Burgess Shale Geology Adventures – Yoho National Park

Burgess Shale. The name sounded familiar, as I read through the travel guides of Yoho National Park. I had been in Banff for a couple of days and wondered about traveling farther out that day – out of my comfort zone. It was June, but being a Floridian who’s afraid of heights, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tackle venturing into the unknown by myself. I debated it, until I read the significance of this shale – this ancient shale with fossil imprints of an ecosystem that existed before the rocks buckled under the pressure of plate collisions. A time when the sediments that made up these rocks accumulated on the ocean floor and supported the home of numerous invertebrates that no longer exist today, including the famous trilobites. These sediments that were later thrusted up onto the top of the Canadian Rocky Mountains aren’t just old – they are mid-Cambrian old – about 505 million years old! How could I not go?

As I explored the pages further, I found a flyer with guided hike information and eagerly hoped I could join them, but unfortunately, the timing did not work out for my stay compounded by the fact that I was ill-prepared for a hike such as this anyway. There were two locations, including Mt. Stephen Fossil Beds and Walcott’s Quarry both near Field, British Columbia. I couldn’t hike it, but I would at least try to see the mountains.

First, I would have to tackle my fear of heights. Driving through the mountains has always been my nemesis, and I would usually pass on the opportunity if there was someone else to drive. But as I headed west on the Trans-Canada Highway, I was determined to conquer this fear. I drove past Castle Mountain with its turreted peaks and layered-cake rock formations, and the Lake Louise area which I had visited with my husband the night before – all familiar to me. And eventually made my way into Yoho National Park.

The highway hugged the side of the mountains as fast-moving trucks were barreling through the turns, and I could feel my heart starting to pound, as I tried to keep up with the traffic. It felt like I was going 100 mph, but it was really a laughable 45 mph. I was engulfed by the mountains that stared down at me and doubt started creeping in, as I saw the numerous downhill turns that were ahead of me, causing my heart palpitations to rage harder. I was in full-blown panic mode with stiff arms and neck that felt heavy, and all I could think about was getting off the highway – just for a minute. And as luck would have it, a small gas station was my savior. I sat in my car with my back toward my destination of the day, feeling like an idiot. My hands were shaking, and it was all I could do to calm down. Eventually, I returned to the highway and saw the opportunity to see Burgess Shale grow smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror.

Back at the hotel room, I felt defeated and embarrassed, as I described the day’s events to my husband who was attending a conference during our stay. I still felt the same way the next morning, as I returned to the usual coffee shop for my daily decaf and banana bread in downtown Banff. The rushing water of the river near the local park seemed to be pushing me, as I sat on a picnic table bench and contemplated my day. The last day. And before I left, I knew I had to go back to Yoho.

I rounded the same sharp turns around the same huge mountains that day, but nothing was going to stop me. It helped that there were no trucks on the highway, but miraculously, it didn’t seem as daunting. Before I knew it, I was riding beside the silty, Kicking Horse River and driving down the Field Townsite Exit to the Yoho Park Visitor Center. The town was quaint and nestled between two enormous mountains, one of which I was hoping was Mt. Stephen. Feeling elated that I finally made it, I stood between them, staring at their tops and the sedimentary rock that had been on Earth so long. I could see a stream coming off the mountainside and disappear behind town. The air was moist and cool, and the ground was wet, as I approached the Visitor Center. Inside, it was warm, and I joined a few visitors who were looking at the Burgess Shale display. It was then that I noticed the Park Ranger, a middle-aged man in uniform.

I shyly approached him until I met his glance and identified myself as a geologist from Florida. He seemed mildly interested, so I continued. “Which mountain is Mt. Stephen?” I asked. He replied, “Right behind you,” and pointed to the mountain with the creek I saw earlier. “Since I can’t make the hike, I would really like to see if I could find Burgess Shale. Do you think I would be able to see some along the creek bed that runs off the mountain?” He nodded and said, “You should be able to,” and walked me outside to give me directions.

I drove down the paved roadway that took me to the farthest side of town and to the creek. Numerous rounded rocks flanked each side of the banks and throughout the water. I glanced over several of them, trying to figure out which one could be Burgess Shale. I had seen a sample at the visitor center, but these were eroded from being reworked as they made their way down the mountain. As I quickly scanned the rocks of various colors, I finally spied a light gray, shiny rock that appeared to be Burgess Shale! Feeling satisfied, I sat for a while watching the water bounce off the rocks until it was time to go. I may not have been able to go on the hike, but at least it appeared I had the honor of at least seeing the shale and whole area in person. Then, I took a picture upstream to remember this moment and left.

Burgess Shale Yoho Natioinal Park

Creek bed flowing from Mt. Stephen with Burgess Shale. Photo by Sandie Will

I headed out of Fields, and being that I was such a professional now with driving through the mountains, decided to visit two more places. First was Natural Bridge with white, foamy water bustling through limestone and the second was Emerald Lake, a green-blue beauty fed by glaciers from the President Range. And it was there that I stumbled upon a large, grayish rock with a plate identifying it as Burgess Shale! What a tremendous moment to realize I was actually touching the sediment from a time so long ago!

Looking back, I’m so glad I had the tenacity to work through my fear of heights, so I could experience such a memorable day. It was well worth it!

For additional information on Burgess Shale see: http://www.trilobites.info/Burgess.htm

There are also some great depictions and videos on Burgess Shale and fossils at http://burgess-shale.rom.on.ca/en/introduction/

Burgess Shale Yoho National Park

Burgess Shale, Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park. Photo by: Sandie Will

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