Story and photos by Kunal D’souza
Nodosaur photo courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum
My trip to Alberta was all about firsts.
It was my first time visiting the province and my first time driving Ford’s Baja–racer inspired Raptor.
For those who haven’t heard about this truck (cause you’ve likely been living under a rock), Ford describes it as a high-performance off-road pick up truck. It’s based on a standard F-150 but rides on a beefed up Raptor specific frame and suspension that includes some truly badass Fox Racing Shox that peek out from the wheel wells hinting at this monster’s off-roading capability.
Words like monster and beast are likely going to be used throughout this story, as they seemed to be the only two in my vocabulary that aptly describes this truck.
There is absolutely no denying the presence of this new Raptor. From the massive grille proudly displaying “FORD”, to the wide fender flares and chunky 315/70/17 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires, down to the black exhaust tips—this truck turns heads. If you want your vehicle to fly under the radar, skip over this one.
Driving the Ford F-150 Raptor in Alberta was akin to driving a Ferrari La Ferrari in Modena, Italy. Being truck country there was no shortage of thumbs-ups and people stopping us wanting to chat about the truck, and my driving partner and I being car guys truly enjoyed the interaction and reminded us why we love what we do.
It’s a pleasure to see people interested in cars in this day and age especially being on the cusp of electric and self-driving vehicles. That a vehicle like this even exists gives enthusiasts like me some hope for the future.
Other than testing out this beast of a truck (there’s one of those words again) our main goal was to explore the Canadian Badlands in the short time that we had. Being the 150th birthday of our nation, we felt this was the perfect place to see the rich history our country offers—a history that goes back over 100 million years—when the Canadian Badlands were a lush and tropical area that surrounded a vast inland sea.
Difficult to imagine, there is nothing like this on our planet today and it was an area where dinosaurs including raptors thrived for millions upon millions of years.
And now this 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor joins its long lost cousins in what might just be the perfect vehicle to explore dinosaur country.
Southeastern Alberta seems dominated by fields of straw yellow and gentle treeless plains that can make the highway drive monotonous, it’s not until we got off the Trans-Canada highway and headed northeast from Calgary towards Drumheller that things started to change.
Speaking of monotonous highway drives that might seem out of the Raptor’s element is actually where I was pleasantly surprised. Those chunky off-road tires delivered a smooth and serene ride and the truck seemed very well insulated against road and wind noise. It was easy to keep a normal conversation going and the cabin seemed eerily Teutonic. Kudos to Ford here, as I had to keep checking the key fob to remind me what I was in.
The smooth ride was also due in no small part to the huge 3” diameter (up from 2.5” on the last Raptor) Fox Racing Shox that have an internal bypass, 9 stages of damping and hydraulic bump stops that give a compliant ride on pavement but is capable of handling jumps and pretty much any off-road adventure you can think off.
Just west of Drumheller the typical prairie landscape fades as it gives way to a large canyon with tiramisu-like layers representing 100 million years of geological history. Composed of sandstone, mudstone, and coal seams these layers are beautifully defined and remind me of an oil painting that allows one to look through time.
I could have stared at them for hours but a helicopter giving visitors aerial tours of this spectacular natural formation broke the silence. Not a bad way to see Horseshoe Canyon I must say. Visitors can also take a self-guided tour on the trails that take you right down and into the canyon, where you can truly witness its grandeur.
Terrain Management and Baja Mode
Driving around this part of Alberta there is no shortage of unpaved dirt roads and goat paths that were the perfect place to test out some of the many driving modes offered on the Raptor’s sophisticated Terrain Management System. This works in concert with a new dual mode transfer case, which employs 4WD and AWD, for the best of both worlds giving drivers superior confidence in almost any weather on any terrain.
This wizardry works by using a series of electronic clutches that distribute power between the front and rear axles when loss of traction is detected, much like a typical AWD system.
There are three AWD modes (Normal, Sport, Weather) designed mainly for on-road use. When the going gets tough the system employs mechanical locks that will couple both axles allowing for a true 4WD system.
There are three 4WD modes—Mud/Sand, Baja, and Rock Crawl—where Mud/Sand and Baja operate in 4WD high and Rock Crawl in 4WD low.
What does all that mean? Quite simply, look at your surroundings; select the icon on the Terrain Management display that most closely matches—and go. It’s that easy, so I’m sorry for all the techy details.
Calling the Raptor a capable off-roader is an understatement. This is one of the few vehicles that without any modification can take on almost anything you throw at it, at any speed, and makes it easy for off-roading noobs like myself to look good doing it.
Heading north to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, our next destination, we stumble upon a delicious strip of downhill and winding unpaved dirt road. Let’s give Baja Mode a shot,” I said with a grin. Selecting this mode puts the Raptor in 4WD high, loosens the nanny-like grip of the traction control and keeps the two turbos spooled up for instant-on power. The 10-speed automatic shifts with increased ferocity and holds gears near redline, providing a very noticeable shove in the lower back with each up shift. All the while the 3.5L EcoBoost V6—with 450hp and a stout 510lb-ft of torque— provides nearly lag –free thrust and feels damn near indestructible.
This is one of the few vehicles that without any modification can take on almost anything you throw at it, at any speed
Our silver test Raptor streaked down this road with all the panache of a full-bore Baja-racer kicking out its tail but managing to be very controllable with a flick of opposite lock dialed in. How Ford pulled this off and made this truck such a peach to drive when pushing it is beyond me. For a second I felt like I was in the Dakar Rally.
I have to confess that I’ve never been a truck guy. I like my vehicles sporty with a low center of gravity, but this Raptor had me smitten. Baja mode had me smitten. I was falling for this truck.
Royal Tyrrell Museum
Arriving at the museum in Drumheller a bit later than anticipated, we found ourselves in a valley surrounded by the same canyon structures that made our last stop so mesmerizing.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum is a dinosaur lover’s dream come true. It is the only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of palaeontology in Canada and has one of the largest collections of dinosaurs and pre-historic animal fossils in the world.
Most of these are found right here in Alberta and are excavated, protected and brought to the preparation lab where the paleontologists and technicians painstakingly extract the fossils from the surrounding rock in a process that can take years. These fossils are then stored, used for research, or displayed in the museum for all to see.
One of the most exciting displays was that of a new species of armoured dinosaur known as a nodosaur. Notable for being the oldest species of dinosaur ever found in Alberta, this 112 million year old find is the most well-preserved armoured dinosaur in the world. It took over 7,000 hours to prepare this specimen but most interestingly, this spectacular fossil was discovered by Suncor Millennium Mine in 2011 as a result of the museum working closely with industries such as road construction, mining, and oil and gas.
The brochures don’t do the Brooks Aqueduct justice. Constructed from 1912-1914 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, this is a must-see structure that is part of the history of the region and province.
In its time this was the largest concrete structure in the world and pushed the boundaries of modern engineering. Situated in a 3.2 mile wide valley, it was designed to irrigate over 10,000,000 hectares of land by delivering up to 26 cubic meters of water per second!
The Aqueduct played a crucial role in irrigating the arid southeastern part of Alberta. Unfortunately it didn’t quite meet its water delivery goals and the irrigation season was extended into October having a detrimental effect on the aqueduct, when it was finally taken out of operation in 1979.
Still this monumental structure stands as a reminder of the past and its crucial link in transforming southern Alberta into fertile cropland.
Not only did the Brooks Aqueduct provide a jaw-dropping landscape and opportunity for some spectacular pictures, there were a number of light off-road trails in the surrounding are with deep ruts, some steep climbs and thick vegetation that was so high it was brushing my forearms. Heaven for the Raptor.
Putting the beast into Rock Crawl mode it, being equipped with pretty much every option, turns on the front camera making it easy to avoid that bumper-busting boulder, and pull you up almost any hill. All the while I’m sitting in this quiet, air-conditioned cabin listening to some good music.
Did I already mention this truck had me smitten?
The Raptor meets its (fossilized) cousins at Dinosaur Provincial Park
Located 50 km northeast of Brooks, the last stop on our Canadian Badlands tour, is Dinosaur Provincial Park.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the richest dinosaur fossil deposits in the world. As we drive along the road to the park, it is like we are entering the Land Before Time (please excuse the obvious reference here), although it didn’t look like this 80 million years ago—the landscape of the park is a product of the last ice age.
We meet with Donna Martin at the Visitors Centre who will be our guide. The Raptor stays put for this one, being a protected area and all.
We jump in Donna’s van and enter, driving between the rust-coloured canyons and hoodoos, instantly mesmerized.
This area of the Canadian Badlands’ topography is composed mainly of sandstone and mudstone carved up by glacial melt waters over 10,000 years ago. Hoodoos perform precarious balancing acts with their capstones and are found in almost every size imaginable.
The coulees in the area of the park known as the Valley of the Castles look like wrinkled hills and remind me of a walnut shell, otherworldly and haunting.
Jurassic Park has nothing on this place.
Donna points to a small piece of rock on the ground and motions us over, “Look guys here’s a fossil”. I take it in my hands and at first I don’t see the difference between this and the other rocks everywhere but looking closely you can see the organic structure of bone and the underlying marrow. I was holding a 75 million year old piece of a hadrosaur.
Once you spot the first one, the others are easy. Fossils are everywhere, laying there untouched by human hands for eons. Donna tells us it’s mostly hadrosaur, and some centrosaurus (similar to triceratops). The hadrosaur was something like the cow of its time, seemingly the most common type of fossil found in the park.
We continue spotting fossils everywhere—it almost becomes a game. There is an actual dig going on as well. We meet a real palaeontologist who, along with a father and son team taking part in the Guided Excavation tour offered by the park, are excavating a piece of centrosaur skull.
Having never seen anything like this before, this was an experience that I will remember for a lifetime.
Getting back into the Raptor we head back towards Calgary, stopping at the fabulous Strathmore Station Inn for some well needed food and refreshments.
Reflecting on the Raptor I felt like it was my duty to report on some of the things I didn’t like. Believe me there’s not much, and I’m nitpicking when I say that some of the plastic on the center-console could be nicer, the steering while accurate is a bit low on feel, but really not that important in a vehicle like this and the brakes were a bit spongy requiring a lot more pedal travel than I prefer to haul this monster down (last time, I promise).
Do any of these things matter? Nope! Would I buy one? Hell yeah, in a heartbeat—it’s just that I don’t have the $100K Ford wants for one of these fully loaded. Is it worth it? YES! Absolutely YES! There is nothing else like this out there today.
A bit weary, and having to wake up for an early morning flight, this trip of firsts was at an end, the Canadian Badlands were inspiring, a part of this country so unique that I’m grateful to have seen it, and it should be part of everyone’s bucket list of places to see.
This might have been my first time in Alberta, but definitely not my last.
Visit Canadian Badlands for more information
Visit Ford.ca for more on the F-150 Raptor