I’ve always heard that there were fossilized sea creatures atop mountains, specifically in the Himalayas, but out of the many peaks I’ve ascended I’d never actually encountered any. However, as it turns out, discovering fossils in the mountains is actually not that rare, especially in the Rockies.
Maria and I were staying at a small lodge just outside of Fernie, British Columbia. The rustic timber frame structure suited the natural landscape. From the barren mountain peaks, to the old aged forest, it was a perfect fit. When the sky was clear, the deck outside our room had a perfect view of the mountaintops that made up the Lizard Range.
We had decided that on Tuesday morning we were going to hike what’s known as Spineback via Big White Trail. We had heard rumours that on the hike you could find fossilized sea creatures, but very little information was available online.
After finishing our morning coffee, and being determined to discover the fossils for ourselves, we decided to set out on a hike that would take several hours.
Our journey started with an easy drive down Highway 3 and then west down Mount Fernie Road. After passing through Mount Fernie Provincial Park, we continued driving up towards a small lodge that’s situated near a small mountain lake, as well as our trail head.
As we headed up the mountain, the sunlight began to break through the misty forest showering the ground with a combination of sparkling light and mysterious shadows.
Finally, after driving 9 kilometres up a mountain dirt road, that our Honda Civic had no business being on, we made it to the trail head. After filling our backpacks with our camera, water bottles, lunch and snacks, we began the 9.7 km hike.
The hike started as a nice level walk through the forest, but by the time the hike was finished, we would have gained almost a kilometer in elevation, scaled up make-shift rock stairs, and discovered snow that remained from last winter.
The first half of the hike wasn’t hard. It was a gentle incline and we passed the time by keeping a look out for mountain sheep, deer, elk, and grizzlies. We never encountered any, but we did pass a rather entertaining shrew, who spent his time clambering from rock to rock, with a leaf dangling from his mouth.
Eventually, we managed to gain enough elevation that we surpassed the tree line. The fir, cedar and pine trees vanished and instead were replaced with fallen rocks. As we navigated through the rock piles, we kept our eyes out for fossils, hoping we would manage to find at least one, and thankfully we did.
We were about 1800 meters above sea level when a white mark on one of the rocks caught our eye. As we examined it closer, we realized it was more than just a scuff in the rocks, but that we had actually managed to find a mountain-top fossil.
To us this seemed like a remarkable discovery. We couldn’t believe that we actually found a fossil on a mountain, but as we climbed higher, we discovered more and more fossils. It was like they had been splatted across the rocks, like an artist would splatter paint across a canvas. Some rocks even had several dozens of them. When I examined them closer, I discovered that most of the fossils were actually all within a relatively straight line which would indicate that they were fossilized at the same time.
After examining the different fossilized shapes, and trying to decipher what creature they were, I began to ask myself where did they come from? How did they manage to travel here to this remote place, so far from the sea?
According to scientists, approximately 145 million years ago an ancient sea covered part of Western Canada. At this point in time, Western Canada was actually split into two distinct land masses. This ancient sea stretched all the way from the Arctic Ocean, down through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. At its largest size, the Western Seaway stretched from the Rockies across the great plains, all the way to the Appalachian Mountains, a distance of over 1000 kilometres.
As the sea vanished, it left its story behind, buried in the silt. The retreating water buried plants and animals in the mud, sand and clay. The soft animal tissue quickly decomposed, leaving behind just bones and/or shells. As time went on, sediments built up over top of the soil covering the decomposing animals. As more sediments built up, they hardened and turned into rocks.
As mountains formed, through the moving of tectonic plates, the fossils were pushed up and above the surrounding land. At the Lizard Mountain Range, erosion has caused rock slides to occur. The rocks that crumbled and split as they slide partly down the mountain-side, have allowed us a glimpse into ancient history.
While I’m not a paleontologist, and can’t determine the exact age of these fossils, it is estimated that they are around 145 million years old and from the Cretaceous period.
I remember standing there, taking in the surrounding landscape, and admiring the history that was on displayed here, it was a humbling experience. When you really think about it, you realize that we are nothing more than just a tiny speck in the landscape, and even less in the confines of history.
As we moved on from the fossils, and continued our ascent to the top of the mountain range, thoughts about humanities significance kept bouncing through my head. While I was awestruck with how tiny we really were on a universal scale, I also admired the vastness of the natural world. It reminded me of what astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in “Pale Blue Dot”.
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?”Carl Sagan
While getting to see 145 million year old fossils was really cool, my greatest takeaway from this hike was this: The universe is grand and majestic. It’s like a massive playground and this one planet is ours to explore. When you do go out and explore it, and you leave the hustle and bustle of the modern world behind, you are given the chance to see with more than just your eyes.
We have the opportunity to walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest, and climb to the peaks of the highest mountains.
Let’s not waste it.