GOLDEN, BRITISH COLUMBIA -- To truly appreciate the unique geography of a place it helps to view it from a fresh perspective. Take Golden, for example. This dramatic setting of this historic Canadian Rockies town takes on even more impressive proportions while freefalling from 10,000 feet high above it.
After rolling out of the Cessna, my Extreme Yeti tandem skydiving instructor and I execute several mid-air somersaults and cartwheels. Then we level off into a graceful swan dive, arms outstretched, plummeting toward earth at a decidedly breezy 120 mph. Rushing up to greet us is a welcoming town of 4,000 at the confluence of two iconic British Columbia rivers, three mighty mountain ranges and five national parks. Then pop goes the parachute and we're floating gently toward solid ground. A bald eagle soars past, riding the thermals in the direction of nearby Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, where I've got a date the next morning with a bear named Boo.
Could this be the ultimate Rocky Mountain High?
It was certainly the culmination of a tremendously fascinating journey to this part of Canada's westernmost province. To get here I've flown to Calgary and driven three hours west along the Trans-Canada Highway to see firsthand where our nation's collective urge to risk life and limb in the pursuit of adrenaline rushes purportedly began. In the late 19th century the Canadian Pacific Railway brought Swiss mountain guides to the small railway town of Golden, at the time a base camp for railway surveyors searching for a route through the Selkirk Mountains in eastern BC. They were employed to escort the first international visitors staying at CPR hotels like the Mount Stephen House in nearby Field and Alberta's Chateau Lake Louise on recreational climbs, hikes and daring forays into the wilderness. Thus was born adventure tourism in Western Canada.
Today, descendants of those pioneering Swiss guides continue to help make this otherwise sleepy industrial town a magnet for spirited wilderness lovers. Partly driven by the surge in popularity of the neighbouring four-season Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, Golden is attracting a new generation of thrill-seekers from around the world. They come for the hiking, rafting, paddling, climbing and mountain biking in summer, and to ski and snowboard the legendary champagne powder amid challenging resort and backcountry terrain in winter.
Reaching the World's Greatest Fossil Field
Trekking eight hours up a steep mountain trail to reach a famous field of "stone bugs." Not your average hike. But nor is the destination. Containing arguably the most important fossils ever discovered, the Burgess Shale field, located near the top of Mount Stephen in Yoho National Park, was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1981. Scattered across it are the remarkably well-preserved, half billion-year-old remains of thousands of soft-bodied sea creatures called trilobites (meaning "three lobes") that once flourished here in what was then a vast warm ocean. The intricate outlines of their dead bodies were forever etched into solid chunks of shale.
First discovered by railway workers in the 1880s, who reported finding "stone bugs" near their trails, these entombed marine arthropods form one of the earliest known groups of multi-celled life forms. Charles Walcott, an American scientist, paleontologist and secretary to the Smithsonian Institution, first extensively studied them here in 1909. Today, their incredible detail, age and diversity continue to provide scientists with invaluable insights into early life on earth, and even into the very nature of evolution itself.
To see these world famous relics I drive 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Golden to Yoho early one morning to join a Parks Canada interpretive tour lead by veteran guide Kristi Beetch, who shares her wealth of knowledge as she fields questions about geology and the local flora and fauna. The hike -- a challenging 8-kilometre (5-mile) round-trip with an elevation gain of nearly 800 metres (2,625 feet) -- leads us high above the tree line to an electronically monitored restricted zone only accessible to groups on official guided tours.
Upon reaching the fossil field, located on a precarious shale ledge with a panoramic view of the Kicking Horse Valley, Beetch hands out magnifying glasses and a dog-eared copy of the Burgess Shale Family Album, which features modern relatives of this product of the so-called Cambrian Explosion, an evolutionary "Big Bang" over 500 million years ago, when the diversification of the Earth's organisms rapidly accelerated. According to the album, almost every modern animal -- from tree frogs and giraffes to white sharks and tarantulas -- can link its origins back to trilobites. And believe it or not, so can we.
"Ninety-five per cent of the animals on the planet today trace their genetic ancestry back to Burgess Shale trilobites," Beetch explains to her astonished listeners. "That includes human beings," she adds, amused by our incredulous responses.
Perched on this evolutionary graveyard amid the towering peaks of the majestic Purcell and Selkirk Mountains, we get to play amateur geologist for the next hour, examining the indelible imprints of our earliest ancestors. From this day forward, I silently vow, I will never take a brother bug for granted again.
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