The myth and science of Haida Gwaii’s Balance Rock
Nested behind tall cedars on the Yellowhead Highway near Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, is a narrow gravel trail that leads to one of the most mysterious and photographed sights on Graham Island.
The famous “Balance Rock” has been attracting visitors for decades: its perfect balancing act – both a mystery and a silent dare to try to knock it over.
Many, including the Global BC crew, have tried, but failed to topple it.
It turns out the forces of gravity and friction are largely to thank for the rock’s stability.
Dan Gibson, associate professor of Structural Geology at the Department of Earth Sciences at Simon Fraser University, says the boulder’s centre of gravity is centred exactly over the point of contact with the underlying rock, creating the seemingly unbreakable bond.
“Because that boulder is so big and heavy, the mass of that rock and its centre of gravity create such a high, contact frictional force that it becomes a very stable object that’s difficult to move,” says Gibson. “The force of gravity is basically gluing it to the rock below.”
PHOTO: A close-up of the base of the Balance Rock resting on another rock
Gibson says the rock most likely ended up where it is today during a glacial retreat.
He says, during the retreat, boulders become entrenched in the ice or on top of the ice, so when the ice eventually melts, it leaves behind different sizes of rocks, including very large boulders like the Balance Rock.
Gibson says one can only guess that the rock came from the nearby coast mountains, which could have formed either in the Cretaceous Period, about 100 million years ago, or as far back as the Jurassic Period, perhaps 150-200 million years ago.
However, the glacial movement that moved the rock most likely took place only thousands of years ago – a split moment, in geological terms.
“Given enough time, thousands to millions of years, nature has a way of producing very stunning examples, such as this, which is a combination of erosion and how the boulder was left behind,” says Gibson.
However, the Balance Rock is not one of a kind.
In fact, Gibson says, there are hundreds of similar examples around the world, other parts of Canada and even here in B.C.
Regardless, the Balance Rock in Skidegate has left many tourists and locals alike scratching their heads.
“It’s so big and it’s right there on the ocean and you wonder why the waves have not knocked it over yet,” says Gibson. “It looks so amazing that it often defies logic.”
The Balance Rock in Haida history
Surprisingly, not much in the way of oral history survives about the legend of the Balance Rock in the Haida folklore.
Fabled local historian and elder Richard Wilson, better known as Captain Gold, says it’s unusual for such an outstanding rock to not be recognized in oral stories.
Wilson blames the smallpox epidemic that wiped out up to 90 per cent of the local population centuries ago, resulting in many of the oral records getting lost forever.
However, Wilson does remember a story about a local miner, who, at the turn of the century, tried to use dynamite to blow the rock up. Luckily, he did not get far and was stopped by other residents.
Wilson also remembers a group of women going down to the rock in the mid-1990s to make offerings and pray.
It was during the time when many of the Haida remains taken by early colonizers were beginning to get repatriated.
Wilson says the women were trying to make sure the spirits of their returning ancestors are at peace.
PHOTO GALLERY: Haida Gwaii’s Balance Rock
While the forces of nature have not managed to knock the Balance Rock over yet, Gibson says nothing is forever.
“Its rock base will erode progressively through time and the boulder will fall over.”
How much time that process will take is anyone’s guess, but for now, the Balance Rock continues to gracefully balance in the horizon, overlooking the Hecate Strait and delighting herds of photo-snapping tourists, always ready to give it another push.
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.