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The Burgess Shale - Hiking, Fossils and the Canadian Rockies

Janie & Geoff

Hiking the Burgess Shale: 500 Million Years Ago in the Canadian Rockies

Many people travel to the Canadian Rockies and end up in popular spots such as Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise. The Rockies are so magnificently beautiful it's hard to imagine that there could be even more awesome experiences there than gazing at those mountains and lakes. But if you make it to Lake Louise, Alberta, take the time to travel another 30 kilometers to a World Heritage site that is awesome in the original sense of the word. It is well worth the drive and an overnight stay to take the guided hike the next day to the Burgess Shale, located in Yoho National Park on the British Columbia side of the Rockies.

If you've ever been to natural science museums, most notably the Smithsonian, and seen fossils from the Cambrian Age (540 million years ago), chances are that they came from the Burgess Shale. Steven J. Gould's book "Wonderful Life" describes the discovery of the site and how it changed our notions about the creation of multi-celled animals: life, but not as we know it. It has been described as "the world's most significant fossil discovery" and has been a source of fierce and high profile academic debate (most notably between Gould and Charles Conway Morris of the Smithsonian).

The Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 and although it's high on a mountain now, at one time it was underwater on the continental edge of North America. The fossils embedded in the rock are in beautiful condition and there is a huge variety of species represented, hence their importance in the scientific world. To protect from over-collection, the area became a World Heritage Site in 1981.

Highway 1

Highway 1

The starting point for the hike is the town of Field (pop. 300), located inside Yoho National Park. The town appears to be entirely populated by employees of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Parks Board and the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. And it looks as though all the B&Bs are run by their spouses. Take Highway 1 to Yoho National Park and look for signs to Field, which is on the south side of the river from the highway.

As you exit the highway and cross the bridge, you will see a small train depot, courtesy of CP Rail, who was responsible for the town in the first place (1885). All the houses are beyond the railroad tracks. There are small cafe type restaurants and grocery stores and the Yoho Brothers Trading Post, a combination grocery, souvenirs and coffee place.

We had booked in advance online and also phoned to find out about accommodations. (links provided at end of Travel Note). We packed lunches the next morning and got ourselves to Yoho Brothers Trading Post, where hikers meet up with their guide in the morning. The meeting time was 8:00am Mountain Time (aka 7:00am Pacific). Although Field is in British Columbia, it is in the same time zone as Alberta. A bit of a shock to me, who thinks that 14 hours of sleep a day is about right.

Approaching the quarry

Approaching the quarry

We were given a welcome and orientation talk by Randle Robertson, executive director of the Foundation. Incidentally, it was Randle who personally answered my emails about the hike and he was extremely helpful. We were assigned a young guide who was a geology major and off we went, in a group of 15, driving to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail.

We had chosen to take the longer hike, an all-day trip of 12 miles round trip, to the Walcott Quarry which is advertised as moderately difficult with a 2,500 ft elevation gain. The guides all have degrees in geology or paleontology and are trained in wilderness survival and First Aid. They are also incredibly fit. There is the obligatory "last stop for washrooms" part way up the trail, and then we were really on our way, with lots of commentary on the history of the Burgess Shale.

Let me say right now that even if there wasn't a hunk of granite the size of a city block with embedded fossils at the end of the trail, the hike was so beautiful it wouldn't have mattered. The fossils were a bonus, in my opinion. We saw mountains (yup), waterfalls, lakes, distant horizons, alpine meadows, shale slopes. Apparently there were some pretty streams that we crossed at mile two of the hike but I was still asleep while walking (7:30am Pacific, remember).

View from quarry

View from quarry

The hike ends at the quarry where most of the excavating has taken place. The Burgess Shale was found by Charles Walcott of the Smithsonian and almost immediately Walcott began quarrying out the fossils and shipping them to the Smithsonian. As a result, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History now has the largest collection in the world of fossils from the Burgess Shale and our guide was very clearly trying not to sound choked about the Americans owning more specimens than the Canadians, but it sounds like the Canadian government at the time didn't realize the significance of the find. Probably because Walcott didn't let them in on it, we Canadians muttered darkly.

What significance you ask? Well according to our guide:

  • The quality of the fossils is amazing. Because they were part of an underwater mudslide of fine mud that helped to preserve the details of the flora and fauna bodies, including the softer tissues. In other Cambrian fossils, only the hard parts are preserved, so you see a lot of creatures with exoskeletons, or the hard bits of other specimens. Here you see creatures that were completely soft, or complete impressions of creatures instead of a partial fossil.
  • As a result, the Burgess Shale fossils are the most complete record we have of life systems of the Cambrian Age - more than 60,000 different kinds of fossils have been found. They clearly show how much more complex and diverse life had become since the pre-Cambrian. Some are ancestors of chordates (with spinal cords) and others have vanished from the evolutionary tree. Hence, they are the fuel for much debate by scientists because it is proof that there was much greater biodiversity than first postulated.

Fossil

With the photos scaled down for the Travel Notes, it's hard to see
how beautifully detailed the fossils are, but here is one.

A lot of the debate is around classification of the fossils (arthropoda or onychrophora?) and also around the Big Bang theory (a burst of new life taking place within a relatively short period of time) or the Slow Evolution theory (from a single genetic specimen came diversity). This is an over-simplified and perhaps incorrect summation but if PhDs are still arguing over this and writing books to do battle, then I'm not getting any deeper into the discussion. However, I've included a link to the academic battle between Gould and Morris at the end of this Travel Note.

There is something else you must understand. When scientists rave about the fossils being "spectacular", they mean age, diversity and quality. Not size. These are very early life forms, only one rung up the ladder from single-cell organisms. They are small. Remember this as you select which camera lenses to bring.

Oh, and no pocketing of fossils on the trail of course. There are hidden cameras monitoring the hikers because unfortunately, there have been people sneaking up the trail unguided, to steal specimens.

Fossil

Fossil

Booking the Hike

Booking is essential. This is a protected area and there are a limited number of people who allowed to take the guided hike each day. Check the website, the hikes are scheduled from July - September only. www.burgess-shale.bc.ca

There are two hikes, one to Walcott Quarry and one to Mt. Stephen. They cost approximately $70 and $50 CAD respectively and I will tell you that it's worth every penny when you think of what they are trying to preserve and how they are trying to run an education program with the funds.

Resources

www.burgess-shale.bc.ca: Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation

www.burgess-shale.bc.ca/field/accommodations.htm: Accommodations. No big hotels, just small hotel/lodge, guest houses and B&Bs.

www.stephenjaygould.org/library/naturalhistory_cambrian.html: Showdown on the Burgess Shale: Gould versus Morris.


See Janie & Geoff's Slow Travel Member page.

© Janie & Geoff, 2005

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