Sanding atop the Malamute, a massive rock whaleback breaching beside Highway 99 opposite the Stawamus Chief, Quest University geologist Steve Quane hectors a group of clipboard-clutching students — of which I am one — through a series of simple observations. First, of the Chief — its height, sheer face, overhangs and domed flanks; its colour, streaking, and the conspicuous dike cutting top-to-bottom through the entire formation. Next, we examine the smooth rock on which we stand, its wear patterns, swarm of striations, and polished surface.
In response to Quane's queries, oddly, utterances like "volcano" and "glacier" are as common as the expected descriptors. Here in only hour one of day one, many of us are leaping ahead — for reasons of recognition or the expediency to which we're accustomed — to give voice to the stated paradox of fire and ice that underlies "Dynamic geology of the Sea to Sky corridor," the adult-education course in which we have enrolled. The ever-smiling Quane, however, is having none of our brown-nosing or analytical hubris.
On the short hike back down, he urges us to consider other aspects of the Malamute — the direction of striations, and inclusions that inform larger patterns observed on the face of the Chief. The large dike traversing the latter, for instance, actually continues under the highway and up through the Malamute. We look closely at the border between mother rock and the material that has bisected it, running fingers over the ancient interface. In describing what we see it's again hard not to reach for what we imagine might be behind it.
It is, it suddenly seems, amazingly difficult to observe mere effects unburdened by the vagaries of cause or conclusion. But having now gathered as much as we can on the observation front, Quane steps us through the reasoning scientists would use to draw conclusions from these, helping us to self-deliver a likely geologic script. A glacier did, in fact, occupy this entire valley. A large one, over two kilometres high, meaning that the Chief — and the university campus — were beneath it. The Chief, representing the 150,000,000 year-old basement of the Coast Range, is composed entirely of intrusive igneous rocks formed some 20 kilometres below the crust. How was something that was gestated so deeply within the Earth exposed at sea level in Squamish? Three ways, it turns out: pushed up by subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate from below; helped to the surface by glaciers and water eroding material from above; and a little help from isostatic rebound (what land does once the weight of glaciers is removed).
What we come away with, however, isn't all deep-time dogma and geologic metric but the decidedly old-school idea of observation versus interpretation. The former must all come first, devoid of the latter: 10 observations may lead to one conclusion, but an 11th might change that completely. This our group has divined, through Quane's mentoring, collectively and collaboratively. This is emblematic of a learning model which has, in its short six-year history, propelled tiny Quest University to the very apex of North America's liberal-arts heap, and allowed it, for a third year now, to offer that experience in a handful of week-long courses for adults. Like Quest's regular students, these folks come from near and far, from the ranks of Quest parents to instructors at other institutions to vacation learners. Even interlopers like myself are enamoured of the institution's simple philosophy: that education, in its truest sense, comes not from providing the right answers, but from learning how to ask insightful questions.
Full disclosure: before becoming a professional journalist I was a professional student. I embraced 12 years of post-secondary education en route to a PhD in Zoology and Evolutionary Biology. It was my final year of undergrad, dominated by small classes, seminars and discussion groups, that propelled me to continue onto what I hoped was more of the same in graduate school. That promise wasn't always fulfilled, and those of us interested in such learning opportunities often found ourselves creating our own outside of the university's dust-blown halls. When, as a professor, I eventually left academia, it was as much dissatisfaction with the lack of focused learning and sheer corpulence and unresponsiveness of the system as anything else — something Quest seems to have handily surmounted with its block-plan style of learning, lack of lecture halls and small (maximum 20 students) seminar-style classes.