As some of you remember, I took a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 2013 with my brother's family. I later did an extended blog series on the journey, and I've compiled the posts in their original order, so you can follow whole story in one place.
I've been reliving the journey in my mind these last couple of weeks because I just finished an outstanding book called "The Emerald Mile" by Kevin Fedarko. It describes an epic river journey during the singular flood event on the Colorado River that nearly destroyed Glen Canyon Dam. Instead of just being about the race down the river, it is a fascinating history of the exploration of the Colorado and the "taming" of the river by the giant (yet vulnerable) dams that were placed in its path. And it is a nail-biter of a narrative about the efforts of engineers to contain a failing dam in the face of an unprecedented flood (there are echoes of the more recent near-disaster at Oroville Dam here in California a few years ago).
The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is both a tourist "bucket list" thing that has become very popular (and therefore potentially dangerous for those who underestimate the river), but it also is a journey of the spirit and body through one of the great wilderness areas left on Earth.
Here are the posts...
Rafting the Colorado River: This is the original post in the series, explaining how I got there, and what I was feeling about a journey that I waited forty years to complete.
Everything you wanted to know about rafting on the Grand Canyon but were afraid to ask: A description of what's involved in a 16 day journey on a river with no stores, bathrooms or trashcans.
Cloudburst (x2)! And Off We Go: Two intense thunderstorms give us a muddy sendoff down the river. Page and other towns got pounded that week by flooding.
Passing through the Permian Period: Our first day on the river takes us through the upper layers of the Grand Canyon, the Permian-aged Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino and Hermit formations.
Whodunnit? A Mountain Range Goes Missing: The Hermit Formation and Supai Group provide evidence of the existence of a long-eroded mountain in southwest Colorado. And I row a raft for the first time!
Visions of Paradise and a Bug's Horror: We enter Marble Canyon, dominated by the beautiful cliffs and caverns of the Redwall Limestone. A beetle has a tough day.
Exploring 300 million year old and 50 year old caves (and some fossil hunting): We explore Nautiloid Canyon and an exhumed Paleozoic cavern. We also see evidence of a bone-headed plan to dam Marble Canyon. It would have been an unspeakable crime...
Looking for the Rivers within the Rivers of Marble Canyon: The Devonian Period is represented only by the Temple Butte Formation and the exposures are discontinuous because they were originally only the fill within eroded stream valleys. Plus a cool side trip to a small waterfall.
We interrupt this scenery for a very recent flash flood and a biological disaster: The cloudbursts we experienced a few days earlier caused some flooding in the side canyons. And a look at the tamarisk tree, an invasive species.
Catching an Iconic Scene in the Grand Canyon, and a Bi-Colored River: The small Ancestral Puebloan granaries above Nankoweap Canyon are one of the more famous sights on the river, but oh, what a climb! And floodwaters in the Little Colorado change the color of the main river.
Living in a Thomas Moran Painting, and Through a Canyon Storm: A passing storm gives the canyon a dreamy impressionistic look. I get my favorite picture, and I don't get overly wet; there were too many gigantic boulders to cower under.
In the depths of the Grand Canyon there are three more Grand Canyons...Checking out the Supergroup: There is around 12,000 feet of ancient sediments and volcanic intrusions tucked in the deepest parts of the canyon, and they are only accessible by river or long hot hikes. We give them a look.
Journeying to my Roots, and to the Roots of Mountains: We reach some of the monster rapids, including Hance. It was here in 1976 that I was becoming a geology major on my very first field studies class. Who is that gawky thin kid?
Exploring the Heart of a Long-Gone Mountain Range (and words from home): In the bottom of the Grand Canyon there are the roots of a huge mountain range that formed before complex life even existed on our planet. And I hear words from home for the first time in week.
We Run the Big Rapids, Sometimes in Rafts: We run three of the biggest rapids on the Colorado River. I experience something I haven't felt in a long time: terror. We flipped on the biggest rapid and I took a long cold swim through the 10-foot waves and the Rock Garden.
The Aftermath of Chaos...Finding Beauty in the Oldest Rocks of Grand Canyon: The Granite Gorge was a terror-filled place for John Wesley Powell and his men in 1869, but for me on a day after the rapids disaster it was a beautiful place.
The Hidden Places and Putting a Hand Across 1.2 Billion Years: Every side canyon in the Grand Canyon holds a treasure. We visited two, the Elve's Chasm and Blacktail Canyon, and we laid our hands across 1.2 billion years at the Great Unconformity. We also met with a herd of bighorn sheep.
Crossing the Great Unconformity Again...But Which One? There are really two major unconformities in the depths of the canyon (and more than a dozen more minor ones). We got a glimpse of the angular unconformity, and explored the billion year old sills, intrusions of basaltic rock that lined the canyon for a few miles.
A Gigantic Failure Produces One of the Most Beautiful Sights in the Grand Canyon: Slope failure and landslides had as much to do with the formation of the Grand Canyon as the Colorado River. At Deer Creek, a landslide produced one of the most beautiful canyons and waterfalls in the entire canyon.
Mad Cats and Amoebas? Trying to Keep Names Straight in the Grand Canyon: Not many people saw this post for some reason, but Matkatamiba Canyon is one of the prettier side canyons on the river, and one of the favorites of the veterans of previous river trips.
"Disaster" in National Canyon, and the Volcanoes of Grand Canyon: An unbelievable flood last year, and an unbelievable amount of basalt lava in Grand Canyon. And just like that we are facing Lava Falls, the single worst rapid on the river, in turbulence if not length.
Zero Hour at Lava Falls: A story of courage, redemption and the triumph of the human spirit? No. I tried to ride Lava Falls in a raft, but had to swim instead. Involuntarily. See the video version!
Vulcan the fire god says "You call that little piece of concrete a dam?: Lava dams in the Grand Canyon may have stood 2,000 feet high, and may have backed up dams for three hundred miles or more upstream.
Heat...and All Things Beautiful: It was post-Lava Falls, and one of the hottest days we had on the river. And the beauty surrounded us, in the water, in the cliffs, and in the animals.
The Last Day...An Elegy for a Journey, and for a River: I didn't want to leave. The last two miles on the river were the most precious of all, drifting slowly in the current. And then it was over. We derigged and made our ways to our homes, and the Colorado just rolled on.
Saturday, February 29, 2020
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
|An 80,000-year-old pygmy mammoth tusk discovered on Santa Rosa Island. (Image credit: Daniel Muhs, USGS.)|
The waves crash against the cliff, tearing at the rock on Santa Rosa Island off of Southern California. The face of the cliff is in constant retreat, changing yearly, and sometimes daily as more of the rock disappears into the surf. In one brief moment, a visitor notices a strange object exposed in the cliff. Is it a tree trunk? No, that white stuff is ivory...it's a tusk! There were elephants on the island! How in the world did that happen?
The presence of fossils of elephantine species on the island has been known since the late 1800s, and a survey in the late 1990s discovered at least 150 sites with remains of the creatures, now called the Pygmy Mammoth (Mammuthus exilis). There is little doubt that these creatures were descended from the mainland's Columbian Mammoth, but as their name suggests, they were small. A full-sized Columbian Mammoth stood 14 feet high, but the Pygmy Mammoth was only half as high at most, and perhaps a quarter the weight. A nearly complete skeleton discovered and excavated in 1994, and the adult was only 5.5 feet tall (below).
|Pygmy mammoth skeleton found on Santa Rosa Island in 1994. It was 5.5 feet tall (Image: © Bill Faulkner, NPS)|
Elephants actually are excellent swimmers, what with having a natural snorkel and all. Present-day elephants have been documented as have swam more than 20 miles. So it is not hard to imagine mammoths on the mainland, perhaps suffering food shortages because of drought or wildfires, catching the scent of fresh vegetation on the islands and swimming out to investigate. A population was established, but then things began to change. The ice age was ending and the globe was warming up. The ice melted and sea rose to near today's level. The single large island was inundated, forming the four islands of today, and the total area was reduced by 76%. For the mammoths, this was a crisis. The islands were no longer big enough to support the mammoth population.
|Outline of Santarosae and the present-day Channel Islands (Image credit: U. S. Geological Survey)|
In the end, the Pygmy Mammoths also succumbed to extinction sometime around 12,000 years ago. Their disappearance coincided with the extinction of numerous other large mammals in North America, the "megafauna". Many reasons have been offered as hypotheses, but the cause (or causes) remain elusive. It needs to be noted that humans arrived on the islands around 11,000 years ago, and the small mammoths would have had few defenses against armed human beings.
As we can see, islands are places of refuge, but they can also be a prison of no escape. Which brings us to the doomed sky islands of the Mojave Desert.
|The New York Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve (image credit: Garry Hayes)|
|The Clark Mountains as seen from Kokoweef (image credit Garry Hayes)|
Because the mountain peaks are so isolated, one might not expect much diversity, but these environments are not static nor were they always isolated. They were influenced by the ice ages, even though the ice fields never reached the arid region. The climate was cooler and wetter so trees more characteristic of the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevada were able to migrate into the region, including the Rocky Mountain White Fir. But as the ice age waned, the rising temperatures and growing aridity caused the trees to retreat higher and higher into the mountains. If the mountains weren't high enough, the trees were extinguished. In the present day, only three islands remain that possess the Rocky Mountain White Fir: the New York Mountains, Clark Mountain, and Kingston Peak.
|Scene from the Kingston Peak area (Image credit: Bureau of Land Management)|
|Image credit: https://www.amargosaconservancy.org/native-plants-wildlife/|
|Image credit: https://www.amargosaconservancy.org/native-plants-wildlife/|
Saturday, February 22, 2020
|Red Hill with the southern Sierra Nevada in the distance|
"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings."With that idea in mind, can you imagine how ancient we humans would look to a creature that lives an entire life within maybe three or four weeks? That's where we find ourselves today, within the smallest of California's "islands". By "islands", I'm referring to the isolated sources of water within one of the harshest deserts in the world, Death Valley and the surrounding Basin and Range Province.
|Water is a rare phenomenon at Fossil Falls. This is a shot from several years ago on a very wet trip.|
|A Fairy Shrimp (carrying an egg sac). The "sesame seeds" are Ostracods, very small bivalved crustaceans who were in constant motion.|
This is the first installment of a mini-blog series about the biological islands of interior California, an exploration of the geological conditions that allow life to survive in the harsh deserts in the vicinity of Death Valley National Park. Fossil Falls is readily accessible to travelers on Highway 395 between Ridgecrest/Inyokern and Lone Pine. The one mile gravel road is a few miles south of the rest area at Coso Junction and just north of Little Lake. The falls themselves are at the end of a quarter mile walk across the lava flow. A small and decidedly barren campground is nearby. In addition to the potholes and falls, explorers can also find petroglyphs and small shelters where Native Americans carved arrowheads and spear points from obsidian.
Friday, February 21, 2020
I've always been fascinated by islands. I visit the Hawaiian Islands every chance I get, and I am literally haunted by the vast expanses of open ocean that separate the islands from any other landmasses. It's an odd combination of loneliness and wonder. It's not something you ever feel when you are staying in Waikiki hotels and sunning yourself on a crowded beach. The sense of isolation comes when you spend time in the rainforests, the alpine deserts, and the barren volcano slopes. When you read about and experience the incredible biological isolation, it becomes an incredible story of survival and adaptation that has produced hundreds of unique endemic species found nowhere else in the world.
Which leads to a question: what does that have to do with a bunch of pictures of localities in the California desert?
I was in Death Valley National Park for much of the past week, and while I was teaching a field course, I also had a few moments of observation and reflection about life in the desert. I was watching for bird species in particular, and I was struck by an odd contradiction: Death Valley (Furnace Creek specifically) has more bird species (339) than my county in California's Great Valley (315). It doesn't seem possible, since conditions are far more benign at home, and in fact the Great Valley can support vastly greater numbers of birds. But Death Valley has a way of forcing more species together in one place where they can be seen and recorded...it is a system of biological islands. The islands are made of water, and the intervening space is largely barren land.
Part 1: The Littlest Islands of All
Part 2: The Pygmy Mammoths and the Doomed Sky Islands
Part 3: There's a Reason Why I Don't Hug Ducks
Saturday, February 1, 2020
|Sunset at the San Joaquin River NWR near the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform|
Really! Go read it first!....okay, are you back now?
|Snow and Ross's Geese taking flight at the San Joaquin River NWR|
|Snow and Ross's Geese at the San Joaquin River NWR|
|Aleutian Cackling Geese and Snow Geese at the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform|
|Merced NWR at Sunset|
The other main complex is the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, which has several units along the San Joaquin River south of Turlock. The refuge includes the main San Luis refuge and Tule Elk Preserve, along with Bear Creek Unit and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
|Sandhill Cranes at the Merced NWR|
|Common Yellowthroat at the Merced NWR|
|Gadwall at the Merced NWR|
|Tule Elk at the San Luis NWR|
The Tule Elk have a tortured history in California. They are a distinct subspecies of the elk clan, native to the state. They were one of the most abundant large grazers on the California prairie prior to the arrival of European colonists, with numbers estimated at about 500,000. They were hunted literally to oblivion, and when hunting of the elk was outlawed in 1873 they were thought to be already extinct. A small number, either two or four according to the story, were found on Henry Miller's ranch in the south San Joaquin Valley, and Miller undertook to protect them. They hovered near extinction for the next several decades, but preserves have been established around the state and the herd has reached a population of more than 5,000 individuals. They are still threatened by lack of genetic diversity, given that they are all descended from a single pair or two.
|Ruddy Duck at the Merced NWR|
|Green-winged Teal at the Merced NWR|
|Yellow-headed Blackbird at the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR|
|American Avocet at the Merced NWR|
|Great Horned Owl at the Merced NWR|
You can read some of the details in this article, but here is the main takeaway...
This sickening gift to polluters will allow wetlands, streams and rivers across a vast stretch of America to be obliterated with pollution," ... "People and wildlife need clean water to thrive. Destroying half of our nation's streams and wetlands will be one of Trump's ugliest legacies. We'll absolutely be fighting it in court.After so much that has been lost, especially here in California, and here in my home in the Great Valley, I am sickened at heart that men so craven have been allowed to destroy so much that is good. I hope you can appreciate the incredible legacy we have in our valley, and that you might become part of the fight to preserve the small parts that remain.
|Sunset at the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR|