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Wheaton Hut and Marble Meadows:
Ocean Floor Fossils at Five Thousand Feet

by Lindsay Elms

West of Buttle Lake on a limestone plateau known as Marble Meadows is one of the few alpine huts on Vancouver Island. The Wheaton Memorial Hut is a welcome sight for many hikers and climbers who have toiled up the five thousand feet of elevation on the trail that begins at the outflow of Phillips Creek into Buttle Lake. The Marble Meadows Trail ascends through a number of different bio-climatical zones and culminates on the plateau which was once on the ocean floor. A bizarre concept but not when one considers the structural geology of Vancouver Island. However, the plateau is a place where one can, after the strenuous hike, spend two or three relaxing days exploring and photographing the natural beauty.

The Wheaton Memorial Hut was built to honour a graduate from Shawnigan Lake School on lower Vancouver Island who in the summer of 1967 died in an accident in the Austrian Alps. William (Billy) George Wheaton graduated in June 1967 and embarked on a European Tour for the summer with his school. Billy Wheaton was on the schools rowing team and after the rowing competitions were over, all the boys on tour (rowers, along with those who had gone over with the school's track and field and squash teams) divided into groups and went on different sightseeing tours. Billy went with one Shawnigan Lake School staff member and a small group of fellow students to the ski village of Hochsölden in the Austrian Alps. On August 7, while hiking the mountain Gaislachkogl, Billy tragically slipped and fell over the edge of a section with a steep drop-off.

In 1970 seniors in the Shawnigan Lake School's Industrial Arts class designed and prefabricated a structure which measured twelve feet by sixteen feet by ten and a half feet high. Materials for the cabin were donated by Billy's father, George Wheaton. At the time the Head of the Industrial Arts class Ken Hickling said: "Billy was a keen climber and the boys at the school wanted to honour his memory in some way."

On August 25, BC Parks flew the materials in to Marble Meadows and a party from the school undertook the construction of the prefabricated parts over the next five days. At the same time the Marble Meadows Trail had been completed and there was to be a grand opening of both the Wheaton Memorial Hut and the Marble Meadows Trail on Labour Day. Comox MLA Dan Campbell, the Municipal Affairs Minister, and Robert (Bob) Ahrens of BC Parks were planning to helicopter in and dedicate the trail and the hut, but, unfortunately the weather never cooperated and Campbell and Ahrens were unable to fly in for the scheduled opening.

Fortunately, there was a group of hikers from the Island Mountain Ramblers and Comox District Mountaineering Club who had toiled up the trail to the meadows to partake in the trail dedication ceremony. Once it was realized that Campbell wouldn't be flying in a length of surveyor's red marking tape was stretched across the top of the trail and, with appropriate word's, Syd Watts pronounced the trail open. The past President of the Island Mountain Ramblers, Bob Tustin, had the foresight to carry a bottle of christening fluid up the mountain and when the trail was opened it was ceremoniously toasted.

Syd Watts was the Chairman of the Vancouver Island section of the Alpine Club of Canada and was one of the founders of the Island Mountain Ramblers. In 1959 on a return trip from the Golden Hinde, Syd Watts, Bob Ahrens and Jack Ware made a detour from Phillips Ridge north over several peaks, including the bottle top-like Limestone Cap, to Marble Meadows and then down to Buttle Lake. Impressed with the limestone plateau they had crossed, the three climbers decided that a trail should be build to make it easier for other hikers to visit the meadows. Four years later the trail was marked out and in 1965 work was started on the lower section. In 1969 BC Parks assisted by flying equipment into the meadows where work was started on the top section of the trail. The trail was eventually completed in August 1970.

Although not the only location on the island with limestone formations, Marble Meadows offers hikers, climbers, botanists, photographers, geologists and paleontologists, a fascinating place to explore. Once located at the bottom of the ocean, plate tectonics and sea floor spreading, volcanism, sediment accumulation, mountain building, glaciation and erosion, has shaped Vancouver Island to its present form. As a result of underground forces, Marble Meadows was thrust to over five thousand feet.

Marble Meadows sits on about three hundred metres of limestone, called the Buttle Lake Group by geologists, and was slowly deposited on this shallow submarine platform during the Permian Period 360 million years ago. Although thin relative to the volcanic rocks of the park, the limestone is a prominent and unique feature. It is strikingly visible as a white layer separating two dark coloured volcanic units. The limestone is made up of coarse grains broken from the skeletal remains of crinoids or sea lilies. These are now preserved as fossils and are cemented together by fine crystals of the mineral calcite.

There are features characteristic of limestone erosion by underground chemical solution to be found on Marble Meadows as well. Groundwater percolating through these rocks dissolves the limestone and this result's in unique karst erosional features including sinkholes, and disappearing and reappearing streams. This type of topography is developed to extreme in the Karst area of Serbia and Montenegro, hence the name given to this type of erosion feature.

The study of fossils is called paleontology and is an important branch of geology. Fossils are the remains or traces of animals and plants that are preserved in rock. To be preserved, an organism must first be buried rapidly in sediment. Even then, it is usually only the hard parts, such as bones, shells or their impressions, which we find as fossils today. During and after burial, the original material of the fossil may be re-crystallized or even dissolved away and replaced by a new mineral such as silica or calcite. Fossils tell us about forms of life that existed in the past, the conditions in which they lived and how they evolved over time. These fossils can also be valuable indicators of the age of the rocks in which they occur.

The most common fossils seen in the rocks of Strathcona Park are the small, doughnut-shaped fragments of crinoids. These make up a large proportion of the Buttle Lake Group limestone. Crinoids, although relatives of starfish and sea cucumbers, grew attached to the seafloor like corals. Their jointed calcareous skeleton was branching and plant-like in appearance, hence the name sea lily. A few crinoid species still exist today but they were most abundant in the late Paleozoic Era (400 to 250 million years ago.) The columnar plates of the branches were formed of large crystals of the common mineral calcite (calcium carbonate) and so when broken up they form a glistening, coarse-grained limestone easily mistaken for marble. Other fossils are common in the Buttle Lake Group, but they are swamped in crinoid debris, indicating that the ancient seafloor must have been covered with extensive gardens of the waving crinoids.

Brachiopods, or "lamp shells," are found as scattered broken shells throughout the limestone. These marine animals were very abundant during the Paleozoic Era. They are similar in appearance to bivalved molluscs such as clams, though the shell was made of two unequal valves, one with a rounded beak-like protrusion. They generally lived in shallow water, attached to rocks or other solid substrate.

A few corals have been found in the lower beds of the limestone. They include the now extinct horn-like solitary corals and small colonies of corals characterized by their plated surfaces. Far more common are the colonial animals known as bryozoans or "moss animals". These minute individuals were housed in tiny cups strung along a horny or limy supporting structure. They encrusted other shells or rocks, like moss, or formed branching or fan-like growths.

With the opening of the trail and the Wheaton Hut, thousands of hikers have laboured with heavy packs up to Marble Meadows to view the mosaic of colours of the alpine flowers that bloom during the spring, climb the surrounding basalt peaks or photograph the ancient sea floor fossils exposed in the limestone. On a hot day the many lakes scattered across the plateau offer a relaxing swim for those who need to cool off while in the winter the hut, if it can be found buried under the snow, offers a great base for adventures on skis. Although the hut has deteriorated somewhat over the years, in October 2007 a party which including the woodwork teacher from Shawnigan Lake School was flown in to assess the hut and come up with a plan for restoration work. With a plan in mind they returned in the summer of 2008 and made the necessary repairs to the hut. With the repairs completed, hopefully the hut will offer shelter to many more visitors in the years to come.

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