The impressive orange boulders we’ll be documenting in this post date back to prehistoric times and can be found at the very scenic Red Rock Coulee Natural Area near Medicine Hat. Located on the lonely Alberta prairies, these rounded masses are spread out over an area perhaps a few kilometres square. This wondrous natural setting is a photographer’s dream and the play of colours means it’s hard to take a bad picture here.
Normally we don’t see ourselves as landscape photographers, although we do document things like mountains and such when we hike, so we’re kinda of out of comfort zone. Red Rock still connects us to the past however, albeit it goes back eons and not decades or a perhaps a century or so, like most of the old towns, farms, mines and what ever else we explore. Looking at it with an historic slant will help us get into the frame of mind needed.
Shooting with Connie and myself this adventure is Robert and Haley Pohl, a father/daughter team whose favourite media is medium or large format black and white film. Now that’s interesting! Not to be left out, we bring our trusty 35mm along, a tiny toy-like thing compared to the huge gear they use. Regardless, we must join in on the fun. The film images we’ve captured will be the subject of their own report soon enough.
The boulders at Red Rock Coulee are technically called concretions. Formed in submerged
sedimentary deposits, a process takes place where cements or minerals precipitate out of the water bonding together with the surrounding soil particles, layer after layer. Building up slowly over a great deal of time, they form, if the conditions are right, spherical shaped nodules. They might be small as a marble or super-sized like the ones seen here.
A nucleus of some sort was needed to start a concretion, so a fossil, ancient bone, some sort of gazillion year old plant matter. These, or evidence of them, can also be found elsewhere within a boulder. Look closely at boulders that have split open – there are a few. We saw shells and impressions of shells in one. Look for pronounced growth rings or layering as well
Given the concretions are a fair amount harder than the surrounding strata, they remain behind after that material has long eroded away. The reason they’re in such abundance here is that the bedrock which they have rested upon for near eternity is today close to the surface, where weathering quickly (relatively speaking) exposes them.
These largest of these boulders are up to a couple metres plus in diameter. Even the smallest ones are huge. The surrounding area is badland like, with layer of shale, sandstone and other miscellaneous materials. Clay also abounds, which if wet make the area incredibly slippery.
The coulee is large, although most people visit the small easiest to get to section right below the parking lot. Being adventuresome types, we elected to head in deeper. The views are much better there anyway and the number of visitors much fewer – most tourist types are lazy it seems, which is good for us since we get the best of it to ourselves.
Off in the background, but hard to see in our photos, are the lofty Sweetgrass Hills of Montana, quite some distance away.
To visit Red Rock Coulee head south down highway #887 at the town of Seven Persons, not far from Medicine Hat. At a curve in the road take the marked gravel road heading straight. Many of the concretions can be viewed from the parking lot if you lack ambition.
Red Rock is a popular place, but at the same time not terribly so. The sort-of remote location helps. It seems to be a mecca for photographers though, pros and non-pros alike – look online and see for yourself, it’s been shot to death. No one can blame them though. The vistas are amazing and the rewards many. Heck, we fell under its spell.
Beside the concretions, there is lots of interesting flora and fauna to be seen, and the occasional beast, rabbits, deer, pronghorn AND rattlesnakes, which do live in the area. Keep an eye open!
We hung around until nightfall. Heck if you’re coming here you might as well wait for a legendary Red Rock sunset. Again, it’s been done a million times before but the place is just so stunning we just had to include ourselves in the countless others that have shot something similar. We’re not sunset photographers either, that’s just not our bag, but we got drawn in here. No one, even cynical us, is immune. MUST…TAKE…PHOTOS! The photography gods insist.
Red Rock Coulee is often referred to as a moonscape by writers. It seems every one of them uses that same tired cliche. Indeed, the area near the parking lot, which it well trodden, the soil beaten down and devoid of vegetation due to the greatest number of visitors, appears so. Step away from that area, which I guess none of those writers did, and things change. A lot. There are many plants and grasses to be seen in the rolling coulee, and lots more concretions too and overall it’s a more bucolic setting.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2015.
Location: Red Rock Coulee Natural Area, AB.
Article sources: Alberta Government archives.
This site is publicly accessible.