Story by Mark Sissons
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.
White-Water Wizards in Golden
I soon learn not to take another of Golden’s popular summer attractions for granted either; a white-water rafting trip down the turbulent Kicking Horse River the next morning. Named in 1858 when James Hector, a member of the legendary Palliser Expedition, was kicked off his packhorse while exploring its banks, this superb recreational waterway features class 1-4 white-water rapids. That’s more than enough aquatic adventure for a hot summer’s day.
I opt to run the Kicking Horse River rapids with Glacier Rafting Company, one of the first rafting outfits to operate in Golden, and the first to run commercially on the river’s intense lower canyon. Piling into a zodiac, eight guests and guide Jair Stolz embark from shore about 15 kilometres (10 miles) upriver from Golden. As we drift down the relatively calm initial stretch, Stolz puts us through our paddling paces in preparation for the more challenging parts to come.
“Left forward, right back,” he shouts over the muted roar of rushing water as we scramble to get our strokes synchronized. “All forward, hard! Now hang on!”
Hanging on takes a whole new meaning as the real white-water thrill ride begins with “Portage and Shotgun,” a kilometre-long stretch of class 4 rapids, followed by several more class 3 and 4 runs throughout the river’s middle canyon. Plunging over half-submerged boulders and into swirling eddies, their churning waters violently ejecting us, we careen along this aquatic Tilt-a-Whirl, wave after wave of chilly glacial water crashing into our rubber craft’s side, soaking all aboard.
Finally the screaming and laughter subside as we emerge intact at our exit point, where an old school bus is waiting to take us back to Glacier Rafting’s HQ. A steak and burger barbeque lunch greets our group of adrenalin-drained, newly anointed white-water river rats.
That afternoon I take a moment to mentally retrace our rafting and hiking routes from the ascending plane as I prepare to jump. During my brief visit, I’ve managed to pack in plenty of adventures on land, water and now, sky. On this sultry summer day in the magnificent heart of the Canadian Rockies it’s easy to understand why I’m falling for Golden.
MORE ABOUT VISITING GOLDEN, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Getting Here: Golden is located on Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 95 about three hours drive northwest from Calgary International airport in Alberta or 4.5 hours east from Kelowna International Airport in British Columbia.
Where to Stay: There are numerous hotels, motels and mountain lodges in and around Golden. Many provide hot tubs, gym facilities and indoor pools to relax after a great day of activities. I stayed at the centrally located Kicking Horse River Lodge, a comfortable, well-appointed log lodge with beautiful views of the Purcell Mountains and within walking distance of most of Golden’s tourist amenities. Nightly room rates start at $125. For reservations, telephone 1-250-439-1112 or toll free at 1-877-547-5266.
Where to Dine: For a town of only around 4,000 inhabitants, Golden has a surprisingly sophisticated and diverse culinary scene.
A popular choice is the Whitetooth Mountain Bistro with its lovely rooftop patio alongside the Kicking Horse River. This eatery’s menu boasts fresh local ingredients, infused martinis, and a Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” boutique Pacific Northwest wine list. Whitetooth is also a member of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program that ensures that most of its seafood is sourced from responsible fishing practices. Dinner entree prices range from $21-$31. For reservations, telephone 1-250-344-5120.
Another popular downtown hotspot is Eleven 22, offering original, modern, comfort cuisine, drawn from chef/owner Konan Mar’s passions for culinary diversity and his talent fusing Canadian and Asian cuisine with a distinct European flair. Dinner entree prices range from $13-$24. For reservations, telephone 1-250-344-2443.
Two other culinary standouts are Cedar House Restaurant & Chalets, located on 10 acres of secluded mountainside just five minutes south of Golden, and the Eagles Eye atop Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Cedar House offers a seasonal menu celebrating wild fish, natural meats, martinis and BC’s finest wines. Entrees cost $29-$34 each; for reservations, telephone 1-250-344-4679.
The Eagle Eye boasts Canada’s highest dining experience at 2,347 metres (7,700 feet), serving up hearty cuisine and unparalleled views of five of the six surrounding national parks. Dishes cost less than $20. Reservations can be made through OpenTable.com.
Visiting the Burgess Shale Site: Hiking to the fossil beds is forbidden without official guides and groups are limited to 12. Removing fossils from the site is against the law. You can book a guided hike like the one I did through Parks Canada or the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. The cost per adult is $90 for the Mount Stephen hike. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-343-3006 (toll free). Note: It is classified as a strenuous hike.
Extreme Yeti Skydive Experience: The tandem skydive jump costs $299 per person. A video capture of the experience costs another $99. Details and booking info are available on the company’s website.
More Info: Tourism Golden’s website is a great source of up-to-date info and offers for visitors.