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Naturespeak: Bill Mathews, giant of Sea-to-Sky Geology

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The truly epic geology of the Sea to Sky corridor has, unsurprisingly, attracted many fantastic geoscientists over the years. But one stands above the rest—William "Bill" Mathews, a pioneering Canadian geologist who dedicated his life to the study of Sea-to-Sky geology, and in doing so influenced generations of Earth scientists.

Even today, 80 years after his first publication on Garibaldi Provincial Park, Mathews' work remains highly relevant, with many eminent geologists continuing to acknowledge his amazing contributions. This was highlighted in a recent Whistler lecture by Dr. Steven Quane of Quest University, who paid homage to Mathews with the famous Isaac Newton quote: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Born in Vancouver in 1919, Mathews had a very challenging childhood but still managed to publish his first paper on the geology of the Garibaldi Lake Area in 1938 at only 19 years old. This was the start of a prolific academic career stretching over 65 years. All told, Mathews published over 100 papers on a wide variety of local geological topics including volcanoes, glaciation, geomorphology, mineral deposits and landslides.

Mathews' main passion was the geology of Garibaldi Provincial Park, where he studied the interaction of volcanic eruptions and glaciers and the dramatic landforms they create. He helped develop a whole new branch of Earth science—the study of a geological "fire and ice" environments similar to what can be seen in modern-day Iceland.

Over a period of 21 years, Mathews described most of the iconic geological edifices that you can observe along the Sea to Sky corridor. Volcanoes of variable origin like The Black Tusk, Mount Garibaldi and The Table—a strikingly flat-topped feature (often called a tuya) formed from a volcanic eruption beneath an ice sheet.

Mathews also described the Coast Mountains, including the Stawamus Chief (part of the second largest granitic body—batholith—in the world) and post-glacial ice age features like Howe Sound (often touted as North America's southernmost fjord). Concerned about dangerous landslides in the corridor he did much of the early work on The Barrier, the massive ice-contact lava wall, which (alarmingly) holds back the Garibaldi Lakes and has partly collapsed on multiple occasions to send huge rockslides down Rubble Creek.

If you are interested in reading some of Mathews work, I recommend his "pocket" field guide published by the Geological Association of Canada in 1975:

Garibaldi Geology, a popular guide to the geology of the Garibaldi Lake area. Aimed at "enthusiastic naturalists," the guide demonstrates his gift for bringing geology to life. Mathews felt geology "need not be mysterious" but fun, and that a little bit of geological knowledge could enhance our outdoor experiences.

By the time he passed away in 2003, Bill Mathews had forever changed the way we look at Western Canadian geology. His final book, Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia, coauthored with one of his early graduate students, Jim Monger, was published posthumously in 2005. His legacy lives on today as a new wave of geologists stand on the shoulders of a true giant.

Naturespeak is prepared by the Whistler Naturalists. To learn more about Whistler's natural world go to Whistlernaturalists.ca.

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