After being closed to the public since 2012, the McAbee Fossil Beds site east of Cache Creek reopened in summer 2019, and the plans are for an even longer opening period in 2020, enabling more people to visit the provincial Heritage Site.
“I’ve had discussions with Bonaparte Band Chief Randy Porter to see what it will look like at the site this year,” says Deb Arnott, general manager of Community Futures Sun Country, which oversees the McAbee Fossil Beds. Working with the provincial Heritage Branch, Sun Country was able to hire two people from Bonaparte to work at McAbee last year, and Arnott hopes that the Heritage Branch can find the funding for three people this year.
“The goal is to have it open seven days a week,” says Arnott. “I told the Chief that we’re at the stage where we’re getting lots of phone calls and emails from people saying that [being open five days a week] doesn’t fit their schedule. Having three staff instead of two would fit better.
“The Heritage Branch is confident they can find the funding. I have a good feeling they’ll do the best they can, because we’re on a roll. We can’t stop the process now. We have to keep going.”
Community Futures Sun Country and Arnott took the site on last year, and Arnott says she stepped in because she knew the site’s history and the various players involved. “I was able to move quickly. If I’d walked in new it would have been overwhelming. We had a vision that this would really assist our region and turn it around, and this year the Heritage Branch has asked if we’d again by the overseer of the site.”
She says that it was important to get the feedback and vision of the Bonaparte Band for the site. “We want to tap into Indigenous communities as there are First Nations stories to be shared with our visitors. I’m so passionate about that. People need to know that it’s an Indigenous tourism destination site, and Indigenous people are part of it. We need to celebrate that.”
The Northern Development Initiative Trust business intern recently announced for Community Futures Sun Country will be working on the McAbee Beds project, doing research on funding as well as proposal writing. Arnott says that it’s important to get a feeling for where money can be found, as there are a number of plans for the site, including signage, more shaded areas, trail management, and eventually an interpretive site, which will cost at least $500,000.
“Signage was something that visitors identified as a need. We also need to set up something on social media, as we didn’t have that last year.”
Surveys that were conducted in 2019 identified gaps at the site, as well as “good stuff” that visitors noted. Arnott says that many people indicated a desire to be able to walk around the area, which will take some thought.
“We can’t just let people walk around and pick up fossils and walk away. We need interpretive trails so that people know they need to respect the property.”
While it is illegal to take fossils from the site, Arnott says that a conversation regarding ways to make the site more interactive for visitors has been ongoing with the Heritage Branch. Paleontology students at Thompson Rivers University have also been consulted.
“Maybe they can come up with some ideas. We need to hear how we can possibly make this happen. I believe it needs to be interactive, and we need to take that little step more. People want to stay and touch the fossils, so we need to figure that out.”
Arnott says she was “absolutely amazed” by the number of schools that contacted her wanting to visit the site. Even though the site was scheduled to close at Labour Day, they managed to accommodate some school groups that wanted to come later, then had to cut off the visits as they had no money left to pay the interpreters.
“I’ve mentioned to Chief Porter that maybe we could find money from the Band and the Heritage Branch to extend the visiting period. We need funding to make things happen, because we can only ask people to volunteer for so long.
“It would be nice if we could look at opening in May/June — even part time — and into September so schools could get out there. We had schools from Ashcroft, Lillooet, and Kamloops come out in September and early October last year.”
Arnott says she thinks the interest from so many schools can be attributed in part to the fact that quite a few of the visitors who were at the site last summer were teachers. “I got calls saying ‘I was at site in the summer, and I want to bring my students’. Word of mouth is what gets things happening in our small communities.”
Advertising about jobs at the site is scheduled to run in March/April, before university students move on to other jobs. “We’re ideally looking for young people; perhaps people in post-secondary who are looking at paleontology as something they would like to work on. We have TRU only 45 minutes away, so that’s a great opportunity.”
A grand opening is scheduled this year for June 21, which is Indigenous Day across the country. “I’m looking forward to another successful season,” says Arnott. “My goal last year was 800 people, and we had more than 1,200 visitors with no marketing dollars, no social media, mostly through word of mouth.
“It’s a sign to me that when I start getting calls [about the site] in December, it means we need to get ready. I think we’re going to have a big season.”