Thursday, December 29, 2011

Back To The Burgess Shale

Is this cross–country trip ever going to end?
In November of this year I started a series of posts about a journey I took with friends JC and CO back in 2005. We travel south to north through Utah, across Idaho and Montana, then into British Columbia and the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. My series is unquestionably taking much longer to write than our jaw–dropping, three–week drive–and–hike adventure took to complete, but we have gotten where we want to be gotten. And there is still more.

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Emerald Glacier from Mt. Stephen

After our previous day’s trek to see the 515 million year old fossils of the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park, we reward ourselves the next day with some serious down time. At the thoroughly civilized  hour of nearly noon JC, CO and I meet up and commence lounging about and drinking tea on the patio of the Mt. Burgess Guesthouse in Field, BC. We have a laid–back lunch at the nearby Truffle Pig café, and then retire with a bottle of wine to watch my just–washed clothes dry on the line in the back yard of the guesthouse. Later in the afternoon the charming executive director of the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation, RR, shows us a Japanese-made animation video of the Burgess Shale environment. It is stunning to watch, and puts much into perspective.
The next day we have another leisurely morning before our killer–steep hike to the Mt. Stephen Fossil Beds. It is a short but lung–busting climb with our guide who cheerfully hauls up this humongous educational binder in her backpack to use as an aid in helping us visualize the ancient marine deposition of Mt. Stephen. Thunderstorms threaten but soon the clouds break and we are in sunshine for the rest of the day. We pause in the filtered sunlight of tall evergreens and then continue hiking ever upward on slopes of tree–covered lateral moraine, rocky debris deposited with the retreat of the last glaciers. Here on the steep shaly slopes of Mt. Stephen there are far fewer wildflowers growing than we saw yesterday on Wapta Mountain.
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Trail to Mt. Stephen fossil beds
Shale slabs with fossil fragments
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CO surrounded by shale on Mt. Stephen
We begin to see fossils about 30 minutes before reaching the fossil beds, and pretty soon we are seeing them everywhere. The site is precipitously exposed on the edge of the mountain, a wide, steep scree slope of brittle slabs of shale. We are able to stay at the site for an hour or so since the weather is sunny. There are trilobites everywhere we look (we are told they are most likely Ogygopsis), along with a rare claw of Anomalocaris, the weird organism that took paleontologists decades to interpret. We examine everything everywhere while trying not to topple ass–over–teakettle down the unstable mountainside. The location and views are mind–bending.

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Mt. Stephen fossil beds


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Picking through the fossils on Mt. Stephen

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Anomalocaris claw

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Mt. Stephen fossil beds

At 3 PM we start down the trail, and in an hour and a half we are back in Field. We turn to peer in amazement at where we had just been balancing ourselves – halfway up the side of a mountain high in the Canadian Rockies, surrounded by fragments of ancient organisms which once inhabited the floor of a 515 million year old sea. And once again we smile, and wonder at the mystery of it all.
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Mt. Stephen, Yoho National Park, Canada


  1. OMG, all those fossils. A paleontologists dream. I would have had a hard time not dropping one or two in my pack.

  2. Gaelyn - Of course... you just want to take a bit of the wonder with you. But we can only pick up the fossils, and turn them over in our hands, and marvel at what they represent, and then put them back on the ground. The Burgess Shale is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - protected by law so that future generations may also learn from and marvel at their existence.

    We take a bit of the wonder with us by just having been there.