Friday, August 5, 2011

A Convergence of Wonders, Day 14: Treasures Discovered and Lost in Nine Mile Canyon (and Prairie Dogs!)

We had reached the last few days of our travels through a Convergence of Wonders, a tour of the spectacular geology of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountains. We had moved south to Vernal, Utah, and prepared to follow a road I had never been on, but which promised interesting things: Nine Mile Canyon. One of the obvious attractions of the canyon was rock art by the Fremont People. It is considered one of the greatest concentrations of their art to be found anywhere.

I was surprised, though, by the geological scenery as well. I had studied the geological maps and realized we would be spending most of the day in the Eocene-aged Green River Formation. I was expecting to see some badlands topography similar to what we saw the previous day at Fossil Butte, but the canyon was deep, very rugged, and wonderfully scenic. It turns out that the lake that formed the Green River Formation had shorelines, and included riverbeds and alluvial fans that carried sands and gravel. These sediments formed a series of cliffs that were ideal sites for rock art and for building granaries.
One thing I haven't mentioned. Nine Mile Canyon isn't nine miles long. The total road was around 70 miles. And most of it wasn't paved (the gravel road is ok in dry weather for regular cars, if not a bit bumpy at times). This was going to be an interesting journey. We crossed over some more or less featureless plains and plateau surfaces (more on these in a moment), passed a detour, and after 25 miles or so descended into an ever-deepening canyon.
Ripplemarks on the surface of the giant fallen boulder provided evidence of the shallow nature of the Green River lake at this location. Er, fallen? What's that dust on the other side of the rock?
Ah, a recent landslide was being cleaned up. No one in the vans was worried or looking up at the canyon walls waiting for rolling chunks of death. I think.
Still, the canyon was beautiful.
The trip over the last two weeks had been surprisingly cool for late June. In the bottom of the shadeless canyon, we found summer! It was in the upper nineties, and we crowded under the only shade, a picnic area, to talk about Fremont culture. The Fremont people lived in the region a thousand years ago, but built few permanent structures other than granaries. They had a distinctive form of pottery, and their rock art was often spiritual to the point of hallucination.
A short stroll in Daddy Canyon provided views of several excellent panels of artwork. There were bighorn sheep in abundance...
What story was being told in the picture below?
And what was the meaning of this bizarre figure?
More stories on this panel, including a horse and rider.
There were disturbing things in the canyon as well. Deep in an alcove was this horrible piece of vandalism. And the idiot who wrote it can't even spell.
In sight of the picnic area was an odd-looking building. After a few minutes we heard a series of sirens and then an indescribable and loud sound that was sort of a cross between an explosion and a huge rockfall. I'm pretty sure it was a natural gas compressor, and it seemed so out of place with a monument to an ancient people in a deep canyon far from any paved roads.
It turns out that the Green River formation and others are sources of natural gas and oil. There is a natural gas boom going on in the Uinta Basin, and evidence of drilling was literally everywhere around us on the north plateau above the canyon.
Truck traffic was continuous. In the canyon, clouds of dust had become a serious issue. The dust was obscuring and damaging the archaeological sites. The traffic and noise was serious enough, but we noticed a unique effort to control dust. The road in the canyon had been sprayed not with oil, but with pine resin. It was like a varnish coat on the road surface. I don't know how recently it was sprayed, or how durable it will be, but it was working to control dust the day we were there.
Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) has become a big environmental issue in regions like this. It apparently produces lots of natural gas, but there are pollution concerns, and ozone levels in the Uinta Basin rival amounts seen in some of the worst pollution sites in the country, such as southern California. I am not going to go into detail about the controversy, but take a look at the sheer disturbance of the land surface in the GoogleEarth image below. The blue line is the road we followed. All the light spots are drilling platforms.
After bumping along the roads for most of the day, we paid a visit to the Utah Museum of Natural History in Price, Utah. They had one wing devoted to paleontology, and another devoted to archaeology. The students were delighted (and it was nice and cool inside!).
Dinosaurs are always fun, even when you are a grown up...
We then set out into the wild country west of Delta, Utah to find a treasure of a different sort: gemstones! Topaz is the state gemstone of Utah, and it is found at Topaz Mountain, in a rhyolite caldera. We set up camp and started pounding rocks looking for the glittering crystals.
They actually can be picked up off the ground almost anywhere in the valley.
Did you know that there is a curse that lies on anyone who searches for topaz without a pure crystallographer's heart? The Scorpion King guards the treasure horde. Not really, but it is worth noting that every little sparkle in the sand at the feet (claws?) of the scorpion are topaz fragments (click on the photo for a closer look).
I'm cheating a little bit. I didn't take any pictures of the topaz we found on this trip, but I am including a spectacular crystal mass that Gerry found a couple of years ago (practically under my feet, by the way).
OK, I promised prairie dogs...when we stopped to ask for directions at the beginning of the day, we realized we were stopped in the middle of a prairie dog town.
Yes, they were cute and cuddly-looking...
For more information on Nine Mile Canyon and the tough issues involved, check out these resources:

The pictures of the prairie dogs and petroleum/gas stuff are courtesy of Mrs. Geotripper.

1 comment:

Gaelyn said...

Now that's my kind of day. The rock art both natural and human would be worth a long dusty drive. Pine resin varnish sounds like a sticky finish. The mining operations are distracting. Best would be finding a nice topaz specimen.