With all the natural beauty of the Kootenays everywhere you look, it is easy to overlook the region’s storied pre-history. But if you can tear your eyes away from the endless mountain-scapes just for a second, you will find intriguing echoes of a long-forgotten past that defies imagination, right at your feet.
For example Coal Creek near Fernie boasts Canada’s largest fossilized ammonite. This 1.4-meter carnivorous cephalopod haunted the warm oceans that covered this part of the earth 150 million years ago. After years hearing tales of this lithic giant, I finally made the short, steep hike to check it out a few years ago, and the sheer scale and age of it sent my imagination spinning, and rekindled a spark of prehistoric curiosity in me.
Around the same time, the Cranbrook History Centre broadened its horizons from rail travel to all things related to Cranbrook history, including an incredible display of local fossils or take part in their Junior or Adult Paleontology summer programs (to discover 450 million year old trilobites).
From this museum sample it is just a matter of loading the backpack and heading to the Coyote Plateau in Top of the World Provincial Park to experience local pre-history first-hand. Literally every limestone outcrop in the higher reaches of the park are littered with fossils. Everything from horn corals, fossilized worm tracks and tube coral stocks, to fragments of feathery corals and ammonites are literally everywhere. A good friend was the first Park Ranger at Top of the World, sent up for the summer in 1973 to inventory the park values. He recalls a complete fossil of a large fish near the trail, but try as I might I have yet to relocate this elusive imprint.
One of the most famous fossil stories of the Kootenays is Yoho National Park’s Burgess Shale. First discovered by Charles Walcott in 1909, the Burgess Shale was one of the first well-documented discoveries of fossilized examples of ancient sea creatures in the Rockies. This proved that during the Cambrian age, over 500 million years ago, this region was under water, and the vision of a seafloor on the mountain skyline is compelling. This realization helped paleontologists better understand mountain uplift and formation, and the Burgess Shale became a real destination, with guided tours led by Parks interpreters. Access the site is highly controlled with cameras monitoring things 24/7 to prevent fossil theft. It is also a long and difficult hike to both the Mount Stephen and the Walcott Quarry fossil beds, near Field, BC.
Which is why fossil lovers everywhere were super excited when another outcrop containing Burgess Shale fossils was discovered in 2008 near Kootenay National Park’s Stanley Glacier Trail, located between Radium Hot Springs and Banff on Highway 93. These fossils were at a much more accessible site than those in Yoho National Park, and my 9-year-old son and I were able to join a guided tour to learn more about this incredible find.
Stanley Glacier Burgess Shale Hike in Kootenay National Park
After a short 2-hour walk into the Stanley Glacier Valley along a very well-worn path, our guide Lydia led us off the trail into a rocky scree slope, showed us what to look for, and set us free to search out our own fossils.
After an hour or so of discovery, in which we found trilobites, corals, and even parts of Metaspriggina, one of the first known vertebrates and ancestor of modern fish. Lydia showed us incredible specimens stored in a locked container at the site, and explained about the history of the site, and the pre-history of the area.
Fossil find from the Stanley Glacier hike
We left all our discoveries there for the next visitors, and as the tour drew to a close I had to drag my son off the mountainside to begin the gorgeous hike back to the vehicle, and really, I did not want to leave either.
Words and photos by Dave Quinn. Born in Cranbrook, BC; Dave is a wildlife biologist, educator, wilderness guide, writer and photographer whose work is driven by his passion for wilderness and wild spaces. His work with endangered mountain caribou and badgers, threatened fisher and grizzly, as well as lynx and other species has helped shape his understanding of the Kootenay backcountry and its wildlife.