Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Finding Field

If I knew then what I know now, the geology of the Canadian Rockies would have made a whole lot more sense back in August 2005. Earlier that year I began organizing what would prove to be a most remarkable sixteen day trip from southern Utah. At the time of this epic adventure I had just finished my first year studying geology in Utah. Fourteen people originally signed up but only three of us actually went, a circumstance which turned out to be the best of all worlds.
We signed ourselves up for the guided hikes to Walcott Quarry and Mt. Stephens Fossil Beds of the Burgess Shale, former sea floor now high in the mountains of Yoho National Park, British Columbia. The Burgess Shale is a classic Bucket List entry for geologists, a Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site mother lode. Its weathered rock layers contain fossilized remains of creatures that lived along the shallow western continental shelf of an ancient North America some 515 million years ago. 

As it was (or is, since in these posts the past is the present), my understanding of Canadian Rockies geology remains limited to the “big picture.” I have never lived in Canada for longer than two weeks at one time (on vacation), never worked there in any paying capacity (hmmm…this looks like a blog post for another day…), never done any geologic field work there (darn it), never gone to school anywhere remotely near there (but thought briefly of applying). However, my appreciation for these mountains and the powerful tectonic forces they represent has always been enormous, and for that reason I had to visit and drag my friends JC and CO along with me. 

In the previous post we have finally pulled exhaustedly into Field, our home away from home for the next eight nights. It is a picturesque village conveniently straddling the Trans Canada highway and Canadian Pacific Railway in Yoho National Park, just west of the continental divide in southeastern British Columbia. This tiny burg sits dramatically on a large alluvial fan of sand and gravel carried down from the mountains by the glacially fed Kicking Horse River.

View of Field, Kicking Horse River, and western ranges from Mt. Stephen

106_0640Mt StephenAbove FieldBC
Field BC and Mt. Stephen

106_0644Looking EastFromFieldBC
Looking east from Field BC

I eventually learn that a dramatic change in the bedrock occurs here. To the west, between Field and the Rocky Mountain Trench (which I wrote about here), the mountains are composed mostly of easily eroded shales. To the east of Field (where we have not been yet but are fixing to go real soon) the peaks are made of tougher, more resistant quartzite, limestone, and dolomite. A few miles east of Field is Kicking Horse Pass and the continental divide, where in theory a raindrop falling exactly on the divide could propel its moisture to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Farther east of this is Banff and the eastern main ranges. 

The main ranges of the Canadian Rockies are divided by geologists into eastern and western parts, and the dividing line is generally just west of the continental divide (My, there certainly are a lot of divides and main ranges to keep track of!). The shaly western main ranges are supposed by some writers to be more rounded and less impressive than the higher, tougher eastern main ranges. 

You could have fooled me. It all looks pretty impressive to this old girl.

I am parked for the week’s duration in a cozy suite at the Mt. Burgess Guesthouse where the proprietor is none other than the executive director of the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation (am I totally special or what?).  

106_0642EntranceMtBurgess Guesthouse
Mt Burgess Guesthouse

A few miles down the road JC and CO tuck themselves in at the more generic West Louise Lodge (apparently morphed since then into the appropriately named yet still reasonably priced Great Divide Lodge).

105_0522Wapta Lake_Cathedral Mountain
Wapta Lake and Cathedral Mountain from West Louise Lodge
We arrive on Tuesday. Our first hike to the Walcott Quarry is scheduled for Thursday. We have all day Wednesday to take in some sights and sounds. The Plain of the Six Glaciers trail at Lake Louise, fifteen minutes away on the other side of the continental divide in Banff National Park, looks to us like a great place to launch the next phase of our adventure. Stay tuned!

105_0526Lake Louise_Mount Victoria
Yours Truly at Lake Louise


My reference for much of this trip:
Gadd, B., 1995, Handbook of the Canadian Rockies – Geology, plants, animals, history and recreation from Waterton/Glacier to the Yukon (2nd edition)


  1. You are one very determined geologist. Loving this trip.

  2. Thanks, Gaelyn - I have to be determined, to figure at least some of this stuff out! But I do love the research, and sharing what I learn.

  3. Greatly enjoying your reporting of this trip - and the photos!

  4. Silver Fox - I'm having a nice stroll down memory lane, doing this series of posts. It was definitely an excellent trip with two good friends.

    So glad you are enjoying it!