DIRECTOR / WRITER
I first heard about the Burgess Shale in 1989, when we did a CBC-TV piece about Stephen Jay Gould and his best-selling book, Wonderful Life. Gould was a Harvard paleontologist who was also a gifted writer and that book was his love-letter to the wild and bizarre animals of the Cambrian explosion. The Burgess Shale fossils were found in 1909 by The Smithsonian’s Charles Walcott – he was riding in the British Columbia Rockies, following up on stories that railway workers told about some “stone bugs” that turned out to be trilobites. The story goes that Walcott’s horse tripped on a chunk of shale, breaking it open and revealing the first of many very weird discoveries.
It was cool to meet Gould, who was one of the great thinkers on evolution. The piece we did forced us to consider deep time and the origins of us all – in fact Gould took the book title from the Frank Capra movie of the same name, the one where Jimmy Stewart goes back to see what the world would’ve been like without him. Gould felt that if it wasn’t for a series of happy, random accidents over 500 million years ago we wouldn’t be here, looking and behaving as we do. Another mudslide here, another predation there, and natural history may have turned out completely differently – just like if George Bailey had never been born, there would’ve been no Zuzu or her petals.
In 2017 I got a call from the Royal Ontario Museum asking me to come by for a chat – it was about the Burgess Shale, 28 years after that CBC piece. Wallcott’s original quarry is in what’s now called Yoho National Park – but Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron and his ROM team had found a new 12-kilometre-long shale deposit in Kootenay National Park, roughly 40 kilometres south of the Walcott Quarry. Caron said it was filled with Cambrian fossils – it was a motherlode.
I’ll never turn away from the opportunity to shoot in challenging conditions – it’s too much fun. I’ve made docs in jungles, deserts, the Arctic, on mountains and remote islands, at sea, on glaciers and ice patches. It’s what I love to do. I carried on a series of conversations with Jean-Bernard and David McKay from the ROM, discussing how we could join his 2018 expedition, helicopter in all of our gear, and set up a base for a week of filming at 7000 feet.
When we arrived in Canmore last summer the skies were thick with forest fire smoke. It had been a record year for fires and in downtown Banff you couldn’t even make out the mountains the town is famous for. Everything was a brown haze and we worried we wouldn’t be able to get to the fossil quarry – and even if we did, would we end up being evacuated before we got the footage we came for? These are the things they don’t teach you in school – the logistics, having plans A, B, C, D and E, if necessary.
When we finally lifted off it was like flying through Mordor – the hulking Rockies emerged then faded away. Visibility was extremely limited, but we could eventually make out the multi-coloured tents of the ROM camp in a high mountain meadow.
It’s always strange when you arrive in a remote camp and realize it’s going to be your home for the next little while. We unpacked our gear, set up our tents and bear fence, gassed up the generator and then hauled our equipment 2 kilometres up a trail of broken shale to the quarries. That would be our commute to work for the next seven days.
The paleontologists were already pulling out fossil after fossil – the ROM’s Maryam Akrami said they had about a thousand and they had only been there a week. Our host Maydianne Andrade kept close to Jean-Bernard and he put her to work with a wrecking bar and a chisel, and it wasn’t long before she was finding fossils too. Camerman Mike Grippo and sound recordist Mike Josselyn looked for foothold anywhere they could – the two ROM quarries were in a pretty precarious spot, with little more than goat trails for us to plant the tripod.
Eventually Jean-Bernard made a huge discovery – on camera. It was an incredible moment, but to see it you’ll have to go watch the movie.
We left sore, dirty and tired but pretty overwhelmed with the material we gathered. Everyone had long showers in Canmore and then we went and ate steaks. That’s a pretty great feeling, knowing we got what we came for. There was still tonnes of work to do, but right then we all raised a toast to the critters of the Cambrian for finally telling us their stories.