Thursday, 7 February 2019


Sumas Slide Site, Sumas, Washington State
Two hundred million years ago, Washington was two large islands, bits of continent on the move westward, eventually bumping up against the North American continent and calling it home.

The shifting continues, subtling changing the landscape like a breath. We only notice when pockets of resistance manifest as earthquakes, some newsworthy, some all but unnoticed. For now, the more extreme movement has subsided laterally and continues vertically, pushing California towards the North Pole. Hello Baja-BC.

The upthrusting of plates moves our mountain ranges skyward – the path of least resistance. And it is this dynamic movement that's created the landscape we see today.

The 3,000 meters of stratigraphic section on Chuckanut Drive spans an age range of just a few million years. The lower part is late Paleocene with a radiometric age of around 56 million years. The upper part of the section is early Eocene. The fossils found here lived and died very close to where they are now but in a much warmer, wetter, swampy setting.

The exposures of the Chuckanut Formation were once part of a vast river delta; imagine, if you will, the bayou country of the Lower Mississippi. The siltstones, sandstones, mudstones and conglomerates of this formation were laid down during a time of luxuriant plant growth in the subtropical flood plain that covered much of the Pacific Northwest.

This ancient wetland provided ideal conditions to preserve the many trees, shrubs and plants that thrived here giving us a lot of information about climate, temperature, the water cycle and humidity of the region.

The Chuckanut flora is made up predominantly of plants whose modern relatives live in tropical areas such as Mexico and Central America. While less abundant, evidence of the animals that called this ancient swamp home are also found here. Rare bird, reptile, and mammal tracks have been immortalized in the outcrops of the Chuckanut Formation.

Tracks of a type of archaic mammal of the Orders Pantodonta or Dinocerata (blunt foot herbivores), footprints from a small shorebird, and tracks from an early equid or webbed bird track give evidence to the vertebrates that inhabited the swamps, lakes and river ways of the Pacific Northwest 50 million years ago.

Fossil mammals and bird trackways from Washington cause great excitement. The movement of these celebrity vertebrates was captured in the soft mud on the banks of a river, one of the only depositional environments favorable for track preservation.

Hence the terrestrial paleontological record of Washington State at sites like Chuckanut and Racehorse Creek (U-Pb 53 Ma.) is primarily made up of plant material with some wonderfully enticing mammal, shorebird and large Diatryma bird tracks to shake things up.