Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Good-bye to 2018: 12 Months of the Joy of Geology


Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park
It's been a year. There are lots of ways of looking at the events of 2018 and so many of them are tragic and unjust. But there is always hope as well. There are still the beautiful places of the Earth, and always a chance to seek them out, no matter where you are. That's the joy of being a geologist and a teacher. Or being anyone with a curiosity about our planet. What follows are twelve months of exploring our planet from my base in California's Great Valley.
Merced National Wildlife Refuge, south of the city of Merced.
Where does one go in January? So much of the countryside is covered in snow, but California is kind of special in that regard. We get to visit the snow if we want and then we can go home to our valleys and coastlines. The migrant birds know all about this. Millions of geese and other species spend their summers in the Arctic, but when the snows come they fly south and spend the winter in a series of wetlands and prairies that have been preserved in places like the Great Valley. Our destination in January was the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. There were thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, and multitudes of ducks. It is an overwhelming experience to stand at the edge of the wetlands and imagine this valley hundreds of years ago before agricultural development took over 95% of the landscape.
Zabriskie Point and Manly Beacon in Death Valley National Park
The most satisfying aspect of a teaching position in geology is the chance I have to share the incredible planet with my students in my classroom of course, but also in the field. In February our intrepid crew headed out to Death Valley National Park in the Basin and Range Province of eastern California. The valley is a vast fault graben with 11,000 foot peaks next to valley floors below sea level. It is the hottest place in the world and the driest place in North America, yet 20,000 years ago it contained a 100-mile long freshwater lake and grassy savannas with horses, camels, and mammoths. Some of the fish who inhabited the lake still survive today in isolated spring-fed ponds.
Natural Bridge in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is recognized as the premier geology park in the national park system, containing rocks as old as 1.7 billion years, and including layers and intrusions from every period in Earth history ever since.

We survived a phenomenal windstorm on the last night of our trip. I hate to say I littered in a national park, but somewhere out on the dunes there is a tarp that blew away from under my tent in the night.
The Ghirardelli Store in Hornitos within the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode
Our field studies in March were closer to home. We journeyed through the southern Mother Lode of the Sierra Nevada. We saw ghost towns, old mines, and the quartz veins that were the source of the ores of the California Gold Rush in 1848. The ruins in the picture above are the Ghirardelli Store in Hornitos. Before he made chocolate in San Francisco, the man sold supplies to the miners in the Mother Lode.
Yosemite Falls in Yosemite Valley
In April, Yosemite National Park took center stage, as we took two field studies trips there. One of them was the morning after an epic flood that closed the park for a day or two. When we got there, the Merced River was still at flood stage and the waterfalls were booming.
Mt. Rainier in Washington
In May, family matters found us on a plane out of Seattle, Washington. We left for home in the early evening while Mt. Rainier was capturing the last rays of the sun. As you may have read in the last post, Rainier (14,411 feet) is the tallest volcano in the Cascade Range, and has more glacial ice than any mountain in the Pacific Northwest. The potential of eruptions happening under the ice makes Rainier one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet. Lahars (volcanic mudflows) could overwhelm some of the cities of the Puget Sound.
Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado downstream of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam
One of the greatest adventures one could ever experience is an in-depth exploration of the Colorado Plateau. It is a showcase of geology with a treasure trove of national parks and monuments. In June, our intrepid crew headed out to plateau country where we explored Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Great Basin National Parks. The region is so extraordinary that a place like Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River isn't even in a national park or monument.
House on Fire Ruin in Bear's Ears National Monument
One of the great crimes of the present administration in Washington D.C. was the attack upon the Bear's Ears National Monument. Even though the law didn't allow it, the park was reduced in size to 15% of what it had been before. And for the sole purpose of money, i.e. oil drilling and uranium mining. I hope the courts do the right thing this year.
Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park
In July Mrs. Geotripper and I escaped the heat and dust of the Great Valley and headed north along the coast, eventually reaching Olympic National Park in Washington. Hurricane Ridge is one of the most stunning viewpoints in America. The views take in the alpine peaks glaciers of Mt. Olympus, the temperate rainforests of the valleys, and the coastlines around Port Angeles. The mountains are composed of oceanic sediments and seafloor crust pushed upwards by the motions of the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
We stayed close to home in August, but almost every morning found me walking the Parkway Trail along the Tuolumne River where it flows from the Sierra Nevada foothills onto the floor of the Great Valley. Birders (including me) discovered 115 species on this trail over the course of the year.
Valentine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument
The resumption of classes in August and September found me and my students on the road again. We explored the Cascades Volcanoes, including Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak, Medicine Lake Highland and Lava Beds National Monument. Lava Beds has miles of lava tubes, one of the greatest concentrations in the world.
In October we went underground again with an exploration of Black Chasm Cavern. The cave has been carefully managed so that visitors can see cave decorations that are absolutely pristine. The cave has thousands of fragile speleothems called helictites. I call them stalactites on acid...
November was the lost month. The horrific fire in Paradise caused air quality to suffer throughout the state and the school shut down for a week and a half. It's the first time this has happened, and our scheduled field trip to Pinnacles National Park was postponed to the beginning of December. We went underground again, in yet another kind of cave. It wasn't limestone or marble, and it was a lava tube even though the Pinnacles are volcanic. It's a talus cave, one caused by giant boulders falling into and covering a narrow canyon. Hikers are in near total darkness for upwards of a quarter mile.

December arrived and along with it came the holidays. We have family all along the coast from California to Washington, so Christmas for us was a very long road trip. On our last night we stayed near Mt. Shasta in Northern California. The sunset provided beautiful lenticular clouds around the summit of the second and third highest volcanoes in the Cascades (you'll have to check out the last post to learn about that one).

And that was the story of my year and that of my students and Mrs. Geotripper. We saw a lot of incredible things, and my whole purpose in describing these places is to encourage you to explore them for yourselves. I know that this is impossible for many, which is quite literally why I write this blog. But if you can make time and get away, seek out the wild places where you live. If your local college offers field studies courses, consider getting back into school for some personal enrichment. I guarantee you won't regret it.

If you live in the vicinity of Modesto, the Modesto Junior College Geology Department will be offering a great line-up of field studies courses. We'll explore Death Valley again in February, the Southern Mother Lode in March, and Yosemite Valley in April. In September we'll head out to the Eastern Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley. In October we'll travel through the Mother Lode, and in November we'll be back to Pinnacles National Park.

But our premier trip with be on June 26-July 10 when we head to British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. We'll be exploring Olympic and North Cascades National Parks, Vancouver Island, and the Coastal Mountain Ranges around Whistler and Pemberton. It will be a memorable experience. If you are interested, keep an eye on this blog, follow our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1920712791360611/, or the class web page (soon to be updated) at http://hayesg.faculty.mjc.edu/GeologyPacificNorthwest.html.

See you on the road!
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