Information Archived on the Web
Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats. Please "contact us" to request a format other than those available.
A stretch of road is most often viewed as a route from point A to point B, but one highway in BC offers a chance to travel through time.
Well, geological time, anyway.
Welcome to your imagination’s guide to the route from Vancouver to Pemberton along Highway 99 – better known as the Sea-to-sky highway.
This audio opportunity to experience the landscape and the geology comes to you courtesy of Natural Resources Canada. Taking the trip with help from their scientists is like -- having a geologist in your pocket!
And now, here’s a big plug: There’s even more information in a wonderful book now available called Sea-to-Sky Geotour: Geology and Landscapes along Highway 99, easily found at the Natural Resources Canada bookstore on Robson Street in Vancouver … or download a copy for free from their website www.nrcan.gc.ca
Natural Resources Canada is an important player in making sure Canada’s resource requirements are related to the sustainable development of natural resources … and to continue improving the lives of Canadians.
Come along now and experience some of the highway’s stories.
MUSIC comes up and cross-fades to sound effectsof highway traffic mingled with natural sounds of birds, wind in trees, and running water.
Highway 99’s surroundings are the result of millions of years of creation and destruction, beauty and tragedy, the minute and the gi-normous. Imagine. All this background drama while the highway itself silently snakes along beside the ocean, a delta, glaciers, a fiord, mountains and volcanoes.
Sound effects: a big BANG
You’ve heard of the Big Bang? Well, BC is the result of a big collision that started about 170 million years ago and is still going on today.
Sound effects: Rock grinding and squeaking.
The North American tectonic plate is pushing west … by the way, you’re standing on top of that plate right now. It’s overriding what’s called the oceanic plate, which is heading east. This is all happening at the toenail-growing pace of four centimeters every year.
Think of it this way:
Sound effects: Tractor plowing a field
Imagine a tractor plowing a field littered with big boulders. The soil is the ocean floor, the boulders are volcanic islands, and the tractor is the North American Plate.
Sound effects: Tractor accelerating 2 secs
When the tractor moves forward, the blade smashes the boulders as it pushes the soil up, making a big mess of dirt and shattered boulder. Maybe even some broken tractor blade. This is British Columbia.
Geologist Bob Turner.
Over millions of years this collision of tectonic plates raised our costal mountains, while rivers carved deep valleys. Then came the ice age and vast glaciers scoured the land. 15,000 years ago the site of busy Vancouver lay below more than a kilometre of grinding ice. When the climate warmed, the glaciers melted and our modern landscape came to be.
If we think of the four point five billion year history of the planet … and we think of it being represented by a single 365-day calendar year… then the rocks underneath and around Vancouver were formed during the last two weeks of December. And the history of human beings on the planet is represented by the last four hours of December 31st … the history of humans in Vancouver by the last 60 seconds of New Year’s Eve.
Sound effects: New Year’s Eve noisemakers and singing of Old Lang Syne.
It’s also no geological accident that the province’s biggest city fits within its largest coastal valley.
The Fraser Valley is a huge pocket carved by rivers and glaciers in soft sandstone and shale. The soft-rock pocket is surrounded by harder rock, such as granite and volcanic rock found in mountains.
Vancouver is famous for its mountains, but the Fraser Valley -- with its big river, its harbours, and the valley floor capable of nurturing both urban and rural development -- is what made a major city like Vancouver possible.
Sound effects: River flowing
Another gift of this area is the Fraser Delta, new land created as the Fraser River carried loads of silt and sand and dumped them at the edge of the ocean over thousands of years. The river has built more than 100 square kilometers of additional flood-plain land in the last 10 thousand years or so – since the last ice age ended.
Speaking of the last ice age, it tells the story of Howe Sound, which is actually a fiord … the southernmost fiord on the BC coast. Our coast has a very irregular edge, sharply marked by these deep inlets.
Before the last ice age, the BC coast looked more like the much straighter coast of Washington state, to the south of us.
It was the ice-age glaciers that cut deep grooves in the rock. When the ice melted, the sea flooded these valleys with water and voila! Fiords.
Near Howe Sound is Lions Bay, home of a leaky dam that was built that way on purpose.
Sound effects: Water rushing over a dam
After an intense storm in 1983, a monstrous torrent of water and debris roared downstream through Lions Bay, a tragedy that also took the lives of two boys.
With help from Natural Resources Canada research, a dam was later built to catch debris while allowing the normal stream waters to flow right through the dam. The dam was built strong enough to hold back the immense load of mud, rock and trees that flows down the steep mountain slopes in a flood – but the water flows through two tunnels at the base.
Sound effects: Scuba regulator, diver’s air bubbles
Farther along, you’ll find Porteau Cove Provincial Park. Its twenty five kilometers north of Horseshoe Bay, a pleasant place to spend an afternoon on the beach. You may see scuba divers in and out of the water, exploring a number of artificial reefs.
There’s also a huge ridge of glacial debris in Porteau Cove that comes up from the bottom of the ocean to about 30 metres below the water’s surface.
During the Ice Age, a glacier moved debris along as though it were a conveyor belt, depositing a huge rock pile at the glacier’s ‘snout’. The underwater ridge of sand, gravel and boulder is what the glacier left behind as things started to warm up about 10 thousand years ago.
Ever wonder how seams of minerals – like copper – are formed?
Let’s take the Britannia copper mine along the Sea to Sky highway near Squamish as an example. Geologists have deduced that 100 million years ago, water from hot springs leached metals from volcanic rock. The water then circulated the metals through to the sea floor, where they accumulated. Volcanic lava and mud covered the deposits and kept them in one place. Later, folding and faulting happened when the earth built mountains, raising the deposits of metal ores high above sea level. Erosion exposed part of the ore deposit to those who knew what to look for.
Sound effects: Pickaxe against rock
The town of Britannia Bay exists because of large deposits of rich copper ores. During its 70-year history, the mine produced one point three billion dollars worth of copper and other metal ore.
While getting rich, the town endured its unfair share of tragic floods, landslides and death, until the mine closed in 1970.
Sound effects: A paintbrush on canvas cross-fading to stone scratching against rock
One of the huge pieces of glacial art you will see along Highway 99 is a peak called Stawamus Chief, near Squamish. It’s known to many as just … ‘The Chief.’ The granite cliff is seven HUNDRED metres high and during the ice age, it was frozen beneath two kilometers of grinding glacier. It was sharp, scratching stones held by the slow flowing ice that left their artistic mark on the rock.
Sound effects: Cards shuffling
Large cracks in the granite make the rock look like a deck of cards, standing on end.
Sound effects: WIND IN THE TREES cross-fading to FORESTRY WORK (CHAINSAWS, FALLING TREES, ETC.)
The Sea-to-Sky highway also tells a tale of tall trees. A significant per cent of the planet’s temperate rainforest is here in BC, made up of both old growth and second growth. Species include Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Red Cedar, maple and alder. You’ll also find Lodgepole Pine, and Sitka spruce along this route.
Forestry research by Natural Resources Canada contributes to provincial efforts to manage these amazing forest resources to sustain multiple values and options.
While much of BC’s forest is old, our volcanoes are young – in volcano years. Mount Garibaldi is one volcano visible from the Sea-to-Sky highway.
Volcanologist Melanie Kelman.
Mount Garibaldi’s been active for hundreds of thousands of years, and is just one in a chain of volcanoes stretching from north of Whistler down into the United States. Volcanoes like Garibaldi are poorly built mountains, with many layers of lava, ash and rubble. This means they fall apart fast through landslides, debris flows and rock falls. Most likely Garibaldi will erupt again, but we can’t be sure when. Fortunately, an eruption will likely be preceded by many small earthquakes, warning us something is about to happen.
Sound effects: Waterfall sounds
Waterfalls are a common feature of mountains scored by glaciers. Before the ice age, small valleys high up the mountain sloped to the bigger Howe Sound Valley. But glacier action made Howe Sound Valley steeper and deeper, cutting off the smaller tributaries. These smaller valleys were left hanging on cliffs, way up high.
Those same glaciers, carrying stone and grit, carved art out of mountain peaks and granite walls… the same way they did with ‘The Chief.”
Sound effects: Boiling fluid
It’s not just chilly glaciers that created artistic vistas -- hot lava flowing from volcanoes formed columns as it quickly cooled down from more than a thousand degrees Celsius. The many-sided columns in the rock face are a distinctive feature of Highway 99 near Whistler.
Sound effects: Skis swooshing through snow.
There are so many extreme opposites juxtaposed on the Sea-to-Sky. Blue ocean and green forest. Hot lava and cold glaciers. And as you arrive at the ‘sky’ end of the sea-to-sky highway -- atop Whistler Mountain -- nowhere is it more clear that tall mountain peaks need deep valleys. Even if those peaks sometimes look a little bit sawed off.
Geologist Malaika Ulmi
Standing atop Whistler Mountain, it appears that all the mountains are relatively the same height. This is because the tectonic uplift created a plateau that was then eroded by rivers and glaciers to form peaks and valleys. Glaciation has smoothed the lower hills and left craggy peaks high above. Today, the Coast Mountains continue to be uplifted at the rate of a few millimetres per year, while rivers carry sediment from the erosion of these rocks downstream to the ocean, like a conveyor belt.
As you get near Whistler on Highway 99, you’ll find the root of an old volcano when you see a distinctive black protuberance against the blue sky. This is known as ‘Black Tusk’, a volcanic spire left as a reminder of an earlier eruption … and the power of nature.
When you reach Pemberton, you will have seen a vast range of natural beauty created over eons.
You can’t absorb it all in a day so please, visit again soon. The mountains and rivers, the forests and ocean and the peaks and valleys are always changing, are always interesting, and always have something new to share.
There’s more information on the natural wonders of the Sea-to-Sky available on the Natural Resources Canada Web site www.seatosky.nrcan.gc.ca