KAMLOOPS – An area rich in fossils and history is opening next weekend, seven years after being closed off to the public.
The McAbee Fossil Beds were a local destination point for decades, but the reopening is going to focus on the much deeper indigenous history of the area. The site will be open to visitors Thursday to Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. throughout the summer.
McAbee Fossil Beds offer some of the most unique and diverse fossils found in the province. The area became a protected heritage site after it was discovered that many people, including school buses full of children, were visiting the site and taking fossils home. The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development has a Heritage Branch which took over ownership of the land.
The site is a former lake bed that emptied over 50 million years ago. Fish, plants, leaves, insects, feathers, and other specimens became trapped in the lake bed and were buried under layers of fine silt. The site contains the most diverse array of plants and insects from the Eocene Epoch period in B.C.
Frank Antoine, a member of the Bonaparte Band, is eager to open the site up to the public and teach about the spiritual significance of the area. He remembers many legends and stories being told about it, some of which will be shared at the opening ceremony on June 21 at 10 a.m.
“A local chief told me there’s a beaver rock there, one of our transformers. All of our coyotes and all of our animals gathered at one time to have a meeting and that’s the only place they actually met,” said Antoine.
Along with the stories, the site is unique for reasons that have kept paleontologists coming back for decades.
“They’re finding species they haven’t found anywhere else. It’s kind of like when you pull a plug and everything funnels down to one spot,” he said.
“There seems to be a place where the lake would drain and when it would drain, everything would get caught up in that one section.”
Antoine believes the Bonaparte Band shares similarities with the unique array of creatures found in the McAbee Fossil Beds.
“The species they’re looking for, they’ve never seen it before. Our own indigenous people are the same in that unique way. You can only find the Bonaparte community in one spot, and we’re not duplicated, not a part of another community. We’re unique in terms of our traditions and our values with our culture,” said Antoine.
Antoine has a history in tourism and will combine his knowledge with his culture, making this site a place for visitors to learn about McAbee’s history, both cultural and scientific.
Some trails have been restored around the area, and the site now has picnic tables, a well, a portable toilet, and a shelter from the elements.
Debra Arnott, manager of Community Future Sun County, was one of the founders of the McAbee Working Group, a group focused on reopening the site to the public. After it was decided that the area should reopen, the project was put on hold due to wildfires in 2017. Once the ball got rolling again, the Bonaparte Band announced they wanted to take on responsibility for running the grounds and sharing their history.
Arnott and Antoine say it is important to ensure the site is honoured for its significance to the people who have roamed it for thousands of years.
“Bonaparte Band met with the working group just after the fires, and said, ‘You know what, we’re doing a shift here. This is on the traditional territory of the Bonaparte Band and the Shuswap Nation, and we see it as an indigenous tourism destination site. And some of us, including myself, thought ‘What and awesome idea. This is fabulous, we should be working in partnership. Right away we made the shift,” said Arnott.
After the decision to team up was made, plans for opening the site began to move faster than the two parties anticipated.
“The Heritage Branch has been incredibly supportive as we move through the transition,” Arnott said.
The land will be maintained and displayed by two community members from the Bonaparte Band. Both Arnott and Antoine are eager to have youth fill these positions and take responsibility and pride in the sacred land. The youth will be mentored and accompanied by elders, who will share the stories of the land with visitors. Funding is provided by the Heritage Branch, which will maintain the title of the heritage site.
The pair expect the site to garner worldwide attention, and Antoine hopes it will be recognized for its indigenous importance.
“Indigenous tourism is a huge opportunity for our people. Some would call it reconciliation, but I would call it sustainability financially and culturally. It’s to bring back our culture in a good way, and to financially be stable like a modern world. So blending two worlds together is something that our people have an opportunity to do now,” said Antoine.