Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011

Woohoo! A (guided) hike to the world-famous Burgess Shale! To say I was excited about this hike is an understatement :-) Given our 7.30 am meeting time, I was very glad to have got a campsite in the Takakkaw Falls campground last night. I felt that we were a little behind and when we turned up at the meeting spot to find no one else there I was a bit worried we’d missed it. But we were early and we met one other party going on the hike who were wondering about whether they were in the right place.

Our Parks Canada guide pulled up in her car and we spent a few minutes doing various admin tasks. One pair opted to do the hike on a different day because they had no rain gear (despite that being one of the pre-requisites for the hike!). With waivers signed and introductions made, the group set off at about 7.45, passing the falls and following our initial route to the Iceline past the hostel and up the steep hillside. Fortunately this time we didn’t have to contend with the aroma of equine leftovers. Parks Canada had done some trail maintenance in the couple of days since we were last here, clearing back some of the brush encroaching onto the trail and digging out drainage channels in wet and muddy spots.

We took the left fork this time and soon entered a small clearing with some fallen logs. The group rested here for a short time, a moment to catch our breath and swig some water. Moving on, the trail turned south and traversed the slope, gaining height gradually. From here it was a fairly gentle wander up to Yoho Lake, where we stopped again for another rest break. Our guide told us some more about the Burgess Shale, introducing some of the key features of the fossils. We were visited by a couple of perpetually-hungry whisky jacks, but it was otherwise quiet. The lake was perfectly still, and the campground looked like a decent place to stay. The outhouse was fully porcupine-protected, being encased in wire mesh.

Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011 Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011

We continued on through some pleasant woodland meadows full of arnica and purple mountain daisies, passing evidence of a hungry bear and even a couple of moose tracks in the mud. Before long we came to a big information sign about the Burgess Shale, and the group paused once more while our guide talked some more about the history of the discovery of the fossils.

Now the hike got interesting as we joined the Wapta Highline trail, emerging from the trees below a sheer sedimentary cliff. We had been warned about the “exposure” on this section, but to my mind it wasn’t exposed at all, despite the steep boulder field that lay to our right. We crossed quickly to limit exposure to falling rocks from above, and regrouped on the other side. From here we passed through more forest punctuated by shattered avalanche and debris slides.

And then there was the view: looming large to our right was the huge massif of the President Range with part of the Emerald Glacier and its meltwater stream cascading down cliffs over 1000 feet high. In front of us lay Emerald Lake, living up to its name, with more peaks behind. As we rounded the corner, we could see the high cliffs of Wapta Peak up to our left, and the sharp prow of Mt Burgess.

Despite the superlative views of the last two days on the Iceline Trail, the sights that lay before us still blew me away. Sitting here typing these words, it’s difficult to bring to mind the sheer scale and massive appearance of these mountains. The photos don’t capture it; computer screens just aren’t big enough. You simply have to go there and experience it first hand.

Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011 Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011

Onwards we hiked (with the two young kids starting to complain about the distance) and after our final pit stop in the woods, we emerged onto an open talus slope. This was our lunch spot, with fine views of Emerald Lake far below us. A noisy pika kept us entertained, and we could see a lone marmot sunning itself on a rock some way down the slope. Fat, lazy bastards of the alpine never seemed a more appropriate nickname.

Now it was time for the final push up to the quarry. We passed an orange marker indicating the area was out of bounds, and our guide told us of the original Walcott camp just below us, pointing out the trail Walcott and his co-workers used to access the fossil beds. We took a somewhat gentler approach, gaining elevation more gradually before cutting up the slope more steeply to reach the quarry. We spied a group of some 20 mountain goats in the distance, grazing their way up the slope. Unfortunately I waited too long to get a photo and they moved out of sight.

My heart was pounding as I took my last few steps to reach the famous Walcott quarry, and it was not from the effort of the climb. I could not believe I was here at last, to see these amazing fossils which form some of the earliest signs of life on this planet. We were given helmets, and we sat for a while as our guide finished her story of the Burgess Shale, bringing out a number of reserved sample fossils for us to pore over. After that, we were given free rein to explore the quarry and search for fossils ourselves. Not that we could take any souvenirs, mind… :-)

Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011 Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011

Within moments Maria had found something interesting – a tiny trilobite of a type of which Parks Canada didn’t yet have a good specimen. It was such a good example that our guide logged it. In the whole time I spent raking through the piles of rock, I found maybe a couple of trilobites and some limpets. As our 45 minutes of exploration came to a close (and the rain reached us) it dawned on me how much work it was to find these fossils, how much rock had to be shifted and split. How many days of back-breaking work was it to find good specimens of Marella, Anomalocaris and Hallucigenia? I can only say I am grateful for all that effort.

All too soon our time at the quarry came to an end. We could have spent another hour or more there, picking over the fragments, always hoping for that special fossil to turn up. But some people needed to be back before dark ;-) and we’re not supposed to be in the quarry without a guide, so we trudged back down in the light rain with the rest of our group.

Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011 Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011 Burgess Shale, 30 Aug 2011

But the rain didn’t last, and by the time we reached the treeline once more, it had stopped. We re-traced our steps back through the avalanche paths, under the cliffs and into the forest. A rest stop back at Yoho Lake before continuing back down into the Yoho Valley. The sun came out one last time as we reached the valley bottom, illuminating Takakkaw Falls beautifully.

We were almost back at the trailhead when we found a soapberry bush for us to sample some of the berries – we’d learned in the morning that soapberries each have a single seed which can be used to count how many berries a bear eats. Well bears may love them but I can see why people are less keen on them. Juicy but very bitter, yet somehow not entirely unpleasant, at least in the opinion of my hop-heavy-beer taste buds. I went back for a second tasting, which was equally unpleasant. Happy to leave them to the bears after all, we walked the last hundred metres to the parking lot.

We said our goodbyes, and expressed our thanks before toddling back to our campsite for another well-earned dinner. What a great day!

Distance: 22 km
Elevation gain: 800 m
Photos on Flickr

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