Our Trav­els: Rock Stars

One in­trepid trav­eller shares his ex­pe­ri­ence hik­ing in Yoho Na­tional Park—home of the fa­mous fos­sils of the Burgess Shale.

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Tyler Dixon,

My shoul­ders were burn­ing with the weight of my pack. Sweat was rolling down my face, sting­ing my eyes. My lungs were work­ing over­time from the last steep push to the top. But even with all my bod­ily dis­com­fort, those fi­nal paces were sig­nif­i­cant as they fol­lowed in the ex­act foot­steps of Charles Doolit­tle Wal­cott, the man re­spon­si­ble for dis­cov­er­ing the Burgess Shale. The sore­ness seemed to just melt away as I caught my first glimpse of the fa­mous fos­sil bed. My sole pur­pose for be­ing 2,286 me­tres (7,500 feet) above sea level, perched on the side of a moun­tain ridge, was this ex­act spot: Wal­cott’s le­gendary quarry. It took only a mat­ter of sec­onds for my eyes to spot a lone fos­sil peek­ing out from among the bro­ken shale and from that point I was hooked.

The Burgess Shale has been called one of the most im­por­tant fos­sil dis­cov­er­ies any­where on the planet. The fos­sils found there are more than 505 mil­lion years old and are some of the finest ex­am­ples of soft-bod­ied preser­va­tion any­where on Earth. Most fos­sils on record con­tain hard body parts, such as bones, shells and teeth, but the ones dis­cov­ered in the Burgess Shale also con­tain min­er­al­ized soft tis­sues, al­low­ing us to see the en­tire or­gan­ism com­pletely pre­served. Halfa-bil­lion years ago, the ge­og­ra­phy that is now Yoho Na­tional Park was very dif­fer­ent. There was no Bri­tish Columbia, no Canada, not even a North Amer­ica. The en­tire area was un-

der the ocean and all life on our planet resided below the sur­face. The ex­cep­tional fos­sils of some bizarre-look­ing crea­tures in­clude some of the old­est known rel­a­tives of many species still alive to­day. Th­ese prim­i­tive crea­tures lived near the muddy sea floor. At dif­fer­ent times, th­ese an­i­mals would be caught in un­der­wa­ter mud­slides, be­com­ing buried in deep wa­ter away from scav­engers. The mud and silt that en­tombed them was so fine it was able to set­tle be­tween each curve and crevice of the or­gan­ism’s body. Ad­di­tional lay­ers of mud and silt were de­posited on top, slowly flat­ten­ing the en­trenched an­i­mals. Over time and through var­i­ous ge­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses, the mud and silt hard­ened, even­tu­ally be­com­ing shale, pre­serv­ing the trapped in­hab­i­tants for eter­nity.

Like cham­pagne bub­bles, Vi­a­gra and Vel­cro, the Burgess Shale was also dis­cov­ered ac­ci­den­tally. In the late 19th cen­tury as the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­road was mov­ing west­ward through the dif­fi­cult Kick­ing Horse Pass re­gion, one rail­road em­ployee found what he de­scribed as “stone bugs” on the steep slopes of Mount Stephen. Those “bugs” turned out to be trilo­bites and there were mil­lions of them. The sto­ries of the stone bugs even­tu­ally made their way to ge­ol­o­gists from the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of Canada, bring­ing sci­en­tists out west to study the site, col­lect spec­i­mens and pub­lish re­ports about

their find­ings. One of those re­ports caught the at­ten­tion of Wal­cott, a fos­sil en­thu­si­ast and sec­re­tary of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, although he didn’t visit the famed trilo­bite bed un­til 1907, a full 20 years after first read­ing about it. Two years after his ini­tial visit, Wal­cott was back in Bri­tish Columbia in search of more fos­sils, but here’s where his­tory gets a lit­tle murky. While rid­ing his horse on a high trail be­tween Wapta Moun­tain and Mount Field, Wal­cott en­coun­tered a large rock in his path. He was ei­ther bucked off his horse or got off to move the boul­der out of the way. How he got off his horse isn’t as im­por­tant as what he dis­cov­ered once he was on the ground. Had he not dis­mounted his horse that fate­ful af­ter­noon, the small fos­sil he found would have likely gone undis­cov­ered awhile longer. That early specimen would be­come the first of many col­lected from Wal­cott’s Quarry in the Burgess Shale, so which­ever ver­sion of his­tory you pre­fer, it was a defin­ing mo­ment ei­ther way. Wal­cott and his fam­ily would spend at least a por­tion of ev­ery field sea­son in the Cana­dian Rock­ies from 1907 to 1924, un­cov­er­ing new or­gan­isms, many of which were pre­vi­ously un­known to the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. It was Wal­cott who de­ter­mined the fos­sils were from the Mid­dle Cam­brian Age, mak­ing them over half-a-bil­lion years old. Through­out his time in the Rock­ies, he would iden­tify many new species and pro­vide ex­per­tise on the area and its pre­his­toric or­gan­isms. By 1924, Wal­cott as­sumed he had ex­hausted his quarry and didn’t re­turn the next year. Un­for­tu­nately, he died in 1927 leav­ing the 65,000 fos­sils he’d col­lected all but ig­nored for the next 40 years. Ul­ti­mately, his col­lec­tion would be­come one of the jew­els of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tions at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in Washington, D.C.

To­day, the Burgess Shale is com­pletely off-lim­its to the pub­lic; pro­tected within the UNESCO Cana­dian Rocky Moun­tains Parks World Her­itage Site. Guided tours are of­fered through­out the sum­mer by the Burgess Shale Geo­science Foun­da­tion and Parks Canada, which is how I ended up there. The hike it­self is 22 kilo­me­tres round-trip with 800 me­tres gained in el­e­va­tion. We were on the trail for 10½ hours mov­ing at a leisurely pace. The trail passes pic­turesque Yoho Lake, crosses Yoho Pass, and of­fers spec­tac­u­lar views of Emer­ald Lake and sur­round­ing peaks, but the main at­trac­tion is def­i­nitely the fos­sil bed. De­spite Wal­cott’s as­sump­tion, we know his quarry is still pro­vid­ing fos­sils to those with pa­tience and keen eye­sight. Eas­ily the best part of the tour is dig­ging through the shale in search of undis­cov­ered pre­his­toric crea­tures, just as Wal­cott him­self had done all those years ago. With a lit­tle luck, you’re sure to un­cover crit­ters not seen for many years— maybe ever!

The statis­tics for the hike may seem daunt­ing at first but aren’t ac­tu­ally that bad. Yes, the hike is con­sid­ered dif­fi­cult. It’s the equiv­a­lent of climb­ing all the stairs in a 234-storey build­ing both ways, but our guide did an in­cred- ible job of keep­ing a re­laxed pace that in­cluded numer­ous stops for rest, wa­ter and snacks. Through­out the day, our guide en­ter­tained us with in­for­ma­tive chats about the for­ma­tion of the site, the his­tory of the area and the sig­nif­i­cance of the dis-

cov­ery. Our group of 12 ranged in age from 19 up to and in­clud­ing re­tirees, all of whom safely com­pleted the trek. We were treated to per­fect hik­ing con­di­tions com­plete with a blue­bird-coloured sky and am­ple sun­shine. We couldn’t help but com­ment on the weather, as the en­tire area had seen al­most daily rain­storms lead­ing up to this tour.

We spent just over an hour in the quarry and that time passed by in­cred­i­bly quickly. I was able to find sev­eral fos­sils, in­clud­ing two trilo­bites that ap­peared to be com­plete spec­i­mens. It’s dif­fi­cult to know for sure whether those fos­sils had pre­vi­ously been seen by hu­man eyes. I like to think that I was the first to dis­cover those small relics of the past, fur­ther deep­en­ing my new­found con­nec­tion to Wal­cott. Be­fore I knew it, we were back on the trail, headed for home. There was a no­tice­able ab­sence of con­ver­sa­tion after leav­ing the quarry. Per­haps ev­ery­one was re­flect­ing on the mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence or maybe the adren­a­line had now sub­sided and we were left with the sud­den re­al­iza­tion that we had a long slog back to the trail­head. What­ever the rea­son for the si­lence, this guided ex­cur­sion had pro­vided me with me­mories and pho­to­graphs that will last a life­time. n

Clock­wise from top right: On the trail, with Wapta Moun­tain in the back­ground; a golden-man­tled ground squir­rel; lay­ers of rock ac­cu­mu­lated over mil­lions of years; an ex­am­ple of fos­silized sea crea­tures; Emer­ald Lake as viewed from Wal­cott Quarry.

From top left: Emer­ald Glacier perched high on the Pres­i­dent Range; a fe­male elk watches as the hik­ers pass by; Wapta Moun­tain ris­ing high above Yoho Lake.

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