Thursday, January 31, 2019

Is it a Fossil Smuggling Conspiracy?? (Answer: No, it's something fun)

There's this suspicious storage container on our campus. It's been there for months, all through the construction of our much-anticipated Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab. It's always closed and locked up and I've never seen what's inside. It's makes one wonder what could be stored there...
The other day though, workers were inside moving things around when I walked by. It was time to do some detective work, so I nonchalantly walked up and acted like a supervisor and looked inside. I was SHOCKED! There were fossils! Lots and lots of fossils! There was what seemed to be a Mosasaur, a T-rex skull, some ammonites, and many others. Had I stumbled upon some kind of fossil smuggling operation? Were we being used to hide ill-gotten paleontological discoveries?
Oh, for heaven's sake. It's not that at all. Can you see that pair of cement enclosures above? Those pits will eventually be mock paleontology dig sites where our children visitors can experience the thrill of discovery. The kids will be using shovels and brushes to uncover these treasures of the past while they learn of the natural history of the Great Valley here in California.
We've been waiting for thirty years for our Great Valley Museum to have an outdoor component that will bring alive the fascinating history of the natural ecosystems of our unique valley. Before it became the premier agricultural center for the continent, the Great Valley was an extensive prairie environment with Tule Elk, Wolves, Grizzly Bears and other interesting creatures. In the geologic past, the valley was an ocean environment that hosted sharks and swimming reptiles like Mosasaurs, Ichthyosaurs, and Plesiosaurs. The Outdoor Nature Lab will be a wonderful learning environment for our local children. There are just a few more weeks to go before it is "complete" (the newly planted trees and shrubs will take years to mature, of course).

Monday, January 28, 2019

Exploring our Precious (and Abused) Places: Death Valley - February 14-18, 2019

Now that the much-lamented government shutdown is over (for the time being), some of our attention can turn to our much abused national parks and monuments. It was a crime that they were left exposed to abuse, and it is a shame that some people saw the closure of the government as a ticket to vandalize our precious places.
And they are precious beyond words. Death Valley National Park is the largest park in the lower 48 states, and it preserves upwards of 2 billion years of earth history. The story in the rocks is more complete than any other park in the country, including even the Grand Canyon. The Paleozoic sediments alone are 20,000 feet thick, and the late Proterozoic rocks add 15,000 feet more. There are metamorphic rocks that are among the oldest in the American west, and volcanic rocks that are among the youngest (perhaps only a few hundred years).
The landscape is spectacular as well. The floor of Death Valley is the lowest and driest place in North America, and the hottest place in the world. Elevations range from -286 feet to more than 11,000 feet. There are times when one can stand in the broiling sun at Badwater and look at snowbanks on Telescope Peak. There are faults and badlands, alluvial fans and barren salt flats. There are hundreds of plant and animal species, including four species of fish (seriously).

Does this sound intriguing, a kind of place that you might like to visit? You could be there in a few weeks, and learn the details of the geologic story of this unique and precious place. I'll be teaching a 2-unit course on the geology Death Valley through Modesto Junior College on Feb. 14-18. We'll be camping out and spending our days hiking and exploring this fascinating place. If this all sounds interesting, join us! If you live in the Modesto area, we'll have an informational meeting on Thursday, January 31 at 5:30 PM in Science Community Center Room 326. If you can't make the meeting, all the trip information is available at the class website  at: Information on registration for classes at Modesto Junior College can be found at

Come and join us!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse from under a Rainstorm

By all rights none of these pictures should exist. It was one of the astronomical events of the year,"Super-duper Blood Red Wolf Full Moon and Eclipse Extravaganza", or something like that. But unfortunately we had an 80% chance of rain for most of the evening in our area so I didn't expect to see any of it.
And yet...I couldn't help going outside every few minutes on the off chance that a break in the storm might occur. About the time of totality I could see clearing off to the west, and the opening was moving east at an excruciatingly slow pace. But I finally saw a patch of light through the clouds, and then there it was.
So tonight's post documents only a small portion of the celestial event, but I felt privileged to see just this much. After about 15-20 minutes the next wave of clouds moved over and blocked out the moon once again.
If there is any consolation, I got a somewhat interesting video of the clouds moving across the moon, accompanied by narration from Zoey the cat, who couldn't understand why I wasn't picking her up. The jerkiness in the middle of the video resulted from the kitty claws digging into my leg as she hopped up into my lap.


Friday, January 18, 2019

Join the Geotrippers! British Columbia, the Channeled Scablands, the Olympic Peninsula and the North Cascades, June 26-July 10, 2019

What are you going to do this summer? Are there places in the world that you've thought of visiting but never made a plan? Maybe we can be of assistance in fulfilling your dreams! The geology and anthropology departments at Modesto Junior College will be conducting a field course dyad that will explore Washington and British Columbia on June 26-July 10, 2019. Anyone with an interest in geology or anthropology is encouraged to join us (if you want to skip the reading and get to the details, scroll down to the bottom of this post).

Our journey will begin in the Seattle area where we'll get our rental vans (yes, you'll need to find your way to Seattle). We'll then head out to the Olympic Peninsula where we'll explore Olympic National Park (including the iconic view from Hurricane Ridge, above). There will be an opportunity to explore some of the rainforest. Cape Flattery and the Makah Nation will be the anthropology focus on one day.

We'll then take the ferry across the Strait of Georgia to the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. "Island" barely describes a landmass three hundred miles long. It has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, and we'll be looking for petroglyphs and other archaeological evidence as we explore the south shore and then work our way north through Duncan to Nanaimo.

From Nanaimo, we'll take a ferry back to the North America mainland at Howe Sound. We will spend several days in the Vancouver area, exploring both the coastal mountains and Fraser River delta, and also the extensive museums in the city.

We'll travel the Sea to the Sky Highway, a spectacular route that leads from Vancouver to Whistler and Pemberton, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. We'll have a chance to observe active glaciers and potentially active volcanoes, including Mt. Garibaldi and the Black Tusk.
You'll have a chance to figure out how this landscape happened...(below).
 We'll return to the United States by way of the Okanogan Valley and we'll then explore one of the strangest landscapes on Earth, the Grand Coulees and Channeled Scablands. The discovery of evidence for the incredible Spokane Floods of the ice ages is one of the great stories of geology.
We'll wrap up the trip by passing over the Cascade Range at North Cascades National Park with a stop along the potentially active Mt. Baker volcano.

This trip is just the latest of MJC’s unique collaboration of field studies in geology and anthropology, taught by anthropology professor Susan Kerr and geology professor Garry Hayes.

When and How? The group will come together in Renton, Washington (near SeaTac Airport and Seattle) on June 26 and will return to SeaTac mid-day on July 10. We will travel in rental vans, and stay in hotels.

Costs: The trip will cost $1,600, which includes transportation, admission fees, accommodations, and teaching materials. Students will be responsible for getting to and from Seattle, and for meals (many of the hotels offer free breakfasts, and some rooms will have microwaves). There will be the tuition costs for six units of semester credit, and the fees for getting or renewing a passport.

Accommodations: We are staying in a variety of motels and hotels. We are assuming double occupancy for married couples, and double to triple occupancy for singles. We will try to accommodate requests for single rooms for a surcharge, but cannot guarantee it. (The earlier your request, the better the chance for getting extra rooms).

Academics: The field courses are worth three semester units each (total of six). Participants will be expected to keep field notes and to complete worksheets and quizzes during the trip.

There will be an informational meeting on Wednesday January 23rd at 7:00 PM in Science Community Center 326 on the West Campus of MJC. Contact the professors if you cannot attend (hayesg - at - or kerrs - at 

For up-to-date announcements, check out the trip Facebook page at and the MJC Geology information page at

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Outdoor Nature Lab at the Great Valley Museum Takes Shape

For thirty years it was nothing more than a dream, something hoped-for, but never realized for lack of funds. Ten years ago it became a possibility when our country passed Measure E to redevelop the campus of Modesto Junior College. But there were many, many projects, more than the measure could pay for. But there was still enough of a dream that the faculty and museum staff requested that the vacant lot north of our Science Community Center not be developed in any way in hopes that the last of the Measure E funds might be utilized to construct the Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab (some administrators wanted to put in grass along with irrigation and walkways; we knew if that happened, the lab would never come into being).
The decision was finally made a year or two ago. The last of the funds would be devoted to the Outdoor Lab! Then came the proposals and planning. Then the budget realities and deciding what parts had to be cut. And finally at the end of the summer the construction began.
There was the very fun business of selecting many tons of boulders and watching them get dropped into place. When I left for the holiday break there were only hummocks of dirt but when I returned this week the concrete walkways had been completed. With the boulders in place, the irrigation system could be installed and in the next three weeks or so an entire woodland of native vegetation will be planted.
The greenhouse is coming along, as are the two mock paleontology dig sites. We have hopes of adding a dinosaur to the landscape, a reasonable facsimile of an Augustynolophus Morrisi, the state dinosaur. The first dinosaur ever found in the state was discovered in our county (it was a Saurolophus of some sort, possibly an Augustynolophus). Interpretative signs are being designed.
Many of the children in our region are not able to visit the wild areas that remain in the Great Valley and adjacent Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. The Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab will be a microcosm of the valley and foothill ecosystem, with native vegetation, native rock outcrops, and a vernal pool. It is our hope that the native birds, reptiles, and other animals will start making a home in our little microenvironment.
It is a marvelous feeling to see a decades-long dream coming at last to fruition. It's an exciting time for us! More updates to come...

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Another Surprise from the Tuolumne River: River Otters!

This year just gets better and better (I have a futile hope that this trend continues for the entire year...). Yesterday I get the best look ever at a Bobcat on the Tuolumne River, and then today, another marvelous sight: River Otters up close and personal.

I see River Otters once in awhile during my walks along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford, but they've always been pretty far away, and I characteristically see a nose and eyes sticking out of the water. Today I was along part of the Don Pedro irrigation infrastructure near La Grange looking for a rare bird that's been reported in the area. I was on a highway bridge and looking down I saw ripples along the bank and immediately figured it was some ducks hiding in the brush, but then I saw whiskers. I started snapping pictures, which were all practically unusable except for the one above. I then remembered to turn on the video and I got a pretty nice, if short, bit of one of the otters exploring the bank.
The picture above is a screen capture from the video, actually.

River Otters have a decent future as California rivers get cleaner and flows become more generous as planners start to see rivers in the context of an entire ecosystem that we are part of, instead of as a faucet solely for agricultural interests. A pair of River Otters was even seen in Yosemite Valley recently for the first time in decades. It is such a pleasure to see these playful animals in the wild.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Surprise Today on the Tuolumne River: A Bobcat!

Here's some unexpected fun...Mrs. Geotripper and I decided on the spur of the moment to watch the sunset from upstream on the Tuolumne River near Turlock Lake. Of course I was watching for bird species, but something moving in the field a few hundred yards away caught my eye. I realized it was a Bobcat. It didn't notice me watching. I was snapping pictures at first, and all it was doing was showing me its tail, but I finally realized I could also do video. Eventually I got two pictures of its face. It's the first one I've ever seen long enough for pictures of any kind.

Bobcats are a North American species with a range that extends from Central Mexico to Canada. They are smaller than Lynxes, but about twice as big as a domestic cat. The ancestors of the Bobcat came across the Bering Land Strait around 2.6 million years ago, and the modern species appeared about 20,000 years ago. They've done pretty well adapting to the expansion of the human species despite being hunted for their fur or to prevent predation of farm animals.

It was a thrill to finally see one for more than a brief glance!

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, or the class web page (soon to be updated) at

See you on the road!