The awe of quartzite beneath you

Rock, not the genre of music, that guy on the radio or your friend from Newfoundland referring to “The Rock” as home, but rocks and the minerals they are made of, are integral to our existence. We interact with them in many ways every day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher and writer, wrote in his 1836 book Nature, “When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata, than to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense of unity.”

We can tune into a sense of unity with nature here in the Yukon, as looming mountains, powerful rivers and vast wilderness are within sight every day. And every community in the Yukon has its own unique geological feature prominent in its landscape and culture.

Keno City, for example, is home of the Keno Hill Quartzite – and if you have never been to Keno City, you just have to go.

As the name suggests, there is a lot of quartz in this rock. Quartz is the mineral name. Quartzite is the rock name. Rocks are made of one or more different minerals. Quartz is a very common, it is a hard mineral, and it can scratch glass. It does not break down very quickly, even on Yukon Time.

To understand where the Keno Hill Quartzite came from, picture yourself on your favorite northern beach. Grab a handful of sand and look closely at the various grains. A lot of those grains are usually quartz. They can be different colours: clear, white, yellow, pink, black and more. The Keno Hill Quartzite contains between 65 and 95 per cent quartz.

Imagine your beach as it would have been 100 million years before the first dinosaurs even appeared. There would have been coral in the oceans, along with fish, sharks, and clams. However on land, animal life would have just started evolving to breathe air and come out of the water. The climate would be hot and humid. Over a long time the sand would be buried by hundreds of metres of other sediments. It would harden into rock – sandstone – because it is mostly made of sand grains.

Over the next 300 million years the sandstone would be squeezed and heated several times in a geologic process known as metamorphism. This can change the original rock into something different. Now it is a darker, tougher rock. Any visible fossils like shells that would have been in the original sandstone have been destroyed.

Today, the first glimpse you get of the quartzite is driving towards Keno just past the Five Mile Lake Campground turnoff as you approach Wareham Lake. Twenty kilometres ahead and a bit to the left you can see a solitary peak, Mount Haldane. The mountain is about 1,840 metres high and its uppermost slopes are all Keno Hill Quartzite. It is well worth the stop and six hour return hike to the summit, or just get out and go as far as you feel like to stretch your legs.

To get there look for Halfway Lakes just before the Silver Trail Inn. There is a 3.5 kilometre road on the left that takes you to the mountain trailhead. Once on foot, not too far from the parking area, you’ll be into the quartzite. The views are great on top. You see the broad McQuesten River valley in front and the Elsa mining camp to the northeast.

During the last glaciation the McQuesten River valley was the approximate boundary of the continental ice, which came from the east and the unglaciated terrain of the Klondike to the west. Back on the road, north on the Silver Trail just past the McQuesten Road turnoff, you are back into the Keno Hill Quartzite and the southwest edge of the numerous Keno Hill silver deposits. 

You soon pass over the steep sided Galena Creek, which is more like a canyon where the road crosses. It is easy to miss it on the way north, but easier to see the canyon and quartzite driving from the other direction. It was here in 1901 a prospector from the Klondike found rich silver bearing galena in the creek. Galena is primarily a lead mineral that can contain other elements. There was not much interest in silver back then; gold ruled.

Claims were staked and the prospectors moved on. It took until 1913 before they came back and started mining for silver. Mining continued steady until 1989, except for three years during World War II. After that war, the area was the second largest silver producer in North America. The mine has been given new life in recent years.

The quartzite is instrumental in the formation of the numerous silver deposits that occur in the Keno area. The quartzite is hard and fractures into nice wide fissures that are an ideal plumbing system for hot circulating groundwater containing silver, lead, zinc and other minerals that formed the many rich silver quartz veins in the area about 90 million years ago. There were still dinosaurs around then.

Once you get to Keno City and take in the many treats it has to offer, head up to the top of Keno Hill itself to the signpost lookout. At the signposts you are at about the same elevation as the top of Mount Haldane, which is in the area. The original signposts were erected during a visit from various worldwide scientists for the International Geophysical Year in 1956.

It’s an 11 kilometre drive to the top and it’s all within the Keno Hill Quartzite. Notice the blocky, fractured rock in the road cuts on your way up and check out the frosty, heaved quartzite blocks at the top. Mostly a dark grey, dull looking rock, if you look around you might even find brown, whitish, or even pink quartzite. The rock breaks into nice flat blocks that some of the original miners built houses out of.

If you are there on a warm summer day watch for the butterflies. The views are unbeatable when it is clear. Let your inner Emerson take over, look around and feel the awe of the quartzite beneath you.

If you’d like to go…

There are numerous detailed guides available providing information on the many attractions in the Keno area. Stop at the Silver Trail tourist information kiosk at Stewart Crossing, the Visitor Information Centre in Mayo, or the most excellent Keno City Mining Museum.

In the Keno area always be careful, there are old shafts and underground workings everywhere. Always check with the land owner or claim owner before you traverse too far off the main roads.

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