A Tapir showing off his prehensile nose trunkDriftwood Canyon Provincial Park covers 23 hectares of the Bulkley River Valley, on the east side of Driftwood Creek, a tributary of the Bulkley River, 10 km northeast of the town of Smithers in northern British Columbia. 
The parklands are part of the asserted traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation which includes lands around the Bulkley River, Burns Lake, Broman Lake, and François Lake in the northwestern Central Interior of British Columbia. 

The Wetʼsuwetʼen are part of the Dakelh or Carrier First Nation, and in combination with the Babine First Nation are referred to as the Western Carrier. They speak Witsuwitʼen, a dialect of the Babine-Witsuwitʼen language which, like its sister language Carrier, is a member of the Athabaskan family.

Their oral history or kungax recounts a time when their ancestral village, Dizkle or Dzilke, once stood upstream from the Bulkley Canyon. This cluster of cedar houses on both sides of the river was said to be abandoned because of an omen of impending disaster. The exact location of the village has been lost but their stories live on. 

The neighbouring Gitxsan, collectively the People of Smooth Waters and People of the River of Mist—the Gilseyhu Big Frog Clan, the Laksilyu Small Frog Clan, the Tsayu Beaver Clan, the Gitdumden Wolf and Bear Clan and the Laksamshu Fireweed and Owl Clan—each phratry or kinship group calling the Lax Yip home—33,000 km2 of land and water in northwestern ​British Columbia along the waters of the Skeena River and its tributaries—have a similar tale—though the village in their versions is referred to as Dimlahamid or Temlahan depending on which house group or wilp is sharing the tale—as well as where they are located as dialects differ. 

Gitksan speak Sim'algax—the real or true language. Within the Gitxsan communities there are two slightly different dialects. The Gyeets (Downriver) dialect spoken in Gijigyukwhla (Gitsegukla), Gitwangax, and Gitanyow—and the Gigeenix (Upriver) dialect is spoken in Ansbayaxw (Kispiox), Sik-E-Dakh and Gitanmaax.

Nestled within these lands are the Driftwood Canyon Fossil Beds which record life in the earliest portion of the Eocene when British Columbia — and indeed our world — was much warmer than it is today. This site was discovered in the beginning of the 20th century and is now recognized as containing significant fossil material. 

The fossils found here—and their superb preservation—provide a fascinating opportunity to understand the area’s evolutionary processes of both geology and biology over the past fifty million years or so. The fossils themselves are 51.7 million years old and look remarkably like many of the species we recognize today. 

The park that contains these beautiful fossils is fifty-seven years old. It was created in 1967 by the generosity of the late Gordon Harvey (1913–1976). He donated the land to protect fossil resources that he truly loved and wanted to see preserved. The fossil beds are on the east side of Driftwood Creek. 

Exploring the region today, we see a landscape dominated by conifers blanketing the area. Forests teem with the aromatic Western Red Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir with its many medicinal properties, the tall and lanky Subalpine Fir with its soft, brittle and quickly decaying wood, the slender scaly Lodgepole Pine, the graceful and slightly forlorn looking Western Hemlock. 

Across the landscape you see several species of Spruce, including the impressive Sitka. Some of the tallest on view would have been mere seedlings, colonizing the glacial moraines centuries ago when the glaciers retreated. Collectively, these conifers tell the tale of the region's cool climate today and give this area an earthy, umami scent as only old rainforests can. 

The Gitxsan territory boasts seven of the 14 biogeoclimatic zones of the province—the Alpine Tundra, Spruce-Willow-Birch, Boreal White and Black Spruce, Sub-Boreal Pine-Spruce, Sub-Boreal Spruce, Engelmann Spruce-Subalpine Fir and Interior Cedar-Hemlock. 

The fossil material we find here speaks to a warmer climate in this region's past. We find fossil plants, fish—including specimens of salmon, suckerfish and bowfin, a type of air breathing fish—and insect fossil here—wasps and water striders—fossil plants including Metasequoia, the Dawn Redwood, alder—and interesting vertebrate material. Bird feathers are infrequently collected from the shales; however, two bird body fossils have been found here.

In 1968, a bird body fossil was collected in the Eocene shales of the Ootsa Lake Group in Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park by Pat Petley of Kamloops. 

Pat donated the specimen in 2000 to the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) palaeontology collections. This fossil bird specimen is tentatively identified as the puffbird, Piciformes bucconidae, of the genus Primobucco.

Primobucco is an extinct genus of bird placed in its own family, Primobucconidae. The type species, Primobucco mcgrewi, lived during the Lower Eocene of North America. It was initially described by American paleo-ornithologist Pierce Brodkorb in 1970, from a fossil right-wing, and thought to be an early puffbird. However, the discovery of a further 12 fossils in 2010 indicate that it is instead an early type of roller.

Related fossils from the European Messel deposits have been assigned to the two species P. perneri and P. frugilegus. Two specimens of P. frugilegus have been found with seeds in the area of their digestive tract, which suggests that these birds were more omnivorous than the exclusively predaceous modern rollers. 

Another fossil bird, complete with feathers, was collected at Driftwood Canyon in 1970, This one was found by Margret and Albrecht Klöckner who were travelling from Germany. Theirs is a well-travelled specimen, having visited many sites in BC as they toured around, then to Germany and finally back to British Columbia when it was repatriated and donated to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. 

This second bird fossil is of a long-legged water bird and has been tentatively identified by Dr. Gareth Dyke of the University of Southampton as possibly from the order Charadriiformes, a diverse order of small to medium-ish water birds that include 350 species of gulls, plovers, sandpipers, terns, snipes, and waders. Hopefully, we'll hear more on this find in the future.

The outcrops at Driftwood Canyon are also special because they record a record of some of the first fossil mammals ever to be found in British Columbia at this pivotal point in time. 

Wee proto-hedgehogs smaller than your thumb lived in the undergrowth of that fossil flora. They shared the forest floor with an extinct tapir-like herbivore in the genus Heptodon that looked remarkably similar to his modern, extant cousins (there is a rather cheeky fellow shown here so you get the idea) but lacked their pronounced snout (proboscis). I am guessing that omission made him the more fetching of his lineage.

In both cases, it was a fossilized jaw bone that was recovered from the mud, silt and volcanic ash outcrops in this ancient lakebed site. And these two cuties are significant— they are the very first fossil mammals we've ever found from the early Eocene south of the Arctic.

How can we be sure of the timing? The fossil outcrops here are found within an ancient lakebed. Volcanic eruptions 51 million years ago put loads of fine dust into the air that settled then sank to the bottom of the lake, preserving the specimens that found their way here — leaves, insects, birds, mammals.

As well as turning the lake into a fossil making machine—water, ash, loads of steady sediment to cover specimens and stave off predation—the volcanic ash contains the very chemically inert—resistant to mechanical weathering—mineral zircon which we can date with uranium/lead (U/Pb). 

The U/Pb isotopic dating technique is wonderfully accurate and mighty helpful in dating geologic events from volcanic eruptions, continental movements to mass extinctions. This means we know exactly when these lovelies were fossilized and, in turn, the weight of their significance.