Louis Kamenka is soft spoken as he indicates to a tour at his Rundle rock quarry one particular stone among many and tells them the story of how an ancient ocean flood that used to cover the Bow Valley came to create the ripples they are looking at on its hard surface.
Kamenka Quarry sits above Harvie Heights, overlooking the mountain that is the namesake of what comes out of it – Rundle rock. It was established by his father 65 tears ago and Louis, along with his wife Brenda, operate it and produce Rundle Rock Building Stone for purchase.
Kamenka welcomes tours to the quarry each year, including one as part of the Wild – Festival of Eagles event held this past fall. He explains that Rundle rock is a sedimentary stone made up of either bits of shells or gypsum salt and calcium carbonate crystals that sank to the ocean floor and built up to turn into rock. It is fine-grained quartzitic siltstone or sandstone dating back to the Triassic Period, to be specific.
“This type of sedimentary rock was formed in an ocean that existed here from about 225 million years ago, so it is one of the younger rocks in the Bow Valley,” said Kamenka, who has his masters degree in geology from the University of Alberta.
“Our part of the continent was tilting toward the Pacific Ocean and there were mountain ranges to the north and east of us that were eroding and their streams were flowing into this ocean and carrying this sediment.
“Over time that is why you can see layers in the rock. These sediments become buried and compressed and over time they turn into rock and this rock has a lot of unique features in it. It has a lot of fossils that tell us about the environment that was here when this was an ocean.”
Hence the rippled surface Kamenka points to, which indicates storms and underwater mudslides occurring at the bottom of the ocean. There are also animal tracks in the mud that can be seen imprinted on the Rundle rock and the shapes of shells and animals left behind. For each piece of stone Kamenka looks at, he can tell you a story about how and why it looks the way it does now.
“What we see in the fossil record of these rocks gives us an indication this ocean was really acidic, as for any of the animals we do find, their shells are dissolved by the acid … there are only imprints of the calcium shells, or bones of the animal,” he said.
The rock was formed over a period of 20 to 30 million years and, depending on where in that timeframe it was formed, it tells a different story. There are only two quarries that produce Rundle rock – his and Thunderstone near Dead Man’s Flats. The lowest layers, Kamenka said, were deposited during a significant period of extinction on the planet, so there are fewer fossils. But then life got back to normal and a healthier ecosystem supported life again, although a different type of life from before.
“From a geological point of view, this rock represents a very short period in the geological calendar, but a very significant period where things changed on the planet,” Kamenka says. “When I quarry, I am peeling off a layer at a time and it represents a different event happening in the ocean.”
When Kamenka quarries the rock, he does it entirely by hand, which classifies him as a boutique quarry in the rock world. He produces 3,000 tonnes of stone on average over the summer months each year and the majority of the rock is purchased in southern Alberta for landscaping and building purposes. The unique nature of each piece of Rundle rock being hand split and quarried makes it perfect for custom architectural building and landscaping projects.
It is an art form and Kamenka is skilled at shaping each stone for its intended purpose, like stonemasons of the past – one piece at a time.
Colours of the stone also vary and are distinct, rustic and a cornerstone of mountain architecture. Warm earthy brown tones, soft grey-blue shades and deep charcoal to black hues indicate varying mineral contents of the stone, and most importantly, the amount of quartz, explained Kamenka. The more quartz, the lighter it is, while the darker rock has some organic material in it and tends to turn brown quicker.
“All Rundle rock will turn brown once it is exposed,” he says, “it is just the more quartz it has, the longer it takes.
“I can use a plain of weakness (in the rock) to my advantage and get a nice trip of rock the way real stone masons used to.”
One of the most meaningful things the Kamenkas have contributed Rundle rock toward is the Air India memorial unveiled in Toronto in 2007. The sundial memorial pays tribute to the 329 lives lost when Air India Flight 182 went down off the coast of Ireland in 1985. It was commissioned by the city of Toronto, which saw the largest loss of community members, to mark the passage of time and contain the names of those who lost their lives in the disaster 22 years later.
A 50-pound rock from every province in the country was gathered to create the timepiece and the piece selected from Alberta came from Kamenka Quarry.
“Louis and I went for the opening,” says Brenda. “It was so emotional and memorable and we were thrilled to have Rundle rock there as Alberta’s stone.”
Kamenka uses a wedge or chisel and hammer to split the layers of Rundle rock, and is able to split much bigger pieces as a result.
The Kamenka Quarry, he says, has 200 years left in it and only one per cent of the total property – 180 acres – is quarried. One challenge in the past several years for the remote location, up a private access road, has been summer rain storms.
The June 2013 storm that saw normally dry mountain creeks run like raging rivers full of debris swept through Kamenka’s quarry, carrying away 300 tonnes of inventory already prepared on pallets. While it took a month to reopen, Kamenka says a heavy rainfall last August did more damage to the road one Friday night and it took two weeks for him to get back up to the quarry.
“So much debris comes down these watersheds in these intense rainfalls,” he says. “There was a huge log jam and the creek changed its course to the road.”
There used to be 10 Rundle rock quarries in the Bow Valley, as the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains are the only place it can be easily produced. The first was on Mount Rundle and it was used to build the Banff Springs Hotel and many of the Parks Canada buildings. Named for Reverend Robert Rundle, a Methodist missionary, Kamenka says that is how the stone came to have its name.
With many of the past quarries being located along the Spray River at the base of Mount Rundle to Ribbon Creek in Kananaskis, they can no longer be quarried as they are in protected areas.