British Columbia's Emerald Lake: A Gem of an Escape


Emerald Lake Lodge // (c) 2011 Emerald Lake Lodge/Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, July 17, 2011
By Jim Borg

July 17--EMERALD LAKE, British Columbia --Canoes glide serenely across the water, creating ripples that blur the reflection of craggy peaks capped with early-summer snow.

The only sounds: wind in the spruce, bird cries and occasional laughter.

Shining like a jewel in sun or rain, this glacier-fed lake high in the Canadian Rockies lives up to its name -- mostly: Sometimes its shade is more like jade.

But any way you cut it, Emerald Lake is a treat for the senses and a retreat from urban angst.

The nearest town, Field, population 300, lies nearly seven miles away along a lonesome road and a short stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway. On the banks of the Kicking Horse River, Field served as a mountain rest and refueling stop for the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1884 to the 1950s.

Now most residents work for Yoho National Park, a trove of hiking trails, picnic grounds, waterfalls and challenging alpine ascents. Yoho also yielded arguably the most important fossil deposit in history, the widely celebrated Burgess Shale.

I discovered Emerald Lake on the Internet in 2003, when I came across a photo of a chalet-style restaurant with 2 or 3 feet of snow on the roof. Some cyber-exploration led me to the name, Cilantro on the Lake, and location at Emerald Lake Lodge.

It immediately jumped onto my list of places to visit. Eight years later I made it, and intend to go back until I've seen it in every season.

THE FIRST clue that it's going to be a peaceful getaway is the shuttle. Guests must park in a lot about a half-mile away, so the lodge grounds are empty of traffic except for the shuttles and a few service vehicles.

From a wooden bungalow overlooking the lake, the lofty peaks of the President Range, the highest at more than 10,000 feet, provide a world-class view.

Summer nights come late here on the 51st parallel, the same latitude as the lower Aleutians, but the evenings are chilly enough to justify a fire. Each of the 85 guest rooms has a fireplace, and a balcony ideal for morning coffee or an evening cocktail.

A short stroll away is the main lodge with the Mount Burgess Dining Room, the Kicking Horse Lounge and a family room with TV and snooker table. Farther on is a fitness center and sauna. There are also rooms for business gatherings.

Cilantro stands like a sentry at the entrance to the property. Al fresco dining is popular in the summer.

I was tempted by the spicy halibut tacos with pepper slaw, avocado and mango pineapple salsa ($16 Canadian or U.S. $16.68) and the grilled buffalo burger with mushrooms, smoked cheese and pepper aoili ($17.72), but settled for spinach linguini with sauteed shrimp, artichoke, cherry tomatoes, olives and pesto ($19.81).

My view: Mount Burgess, elevation 8,527 feet.

In 1909, Charles D. Wolcott, head of the Smithsonian Institution and the greatest paleontologist of his day, found a wealth of fossils on the upper reaches of Mount Burgess in an area less than a city block long and only 10 feet high.

The fossils represent a large and exotic menagerie of marine creatures that lived 505 million years ago, way before the formation of North America. Their home: the foot of an undersea cliff that ultimately collapsed.

"That's a really good way to make a fossil, burying something suddenly and then cutting off the oxygen," remarks Steven Wickson, an interpretive guide with the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation, based in Field.

What's remarkable about the Burgess Shale fossils is not just their diversity, but that they included impressions of soft body parts. Most fossils are from bones or shells.

But Wolcott never fully understood the significance of his discovery, which included the five-eyed, long-snouted opabinia, the round-mouthed anomalocaris and the sluglike pikaia. He assumed they belonged in modern taxonomic groups.

More than 40 years later, British scientist Harry Whittington and others took a fresh look and concluded that the animals were a unique part of the busy evolutionary period called the Cambrian explosion.

The fossils suggested that evolution does not proceed in an orderly fashion, but by leaps and starts followed by periods of relative inactivity and extinction. In 1972 that process was dubbed "punctuated equilibrium" by Harvard University professor Stephen Jay Gould and collaborator Niles Eldredge.

"Without hesitation or ambiguity, and fully mindful of such paleontological wonders as large dinosaurs and African ape-men, I state that the invertebrates of the Burgess Shale ... are the world's most important animal fossils," Gould wrote in his 1989 book, "Wonderful Life."

"These Canadian fossils are precious because they preserve in exquisite detail, down to the last filament of the trilobite's gill, or the components of a last meal in a worm's gut, the soft anatomy of organisms," writes Gould, who died in 2002.

Gould argues that the fossils show humans are not a necessary or even likely outcome of evolution.

"Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale," Gould says. "Let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chances becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay."