have some of the coolest bathrooms in Alberta. If you have to stop anyways you may as well have a fun place to stop…and it doesn’t get much more fun than Vulcan!

2. Small communities are built on some wonderful principles. Star Trek was built on some wonderful principles. The ideals of hope equality prosperity and longevity are the kind of believes and dreams that both Star Trek and the prairies share. If you are going to invite the world to come to your community, it only makes sense to invite the people who share your wonderful view of what the future can hold. We are honored to continue and encourage the accepting culture that Gene Roddenberry presented to the world at a time when it was so needed. Knowing a ship was competently run by a crew that was not limited or overlooked by cause of race, sex or beliefs makes us so proud to be part of the Star Trek journey.

1. Where else in the world can you carry a bat’leth in the grocery store, tell people you will meet them at the transporter or make comments about Pon Farr (wink, wink) and not get strange looks? Being in Vulcan is like coming home for many fans…and we are glad to welcome you with open arms and a hearty.
Live Long and Prosper!!!

Lewis and Clark, the world’s shortest river (?) and becoming a Montana scofflaw

After I finished my morning in Vulcan, it was time to get back on the road and head south to the border crossing at Coutts on the Canadian side and Sweetgrass on the Montana side. The border crossing is about 200 kilometers from Vulcan and once I enter Montana, my friends reading this who use the metric system will have to convert units of length and temperature as I will be switching to the Imperial and Fahrenheit systems.

The observant among you might have noticed that the sky in the pictures at both Big Rock and Vulcan isn’t particularly blue. It was on this drive that I saw the early signs of the smoke and haze that would come to define this trip. Driving through it, I had some sense of the rather persistent haze, the sky’s lack of color and less than expected visibility but, at this point, my awareness of the smoke intensified when I’d look in the rear view mirror where I’d see what appeared to be a swarm of ash bugs trailing my car. That will change as the trip progresses.

Only one station was open so I sat through a bit of a delay crossing the border. Once in the U.S., my first act was to fill the gas tank. The low fuel warning light came on some distance before I reached the border but because it was only my third day driving this particular car I wasn’t certain how low or how much farther I could drive. Taking to heart the lesson I learned in Utah, I pulled into the first available station.

My Global Entry card facilitated the border crossing by letting me leave my passport in my pocket. Although I didn’t see a “Welcome to Montana” sign, I knew that once I’d crossed the border, Montana became the 48th state I’ve visited.  (Note: This is not a photo I took and, I believe it’s looking north but I thought your eyes might need a distraction.)

While filling the tank I grabbed an immediately forgettable convenience store lunch to eat on the fly because I had about two hours driving to reach Great Falls where I had a stop planned with another three beyond that to get to Billings where I’d spend the night. In all, I had about 350 miles left to drive.

In most of the U.S., finding your way to a decent sized city like Great Falls, Montana is relatively easy so getting to Great Falls from Sweetgrass is a simple 120 mile drive south on I-15. Finding a specific address in that city can be a bit more challenging. Fortunately, in the 21st century many of us carry smart phones with apps like Google maps or Waze. Unfortunately, even in the 21st century, if you’re in northern Montana and your service provider isn’t Verizon (mine is T-Mobile), those apps are often useless.

But I’d learned a similar lesson traveling through Arizona and Utah earlier in the summer so I was prepared with paper maps. However, a paper map doesn’t give verbal prompts and this can be a problem when the same person is both driver and navigator. Thus, I implemented a two step plan.

Step one: Pull off the road 10-15 miles before reaching Great Falls to study the map and commit as much of it to memory as possible.

Step two: Write the directions on a small piece of paper that I could glance at reasonably safely because I don’t trust my memory.

The plan was more or less successful. I didn’t get lost but I did rely on an intuitive guess or two such as turning onto the first street I saw after crossing the Missouri River because that seemed like the most logical place to get me to my intended address. Now, while the top sight on my to see list was the Roe River, I decided I’d also stop at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. I hoped it might provide some information I hadn’t yet read about Sacagawea because I’d planned an encounter with her (spiritually and metaphorically speaking) later in this trip. Oh, please note the proper spelling and pronunciation of her name.

Until 1989, the D River in Lincoln City Oregon was, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s shortest river at a mere 440 feet. In 1988, however, the students at Lincoln Elementary School in Great Falls, launched a campaign to replace the D River with the Roe River since the latter is only 201 feet long. Guinness recognized the claim and from 1989 through 2005, reported the Roe as the world’s shortest river. Not wanting to be outdone, the citizens of Lincoln City submitted a new measurement of the D claiming that at extreme high tide, the river is only 120 feet long. This time, the people at Guinness didn’t recognize the claim. Instead, they removed the category from all editions beginning in 2006.

Even though it’s no longer listed, the Roe was the last river to claim the title making it, at least in my mind, worth the visit. It was a very short drive – certainly less than a mile – from the Lewis and Clark Center to Giant Springs State Park where I’d be able to walk the entire length of the Roe River. While the park is free to Montana residents, there was considerable signage in and around the parking lot directing me as a non-resident to pay the $6.00 daily entrance fee. Missing, however, was any evidence of the presence of a park ranger to collect or enforce the collection of said fee. Since my intent was to take a few pictures of the river and leave and, recalling the thrill of my stolen tram ride in Budapest last year, I decided to take the risk. Once again, I succeeded.

I hereby present the Roe River from source to mouth:

You can find a few more pictures (including one with an explanatory sign) and a 10 second video here.

I didn’t make a single note about my dinner in Billings so it must have been utterly forgettable – if I had dinner at all. I had two reasons to stop in Billings if you’re curious. First, it’s about eight and a half hours and 530 miles to drive directly from Calgary to Billings. Add time to cross the border and my other detours and stops and my best estimate meant I’d be on the road for about 12 hours. Second, my first stop tomorrow, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is barely an hour east of Billings making it close enough for me to stop and spend several hours there and still arrive at Devils Tower with plenty of time to do a little hiking. Thus, it hit the sweet spot between maximizing my drive on Tuesday and minimizing the time I’d need to reach Little Bighorn.

By now, most of you should have a sense of the rhythm and detail of the way I record my travels. Since my first stop tomorrow is at the site of one of the most famous battles fought within the United States, I suggest you prepare yourselves for very little about my travels a very long history lesson. So saddle up because tomorrow we ride.

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One Response to A Big Rock, a bit of Spock and a very short river

  1. Connie says:

    Love the insight into Vulcan, Canada. Seems like a great place to be a Star Trek Nerd (admitting I am one – and value Star Trek much more than Star Wars, but that is a discussion best for a glass of wine or 3).


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