Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Journey To Walcott Quarry

It is eight o’clock on a chilly breezy August morning six and a half years ago. JC, CO, and I are stamping our feet and shivering with a vengeance in the cloud–stippled sunshine outside Yoho Brothers Trading Post near Field, British Columbia. We are bundled into vests and windbreakers and rain hats and thermal underwear, shivering and stamping, it seems, not so much from the cold but from anticipation.
This is the beginning of our hike to the 515 million year old fossil beds of the Burgess Shale. Creatures that once lived beneath the seas on the western continental shelf of an ancient North America are now found fossilized on flat slivers of pale gray shale, on precipitous slopes high in Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia. It is to these fossils that our Parks Canada guide will lead us. 

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Takkakaw Falls

There is a group ahead of us, so we don’t actually get started on the trail until two hours later. We drive up the Yoho River valley to the parking lot at Takkakaw Falls where the hike starts. We ascend 20 or so steep switchbacks, through dense conifers with occasional views directly across the valley to the falls (one of the highest in Canada). After this lung–busting climb our trail flattens out briefly as we approach our first major rest stop at Yoho Lake – small, milky-glacier green. 

Rest stop at Yoho Lake

Along the way our guide talks about the ecology and geology of these mountains and the Burgess Shale deposition. It is a fascinating world and we hang on every word. There are frequent rest stops – a welcome respite due to the elevation – to listen to the story of the Burgess Shale, and the on–going studies of these intriguing rocks. 

Emerald Glacier melt cascades off President Range

NF and CO on Highline Trail

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Emerald Glacier in cloud–shrouded President Range

We continue onward, gradually gaining in elevation, through Yoho Pass and cloudy but exquisite views of Emerald Glacier and the President Range. The torrential waterfalls from the glacial meltwater coming down the rocky face of the mountains are breathtaking. We pick up the Wapta Highline Trail on the west side of Yoho Pass – the views continue to stagger our imaginations. 

Emerald Lake From Highline Trail

Emerald Lake comes in to view with the lodge visible at the far end. Even though it is cloudy, most peaks are visible, even the distant ones, and so the views are basically unobstructed. The intermittent rain and sun and clouds and mist are just a part of what is

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Rest stop beneath cliffs of Eldon Formation
We continue through dappled wooded stretches where delicate alpine wildflowers have sown themselves along the trail. Weathered cliffs of Eldon Formation rocks tower above us to the left while loose shale beds slope steeply down to the right. Mt. Wapta reaches all the way to Emerald Lake, now becoming larger and more distinct with its incredible emerald-glacier color. Lunch stop is a large clear area, in a bend in the trail with fallen logs. 

We cross stretches of rocky talus, the trail a bit squirrelly on the looser, exposed slope. The lake, mountains, and glaciers remain in our view on this western side of Mt. Wapta, which is what we have been hiking on since Yoho Pass and where we will find Walcott Quarry and the Burgess Shale.

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Highline Trail in the cold mist
Spur Trail to Walcott Quarry

At last we reach the spur trail that leads up to Walcott Quarry in the Middle Cambrian Stephen Formation, situated beneath the younger Eldon Formation on which we had been hiking. I feel I am on a geologic pilgrimage. From here it is a wickedly steep climb up the scree slope of loose shale. The weather is cold, windy – sprinkles of rain and hail, with thunder and lightning flashing across the distant peaks – and so we are not able to linger as long as we would like.
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Hikers nearly hidden on spur trail
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Guide with JC and CO at Walcott Quarry

Walcott Quarry

NF, CO, JC with guide

We are allowed to pick through and examine heaps of fossil–rich slabs while our guides interpret this ancient seafloor environment. These are fragments of primeval life from the pages of geologic history – Anomalocaris, Leanchoilia, Wiwaxia, Ottoia, along with thousands of trilobite pieces parts – I do not write down all we see but try (in vain, it seems) to just remember. My hands are about to fall off in the freezing rain. I cannot believe I am really here. It is the journey of a million lifetimes.

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Heap of fossil-rich shale

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Talking about the Burgess Shale

We soon must start down as thunder and lightning continues to threaten. Back down, down, through stretches of woods and wildflowers and across scree slopes of ancient shales. It feels good to be not climbing, as descent seems more gradual down than ascent seemed up. Even though afternoon is passing into early evening, the same gray drizzly light remains, unchanged for the past few hours. At Yoho Lake there are two tents with campers conversing inside, their muffled voices drifting softly across the open woods. We continue hiking, and leave Yoho Lake to the misty rain. 

I reach the car ahead of JC and CO and so am alone for a few minutes. Takkakaw Falls thunders off at my left as a few people quietly drift across the parking lot. I take off my boots, and sit thinking about where I have been and what I have accomplished, what I have seen and whom I have met. Feet rubbed, sandals on, I am fatigued but not exhausted. JC and CO appear and soon we head on back to my Mount Burgess Guesthouse suite. 

The power is down due to the storm. I light all my candle–lantern candles, and in the waning light of a drizzly dusk we sit at the tiny kitchen table near the window, drinking wine and eating our dinner – cheese, apples, veggies, dried fruit and nuts. We talk again about where we have been and what we have accomplished, what we have seen and whom we have met. And we laugh, and wonder at the mystery of it all. 

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Walcott Quarry


  1. Agreed. Totally awesome! I would have wanted to linger and handle lots of rock. A major accomplishment indeed.

  2. Wonderful story. I looked in my records and I was there just a month or so ahead of you, on July 2 just after the trails opened up. What a great adventure! Excellent work...

  3. Thanks, Gaelyn and Garry... I had kept a journal of the trip and this post is taken from those notes. We hiked to Walcott Quarry Aug. 10. The three of us return 3 years later, but that is another story for another time ;-)

  4. Wonderful story and photos. What an adventure!

  5. Nomadic Samuel - So glad you enjoyed the story - and I'm not done yet!

    I do relish the memories, these several years later.