The Grand Canyon From 34,000 Feet

grandcanyon9

The Grand Canyon from a flight at 34,000 feet. Photographed 02/02/2016 above Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

The other day I was on a flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Spokane International Airport, traveling at an altitude of about 34,000 feet (10363 m). Knowing the plane would pass over Grand Canyon National Park I had my camera ready. Although the skies were filled with clouds most of the way, they were clear when it mattered and I was not disappointed with the view. At 277 miles (446 km) in length, 18 miles (29 km) in width, and 6000 feet (1829 m) in maximum depth, it is hard to miss this massive natural wonder when traveling north out of Arizona.

grandcanyon

The Grand Canyon from a flight at 34,000 feet. Photographed 02/02/2016 above Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

I have seen the Grand Canyon a few times, always from the eastern reaches of the South Rim between Desert View and Grand Canyon Village. Based upon the flight path and topographic features, I could tell this flyover instead featured the central part of the canyon. This section is unreachable by car so it was kind of cool to see something from the air that I may never see up close. The first views included Great Thumb Mesa in the foreground, with SB Canyon mid-field and Tuckup Canyon in the distance:

grandcanyon3

The Grand Canyon from a flight at 34,000 feet. Photographed 02/02/2016 above Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Moving north we followed Kanab Canyon. In the foreground below you can see the snow-covered North Rim decorated by green pines and junipers. Just below that is the steep, resistant brown rim of the Kaibab and Toroweap limestones, followed by the bright white Coconino Sandstone. Just below that is the soft Hermit Shale, the alternating sandstones, limestones, and shales of the Supai Group, the steep Redwall and Muav Limestones, and the soft sloping Bright Angel Shale. Together this small section of the Grand Canyon represents sediment deposition throughout the Paleozoic Period from about 540 to 250 million years ago. Along its entire vertical range from the Colorado River to the rim, the Grand Canyon exposes rocks from two billion years of earth history.

grandcanyon8

The Grand Canyon from a flight at 34,000 feet. Photographed 02/02/2016 above Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

When President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908, he called it “the one great sight which every American should see.” At that time he probably could not imagine Americans would one day see it from an altitude of 34,000 feet. Or that it would become one of America’s most-loved national parks.

grandcanyon7

The Grand Canyon from a flight at 34,000 feet. Photographed 02/02/2016 above Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Posted in General, Geology, National Parks | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Winter Wetland Walk

geese3

Canada Geese (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Branta canadensis) photographed 01/29/2016 at the USFWS Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area near Clayton, Michigan.

Yesterday was relatively warm and sunny so after work I stopped for a bit at a local wildlife refuge. Throughout much of the year this area hosts a wide variety of waterfowl, songbirds, Sandhill Cranes and sometimes even Whooping Cranes. This midwinter day didn’t yield anything that exciting, but there were some interesting things to see.

schoonover

Shoreline photographed 01/29/2016 at the USFWS Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area near Clayton, Michigan.

The shorelines here were lined with cattails (Typha sp., Typhaceae), common wetland plants across the northern hemisphere. In spite of the winter wind and cold many of the dried seed heads were still standing.

cattail

Cattail (Typha sp., Typhaceae) photographed 01/29/2016 at the USFWS Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area near Clayton, Michigan.

A little farther from the water were quite a few teasels (Dipsacus sp., Dipsacaceae), invasive species introduced to North America from Eurasia and Africa. These tall plants have large, spiked seed heads that persist through the winter and can be seen along roadways in many areas.

teasel2

Teasel (Dipsacus sp., Dipsacaceae) photographed 01/29/2016 at the USFWS Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area near Clayton, Michigan.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp., Asteraceae) are most obvious in late summer and early autumn when their small but numerous yellow flowers decorate many fields and meadows. After pollination by insects the flowers develop into tufted seeds that are spread by the wind. It can take months for all of the seeds to be blown free, leaving many still clinging to the plants well into winter.

goldenrod

Goldenrod (Solidago sp., Asteraceae) photographed 01/29/2016 at the USFWS Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area near Clayton, Michigan.

The only wildlife I saw on this walk were a few dozen Canada Geese (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Branta canadensis). There was some open water on this otherwise frozen pond, allowing a few of these geese to paddle around. The rest just seemed to be waiting for the ice to melt.

geese

Canada Geese (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Branta canadensis) photographed 01/29/2016 at the USFWS Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area near Clayton, Michigan.

Before long flocks like this will break up as mating pairs venture off to establish territories, build nests, and raise their young for the year.

geese2

Canada Geese (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Branta canadensis) photographed 01/29/2016 at the USFWS Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area near Clayton, Michigan.

Posted in Botany, Ecology, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Greater Roadrunner

greaterroadrunner

Greater roadrunner (Cuculiformes: Cuculidae: Geococcyx californianus). Photographed 02/09/2014 at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Found from California to Louisiana and down throughout much of Mexico, Greater Roadrunners (Cuculiformes: Cuculidae: Geococcyx californianus) are a relatively common sight in the desert southwest. These birds can grow up to two feet (61 cm) in length and while their bulk makes it hard for them to fly, their muscular legs allow them to run at up to 20 mph (32 kph). Their considerable speed gives them the ability to evade most predators and hunt down small prey.

greaterroadrunner2

Greater roadrunner (Cuculiformes: Cuculidae: Geococcyx californianus). Photographed 02/09/2014 at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Voracious and opportunistic hunters, roadrunners will eat almost anything they can catch. In times of plenty that includes small mammals, reptiles, birds, and arthropods. When times are tough they’ll raid bird nests for the eggs or chicks, and will sometimes subsist on fruit and seeds. They’re known to prey on scorpions and rattlesnakes, often using cooperative behavior. One bird will distract the prey animal with vigorous dances while the other sneaks up from behind to grab it and bash it to death. These birds swallow their prey whole, so they will literally take larger prey and “beat it to a pulp” against rocks to make it easier to swallow.

greaterroadrunner3

Greater roadrunner (Cuculiformes: Cuculidae: Geococcyx californianus). Photographed 02/09/2014 at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

As their name suggests, roadrunners are often found along southwestern roadways. Lizards and snakes often bask on the warm asphalt surfaces to get their blood flowing, and roadrunners have found the roads to be ideal hunting grounds.

Posted in National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lava Beds National Monument

labewelcomesign

Welcome sign near the northwest entrance. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Located within the Cascade Range in northeast California, Lava Beds National Monument preserves over 72 square miles (186 square km) of cinder cones, lava flows, and the largest collection of lava tube caves to be found in North America. These remarkable features have all emerged over the last half million years from the Medicine Lake shield volcano.

subductionlavabeds

Simplified tectonic regime of subduction and volcanism in the Pacific Northwest, with Lava Beds National Monument on the eastern flank.

Although not as visually stunning as big composite cones like Mount Shasta and Mount Hood, the Medicine Lake volcano is actually much larger in volume. Reaching 7,900 feet (2,408 m) above sea level, this cone is a massive 150 miles (241 km) around at its base. It covers over 700 square miles (1125 square km) in area and has over 200 surface vents.

medicinelake

Cinder cones and lava flows of the Medicine Lake shield volcano. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

The volcanic rocks of three massive lava flows dominate the landscape of this park. The Schonchin Flow at the center of the park formed from a large release of lava from the Schonchin Butte cinder cone around 62,000 years ago. The Devils Homestead Flow in the northwest corner emerged around 10,500 years ago. Only about 1,100 years ago the Callahan Flow to the southwest belched from Cinder Butte just outside the park.

labedevilshomesteadb

Devils Homestead lava flow. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Although the black, nearly lifeless expanses of volcanic rock are certainly fascinating, it’s the approximately 700 lava tube caves that make this place a wonder to explore. Unlike most parks with caves, exploration of these subterranean wonders is done on your own without guides. Rangers at the visitor center will be happy to provide information and sell or loan flashlights or hardhats, but they leave you to yourself to see what these caves have to offer.

labesign

Warning sign near the lava tube caves. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Many lava tube caves are found within a short distance of the visitor center. My wife and I made our first stop at Garden Bridges a short walk away. The “garden” part of the name comes from the relatively lush foliage that makes a home here in the cool shade and moisture.

labehopkinschocolate2

Garden Bridges lava tube. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

The “bridges” part of the name comes from the fact that most of the ceiling has collapsed on this cave, leaving just a few “bridges” intact. Everywhere else skylights let in the sun, making this a relatively accessible spot for even claustrophobics to visit.

labehopkinschocolate

Garden Bridges lava tube. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

At the nearby Hopkins Chocolate cave, lava that hardened while still dripping adorns the cavern walls. The lavacicles may have reminded someone named Hopkins of melted chocolate.

labelavatube

Wall of the Hopkins Chocolate lava tube. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

These lava tube caves formed when rivers of lava that emerged from a vent began to cool and harden. The outermost surface hardened first, creating a tube of rock where still-liquid lava continued to flow. Eventually the lava ran out, leaving a hollow tube of hardened lava rock.

lave-tube-formation-500

Graphic of lava tube formation courtesy of the National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/labe/planyourvisit/caving.htm

While this park hosts more caves that one could hope to visit on a single trip, we did try to see several with different features. Sentinel cave provided a long, narrow, dark passageway lit only by our flashlights.

labesentinel3

Upper Sentinel lava tube. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Skull Cave was the largest one we visited. This is one of several “ice caves” in the park, so-named because their structures trap cold winter air within, making them quite chilly at their greatest depths even in summer. Many even have frozen ground water within them.

labeskullcave

Skull Cave lava tube entrance. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Back on the surface it was also interesting to see how life had re-established itself on the relatively young volcanic surfaces. Although many organisms likely perished when this lava spewed forth, it didn’t take long (in geologic terms) for life to re-assert itself.

labedevilshomestead3

Vegetation growing from the Devils Homestead lava flow. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

The 10,500-year-old Devils Homestead Flow, while still largely barren, was slowly being taken over by plant life. Trees and various wildflowers were again getting a foothold, bringing color to the otherwise dark landscape.

labeflower

Indian paintbrush growing from the Devils Homestead lava flow. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Even in the middle of summer Indian paintbrush and other flowers were relatively common.

labeflower2

Vegetation growing from the Devils Homestead lava flow. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Although it may not look like much at first glance, Lava Beds National Monument holds some hidden beauty and is a great place to explore. It’s especially interesting if you’re into volcanism or primary succession in ecology. While a bit out of the way, if you’re in the area it’s worth spending at least a day here to take in some truly unique features.

labedevilshomestead2b

Devils Homestead lava flow. Photographed 07/26/2015 at Lava Beds National Monument, California.

Posted in Botany, Geology, National Parks | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

This is cool you should watch it: “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

From the founding of the United States until well into the nineteenth century, words like “expansion,” “settlement,” and “development” were at the core of the American psyche. Laws ranging from the Northwest Ordinance to the Homestead Acts encouraged the people to expand across the continent, conquer the wilderness, and develop American industry. During that time the bountiful resources of the land seemed inexhaustible.

Within a few short decades, however, public attitudes began to change. People were beginning to wonder if we should really exploit every square inch of the country, or if we should maybe preserve at least a small part of it in its natural state for posterity. Conservationists like John Muir gained popularity for writing that promoted the ideals of unspoiled wilderness.

When conservationists convinced Congress to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the idea of preserving land solely “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was a new and novel concept. Although the idea of a “national park” seemed unsure, growing concern for conservation among the American people quickly turned it into a wildly popular idea. Within the next four decades ten new national parks were created by Congress, each attracting an increasing share of tourists along with those wanting to exploit the resources.

During that time management of the parks was in disarray. A variety of federal agencies oversaw different parks, and there was no cohesive plan for their administration. In some parks vandals and thieves were such a problem that the US Army was charged with protecting the land.

That all changed in 1916 when Stephen Mather and Horace Albright spearheaded the formation of the National Park Service through the Organic Act. The NPS created a centralized, coherent agency within the Department of the Interior to oversee all aspects of America’s growing number of national parks. Since then the NPS has carefully balanced the protection of our most spectacular natural and historic places with the needs of the people who want to experience them.

Today the NPS manages 59 official “national parks” as well as over 300 other sites of superlative natural, historical, and cultural importance. The popularity of these places continues to grow to this day.

2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and public interest in experiencing these amazing locations is at an all-time high. If you’ve never seen it, I strongly recommend watching the 2009 Ken Burns documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” At approximately twelve hours in length, this series goes into considerable detail about the history of the parks, their magnificent features, and more importantly the colorful people and the dramatic political battles that made their preservation possible.

americasbestidea

Posted in Culture, Ecology, Environment, General, Geology, National Parks | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Happy to Help

Last summer a US National Park Service employee contacted me about using one of my photos in an NPS publication. They were working on a new guide brochure for Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and stumbled across this photo from my post about that park.

deer

Columbian black-tailed deer (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Although I’ve had a few photos published, I was particularly excited about having something printed in a National Park Service publication. I was honored to grant them permission to use the photo, and today I received copies of the new park guide.

morabrochure

New park guide for Mount Rainier National Park, with my photo shown in the bottom center.

Although my humble photo is relatively modest in the overall layout, I’m happy to play even a small role in the conservation and education goals of the National Park Service. Although I know I contribute through park fees and donations to the National Park Foundation, this particular donation was especially meaningful to me. I’m always happy to help advance the cause of protecting and preserving the most spectacular places in America.

morameclose

New park guide for Mount Rainier National Park, with my photo shown.

Posted in General, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Evolving Thoughts on Exploring the World

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan I loved spending hours staring at maps and globes and memorizing geography facts. In the sixth grade I came in third place in a geography bee against seventh- and eighth-graders. But even though I loved learning about new places, I never made a connection between knowing places on paper and experiencing them in person.

In 2006 I was a relatively mature but jaded 29-year-old. At that point if you had asked me where I wanted to visit, I would have shrugged and said “Traveling seems stupid.  You spend a lot of money and don’t gain anything material.” At that point I had only been to eleven US states and Ontario, and travel was never particularly alluring to me.  It involved what seemed like a lot of time, money, driving, and hassle for relatively little reward. It seemed like the acquisition of physical goods and accumulation of wealth was more worthwhile.

That all started to change from 2008-2010 when I was completing my non-traditional (i.e. I was old) BA degrees in geology and biology at Adrian College. Most of my geology courses and some of my biology courses involved a field work component, and those trips were pivotal in my thinking about travel.

saguaro7

The Sonoran Desert landscape of Saguaro National Park against the Santa Catalina Mountains. Photographed 03/2008 near Tucson Arizona.

In the spring of 2008 I went on an advanced geology field course out to the American southwest. In Arizona we visited Petrified Forest National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Saguaro National Park, Sunset Crater National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. In New Mexico we saw Carlsbad Caverns National Park, White Sands National Monument and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. It was an unprecedentedly huge expedition for me, involving up to 34 hours of continuous and rotating team-driving, a week’s worth of camping, and a whirlwind tour of some of the most fascinating places on earth. We not only saw some gorgeous landscapes, we learned about their geology, biology and history and got to “put faces with names.” We also traveled through Native American reservations, ate at historic Navajo trading posts, listened to Hopi public radio, and got a real sense for traditional life in the southwest.

canyonview

Canyon view photographed 03/2008 at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

In autumn of 2008 our mineralogy class took a trip out to Arkansas where we saw the effects of the 300-million-year-old Ouachita Orogeny. We dug for a variety of local minerals like pyrite, quartz, kyanite, wavellite and brookite, got quizzed about their chemical compositions and crystal structures, and camped for several days along the scenic Lake Ouachita. Along the way we ate platefuls of southern barbecue and saw cotton fields expand across the horizon.

Quartz_Jeremy_JPG

The author digging for quartz crystals at the Fiddlers Ridge quartz quarry near Lake Ouachita, Arkansas in November of 2008.

In the spring of 2010 I went on another advanced field course in geology to the American west. This time we saw Death Valley National Park in California, Zion National Park and Arches National Park in Utah, and revisited Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Sunset Crater, and Wupatki in Arizona. I never would have imagined I would have seen and learned about Death Valley in person, and I really never would have imagined I would have seen the Grand Canyon not once, but twice in one lifetime.

delicatearch

Delicate Arch photographed 03/2010 at Arches National Park, Utah.

During this time other day trips for botany, entomology, and biostratigraphy courses would build my appreciation for the diversity of organisms both present and past and incorporate them into my greater understanding of earth history. It was really a special time in my education about the world where geology, biology, geography, culture, and travel all came together in one grand vision about what global exploration really had to offer. From that point on I would, with my wife in tow, set about experiencing as many new places as possible.

yangminshan

One of our most exotic trips was to Yangminshan National Park outside of Taipei, Taiwan in December of 2012.

In the five years since we’ve managed to see 48/50 of the US states, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Japan, China, and Spain. We’ve visited 46 of the 47 national parks in the continental US as well as national parks in other countries. We’ve seen some of the most iconic landscapes and wildlife to be found in the United States and learned a lot about them and ourselves along the way.

jeremyUSroadmap

Because I love playing with maps, I maintain this one that shows what roads we’ve traveled in the continental US. Current as of January 10, 2016.

We’re lucky in that three main things have worked together to help us explore as much as possible. First I’m self-employed, so at certain times of the year when things are slow there’s extra time and money to travel. Second my wife enters a fair number of contests, and some of our trips have been prizes. Third when money or time is tight, we aren’t afraid to get resourceful to make things happen. Some of our best trips have been relatively close and relatively inexpensive, involving car camping and eating exclusively what we bring along. For little more than the cost of gas and food we’ve had some good times.

northamericajeremy

With the continental US conquered, we’ve expanded our sights across the whole of North America. Visited states and provinces are in green, and planned trips are in yellow. Current as of January 10, 2016.

Looking back it’s funny how radically my views on travel have changed in less than ten years. Now instead of accumulating physical objects and money, my wife I seek to collect experiences and memories. Although we’ve already seen enough for two or three lifetimes and I could die with a sense of satisfaction at any time, the wanderlust that has developed within me shows no sign of abating. There are still places I want to see in the continental US.  I also want to explore Alaska, Hawaii, more of the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, and a number of places around the globe. Of particular interest to me are Scotland, Norway, Botswana, Namibia, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see all of those places, but it’s certainly exciting to be a kid again with maps and a globe, and knowing that actually visiting those far-flung places is now within the realm of possibility.

worldjeremywishlist

A map of our global visits as of January 10, 2016. Visited countries are in green, and our wishlist is in red.

Posted in Botany, Culture, Ecology, Environment, General, Geology, National Parks | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments