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.