Friday, June 21, 2013

On a Clear Day

Sheep Mountain near the old Galloping Goose Trestle

Today, June 21st, is the first official day of summer.  From our house near Dolores, we can use the distant Abajo mountains as our celestial calendar.  Last night's sunset from my observation post in the hot tub, the sun set above the northernmost peaks, the Twin Peaks.  One of my first tasks on the job this year was to scrub the cover for the USGS regional air-dust camera, which looks out over the Carrizo mountains in Arizona.  It's not the best view, but you may be able to catch a portion of our sunset skies from it.
Bear Creek Falls

Summer in the mountains also means wildfire season, and southwest Colorado continues to extend the decades long drought.  The Dark Canyon Wilderness we visited just a few weeks ago has a fire burning we could see from our porch 60 miles away.  The beetle killed fir forest on the west slopes of Wolf Creek pass is doing much worse this past week.  The afternoon smoke plume from 80 miles away looks like an H-bomb was dropped on Pagosa Springs.  That fire has tripled in size each day this week.  With luck, the monsoon rains will start soon and help snuff some of these out.

semper vigilantissimi
A new skill to add to my resume is I'm now trained to serve as a Fire Lookout.  I may fill in for our expert lookout at Park Point Tower, and perhaps  volunteer to work at the Benchmark Watchtower on days of severe weather.  In the past, Benchmark was staffed during the summer  months, but now it is vacant.  Having 2 watch towers cover a region is really important to obtain a cross-azimuth on a sighting, which is used to triangulate the position much more accurately.  Each year, a few more lookout towers are decommissioned.   Most are historic structures with antique equipment (the navy glass at MEVE served in WWII).  Attempts to preserve the old towers in the San Juans has led to novel ways to secure funding for them; you can rent them out as a weekend getaway, such as Jersey Jim Tower!

Another new experience, but much more solemn, was working on a Search and Rescue team at Mesa Verde.  Lost hikers are very uncommon at Mesa Verde, so this was the first time most of us had been involved on a SAR assignment.  We used canine teams, helicopters, and lots and lots of man-power sweeping the canyons where he was last known to be, but after a week still had not found him.
Wasatch Trail

For some weekend R&R, we hiked along Bear Creek (no, the other Bear Creek) from Telluride.  There were still patches of snow by the falls, and especially up along the Wasatch trail.  I wanted to see what the upper falls looked like, so I bushwhacked down an avalanche chute to finally get a good view.  Sadly, even this remote area could become the next victim of sprawl... I didn't realize it during my peaceful hike, but the Wasatch trail is under assault by a greedy tycoon that makes his riches through aggressive and dubious hostage tactics (multiple avalanche chutes imply you'd be a moron to build or stay there).  Further up the trail are some beautiful cascades.  After hiking across a snow field and a rickety, old bridge over troubled waters, I arrived at an old gold mill site now occupied by yellow-bellied marmots.  There were many funky-rusted contraptions on the ground, so I've nicknamed it Steampunk Mine.

Nellie Mine (aka Steampunk), Wasatch Trail

I'd like to close with this quote from the late Dr. Derek Main's dissertation on the Arlington Archosaur Site:

“Come my friends, 
tis not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows, 
for my purpose holds to sail 
off the bathes of all the western stars, until I die. 
To pursue knowledge like a sinking star. 
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield. “

---- Alfred Lord Tennyson

Monday, June 10, 2013

Behind the Bear's Ears

Before I leave the topic of the brave new world of genetic engineering on the back-burner, I just wanted to share an exciting story about using this technology to potential heal our eastern forests: restoring the Chestnut Tree.
Edge of Cedars, ceremonial pottery
Summer has arrived in the Four Corners, and the little bit of snow left on the La Platas is fading fast.  We had ventured into Cedar Mesa country in Utah, and stopped in Blanding to tour the wonderful museum at Edge of the Cedars.  The museum is full of interesting artifacts, including a thousand year old sash made from macaw feathers.  Outside is the ancient Anasazi pueblo, and just beyond is one of my favorite "modern art" pieces.  We had learned of it at a campfire talk in Chaco canyon led by famous Ranger Cornucopia.  He discussed Chacoan archaeo-astronomy, and then mentioned this modern sculpture designed as part experiment.  It stuck in my mind as a wonderful idea, so it was excellent to see it in person:  Inspired by the Sun Dagger and other interesting archaeological sites, an artist had decided to create a modern timepiece using ancient pueblo motifs: meet the Sun Marker.
Sun Marker

This sculpture is designed to get people thinking about ways to mark the passing of time using the sun.  Is it time to plant?  Time to hunt?  Winter Solstice?  When archaeologists discover a potential astronomical alignment within a site, it is sometimes difficult to be certain what ways the Ancients may have used those alignments.  Were some coincidental?  Are the often more to the calendar than meets the eye?  After completing the sculpture, students had found more ways to use the Sun Marker than the artist realized, such as predicting lunar events.

It was fun playing with the interactive archive at the museum, and the pottery designs are inspiring to me.  Maybe one day I'll take up pottery?  After walking like an Anasazi, we traipsed over to the Blanding Dinosaur Museum.  The entrance is filled with three enormous petrified trees found nearby and one of the largest ammonites I had ever seen.  There are lots of interesting replicas and specimens, including a mosasaur.  However, the most interesting thing was learning about the contentious cladistics behind the evolution of birds.
Cave on Comb Ridge

Off we went to my favorite formation in southern Utah, Comb Ridge.  The previous weekend, we had visited a few granaries, cliff houses, and a huge cave.  Each time I visit, I have a unique experience, as if I'm gleaning a little understanding of the metaphysics of Anasazi life just from osmosis off the fluid sands turned to white sandstone.  I often wonder what these canyons were like before they were ransacked by pothunters, but maybe these little pieces I find are somehow better for myself - leaving room to merge my imagination with history and geology.
Ancient Anasazi Granary

This time at the Ridge, I hiked again past a strange landscape of stones, cactus, and wildflowers that led past a few looted granaries and finally to an expansive overlook.  I gaze out and the sweeping landscape as a wind gust blows my hat off.  I look down to pick up my hat and find a tiny sherd of black-on-white pottery in the red sand.  As I trace the fading pattern, a raven flies over head and "cahs" as he barrel-rolls past me.  I think I'm turning Anasazi.
Comb Ridge, Utah

From there, we drive near the entrance of Natural Bridges National Monument, a place we had visited Auto-tour style several years ago.  This time, we took a dirt road that ends up winding up to Elk Park in the Manti La-Sal Forest and goes right between the Bears Ears.  I recall reading about a big site behind the Ears in the excellent book House of Rain, and sure enough, it's there.  I take the remaining daylight's gift to huff up the eastern Ear to see another wonderful view and unexpectedly stumble across a USGS benchmark.

After logging a few geocaches, we camp out near Butt's Point among ponderosa, aspen, fir, juniper, and pinyon trees all trying to decide who belongs in the forest.  The following day, we make the steep hike down to Three Finger Ruins (named for the massive natural pillars guarding the entrance to the side canyon).  I was running out of time, so didn't make the hike up to the ruins, but on the way, found a spring gushing from the hillside.  Cool, clear water in a desert canyon welling up is nothing but miraculous, so I take several deep drinks (ignoring the modern voice in my head telling me to treat the water) and refill my canteen.  Ancient cultures around the world, even in rainy Europe, considered springs sacred.  Now see this desert spring from Anasazi eyes.
Abandoned Kiva

The canyons now are getting hot as summer has arrived.  In keeping with the Bear theme, we went to Bear Creek in Telluride, Colorado.  More on that trip later.