Saturday, September 19, 2015

Finding Burgess Shale Fossils with Kids, Part 2: The Hike

We found a great family day hike in Kootenay National Park in Canada and found small but important fossils. It worked well for our kids, and also for me -- I dug up some of the scientific literature describing this find after the fact. I'll describe what we found in three parts: The Prep, The Hike, and The Science.

The trailhead for the hike is only about fifteen minutes west of the main highway through Banff, along Highway 93, just across into Alberta, so it's central and easy to get to from either the towns of Lake Louise or Banff. (We came in from Calgary and spent a couple hours in Banff, including a stop at the rock store to show the boys what fossils look like, before grabbing lunch from the supermarket and driving to the trailhead while eating on the way.) We left Banff at 1:15, started the hike at 2pm and got back to the car at 6:30. From there it was a quick hour's drive to Golden, BC for our next hotel stay.

The trail runs south from the trailhead, up to a hanging valley between ridges that you can see from the beginning. You proceed through very different stages, which can be used as goals to motivate the little ones. First you climb up through a landscape recovering from a fire maybe a decade ago:

You're climbing up a hill, and the grade is taxing on little legs, but actually easier than the grade on the Lake Agnes Tea House trail in Lake Louise that we had done the previous day. There's little shade on the slope, so an early afternoon start meant that the sun was getting easier to take as we went.

Early on there's a stream running to the east as you switch back and forth:
The top of the stream is about where this first stage ends. At our pace it's about an hour, and you can tell the kids that the hardest part is first.

Once you get to the top of that slope, the trail flattens out and turns toward the valley. Soon you cross a stream that used to be spanned with just a two-log bridge but now has a wider bridge that you could cartwheel across if you like:

This is a view heading south into the valley. The glacier is ahead and up to the right. Closer on the right is a sheer wall of layers of tan and brown rock smeared with black. This contains the shale of the Burgess shale and forms the backdrop of most of our pictures. There's a waterfall running down it at the south end that had helped to pull down some rocks from the cliff for little fossil hunters.

The flat part lets you catch your breath until the trail starts to climb again. It's not nearly as steep as before but much more rocky. At some point you'll feel a wave of chilly air blowing in your face from the valley, definitely cooler than the air on the sunlit hill. We also crossed into shade and at this point, were more certain that we could actually do this thing.

When you see this rocky staircase, you know you're maybe half an hour from your goal (and if you have a four-year-old you're probably going to have to carry him):

The trail is rougher from this point on. As you get closer to the glacier, you will soon be able to make out the waterfall, tiny against the huge cliffs of rock. This is your goal.

The glacier is just beyond it. If you have the energy you can hike all the way up to it, but for us, turning off at the waterfall was certainly enough. Here you can see the glacier peeking out on the left.

Stay on the trail until you are almost directly across from the waterfall on your right. There's a place where it looks like the trail branches, and stay on the rightward, downward branch. This takes you right next to a rock field in the center of the valley that is your final challenge. Scramble across to the base of the waterfall and you're there. I think the littler ones had an easier time with scrambling than we did, but we all had to watch out for shifty rocks.

Once  across (and even before), look for tan or beige flat ones with multiple layers, about the size of a dessert plate or a dinner plate (I may have been getting hungry by this point). Flip these rocks over and examine them closely. Just from a few minutes of searching ,we were able to find several tiny fossils.

The nice part about mountain hikes is that down is faster than up. It took us an easy 90 minutes to get back to the car.

In the next post, I'll show what our "fossils" looked like and describe some of the scientific literature about this particular site.

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