Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Grabbing the porcupine

Every town has its own character. For this reason, I like to talk a little bit about the places I've visited or stayed (or stayed near). Each little town is like a person, with its own quirks, history, and look. Vernal, UT would be a very bland, noisy person, whose main distinguishing characteristic was that he was obsessed with dinosaurs.

In some cases the dinosaurs are anatomically correct museum representations, but mainly they seem to exist for the purposes of advertising the hotel swimming pool, or the possibility of Eggs any style, Bacon, Cinnamon Rolls and much more.

Vernal is noisy because the main street in town is a four-lane highway down which trucks continually rumble. The town is not particularly pedestrian friendly nor charming in any way, but there are three bookstores within a couple blocks of each other downtown, which is more than I have known many... possibly any... other small towns to have, and which hopefully speaks well of the populace.

The angel Moroni, who tops Mormon churches and temples. I have heard that the Uinta Basin, in which Vernal rests, is especially insular; that Mormons traveling from elsewhere, used to receiving a warm welcome in whatever LDS church they find themselves, will be met by stares upon entering a church in the basin. But I haven't experienced anything like unfriendliness myself. Everyone in town has been very nice to me, and for some reason everyone apologizes compulsively and repeatedly whenever they or their shopping cart could be construed as being the slightest bit in your way in the grocery store.

A business near the grocery store. I don't know why you would give a dog cats too... possibly in the interests of choice... but the fellow on the sign looks satisfied.

This van advertises that you can get all of your "I love drilling" materials here.

This is the only gas station I have ever seen with "tacos" in the name.

Finally, Zions Bank, perhaps the most interesting thing about Vernal. Back in 1916, the clever builders of this bank found that it would cost less to mail every brick from Salt Lake City to Vernal than to ship it conventionally--so that's what they did. Each of the 250,000 pounds of brick were mailed via USPS to Vernal, at seven cents a pound, after which the USPS wisely decided to change its policies.

While out hiking the next day, I found these:

They are ichthyosaur vertebrae. Ichthyosaurs were giant marine reptiles that looked a lot like angry dolphins. Since these bones were found on BLM land, I documented the location and we later called the local BLM geologist to see what he wanted to do about them. No answer yet!

A few pictures from around the park:

The last picture is swirly because it was taken through the heat of a campfire, to which I was invited by some random campers who were next to where I was reading in my hammock. They offered me beer and elk steak fajitas, but I was perversely looking forward to the spam and baked beans that I had at home and declined the latter.

An amusing set of instructions for a new hard drive in the office. Please click and read the first four instructions. My favorite is buried in #18, a commandment absolutely Biblical in its sweep and tone: "And the apparatus shall not be exposed to dripping or splashing, and that no objects filled with liquids, such as vases, shall be placed upon the apparatus."

Part of our job here has been to perform an inventory in the park's collections of specimens. The National Park Service's method of ensuring the integrity of its collections is to generate a random list of specimens for each park each year, and two (2) pairs of eyes must then verify that each of the specimens remains in the collection and undamaged. Equipped with a printout, my field partner and I began opening drawers. Some of what we found:

Each of those is a tooth, glued to a pin that is stuck into the cork of a tiny vial.

Actual size.

The park has all kinds of things in its collection. I opened this drawer to find two unknown rodents that were stretched in such funny positions, so endearingly loaf-of-bread-like, that I was compelled to immediately pick up the nearer and take a closer look at it. After a moment I realized that my fingertips hurt badly. I had just picked up a baby porcupine. The tiny barbs in its hairs were on the verge of puncturing my skin in about a hundred places, but I managed to put it back delicately without experiencing any damage.

Last weekend I didn't put up a blog entry because I was back in Denver visiting friends. I had a wonderful time. The first wonderful thing was this bit of graffiti, on the way:

Jesus is comming.

I was in town for Pride, which is a weekend filled with extravagant outfits and episodes of public drunkenness that are alternately amusing and disturbing.

I most enjoyed dancing in the open-air country tent. Here I have a clip of the dancers, which does not include myself, but does include a very dashing DP (in cap and capris).


This coming Tuesday I am headed off on a great adventure, my first river rafting trip. We are going down the Yampa River to monitor the beetles that have been introduced to combat invasive tamarisk trees. It will be a five-day trip down what is one of the most desirable rivers for rafting in the country. The Yampa is the only major tributary of the Colorado River that remains wild and undammed. Relatively few permits are granted, with only 5% of applicants accepted. It flows through gorgeous thousand-foot canyons. Because there is no dam to control flows, the river is, well, out-of-control right now, with near-record discharge levels. This is a ride that many rafting afficionados would pay a great deal to take. I do not know anything about rafting and would be happy just drifting down some lazy creek on a pool toy, but it seems instead that I am actually being paid to go on a once-on-a-lifetime excursion. For my birthday, no less.

For some images of the Yampa River, its canyons and rapids, simply check out these results from Google.

I don't know when I will next be able to do a blog entry, but I hope to have good stories and pictures!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fat cacti

This is one of the birds that likes to sit and sing to itself in my side view mirrors. These birds--I think they are western kingbirds--also like to poop down the driver and passenger doors. Here, one, looking a bit smug, takes a break to perch on top of the mirror.

A picture of the housing area, where I share a two-bedroom apartment with one of my paleo teammates:
I came across this on one of my bike rides through the park...
The Green River appears to have reached such a high stage that it has flooded the campfire circle at which rangers give evening programs.

Last weekend I climbed Split Mountain, the prominent feature on the west end of the park where I am staying. This is a truly remarkable feature that must be seen in person, but it is approximately what it sounds like. The mountain has been cut down the center by a tremendous river gorge. Here is a satellite image from Google maps:

There are no trails up Split Mountain, but I chose to take a day to climb up the north side, 2000 steep feet to the summit. My hike was approximately three hours of agony followed by two hours of blissfully enjoying the amazing views and meadows of wildflowers at the top, followed by three hours of agony. (If you've never spent several hours hiking down a slope so steep it looks like the ground is simply dropping away beneath your feet, well, it's almost as difficult as spending several hours hiking up a slope that looks like it forms a vertical wall above you.)

Here is a view to the northwest from 1/3 the way up, the Uinta mountains in the far distance:
And a view into the Green River gorge from the summit:
A view to the south, where the river makes a bend before exiting the mountan/canyon:
And a lone rounded rock on a mountain of jagged rocks.
This cobble is probably a remnant of the sediment that allowed the mountain to be split in the first place. Split Mountain formed, intact, long ago and was buried beneath sediment shed by nearby mountains. Rivers crossed this sediment, one of them flowing over the buried mountain. As the river eroded the sediment away, it eventually ate down to the level of the mountain--but now it was trapped in its own ravine and had no choice but to keep course, beginning to cut through the much harder rock beneath it. Thus we end up with a river that cut through a mountain, when it looks much more efficient for the river to have simply flowed around it.

Wildflowers on Split Mountain:
A live hawk!
This is my hunting picture. I'm holding an elk antler, which was surprisingly heavy. These, like any other artifact or piece of nature, cannot be removed from the park--however, I have heard that people will enter national parks and poach antlers, which are sold to the aphrodisiac trade in the east.
More hiking around the park, this time as part of my job, revealed evidence of the very wet spring we're having:
The Green River has flooded its nearby fields. In the post office this morning two women were talking about how one wouldn't be going on vacation if the water keeps rising--her house is in danger.

Fat cacti!
Yesterday one of my teammates and I had our first day alone out in the field, ten hours of searching for trace fossils in sandstone. We didn't find anything we could confirm as a fossil. We did find traces of humans, like flakes of chert and petrified wood shaped by prehistoric tool makers...

And, up in a difficult-to-access area, a slot in the rock that had initials carved into it.
To finish, I have some pictures I took yesterday that are representative of how pretty the park is, such as the deep box canyons in the distance of this picture--dead ends that an early settler once used to store livestock in, simply erecting a fence across the entrance.
See you next week!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Get the tongs

Last weekend I traveled to Glenwood Springs, midway between here and Denver, to go camping with DP. While there I forced her to cut my hair. We took "before" and "after" photos. Here I am, unhappy, with my mop of hair (which actually doesn't look that bad in this picture, but the problem was that it only looked good about 10% of the time, and when it chose to look good was totally random and I could not figure out how to deliberately get it into that state).
I gave various instructions to DP regarding my hair, the only ironclad injunction being "Don't make me look like Vanilla Ice," but in the end the haircut was her own creation and she did astoundingly well for having no idea how to cut someone's hair, and basically being forced into doing so at scissorpoint.
We then hiked to Hanging Lake, one of the most popular trails in Colorado. It was definitely more entertaining than usual this weekend as there has been so much rain, and there is so much snowpack to be melted this spring, that the stream beside the trail was overflowing and for half of the hike it had taken over the trail itself, requiring creative scrambling on rocks. Here, DP examines the trail (to her left) down which water is shooting... note the water breaking high against the tree on right:
Hanging Lake. We were innocently eating lunch here when a wind whipped up and blew our paper grocery bag out onto the lake, where it could not be retrieved. The 20 tourists who had just arrived had to wait for it to drift away before they could get a bag-free picture of the falls. Whoops.
Back in Utah, the rain has brought out an unusual profusion of mosquitoes, and also wildflowers.
The cacti have absorbed so much water that their pads look like footballs, ready to pop. We will come upon one when hiking and burst into laughter spontaneously because they look so funny, like a small child that has decided to hold its breath. I should get a picture to show you all. I would also like to get a picture of the bird that keeps singing to its reflection in my car's side-view mirror, but it's so hard to get pictures of birds when they're moving.

We are working in the Navajo Formation. I have talked about formations before in this blog, but I don't expect anyone who's not a geology student to remember these things. Though normal people use the words "rock formation" to describe any interesting rock feature ("Look at the rock formations in that cave!"), geologically speaking, the word "formation" has a very specific definition. It is a distinct unit of rock that is mappable over large distances. Here is a picture of three formations in the park, which were originally deposited horizontally but which have been tilted by tectonic activity:
The cliffs on the left are the Entrada Formation (sandstone; this formation forms the arches at Arches NP). The red rock in the center is the Carmel Formation (mostly mudstone) and the light slope on the right is the Navajo Formation (sandstone). They are distinct (you can tell them apart from each other) and mappable over large areas, cropping out in many places over Utah and Arizona.

Generally, the rocks in a formation were deposited in the same environment, but not necessarily at the same time. All of the Navajo was deposited in an erg, or sand sea (like today's Sahara). But this erg may have grown, shrunk, or migrated over time, so that--for instance--the Navajo in northeast Utah may not be from the same time at all as the Navajo in Zion National Park, and they might have different fossils. So formations are "time-transgressive." They also vary in thickness; the Navajo might reach to 200 feet here, but forms cliffs 1,000 feet high in Zion.

There aren't many fossils in the Navajo. Many things must happen for a bone to be found as a fossil; it must escape decay or being eaten or trampled to bits by other creatures, must escape being eroded away by tumbling in a stream; it must be impregnated by minerals dissolved in the groundwater. Eventually the earth's surface must be eroded again so that the fossil is brought near the surface, but not left out too long before being found, or it will be weathered away and lost. Only a handful of fossil sites have ever been found in the Navajo (as opposed to, say, thousands in the Morrison Formation, one of the most famous fossil-producing formations). Not many things live in a sand sea to begin with, and those that do may not have their bones locked away from scavenging and decay upon death, as a creature who sank to the bottom of a lake or swamp might. But there are still tracks and traces. Yesterday we looked at some dinosaur footprints.

Here we are looking at a section of the Navajo that was not built into dunes, but was flat-lying, and where the sand built up in layers containing different amounts of iron-bearing minerals. The layers with more iron "rusted" to a red color. A dinosaur stepped here, pushing down several layers at once, but they have since eroded flat. You can faintly see the red layer, in the shape of a three-toed footprint, peeking out between layers of pale sand. (The toes point downwards.)
Here is another print made in the same fashion, also with toes pointing downwards. It is from a smaller creature and is imperfect, with part of the heel obscured. You can also see some toe- and claw-marks from another print that was closer to my hand.
The study of fossil traces is called ichnology, and I will talk more about it in the future, including what it can be used for (other than filling up blog space).

Last night we played frisbee and one of us got the frisbee on the roof. After a couple other plans for retrieving it failed, I constructed this grappling hook made of two sets of tongs and eventually managed to snag the frisbee with it. That was the most excitement we had all week.