Friday, October 5, 2012

Time to Fly South

Trout Lake and the Vermillion Peaks
It is finished: another season at Mesa Verde just ended and we're on the move again.  Almost all of my final day was spent hiking down a canyon I had never had the chance to explore yet: the aptly named Long Canyon. 

Our goal was to investigate springs that in recent history were described by Marylin Collier as having pools of water.  One site was a thicket of Forestiera neomexicana, the New Mexican Privet.  It had lots of tiny blue berries and bright yellow leaves in a nice autumn show, but the thorns make it somewhat stand-offish.  The next site was high up on a cliff and took some serious hiking to reach, and had a grove of 20 Populus fremontii (fremont cottonwood) trees, but like nearly all the springs in the park, no surface water.  The final site we visited had a pool of water, but was trampled extensively by feral horses and cows so that the riparian community was no longer intact and worth investigating for a long-term monitoring project. 
The closest to seeing a lynx I've even been

This past season is the 2nd driest on record for Mesa Verde, and the area is in the 11th year of a persistent drought, so it is really having a toll on the hydrology.  We had intended to explore another spring far up the canyon wall, but did not have enough time.  Instead, we visited a large sandstone arch below Springhouse Ruin.  A great finish to my last hours working.

For weekend fun, we drove down Last Dollar Road, a scruffy mountain pass that connects the Telluride basin to the Dallas Divide.  The quaking aspens were just gorgeous, and the weather had a crisp, cool edge after the first snow fall.  I hiked through a little snow up one of the nearby peaks called Whipple Mountain, and somewhere up there I lost my Fire Crew hat.  We finished hiking around and then went for an extended soaking session in the hot springs of Ouray and ate a delicious meal at the Ore House Hotel.
Snow on Sneffels

We camped again at Angel and the morning was frigid.  We drove up to Camp Bird Mine, which is being reopened to process tailings and perhaps mine a bit more ore from the mountains.  The road was in great shape, but we decided not to push our old truck too much and turned around shortly past the mine.  I explored a small creek coming off the mountain, which led to a series of waterfalls and another set of "Baby Bathtubs".  After that, we went for a hike up the steep switchbacks of Weehawken Trail.

We're going to miss the scenery and adventure of the Four Corners.  I wonder if we will return or if the future holds something different for us?

For now, it's on the road again!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thar's Gold in Them Thar Hills!

Columbine Creek
Come greet your newest National Monument:  Chimney Rock!  I read a great book about a new wildlife biologist who fought all kinds of obstacles to save the Peregrine Falcons nesting there: Wings for My Flight.  It's a very scenic spot, so no wonder the Ancient Puebloans build a Great House there.  The book House of Rain has an excellent chapter about the Lunar Standstill event than can be seen from the twin spires of rock that frame the ruin.

Nature's Hardest Hue to Hold
As always, I can't believe another season is drawing to a close.  We've been very busy at Mesa Verde trying to complete our projects.  The new Visitor Center is about to open; it is built on the site of an old corn field worked in the mid 20th century.  Since all the native plants were lost in the plowing of the field, we're working to restore it to some semblance of a natural mix of plants.  It will probably take another five years of consistent effort of planting and controlling invasive plants before it's done.
Columbine Lake (click link for professional photos)

Since our weekends are numbered, we've been sure to get out and enjoy fall every chance we get!  Having been born in Texas, I have a strong bias towards Spring as my favorite season:  redbuds, dogwoods, and magnolias all in full blossom, and whole fields turning blue, red, and yellow with wildflowers as the songbirds migrate up from Central and South America -- I feel like the New Year doesn't really begin until the first flowers.  A Rocky Mountain spring is very different: the weather pattern is chaotic with snows, dust storms and heat waves all in the same week.  The plants (and field technicians) can't trust it.  Oak trees do not leaf out until late May, and even then they can get zapped by frost like many did this year and have to go through a second leafing almost a month later.  Spring tries to start up in the valleys, and moves up the slopes in fits and starts, with July being the best wildflower season since snows have finally melted and monsoon rains hit the lower canyons.

Engineer Mountain
 Autumn is a different story in the Four Corners: the plants and birds all take their cue from the shortened day length and the season is much more organized.  The trees and shrubs all agree Fall is here and the aspens steal the show here with there bright gold leaves.  It is visually stunning to see the quaking leaves suddenly let loose by a strong breeze and rain down along a mountain side.  The air is crisper, so the moon shines bright as geese and humming birds all shuffle for the season.  Colorado's best season for me is Fall.

A scenic overlook of the Ampitheater
Finally, I made the effort to see Columbine Lake.  It's a steep switch-backing trail that heads over Silver Shield basin and up to Columbine Lake (not to be confused with the other 1000 Columbine Lakes).  I saw a Blue Grouse in the park last week, and another as we hiked the Pass Creek trail from Coalbank Pass this past weekend.  It was very windy as we stood below the summit block of Engineer Mountain, so we took shelter behind a lone, stalwart fir and watched a bluebird dance in the gusts.

View from campsite
We camped overnight at Angel Campground, nestled in the cliffs that frame Canyon Creek above Ouray.  This is the same campground I stayed with my brother and friend 4 years earlier before I began working at Mesa Verde.  The following morning, we hiked along the Portland Trail around the Amphitheater, and then went for a long soak in the hot springs.  Driving toward the Matterhorn on the way back home, we had to stop and stare at the aspens framing Mount Wilson.

A cold front was bearing down on the mountains and the first snowfall to hit the Weminuche would begin falling in two days.
Das Matterhorn

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Arrival of Autumn

Summer was gone and the heat died down
And Autumn reached for her golden crown
I looked behind as I heard a sigh
But this was the time of no reply.

The trees on the hill had nothing to say
They would keep their dreams till another day
So I stood and thought and wondered why
For this was the time of no reply.

Time goes by from year to year
And no one asks why I am standing here
But I have my answer as I look to the sky
This is the time of no reply.  -- Nick Drake

The Equinox is here and the aspens at the higher elevations have already spun their bright gold.  Morning's here are already chilly, so I need to dress for 3 seasons each day.  On the first cool day, we went for a short hike down the lower Dolores River Canyon.  It is like a miniature Grand Canyon experience (excuse the oxymoron); towering red sandstone cliffs capped in white with white and a tiny river flowing down.  We saw an osprey, and at the overlook was a family of white-throated swifts zooming around the cliffs like fighter jets.  The swifts would SWOOOSH right over your shoulder, occasionally starting you to watch them instead of the sweeping vistas.  On the way home, we stopped by Lowry Pueblo with the intent to hide a geocache there.  Every place we thought might make a good hiding place had artifacts on the ground, so decided against it.

The next weekend, I went for a hike up Owen's Basin in the La Plata mountains.  The aspen there were still green, but there were a few groves that had already turned a luminous autumnal orange.  When I arrived at the basin, I saw the Mountain of the North, Dibé Nitsaa, in bright sunshine.  Each time I've been near this mountain, it has sent me discouraging vibes:  rockfalls, snow, storms, tired feets... this time it beckoned.  Even the route up seemed obvious on a mountain that has few obvious routes.  By the time I reached the summit, it was shrouded in thin clouds that swiftly flowed around the summit, making me feel like the summit was moving in a sea of clouds.  Sometimes gaps in the clouds provided views of Mount Moss, Centennial, Durango, and Mancos.  Then a pair of sharp-shinned hawks circled the summit, with one flying straight towards me with a loud SWOOSH as he flew just overhead.  Right after that, the cloud deck lifted quickly, where I could see Sleeping Ute, El Diente, Engineer, and the Needles far in the distance.  A few huge clouds the size of an ocean liner would come sweeping down at the summit, giving the sense it would crash into me with force -- but instead would just wrap around like a light mist and pelt the ground with a few white gems of sleet.

I made my way down along a faint trail and misunderestimated the amount of time required to get back.  Darkness fell, and I neglected to bring a light to save weight in my pack.  I reached the river fording at dark and was scared outta my shoes by a cow-bear!  (a black angus that spooked out from the willows and for a split-second I thought was a bear).  I got back to my truck and noticed some mud and my side mirrors bent -- darn meddling kids!  In the morning light, I realized the mud had huge paw marks on them: there was indeed a bear o'er there!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Goodbye to Pumpkin

This is Pumpkin, aka Squeakers.  She was born in October 1993 and died September 13, 2012.  We already miss her a lot, since as her nickname suggests, she was very vocal about what was going on.  The house is much more quiet without her always getting in the last word.

All our old cats went through varying degrees of renal failure.  Just a few weeks ago we noticed her behavior change; she always begged to go outside to eat grass like a little lamb, watch bugs, and sniff the air.  Instead of eating grass, she just wanted to lick rocks and eat dirt.  We decided she was trying to compensate for something going on in her body, so we took her to the vet for blood tests which showed her kidney disease had become much worse and they could not keep up anymore.  We tried phosphate binders and medicine to help her appetite, but it didn't help enough to overcome the kidney problems.  We helped her along as much as we could, but she just became too tired to move on her own and lost more weight. After consulting the vet, we let her die without more suffering.

Pumpkin was a tiny cat, but had a huge heart.  She was incredibly fierce and not afraid to back down from anything;  the kind of cat that would chase bears out from the back yard.  If we put cat-nip out, I was concerned for the safety of our other pets!  Despite being half the size of our other cats, she defended her food bowl and scarfed food down so quickly she often pushed other cats aside to eat theirs too.  There was even one occasion where she snatched a huge piece of pizza out from the hand of a guest!  Mostly, she enjoyed lying in the sun, playing with her little sockie, and eating grass.

We buried her next to George.  It's a sunny, peaceful spot in a mountain meadow that catches the morning sun... and has lots of grass for our little lambie.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Blue Moon

Lichens on Snowstorm Summit
Last night's blue moon was brilliant over the Four Corners.  I can't believe it's already September, although cooler temperatures at work would be a nice treat.  Our crew is down to three, since one team member has left to study the ecology of non-vascular plants on the Colorado Plateau.  At work, we've been gathering seeds from different wetland plants, such as willows, sedges, and rushes, in order to mitigate an acre of wetland lost to road construction.  It will be interesting to see what will work and what won't, since there is not a lot of information on how this can be successfully done in the arid canyons.

Heterotheca fulcrata near Kennebec Pass
Another huge project at work that is taking place even as I type is ridding the Mancos River Canyon of the noxious invasive weed Acroptilon repens (Russian Knapweed). We had a dirty dozen come help us out from the Lake Mead Exotic Pest Management Team.  The access route is a washed-up two-track that crosses some gullies that are just too steep to get trailers through.  We were able to borrow a fire truck and stage it on a neighbor's property to be a water tender, and then used a UTV with a spray tank to shuffle water back and forth for herbicide spraying.  It was tough and dusty work, but the professional team managed to cover 70% of the entire canyon; quite an accomplishment given the ruggedness of the terrain and hazards such as timber rattlesnakes, hidden fences, thorny plants, and poison ivy... not to mention the heat.  Some of the areas we treated were once old prairie dog towns.  I'd love to restore those colonies once again after the native plants return.

Lewis Mountain
For weekend adventure, I explored some of La Plata canyon.  There aren't many hiking trails in the area, since it is mostly a mining region and so more of a 4-wheeling/mountain biking destination.  I walked my non-mountain bike past Fly-By-Night Gulch (how appropriate is that name for a mine) and up Kennebec Pass.  My goal was to report on the condition of a 100 year old benchmark on the summit of Snowstorm Peak.  I didn't have map or GPS, but recalled Snowstorm was just south of the pass, so I stashed my bike and began huffing my way up some steep slopes.  I climbed two peaks, joined by a narrow saddle, but didn't find the mark on either summit.  I did get great views of Centennial and Hesperus peaks to the west, and a thunderstorm north of Durango.  The stormy weather was building, so I scampered down and hid from sleet in the entrance of an old mine.  The ride down was a hoot; I don't think the brakes or my brains will be the same.

Yellow-bellied Marmot - Mayor of Animas Forks
Another trip was a tour up to Animas Forks, a charming ghost town now inhabited completely by marmots.  Several buildings still stand, and the BLM is trying to stabilize them with new roofs.  My brother and I had always wanted to see the Duncan house since we first saw a photo of it in the Ouray visitor center years ago.  Sadly, he is very scared of ghosts, so now I'll have to kidnap him one day and tell him we're going to a pancake house.  Lisa liked the Gustav House, since it had some of the original wall paper and a few other scraps left behind (greedy souvenir hunters have long since taken every scrap not nailed down).  The walls were insulated with newspaper, including an edition of the Animas Forks Pioneer -- the highest newspaper office in the history of the USA.
Eureka Falls

To the west was the massive ruins of the old Frisco Mill that just turned 100 years old.  The roof is essentially gone, but it would be a shame to see all those huge timbers just rot away.  An entire old-growth forest must've been logged just for that one building; most of the beams are easily 24 x 24" and 20' long... and there's thousands of them.  There doesn't seem to be much left of Eureka, but there is a little canyon there with 3 awesome waterfalls.  A few more waterfalls were along the way.  We camped near a cascade by Animas Forks and awoke to frost on the windshield in mid August -- I can't imagine what a winter would be like there.

Hope everyone has a great holiday weekend!
Rainbow over the Gold Prince ruins

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dare Mighty Things!

If you haven't checked it out yet, you may wish to cast your eyes to the solar system.  Specifically, Mars Science Lander, aka Curiosity, is about to reach mars (5 hours and counting!!!!).   It will reach the atmosphere at 11:31pm Mountain Time, so pretty late to stay up, but I can't miss it.  Once it's down, nothing too exciting will happen the first few days, except transmitting a few pictures.  Looks like we'll have to wait nearly a month before it begins vaporizing rocks with a nuclear powered laser beam. (how cool is *that*?)

Work has blazed by, with us completing the Long Term Post-Fire monitoring.  90 plots down!  The monsoons have kicked off a few fires in the Park and on Ute tribal land to our south.  We even discovered one on Park Mesa en route to our research plots.  The fire crew has jumped right on them, so they haven't been over a few acres.

I've been meaning to post a farewell epitaph to Lonesome George, the famous Giant Tortoise that died a month ago.  With his death, we witnessed an entire species go extinct.  It's a great reminder to the work I do to preserve the habitats we have left.

We haven't done much the past few weekends because the thunderstorms have been chasing us around.  There were a few benchmarks we recovered (one required a bit of digging), saw a big wildfire blow-up near Durango's airport, and finally made a hike along the Cross-Mountain trail.  We had tried that hike last year, but was totally snowed out.  It was great to get to the base of Lizard Head and hike along the expanse of Black Face ridge.  The views were amazing and lots of wildflowers near Wilson's Meadow boosted my spirits.

Good luck to everyone planning some big life changes right now! 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Raining Apricots

Lower Alta Lake
The moonsoons have started a little early, and it's very welcome news.  The montane and alpine zones were drying up, so hopefully the rains have come in time to let a few wildflowers bloom.  It has also helped quash a few of the wildfires burning around the state.  Also, every time the wind blows, the two little apricot trees in our backyard shake loose a volley of fruit.  Anyone want some fresh apricots?  I wish I had known they would make so much fruit, because I would've watered them more.  These are pretty small, about the size of a ping-pong ball... but really tasty.

Mama Mallard
Despite Menefee mountain burning up, we were still able to get our workload done.  This included a survey of the Mancos River valley, mostly to size up the Russian Knapweed infestation and formulate a plan to tackle it.  We also had some fun; visiting the ghost-town of Alta Lakes, the place Tesla was hired to install the world's first AC power plant.  We saw beavers foraging, mama ducks teaching her chicks to swim in straight lines, and gobs of turquoise damselflies.  Sadly, this area is soon to be "developed"  -- I put that in quotes because, in the words of Indigo Montoya, "I don't think that word means what you think it means".

Emerald Lake
We stuffed our face and watched the only fireworks show on the 4th allowed in the entire county.  Then we went hiking out to Emerald Lake (not to be confused with the 50,000 other Emerald Lakes -- insert rant about poor names for magnificent wonders).

Emerald Lake of the Weminuche Wilderness is the 3rd largest natural lake in Colorado.  It is over 250 feet deep, and is split into two lakes by a narrow isthmus.  It is really scenic, and when the sun shone, the shores were green like its namesake.  Far in the mist to the north skulked mount Oso, and despite Lisa being tired from the hike up and the storms booming around us, it beckoned us to go onwards.  Instead, the weather demanded our attention, with nearly constant light rain and distant thunderstorms threatening worse.  We dreaded spending dinner in the rain, so decided to backpack out after 1 night on the trail.  It was a long, muddy slog, but we made it back home by midnight.
Mount Oso in the Mists

We've been recovering all day.  Mostly watching the nearly grown puffins scamper about the Loafing Ledge.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Rockies Under Siege

Credit: Sam Green/Cortez Journal
 One year ago, Audubon Magazine posted an interesting article regarding a new concept:  Megafires -- forest fires in the western states that over the past 20 years have shattered records.  Nothing brings the point home like watching the sky turn orange on your weekend.

Temperatures for the western states have been rising 70% faster than the global average for the past decade.  According to Science magazine, fire season for the Rockies is 205 days, almost 3 months longer than the average 25 years ago, resulting in 6 times the acreage burned per year.

Fire season this year went off with a bang in mid May:  The Whitewater fire in the Gila Wilderness (still burning at 300,000 acres), and closer to home, the Little Sand fire in the San Juans (still burning at 24,000 acres).  The Gila Wilderness fire will be of special interest for research, since it is in an area with lots of ponderosa pines that have been managed with prescribed burns.  Fires can burn at different intensities, and certain habitats are much better adapted to fires than others.  This month the Front Range has been having mega fires near cities that captured national attention.
Rock glacier moraine, Kismet, and Sneffels

This past weekend, we escaped the unseasonably hot temperatures by going for a hike in the mountains.  We went to Blaine Basin on the north face of Mount Sneffels.    It's a nice hike with a few waterfalls and cascades, with the basin having great views of the north face of Sneffels, Whitehouse, and Circque Mountain. There were lots of columbine, but most of the alpine wildflowers seemed to be dormant, waiting for rain to make up for the very low amount of snowpack this year.  Seeing the mountain streams burst out from the rock glaciers is profound: the start of a stream that joins a river and heads to the sea.
Primula parryi (Parry's Primrose)

Around lunchtime, we could smell smoke on the gusting south winds.  Since I had been smelling smoke from the Little Sand fire at Mesa Verde for the past 2 weeks, I assumed it was from that fire picking up in activity.  In another 2 hours, the sky turned a strange umber with the sun looking rusty orange.  Mountains in the far distance faded out from view, and a marmot looked at me with a concerned expression.  A huge flat rock in the stream reflected back the orange glow from the sun as if the water was catching fire.  Hiking up the saddle between the jagged peaks into the sickly setting sun, breathing smoke and feeling the altitude, made me imagine this to be the lair of dragons!

Here be Smaug the Dragon?
The following day, after a soak in the hot springs at getting my caffine fix at Mouse's Chocolate, we did a few caches near the miner's shrine in Silverton and finally headed home.  Driving west from Durango, I noticed a towering smoke plume in the distance.  I was really concerned that it was Mesa Verde going up in flames.  When we drove further west towards the La Platas, we realized that Menefee Mountain was all on fire.  Billowing smoke plumes, huge flames, and lots of cars going everywhere like an ants nest had been stirred.  Fortunately this past week we had our first glimpse of monsoon rains.  It didn't rain much, but the higher humidity and slightly cooler temperatures really helped dampen the energy of the fire.  A smaller fire started on the ridge due south from our house in Cortez, so a helicopter was diverted to put it out the following morning.
Springing from the weight of the mountains
Like the heart of the earth would burst

Maybe next season I'll look for a job in Alaska?

I found a fun new way to spend Sunday evenings: virtual Star Parties at CosmoQuest!  I always wanted a huge telescope with a smooth clock drive and a clue as to what to point it at.  Star Parties were always great because I could rely on others to have quality gear, point it at something cool, and most importantly, be able to explain what the heck I was staring at.  The virtual star party is the next best thing, since from the comfort of my chair we can watch many telescopes and learn about the stars from professional astronomers.  Very cool!  Now they just need to provide a remote app that lets me take control of a telescope.  :-)

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Calico Peak
A fun way to spend some free time is hunting down US Geological Survey benchmarks.  These are markers that were used to create maps, and many of them are historic.  Many mountain tops are perfect locations for surveying because they have line of sight to many landmarks, so these summits frequently have bronze disks where the survey station was positioned to triangulate new positions and determine elevations.  Because they can be remote, often the benchmarks have not been visited in a long time.  The National Geodetic Survey maintains a database of these marks and knowing if the mark is still usable could be valuable information.

Over the weekend, I visited two survey markers: one on Eagle Mountain and another on Expectation Mountain.  I followed Horse Creek trail up from Rico; it's a nice trail that begins with a pretty waterfall and passes by many old mines, such as The Puzzler, Nutmeg, and of course, Expectation.  Some of the rocks along the peak have sparkly crystals in them; the bright green tiny crystals that I think are olivine and a dark silvery crystal in the shape of small daggers that are probably galena.  Since it was kinda on/in the way, I also scampered up Anchor Mountain.  Climbing three peaks in one day was a little exhausting, but an excellent adventure.

The weather continues to be hot and dry, so burn bans are being implemented.  Let's hope the monsoons start soon!
Aptly named Eris and her moon Dysmonia

To help keep my cool, I've begin hunting minor planets made of ice again.  That's right, icehunters is back, this time reincarnated as IceInvestigators.  Log in, take the tutorial, and hopefully score New Horizons some additional  new worlds to explore. On the previous set of images from icehunters, volunteers had identified 24 Kuiper Belt Objects in the 2004/2005 data and so far about 18 unique KBOs in the 2011 data. No KBO yet found is reachable by New Horizons, but the closest one requires less than twice the available onboard fuel to be targeted -- so close.  As a bonus, a few asteroids and variable stars were discovered too.  Awesome!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Waterfalls and the Upcoming Transit of Venus

Red Mountain #1
It may not be the dog days of summer yet, but it sure seems like it.   The threat of forest fires is occurring sooner this year because of the warm spring, so the fire crew is rushed to complete some of the fuel-reduction treatments around buildings at Mesa Verde.  The buildings around Chapin Mesa are in the middle of Astragalus schmolliae (Schmoll's Milkvetch) habitat, so we needed to flag plants at risk so they wouldn't be mowed down.  Then we did some reveg work at Yucca House National Monument, where we found a state-listed rarity, Penstemon breviculus.  Finally, that led to us chasing Houndstounge, Cynoglossum officinale at the Morefield campground.  We've been fighting houndtoungue there for at least 3 years now, and so far it has not been seen outside the environs of the campground so we hope we can exterminate it before it infects another area of the Park.  The good news is that it seems like we're suppressing it well; the bad news is that the seed base lasts from 5-10 years, so it will take a few more sweeps before we can claim victory.

Gray Copper Falls
It was a hot weekend for Montezuma county, with temps in the upper 80's, so we escaped to the mountains.  There is a really nice hike near the ghost town of Ironton called Gray Copper Falls.  We spent the afternoon leisurely hiking up to the falls.  We found a tiny population of the uncommon orchid Calypso bulbosa (fairy-slipper orchid), and something I have dubbed the Snow Ghost mushroom.  We did encounter a little bit of snow, but it is nothing compared to last year when even on the 4th of July we were still humping over snow drifts.

By late afternoon, we had reached the falls in the shadow of Red Mountain Number 1 (really, couldn't think of a better name for a mountain?).  The
"Snow Ghost" Mushroom
hosetail-falls had the remnants of a giant snow/ice cone similar to Coronet Falls, but only the base was left.  We couldn't approach the base of the falls, but I continued hiking up to the top and found the collapsed tunnel of an old mine and crumbled down cabin on the north side of the stream.  Timberline was just a little bit further, but it seemed best to turn around and save peak-bagging for another day.  Before turning back to the trailhead, we saw a Golden Eagle circle the high mountain ridges.  Then we were visited by a family of mule deer.  It was really nice having the trail all to ourselves for the entire day!

We camped near the leach fields of Ironton (don't drink the water!) and had a nice, little fire by moonlight.  In the morning, we re-visited Cascade Falls in Ouray and payed traditional homage to Mouse's Chocolate. YUM!  We stopped at Little Molas Lake to soak in the vistas when lightning strikes chased us out from the mountains.  It was great to see it rain, since the wildflowers aren't going to make it on the snow melt alone.

I hope to see the Transit of Venus this coming week and then think of some way to celebrate World Oceans Day when I'm over 1,000 miles from the closest ocean.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Road to Chaco

Fossil wood fragments
This past week, I had the chance to be a paleontologist for a day.  A road-cut along the main road in Mesa Verde exposes a nice outcrop of the middle Menefee formation units.  Recently, erosion happened and a few sandstone blocks tumbled down the man-made cliff onto the shoulder of the road.  Since this was an important outcrop (Menefee is part of the Mesa Verde Group, so this road cut serves as a Type description), we rushed down to describe fossils contained within the rocks.

For the most part, it contained wood fragments in various states of coal.  This area was once a swamp 78,000,000 years ago and this particular outcrop resembles a flood plain near the shoreline.  A few animal burrows were found; bark-beetle tunnels in the wood and what might be ghost shrimp burrows in the sand.  We found a good laurel leaf imprint, and a fossil that resembles an avocado (pending identification).   If you want to give it a try, you can see a few photos posted to my G+ account.

At work, we focused on rare plant surveys this week.  Three botanists from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program were here for their projects, and we tagged along.  We found new populations of Aletes macdougalii (Indian Parsley), and mapped a few areas of Hackelia graclienta (Mesa Verde Stickseed).  Intensive surveys of Astragalus schmolliae (Schmoll's Milkvetch) were also done.  I also found time to assist the wildlife biologists with some fence repairs.

Which room held the Macaws?
For Memorial Day weekend, we went camping at Chaco Canyon.  I have been wanting to visit that unique area since I first knew it was out there... but it is way out there. It's surrounded by badlands, and to emphasize that point, we battled strong winds during the day.  It was so windy, tents from the campground were being ripped from the ground and gusts would sweep sand into your face.  It was so windy, the mystery on why the ancient Chaco people left the area didn't seem so mysterious to us.

Fortunately, Chaco is rich in mystery.  The Great Houses were the largest buildings in North America for the past thousand years and were not surpassed in size until the early 1900's.  They required 210,000 trees, most of which were cut, seasoned, and transferred over 50 miles.  Why was this amazing place built in the middle of Nowhere, when they could've built it along the banks of the San Juan or Animas river?  Just reaching Chaco on foot back then must've required a carefully prepared journey, so maybe the remoteness was to enforce purpose on those who wished to visit?  They certainly didn't try to hide it, since huge effort went into creating 400 miles of ritual avenues that led to Chaco from many different directions.  And this is just the beginning of questions about Chaco that continues to vex archeologists.

Pueblo Bonito
When the sun set, the winds settled down and allowed the campfire program about archeo-astronomy to be held.  It was an interesting talk, and presented some intriguing sites all along the canyon; such as the solstice Sun Dagger Petroglyph and the Supernova Pictograph.  After the talk, volunteers setup huge telescopes at the observatory so we could see M-51 (the Whirlpool Galaxy), M-13, and Saturn with its entourage of moons.

We spent out last day on hikes up to Pueblo Alto and down canyon to see more petroglyphs and a few more Great Houses.  The wind really tore into us and we felt baked at the end of the day.  I'm glad I didn't have to walk the Great North Road back to Mesa Verde!  Now it's time to enjoy some Chacoan food:  chocolate imported from central America!

Farewell, Chaco Canyon!

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Flying Monkeys of Zion

So there I was... surrounded by a scrum of scruffy fire fighters in a dimly lit garage in the shadow of The Sentinel, listening to a briefing of the surrounding hazards.  "So there's a huge propane tank behind the museum, and over here is the magazine for storing blasting caps that has a quarter-mile detonation radius, and this area over by Hurricane is called Monkey Fling Mesa and may have jet fuel and rockets..."  Yes, boys and girls, life is strange.

A crew from Mesa Verde had arrived at Zion National Park to assist with a 670 acre prescribed burn in the northwest area of the park to restore a ponderosa forest.  By the time we arrived, the weather forecast had changed; red flag warnings would be in place over the next several days along with above normal temperatures and relative humidity in the single digits.  Since the Rx-burn was cancelled, we were asked to remain in the park for the next few days to assist if a wildfire would occur.

Why is that area with the rockets called Monkey Fling Mesa, you ask?  It turns out that this area is where fighter jet ejection seats were designed and tested.  To ensure the rocket-seats were safe, chimpanzees were strapped into the rocket-propelled upholstery.   Therefore, at least one of my friends buttocks has benefited from a mach-1 monkey arcing 2000 feet above the desert floor.  Discuss.

The final bit of surrealism was having our campsite below the Altar of Sacrifice.  Being able to visit Zion National Park for the first time was a real treat.  The scenery is as stunningly majestic as Kings Canyon and Yosemite, except it is out of sandstone instead of granite.  It should be on your bucket-list of places to see, and maybe it already is because the park gets in excess of 3 million visitors per year.  The campground was constantly full, so plan accordingly. 

I really wanted to hike a little into the back-country, but since we needed to be close to the engines, our hikes could never get more than 2 miles away.  We were still able to see much of the valley, and did short hikes up the Watchman Overlook, Emerald Pools, and the end of the famous Narrows.  Near our campsite, little frogs would sing us to sleep while bats would wheel through the sky overhead.  We explored different parts of the park to familiarize ourselves with access roads and were able to visit Lava Point overlook and the Kolob Canyon Overlook.  Kolob Canyon looked amazing and still had pockets of snow hidden in the crevices.  There's lots to explore, so I hope to return soon and hike around a bit -- maybe starting with Angel's Landing?

Meanwhile, back at Mesa Verde, we have begun surveying some of our plants of special concern.  This included a nice hike down the Square Tower House trail to look for Aletes macdougalii (Indian Parsley), and another fun hike to Soda Canyon near Battleship Rock to look for the endemic Hackelia gracilenta (Mesa Verde Stickseed).

This Sunday would be a great time to visit some of these parks, since there will be an annular solar eclipse visible.  Many national parks are planning events around this astronomical event. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Happy National Park Week!

 I hope everyone had a chance to take advantage of National Park Week: no entry fees!  It's nice being back, we saw a cattle drive going right past the entrance of Mesa Verde and while writing this entry, a pony-drawn carriage just went down the street with 3 girls. 

Since the spring here has been really warm, the plants are all running a week or two early... which makes us a week or two behind schedule!  We knocked out a few projects, the best of which was reseeding parts of Yucca House National Monument with native plants, such as Big Sagebrush, Four-Winged Saltbush, Globemallow, Dropseed, and a few others.  It rained that evening, so maybe they have a good start.

Another project has been identifying some of the species that form the cryptobiotic crust in the soils of cool, mesic environments.  My own research project also had to kick into high gear, with putting nets around a dozen budding Schmoll's Milkvetch plants.

My goal is to determine if Schmoll's Milkvetch is an obligate entomophile; a plant that requires an insect for pollination.  We were able to take a few nice photos of bees visiting the plant, so that is a good clue (free guided trip to Spring House Ruin to anyone that can name the species for me!).  Next is to determine if the plant can pollinate itself somehow.

For fun, we made a trip out to Telluride to see Cornet Falls (aka The Frozen Throne) once again.  Despite being there more than 2 weeks earlier than last year, half of the ice cone had already melted away.  The snow pack around Lizard Head pass was substantially less too.

Fortunately, we had a little rain and snow over the weekend, so hopefully the wildflowers are going to have another great summer.  For now, the La Platas still their cloak of snow and the mountains look spectacular.