Friday, July 26, 2013

Down the River: Geotripper Goes Geo-Rafting

I'm on the verge of one of my great life adventures. Sunday morning, I'll be rolling over the Paria Riffles (below) on the first day of a 226 mile journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I've never done it, and I've always wanted to, and after 40 years of waiting, it's happening. I'm excited to have the chance to explore the depths of the canyon pretty much for the first time. I've hiked to the river on three or four occasions, at Hance Creek and Bright Angel Creek, but those trips were decades ago, and had little to do with the river itself.

Of course, there is no communicating with the outside world, so Geotripper will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks. If you are new to this blog, this is a great chance to catch up on some of the past Geotripper series on the Colorado Plateau, the Sierra Nevada, and other wonderful parts of the world. They're listed below...

See you all in a few weeks! With pictures, I hope, assuming I don't drop the camera in the river!

The Other California: what to see when you've seen all the really famous places in the Golden State (in progress).

Vagabonding Across the 39th Parallel: A journey through the geological wonderland in central Nevada, Utah and Colorado in 2011.

A Convergence of Wonders, a compilation of posts on our journey through the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountains in 2011.

The Abandoned Lands, a compilation of posts on our journey around the margins of the Colorado Plateau in 2012.

Time Beyond Imagining: A "Brief" History of the Colorado Plateau - this was an extended exploration of the geology of one of the great geological showplaces on planet Earth

Under the Volcano and Into the Abyss: Yosemite National Park - Exploring a few of the lesser known corners of Yosemite Valley, from below and from above

The Airliner Chronicles: My First Blog Series - Seeing geology from the perspective of seven miles above.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

There Will Be Signs: This Month's Accretionary Wedge!

This month's Accretionary Wedge, sponsored by Evelyn Mervine at Georneys, is on the subject of geology-related signs. The subject is a good one, and it rang a little bell in my memory circuits; I remembered doing something on signs a LONG time ago, during the early Mesozoic era of geo-blogging, circa 2008. I did a little digging and came up with this post from March 6, 2008 (only two months after starting Geotripper):
Soon after posting a few death-defying pictures, Julian at Harmonic Tremors posted an additional photo of an "Unsafe Rock Area" (Danger danger danger! ), which brought to mind two of my favorite geology-related caution signs...the picture above is a sign warning of falling rocks at the base of a 400 foot "cliff" in southern England called Salisbury Cathedral!
The other sign may be familiar to travelers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Just in case anyone feels uncomfortable passing such a sign, the park was kind enough to announce....

2013 addendum: I later found out that the "fault zone" in question suddenly split open a decade or two ago (in front of a geologist), and a short episode of lava extrusion and flow ensued. Then it stopped and has been quiet since.

Is it the Journey or the Destination? Part 2: I now know how my students feel...

I've seen the beginning...
I'm no adrenaline junkie. When I've been at Disneyland, Splash Mountain and the Pirates of the Caribbean is about my limit. I was dragged kicking and screaming into Space Mountain, and came out also screaming, with rubbery legs. Roller coasters unhinge me. So what the hell am I doing, and why?
A few weeks ago I wrote about whether it is the journey or the destination that is important. And it is indeed the journey that is important. I've been to the starting point...
And I've been to the ending point...twice (below). But in-between those two points are 220 miles of wild river. I'm about to go down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life, spending 16 days to get from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. It's both a life-long dream, and just a bit mysterious and scary. The rapids are legendary. There are rumors of stunning beauty and spiritual discovery. There are groovers (don't ask). And I've come to realize that I am (re)learning just what it is like to be one of my students going on a long field studies trip for the first time, being shaken out of the every-day grind and opening up to the possibility of new and incredible experiences.

I am a rank amateur at rafting, so I've been trying to learn everything I can about trips down the Grand Canyon. I have the questions. Am I in good enough shape? Am I going to embarrass myself on the first rapid? What's it like to get dumped into the river? One thing I do know, though. I'm going to live every moment on the river. The sights, the smells, the sounds. So many of my travels have been wrapped up in organizing the logistics, dealing with student problems, keeping schedules and appointments, and making sure that everything goes somehow smoothly for everyone. On Sunday, I become a student once again, both in learning, and in responsibility. I won't be the one leading, I'll be the follower (and the chore-doer; no more of that managerial supervising crap!).

Like I said, I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I'm not too sure how I feel about running the legendary rapids like Crystal, Hance or Lava Falls. But it's the only way to see the heart of the Grand Canyon. I've been all over the rims, and I've been down (and up) four different trails to the river. But I've never been able to explore the river itself, or any of the side canyons that make such river trips so memorable. I'm looking forward to exploring as much as I can.
I am, I admit, an internet junkie, and tech addict. I'm wondering how I will survive 16 days out of contact with the cyber-world. Without my smartphone. Without my laptop. Then again, I hear there is this stuff called paper, and things called pencils and chalk. I'm told I can preserve memories and experiences on beaten wood pulp, so I may give that a try. When I return, I'll see about transferring the paper data to a digital format, and let you know how things turned out.

I won't be totally bereft of technology. I've got two nearly worn-out digital cameras that I'll be taking along. I figure at least one might survive the journey.
It's all the in-between I don't know so much about...

But maybe most of all, I'm looking forward to the time I'm going to have with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two nephews. Their hard effort navigating the whole permit and organizational maze made this adventure possible, and they invited me along to share in it. I don't know if I can ever repay the kindness. It's going to be a grand adventure!

I might get a few more posts up before I leave, but then Geotripper goes dark for three weeks.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Out in America's Never Never: What Water Does to Rock...

The Navajo flute player at work

The geology of Antelope Canyon is simple. Water (lots of it in a short time) and rock (specifically, the easily eroded but cliff-forming Navajo Sandstone). That's all it takes. There are other ingredients that make Antelope Canyon a memorable awe-inspiring experience: Sunlight and shadow for instance. The rock seems to glow with an internal golden light.
In the last post, I described the lengths we went to in order to arrive in Page, Arizona in time for our tour. These pictures should make clear why we tried so hard to add Antelope Canyon to our itinerary through America's Never Never, despite 140 mile detours. It is an extraordinary example of a sandstone slot canyon.

One thing that must be considered when visiting Antelope Canyon is whether you will visit the Upper Canyon or the Lower Canyon. The entrance fees are essentially the same, and you must be accompanied by a guide in each one.

The upper canyon is the most popular, probably for two reasons: it is a level walk on sand, and at the right time of day narrow beams of sunlight pierce the darkness of the canyon, which in places almost requires a flashlight (the entrance fee almost doubles for tours during those hours). It also requires being shuttled up a three mile long sandy wash that must be driven on to be believed. The lower canyon must be accessed by a series of stairways and ladders, and doesn't have the beams of light. But you park right next to the entrance and won't need to be shuttled. But it is my favorite for a different reason: the serenity. We've been herded like cattle in the upper canyon, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other people. On our tour of Lower Antelope, we felt like we were the only people in the canyon (and we may very well have been).

By definition there isn't a lot of water in Antelope Canyon most of the time. It's a desert after all. The water comes during cloudbursts in the watershed upstream. The flash floods will send fast-moving slurry mixes of sand, mud, and boulders through the bottom of the canyon. Tours aren't held if there is a chance of thunderstorms in the canyons above. Tourists have been killed and injured in the past, and safety is a priority these days.
Simple geology, but a work of natural art. Enjoy the photos that follow, and look to the end of today's post for a special treat...

The flute player in the first picture? He played a beautiful composition that echoed off the glowing cliffs. I'm hoping he has some appreciation for the beauty he brought to our day. Here's a portion for your enjoyment!
There were other parts to this beautiful day. I'd show pictures of Horseshoe Bend, but I'm afraid I was grocery shopping while the crew hiked to see it (that's something that happens when you are the leader of a trip). Here is a post from last year's visit to the incredible entrenched meander...
I recalled the Navajo Beauty Way prayer...

With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty around me, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Out in America's Never Never: Barriers and the Thin Line of Civilization

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

In math, getting from Point A to Point B is hardly a problem. It's a straight line most of the time, or an arc, determined by some kind of equation. Getting from point A to point B can be a problem in a city, since buildings are often in the way, yet a good map or a vocal GPS unit gives you plenty of routes and choices to avoid traffic and delays.

Out in America's Never Never, the vast desert encompassing the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range provinces, getting from Point A to Point B becomes a true challenge. Mountains may block the route, as the Forty-Niners found during the California Gold Rush (and earlier settlers like my ancestors, the Donners). There might be flat, open ground between one point and the other, but there might be no water. In a pre-automobile era, that was a serious problem. But out of all these examples the Colorado Plateau has one really impressive barrier: the Colorado River.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

What's the problem? It's a fair sized river as such things go, the biggest of the American Southwest, but it is hardly a trickle compared to many rivers back east and in the Pacific Northwest. Those rivers were barriers to travel, but numerous ferries and bridges soon solved access problems a long time ago (and numerous boats used the rivers themselves as a highway). The Colorado, though, is a geologically young river. It is rapidly cutting downward through the sedimentary and metamorphic rocks of the recently uplifted continental crust, and the consequence of this is an unnavigable rapid-filled river ensconced in a deep vertical gorge along its entire pathway through the plateau country. Until the Navajo Bridge (above, left) was constructed in 1928 the only place to cross the river between Moab, Utah and Needles, CA, a river distance of 600 miles, was at Lee's Ferry, about five miles upstream of Navajo Bridge (the completion of which put Lee's Ferry out of business). The ferry was the only spot on the river whose approach was not overly complicated by vertical cliffs.

There are more bridges today, but there is still a 300-plus mile stretch between Navajo Bridge and Lake Mead at Hoover Dam where there are no crossings (except the footbridge in Grand Canyon near Phantom Ranch). Travel through the Colorado Plateau country is still complicated by this fact (and frankly, it should remain so).

The paved highways give us a somewhat false sense of easy access, as they must also surmount or circumvent barriers in the landscape formed by river canyons and vertical cliffs. As long as there is gas in the tank, a working air conditioner, and properly tuned engine, we give little thought to how tenuous our control is over our localized environment. A flat tire on a deserted road on a blazing hot day can be life-threatening. And small geological events can have far-ranging consequences.

The original plan for our trip (conceived a year earlier) was to leave the North Rim of Grand Canyon and scoot down the slopes of the East Kaibab Monocline into the Navajo Section of the plateau country. We would cross the Colorado River at Navajo Bridge, turn at Bitter Water onto Highway 89 to Page, Arizona, where we would have a slow-paced tour of Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon Dam, and the incredible Antelope Canyon. From there it would be a fairly quick drive to Navajo National Monument, where we would be camping for the night. It was meant to be the most leisurely day of the trip.

Oh well....

The picture above gives a hint about how geology made our day a constant exhausting race against time. The Vermilion Cliffs are a prominent part of the Grand Staircase, revealing early Mesozoic formations, including the Chinle, Wingate and Kayenta. The Chinle, at the base, is composed of easily eroded shale and siltstone, and is subject to slope failure. In the picture above, looking across House Rock Valley, the lower slopes look tilted because they are part of a huge rotational slide.
If you take a big group through this region, you will need to make the camping reservations five or six months in advance, and even at that I nearly missed getting reservations for Arches National Park and the North Rim of Grand Canyon. As such, once the schedule has been established, it can't be easily changed.

But geology can change. Highway 89 from Bitter Water to Page starts out in spectacular fashion, climbing a slope of Chinle to a big cut through the Echo Cliffs, composed of the Wingate, Kayenta and Navajo formations. The view from the upper highway is a stunning panorama of Marble Canyon, the Vermilion Cliffs, and the East Kaibab Monocline that forms the margin of the Kaibab Plateau and Grand Canyon.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
The problem for the road engineers was getting across the Chinle slopes. The Chinle doesn't like highways on the flatlands (swelling and settling of the clays turns the best planned highways into roller-coasters), but it especially doesn't like roads on slopes.

Ultimately they chose to put the road across an ancient landslide not unlike the one in the Vermilion Cliffs above. It is especially visible in Google earth images, where a white outcrop of Navajo Sandstone can be seen well out of place next to the highway (below).
Source: GoogleEarth

In February, a portion of the old slide gave way, destroying a significant stretch of the highway. This wasn't the kind of slide that could be fixed easily, and the road will be out of service for a long time. The Echo Cliffs constitute a significant barrier to east-west travel, and between Bitter Water and Tuba City, only one dirt road crosses it. The state is in the process of paving the track, but it was nowhere near done when we passed through.
Source: Lee Allison, at

If we were going to see the Navajo Bridge and the Colorado River, we would need to make a 140 mile detour to get to Page and our other objectives. And then backtrack around 70 miles.We barely made it to our tour appointment at Antelope Canyon at 3 PM. We got to see Horseshoe Bend, but the visit to Glen Canyon was cut very very short, and we didn't reach camp until well after dark.
Source: Arizona Department of Transportation
It was a long day...but spectacular, just the same. More later!

For more information about progress with Highway 89, check out

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Traveling in the Way-Back Machine: The Great Valley as it could once again be...

I've written a couple of posts about my "backyard" discovery of the San Luis Wildlife Refuge Complex that preserves 26,000 acres of Great Valley prairie and wetlands environments. In the first, I referenced the "Way Back Machine" that Mr. Peabody the dog and his boy Sherman used to explore the past during the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (actually the WABAC machine). I used the term in the sense of traveling back in time to the way the Great Valley once was before European settlers co-opted the valley for agricultural development.

The more I've learned about the refuge and what they've been trying to accomplish, I'm beginning to think of the "way-back" as being a return of at least a part of the valley to the conditions that allowed the natural wildlife and vegetation to co-exist with the human community. We are trying to put the rather tattered "web" of life back together.
The Tule Elk was an integral part of the valley ecosystem. They are a subspecies of the Wapiti endemic to California. They were major grazers of the valley floor along with pronghorn antelope and blacktail deer. They were preyed on by wolves and California Grizzly Bears. Before the settlement of the Great Valley by Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Americans, more than 500,000 were thought to exist in California. They made great eating, and good leather. They were already being slaughtered in the early 1800s, but the Gold Rush truly put an end to their existence. In 1873 the state legislature, with ironic timing, banned the hunting of the elk, but they were thought to be already extinct. In 1874 a single breeding pair was discovered on the shores of the now non-existent Buena Vista Lake, and the cattle baron Henry Miller placed them under his protection. He is credited with saving the species.
The elk had a tenuous existence in the years following. Despite building up some numbers, hunting and poaching reduced the population to 21 individuals in 1895. Efforts began to protect the species by establishing herds at several isolated locations, including the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada. One of these herds was successfully started at San Luis in 1974, and is now stable at around 50 individuals living on 760 acres (a bit over a square mile). "Surplus" elk are transferred to other refuges to maintain grazing conditions. The restoration of the elk population has been a success, and there are around 4,000 of them around the state.

An auto tour at San Luis encircles the elk preserve, and we saw 30-35 of them on our drive the other day. Their enclosure is big enough to ensure good grazing conditions and to allow them some degree of privacy (lots of trees and riparian habitat to hide in).
To wrap up our exploration of the refuge, I'm including a few landscape photos to give you a feel for the place. Below is the edge of the elk enclosure and some of the dry grasslands. Not much to look at on this summer day, but you can be sure we'll be back in the spring after a few rainstorms. I expect there will be quite a flower display.
Salt Slough once drained part of the San Joaquin floodplain and hosted salmon runs and excellent wildlife habitat. Agricultural development and disruption of the riparian forest turned it into a muddy agricultural runoff channel contaminated with selenium and other toxins. Part of the efforts of the refuge managers has been to return the slough to a condition resembling its original environment. Fishing is already possible.
There is a viewing platform along Souza Marsh with a telescope. I'm glad I looked before focusing!
The marsh was pretty quiet on this summer day, but I imagine it will come to life in the migration season. We'll be back for sure!

A Cat in the Bird House? It haz no 'egrets, but I do!

The other day I posted about our discovery of a nearby treasure, a bit of the California Prairie being returned to a "pre-European" condition with the purpose of preserving a viable part of the migratory flyway for birds in the midst of their journeys between the Arctic and the Equator. It's the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a fascinating combination of riparian habitats, marshlands, wetlands and grasslands that is both a permanent home for many birds and other animals, and a stopping place for millions of others.

The other day we just followed a short auto trail, but some research told us that the refuge had much more to offer. The park recently added an excellent visitor center, and offers a number of other auto tours and hiking trails. It's not the prime part of the year to see the migratory birds, but there were plenty of other interesting things to do.
The visitor center was quite interesting with lots of interactive displays, including Lucky the resident cat. She was a feral member of the refuge who was hanging out around the visitor center while it was being constructed. When it was finished, the staff seems to have adopted her, and she has a free run of the exhibits. As the staff points out, that as an indoor kitty she has a huge playground, can't eat the native birds, and won't get eaten by one of the resident carnivores.She is quite friendly...
The building has other interesting aspects. It is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum building, with a carbon neutral footprint. Solar panels provide 100% of the energy used in the building, and it uses less than half the water of similar sized complexes.

After our visit with Lucky (oh, and the exhibits), we set out on the waterfowl auto tour. Being the height of summer we didn't expect to see many animals. We were the only visitors on the road (and there should be more). As it turned out, we saw a fair number of interesting birds, almost all of them egrets.
I took the picture above without noticing the herd of elk in the distance! The thing about the egrets is that they were wary of our presence and tended to take off quickly, so we tended to point quickly and shoot before they flew off. Like below...
Zoom lenses were handy, which explains the fuzzy look to some of the pictures. That also happened because we dispensed with tripods. There was never enough time to set up before they took off.
Oh, there's another one flying away!
Does a geological connection seem to be missing? I actually do write about other things sometimes, but I'm coming to realize that a place like the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge complex is very geological in nature. It's not just a layer of sediment. The four environments in the complex (riparian, marsh, vernal pools, and grassland) are all related to activity along the ancestral floodplain system of the San Joaquin River, which has recently started to flow through the refuge again due to legal agreements designed to maximize conditions for the migratory birds and to restore the salmon fishery. There was once a complex intermixing of these environments that was destroyed by the diversion of water for irrigation, and plowing for agricultural development. Groundwater conditions changed radically. It is taking a concerted effort at understanding the dynamics of streamflow and groundwater distribution that is making it possible to restore this complex prairie and riparian environment. It's a multi-decade project, with clear progress in many areas. I was impressed with what I saw!

To my local friends who teach: this refuge is just a few miles from Modesto, Turlock, Los Banos, and Merced, and is a perfect destination for class field trips. Kids will be fascinated with the place, both indoors and out.

Next, the big mammals that live on the complex...