Sunday, January 3, 2016
Dreams of Summer and Southwest Travels: Grand Stories Exposed in a Canyon
For me, a nice moment came while staring into the depths of the canyon from Lipan Point. The view, seen in the first picture, reveals a labyrinth of tributary canyons, but the Colorado River is visible in the center of the photo. I zoomed in (photo two). What's remarkable about this one spot is that it is one of very few flat open areas on the floor of the Grand Canyon. It's called the Unkar Delta, and I have wonderful memories of an exploration there two years ago.
Into the Great Unknown". It was around 112 degrees as I explored the ruins that dot the delta, while the rafters scouted Unkar Rapid. The rapid is one of the first of the big rapids one encounters in the canyon, rated as high as 7 out of 10 on the difficulty scale (we made it through without incident other than getting wet, which was a relief in the sweltering heat).
The deep maroon color of the canyon walls at Unkar Delta reveals an interesting period of the Earth's history. The rock is part of a layer called the Dox Formation, which was deposited in estuaries, tidal flats, and deltas during the Mesoproterozoic era, just over 1.1 billion years ago. The rock is mostly composed of easily eroded shale and siltstone, which explains the open aspect of this part of the canyon. The Dox also contains fossils.
Life existed on Earth a billion years ago, but it was only of the simplest forms, algae and bacteria. The algae grew on pebbles in tidal flats, and as the tides ebbed and flowed, mud stuck to the algae-covered surfaces eventually forming layered structures called stromatolites. The stromatolites seen in parts of the Dox formation are among the oldest fossils found in the American west.
The Dox is part of a larger sequence of tilted layers in the Grand Canyon called the Grand Canyon Supergroup. The Supergroup is upwards of 12,000 feet thick, more than twice the depth of the canyon itself. How do the rocks fit in the canyon? They've been tilted and subsequently eroded. The exposures can be followed for a number of miles along the river in the depths of the canyon, but they have otherwise been covered by 4,000 feet of later (Paleozoic) sediments deposited between 540 and 250 million years ago. The rocks are fascinating to study, but the only way to do it is to hike to the bottom of the canyon, or raft the river (I've had the privilege of doing both). They can easily be seen from viewpoints in the eastern part of the canyon on both the north and south rims.
We took a break at Desert View at the east end of the canyon, and headed down the highway. There was a lot more to the Colorado Plateau than the Grand Canyon, as spectacular as it is.