Science fiction writer H G Wells didn’t know the half of it. Time travel sometimes takes more than just imagination and clever engineering; it can take a lot of arduous footwork, the kind that gets you up to 7,500 feet above sea level.
Unlike Wells’ lucky Time Traveller who was effortlessly zapped millions of years into the future, my son Christopher and I hiked half a billion years in the other direction to the Burgess Shale an ancient fossil bed. It’s location is a swath of scree 11 km up the side of Mount Wapta, a spectacular hunk of geology looming majestically over Field, BC.
The fossils here are from the Cambrian Explosion an era that began 542 million years ago when simple life in the sea erupted into a huge array of species, all of them vastly larger and weirder than anything that had come before. It was an extraordinary event in the earth’s history but what made it really unusual was that it was mostly soft-bodied creatures — squids, worms and cactus-like sponges — that ended up as fossils, not the usual specimens with hard shells and skeletons.
They were buried in an underwater avalanche of fine mud that sealed and preserved them so well in some cases that their inner organs are clearly visible. The mudslide took these aquatic bizarreries by surprise as they swam along the continental shelf and today, amazingly, they reside a mile and a half above sea level.
How they got there is no secret. Continental drift and plate tectonics did their slow-motion bump and grind, eventually pushing them heavenward.
But the question of why they suddenly blossomed is still a subject of fierce scientific debate. One thing’s for sure: it’s a very big deal in evolutionary history. There isn’t a biologist or palaeontologist anywhere who doesn’t know about it and isn’t mystified by it.
Discovered in 1909 by the Smithsonian director Charles Walcott while exploring on horseback (no hiking for him) it has become a mecca for geologists and palaeontologists from around the world not just for its scientific importance but because the view from the site — as well as the hike — leaves you breathless.
At the bottom of the valley lies famous Emerald Lake, whose water is so turquoise and luminous it looks like a CGI-enhanced illusion. Across the valley at eye level sparkles the glacier of Michael Peak with an outlet stream plunging into a series of astonishing cataracts.
Along the way our walk is punctuated with stops for brief lectures by Annie our guide from the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation (access to the site is restricted to those on guided tours). She riffs excitedly about the history of the planet, mountain building, plate tectonics, the discovery of the site and the life forms we can expect to see. And mercifully, once in a while she lets us stop to soak our feet in a cold, crystalline lake and to photograph marmots, alpine flowers and butterflies.
The last killer kilometre is a series of steep switchbacks but worth the effort. There are fossils underfoot everywhere if you know where and how to look.
Trilobites – those creatures that look like big, aquatic cockroaches — are the easiest to spot. You can also find the wonderful marella another arthopod with two elegant, swooping appendages that resemble the hood ornament on a 60’s Cadillac. If you’re very lucky you might even see the bizarre and appropriately named hallucigenia. This guy sports a worm-like body with seven pairs of legs and an equal number of long spines running along its back — part garden hose, part porcupine.
If you can’t find the precise critter you’re looking for, Annie will haul prize samples out of a permanent steel cabinet all carefully labeled. Not that everyone needs her help. The rest of the group includes a brain trust of geologists and academics who wear their knowledge as lightly as their knapsacks and happily explain who ate whom, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut and who is still around, lurking in the ocean today.
As it began so it ends, with a long, exhilarating trek down to the parking lot across from Takakkaw Falls, (‘It is magnificent’ in Cree) at 300 metres one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. This glacial stream bursts from the cliff face as if it has been fired from a huge water-cannon, turning into a misty rainbow near the bottom. Magnificent indeed.
Exhausted and hungry we head for dinner and a glass of wine at a restaurant in Field to ponder the origins of complex life and to toast the indisputable fact that some its secrets are revealed at one of the most beautiful places on earth.