Stop 5: Capitol Reef

After leaving Arches National Park, we made the drive to Capitol Reef National Park. The drive between the two parks is absolutely breathtaking. With each turn around a mountainside or crest of a hill, we would OOOHHH and AAAHHH! We thought it was hilarious when we got near Capitol Reef and saw a sign for a “scenic route”. Is there a road in this area that isn’t scenic? We doubt it! We got to our hotel with some time to relax. I did two loads of laundry, and while waiting on it to dry, I walked the hotel property to take some pictures. The hotel bordered some grazing land that was fenced off and had an enormous sandstone butte behind it. The boys decided to take a short and very cold swim (the water was OK, but the air temperature was 58 degrees, and it was windy). After getting them out of the pool, I decided to go back out and take some sunset pictures.

Sunset at our hotel: Best Western Capitol Reef


Sunset at Best Western Capitol Reef



Sunset again

After a good night’s sleep, we got up on 6/18/14 and headed to the Visitors Center at Capitol Reef. We met Ranger Anna Vornholt and Geologist Sophie Westacott. They did a great job explaining the geology at Capitol Reef. I must say, this area is incredibly beautiful mainly due to its fascinating geology, but the geology is difficult to see and explain. I’ll do my best here: If you picture the layers of sediment that were deposited in a shallow tidal flat (symmetrically wavy, if you remember the discussion at Arches) as pages in a stack of multi-colored paper lying on a table; all the pages are in horizontal planes. Then picture pushing against the edges of the pages (tectonic plates moving toward each other did this) and making the pages fold upward on one end. If you look at the edges of the pages, you might see an S-shape. This is known as a monocline, or fold. You would still only see the top sheet if you look at it from above. This is the youngest rock. Now picture taking the whole stack, still folded and run a saw through it horizontally. This would represent the erosion that has happened since the fold. This would expose many different colors of rock. Since each layer has a different composition, they erode at different rates (differential erosion, again). For this reason, some of the rock layers look like fins that stick up at angles. Some erode quickly into piles. Each layer is a different color: red, cyan, grey, mustard yellow, orange, white, black, beautiful. OK, if that doesn’t make much sense, watch Sophie explain it with the Geology Sponge. It’s a pretty effective teaching tool. I just might have to make myself one. Capitol Reef has North America’s largest monocline and one of the largest in the world, called the Waterpocket Fold.

Here is a link to the video:

Anna and Sophie also explained our observation that the land looked like someone had sprinkled black rocks all over the surface. This area was covered with a lava flow not long ago. The black volcanic rock that came from deeper within the crust flowed over the surface of the rocks and cooled. As it cooled it contracted, leaving cracks in the rocks. As rain seeped into the cracks, it eroded the layer of rock under the volcanic rock, but left the super hard black rock as it was. Eventually, the underlying rock became eroded away and the volcanic rocks were no longer supported, so they rolled downhill. The black rocks were rounded by all the rolling and tumbling down the hillsides. Everywhere we went in the park, we noticed these black rocks that had rolled and settled temporarily in place. We thought it would be interesting to come back in a few years. Certainly gravity will have shown them the way to lower elevation still.


Black and red rocks at Capitol Reef in Cohab Canyon

After our interview, we asked for recommendations on a good hike and maybe a nice drive. We are coming to find that asking rangers these questions can lead to some spectacular sights! Of course, when I asked Anna her favorite trail, she said her favorite hike ever is always the last one she took. They suggested a trail that doesn’t get much use because it is a tough climb up switchbacks for the first half mile or so. They also suggested a drive that was on a dirt road, but passable by a two-wheel drive vehicle in current conditions, so we would have no trouble. We did the hike first, and it did not disappoint. Anna and Sophie had mentioned that Capitol Reef has yellow-bellied marmots, but I assumed that we wouldn’t see any. All these parks have mountain lions, but sightings are extremely rare. I thought marmots might be similarly rare. I was wrong. Not two minutes into our hike, we saw about eight marmots sunning themselves on the rocks that were being warmed by the morning sun.

Yellow-bellied marmot being adorable, er sunning himself.

Once on the main trail, we took our time going up the face of the mountain and got lots of pictures of the valley below. There were some clouds and their shadows drifted across the valley, causing it to take on a different look every time we turned that direction.

The valley from the top of the trail

Once we reached the peak, we found ourselves in a yellow sandstone canyon. The hike suddenly became easy, with many opportunities for the kids to climb. We noticed that the rock had crossbedding, striations caused by windblown sediment being deposited from different directions, back when this area was sand dunes, before it became lithified. The rock was quite a contrast from the red tidal flat layer we saw lower on the hillside. And of course, the whole area had black, round basalt rocks that had fallen into the canyon. We walked through an area called the grand wash. The trail guide said not to hike here if there was a threat of rain. It was very apparent how water had shaped this area of the canyon. We even saw a little pool of water, but we couldn’t get down to it easily to check for aquatic life.

Iron-rich rocks, formed in different environmental conditions along the Cohab Canyon Trail


In Cohab Canyon

The boys found a nice place to climb


Lizard tracks


We only did half of the hike and then went back down to the truck. Evan and Kieran must have been ready for a break because they fell asleep on my favorite drive so far! We drove out of the park onto Bureau of Land Management lands. The area had lots of grazing cattle and was fairly flat for a while. They we came back onto NPS land in the Waterpocket Fold District of the park. We drove along a valley bottom for a while. On our left was a small river that had cut deeply onto the rock. Further to the left, there was a long tall wall of rock. On our near right were fins upon fins of various colors and textures, all sticking out of the ground at a 45 degree angle. Farther off to our right were high red and yellow sandstone walls. The road and river both meandered between various layers of rock. After driving along the fold for about thirty minutes, the road turned right, toward the high sandstone walls and then climbed switchbacks up and out of the canyon. We had amazing views, but I was nervous at the same time. The road was steep and one lane, but not one way. We were happy that we didn’t encounter anyone going the other way! We had hoped to stop at a particular overlook, but missed the turn. Here is a link to the photo on the NPS website that has the picture I was hoping to get. And below are some of the pictures I took of the area. Not quite as spectacular, but lots of color, still.

The road to the Waterpocket Fold District in Capitol Reef National Park

To the left of the road


Going between fins

Fins and chevrons

The tree grew straight up. The rocks didn't!

The view from the top of the road

At the top

After the climb out of the valley, we entered the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. This is a huge patch of land that connects the north rim of the Grand Canyon with the other parks that make up the Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau: Bryce Canyon at the top of the stairs with the youngest rock, Zion National Park with older rocks, and the Grand Canyon with lower elevation and older rocks. This was a nice bonus, since we hadn’t planned to go to this Monument! That’s one more beautiful place to add to our list.

A small part of Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument

Capitol Reef may be my favorite park. I wish I could have stayed longer and explored it more. It doesn’t get as many visitors as some, but it should! It is a truly inspiring place to view the dramatic changes the Earth has been through, and a reminder that it is still changing. It is impossible to really capture its magnificence in photos or video. If you are ever in southern Utah, don’t miss this remarkable park!

Stop 4: Arches

On June 16th, we left Dinosaur National Monument and drove to Moab, UT. We checked in at the Bowen Motel (which was much nicer and more expensive than our previous motels), we set up our camera charging stations, started pulling photos and videos off the camera, then decided to relax a while. Evan, Kieran and I went to the pool. Kieran’s not a strong swimmer yet, but he likes to keep up with Evan by wearing his life jacket. It was just the two boys in the pool, so I sat and read my book while they played. I am very lucky that Evan is such a great big brother! Clouds kept threatening us, but the rain never came. Since Moab is in the high desert, I guess that’s no surprise. What looked like an imminent storm (by Indiana standards) was just a little cloud cover in Utah.

I had scheduled an interview with Ranger Kait Thomas for early afternoon. We got up early and made the quick drive over to Arches National Park to do a little hiking. I had picked out a trail, but due to construction, the trailhead parking lot was closed. We decided to drive as far into the park as possible, then choose trails on the way back out. We found parking at the last stop before the construction and got out for a hike. This stop had trails to two arches: Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch. There are 2000 arches in the park, so this would just give us a small sampling of the diversity here. We first headed toward Sand Dune Arch because it looked like a nice shaded trail. The trail led between tall, narrow fins of red/orange sandstone. The majority of the trail was over red sand, but occasionally, there were places where the trail went over large sandstone boulders that had broken off the fins and fallen into the dune at some point in the past. The boys loved scrambling up and over the sandstone, testing their strength and courage. The wind was intermittent and often sent miniature sand storms up to abrade our skin. We finally came to the arch, hidden among the tall fins. We climbed up under it and got some pictures, then followed the path back out. Evan and I enjoyed listening to the fellow travelers speaking in their native languages: German, Japanese, Chinese, Italian and French. Everyone seemed willing to lend a helping hand when the trail got steep, even if there was a language barrier. There seems to be a camaraderie that comes from seeing such beauty.

Sand Dune Arch


We left the Sand Dune Arch trail to go toward Broken Arch. This hike was longer and in open desert. There were many plants along the trail and we wondered who was hiding out among them. We noticed many small lizards, a tiny rabbit, and lots of burrow openings, but we didn’t know who had dug them.

Broken Arch, from the trail

Along the trail, one man told us they were rattlesnake burrows, but they seemed to be too common to me. I can’t imagine this sparse land being able to support so many predators! In retrospect, I should have asked Kait, but I forgot. On the trail to Broken Arch, the arch itself can be seen for quite a while, so I snapped a bunch of pictures of it. There were also lots of wildflowers as well, so I took lots of pictures of them with red sandstone walls in the background.

Flowers along the trail

When we arrived at Broken Arch, we had another opportunity for some great climbing up through the arch. The views from the area behind the arch are magnificent!



Broken Arch Trail


Evan climbing near Sand Dune Arch

Kieran climbing near Sand Dune Arch

Lizard near Broken Arch

We stayed a while and headed back to the truck and drove to a few other parking areas, but only took short hikes in those places. We walked around for a bit at the Garden of Eden and did some more climbing, but the wind was tremendous and threw sand a great many feet. We started to see that the great sandstone pieces were slowly being eroded by the little bits of themselves that had already fallen, picked up by wind. We were learning about Aeolian processes first-hand!

Finally, it was time to meet with Kait, so we headed back to the Visitor Center. Not surprisingly, Arches had an excellent set of displays that explain the geology of the area very well. I am sure that even the least scientifically curious visitor asks the same question when they come here: how did the arches form? The rangers frequently lead geology-based hikes to help answer those questions. I happened to stop and take a look at a few of the displays before Kait came out to meet with us. I was particularly interested in one that showed two red sandstone rocks: one that formed at the bottom of a stream and one formed at the bottom of a shallow tidal flat. You can tell the difference because in the stream, the sediment was carried a little way before being dropped. This forms ripples that are not symmetrical. In contrast, the tidal flat rock had symmetrical ripples because the sediments were being deposited while the water was moving one direction while the tide was going out and the other direction when the tide was coming in. This became a point of discussion again at Capitol Reef. I love learning something that makes so much sense, but I wouldn’t have thought of it myself.

Kait and I did the interview in the Visitors Center, because they have so many great visual displays. Some of the video came out great, but some of it ended up being cut because there was quite a bit of background noise (who pushed the button on that talking exhibit)! We started with an introduction to the geology of Arches, then discussed the ecosystems there, then discussed how Kait came to work at Arches. Since she’s originally from a town very close to home, we were curious about this!

Out video interview comes with a warning: the video includes some very windy views. You may have to adjust your volume. I’m still working on how to get volumes right!

When we left the Visitors Center, we took Kait’s advice and drove north a few miles to see some dinosaur footprints. They are at a beautiful location far enough off the main road that they don’t get many visitors. The end of the interview above includes some video of us enjoying the dino tracks. So cool!

Here is David’s timelapse of the drive going in to Arches, toward our first hike: It’s impossible to really capture the immensity of the landscape, but this gets you close.

More pictures of our trip to Arches (and a few other spots) can be found here:

Stop 3: Dinosaur


(Disclaimer: this post was written while driving through Colorado and Utah. I was very distracted by looking out the window. If this makes less sense than normal, that’s why.) After a colorful drive through the Colorado Rockies yesterday, we stopped for the night in Dinosaur, Colorado on June 16th. We stayed in another little 1960’s style motel since the price was right and there wasn’t a closer place to stay. This one was on US 40, which is the same road we live off of, just 1400 miles east. The town of 300 people has a welcome center with some description of the area, a couple of ice cream stores, two gas stations, two motels (but only one is currently open) and a couple of geocaches. Either the beds are getting softer as we go west or the combination of the long days and the high altitude has made sleep come easier!

Today we awoke from a fantastic night’s sleep and headed out to Dinosaur National monument to meet with paleontologist Dan Chure. The drive in was spectacular, with many different colors of rock exposed, all tilted at angles, lifted up from the horizontal where they had been deposited. We met at his office and he explained how the park came to be. In the early 1900’s, eight vertebrae from a large sauropod dinosaur were discovered north of Jensen, UT. The monument was established in 1915, a year before the National Parks Service was established. When excavation of the area started, they realized this was a very large deposit of bones. Later on, an area near the dinosaur bone quarry was a proposed new national park. The decision was made to incorporate this area into the National Monument. Former AP Environmental Science students will immediately recognize the benefit that one large park would provide over two smaller ones: less habitat fragmentation. The quarry was covered in the 1950’s so visitors could see the bones in situ, like at Ashfall. In 2005, the structure had to be renovated, and the current building was completed in 2012. During the time of the renovations, the quarry with all the prepared bones was inaccessible to the public, so a fossil discovery trail was built in an adjacent area where the same rock layer as the quarry is partially exposed. This allows visitors to see bones in the rock face, unaltered by man. When the new building was opened, the decision was made to keep the fossil discovery trail accessible so visitors now can experience the fossils exposed by paleontologists indoors, then find them out in nature on their own.

I must admit, before meeting Dan, I was a little concerned that I didn’t know enough about specific dinosaur species and that he’d be talking over my head about the specifics. I was very happy to find that the purpose of the park is to preserve and describe the ecosystem, not just the dinosaurs. Dan said that while the dinosaur bones are the things people come to see, he and the park staff are mostly concerned with providing visitors with a full interpretation of the lives the dinosaurs lived and the natural forces and other species they interacted with. I love talking with Big Picture people! Dan was educated in New York, and then came to Dinosaur National monument in 1979 and has been there since. It was amazing talking to someone who has such intimate knowledge of the place.

After talking at his office for a bit, we drove up to the quarry. The view from the parking lot is incredible. So many colors of rock! The sedimentary rock layers were deposited millions of years ago in horizontal layers, then the rocks were broken and pushed up out of the earth when the crust was crumpled by colliding tectonic plates more recently. Since they were thrust upward, they have all been eroded by wind and rain at different rates, so different layers appear more prevalent than others. We took a few pictures from the parking lot, and then walked up to the exhibit building. When we went in, it took us a few minutes to get oriented to what we were seeing. Dan referred to the quarry face as looking like a “log jam”. It is a jumble of dinosaur bones from different species and different individuals. We are used to seeing the dinosaurs at the Field Museum, each skeleton complete and in a lifelike position. We could see a few places where several vertebrae were articulated, but no skull or tail was attached.

The quarry face

Dan explained that the layer we were looking at had once been an ancient stream bed. During a period of drought, the dinosaurs came to their usual drinking spot, but found little water. They may have even tried to dig down into the river bed to find water there. Many dinosaurs died of thirst here and eventually were buried in sediment when the river flowed again. As Dan said, this deposit of dinosaur bones is biased in favor of preserving larger specimens, so there are more adult Camarasaurus bones than anything else. The bones were all disjointed as they were carried downstream in flash floods. The heaviest bones were not transported as far as the smaller bones of juveniles or smaller species. Camarasaurus was a large sauropod dinosaur with femur bones taller than Evan. The sauropod group of dinosaurs includes the large, herbivorous, quadrupedal dinosaurs. Other examples include Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus. A Camarasaurus skull and vertebrae are exposed at the top of the exhibit, and it is the only skull in the quarry face. Allosaurus was also found here. It was a large carnivorous species. Again, we found that there were far more herbivores than predatory species, as a lot of prey are required to support a top predator. (Remember the 10% rule, APES kids?)


Diplodocus femur (left) and Apatasaurus femur (right)



Dan showed us a section of the quarry face where the rock was about three feet thicker than the rest of the wall. On this section was a Camaraurus that must have died later than the others, since it was buried in a layer above the others. I asked Dan how many years of the geologic record that thickness represented, and he said it was impossible to tell. He estimated that it might be a few centuries. I thought this was an interesting example of what some people struggle with when learning science. We humans like to have our questions answered, but sometimes the answer is “we don’t know”. Students often find this difficult to accept, but it’s something you have to get used to when studying science.

(Disclaimer: the following paragraph is intended for my students. The casual reader may want to skip it.) Dan went on to explain that the rock in this area does not contain any isotopes that could help determine the answer. Even if the three feet of rock that I was asking about had datable isotopes on the top and bottom layers, the range of error would produce overlapping dates. This is another issue students struggle with… how radiometric dating works. There are some isotopes (versions of elements) that are unstable and change over time to other, more stable versions.  Carbon-14 dating is the method most people are aware of. Carbon-14 decays to become Nitrogen-14.  In any sample, half of the C-14 atoms will decay over a period of 5730 years or so.  This amount of time is called the half-life.  After the first half life, 50% of the original sample is left.  After the second half life, 25% is left, and so on. When you approach 17 half-lives, the remaining carbon-14 is such a small amount (0.00076% of the original), it is hardly measurable, and so C-14 dating is no longer useful.  All the isotopes used in radiometric dating have a range of dates for which they are useful, based on the length of their half-life. If the carbon-14 content in the bones preserved here were measured, the result would be a really small number (maybe none could be detected), meaning the bones are really old, but a precise date couldn’t be determined. Another isotope would have to be used. Other isotopes have different decay rates, so they can be used to date older bones or the rock they are found in. I use a cooking thermometer analogy with my students. There are several types. Using a meat thermometer when making candy will not work because the meat thermometer’s range may only go up to 220 degrees F, when you need to boil your candy to 400 degrees F.  If you put that thermometer in the boiling candy syrup, it will read the highest measurement it can, but not give you a precise temperature.  It is not the right tool for the job, even though it works great for its intended purpose.

Speaking with Rick at Ashfall and Dan at Dinosaur got me thinking about how interdisciplinary scientific research is. We teach science in chunks, so kids never really get an integrated picture.  In elementary and middle school, kids learn many aspects of science each year, but it seems they are often disjointed. We teach butterfly lifecycles one week and rock types the next, and memorizing symbols of the elements the next. Then students get to high school and study one topic fairly deeply each year, but often with no explanation of how it fits into the full puzzle of science. It’s no wonder some people question the importance of a solid science education. I have long believed that science classes should include more time on the nature of science and how each discipline fits in with the others. Personally, when teaching Environmental Science I find this very easy to do, because it is a very interdisciplinary science. I do not spend much time on the nature of science when I teach chemistry, but this experience has been extremely beneficial to help me see how chemistry is relevant to other fields of study.

Apatasaurus in the quarry face


Diplodocus femur (left), Apatasaurus femur (right)

After leaving the quarry, we walked the fossil discovery trail, and then went to see another section of the park, which Dan had suggested. This involved a fairly long, but beautiful drive through the middle of the park. We came to a trail head that had great scenery. We grabbed the cameras, some water, but no sunscreen (that’s the last time we make that mistake) and headed down the trail. After about a mile we were rewarded with fantastic views of the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, which carved the canyons of the park. The exposed rock layers were of many colors, the trees and wildflowers were beautiful, and at the end of the trail, we found ourselves standing on an outcrop of limestone filled with marine invertebrate fossils. We recognized crinoid and brachiopod fossils, just like we find at home in Indiana. On the way out of the park, we saw several animals including a mule deer which leaped over the fence designed to hold in the cattle that graze in the park. In summary, Dinosaur National Monument is truly a national treasure filled with an amazing historical record and some of the loveliest scenery in the country.


The Green River from Harper's Corner Trail

Here is a clip of the interview with Dan. We are getting better at this. In this episode, David is filming, so I am not trying to both film and ask questions. But, it wasn’t until after this interview that we had a talk with Kieran about how to stay out of the shot. I apologize in advance for all of his goofy behavior (at one point, I think he’s comparing his two elbows). There will also be a video of our two hikes, one of these days. Enjoy!


Eye candy

Our itinerary had us meeting with five people at five National Parks in the last four days. We have really collected a lot of photos and video that I want to share with some explanation of the geology. I am nearly done with my post of our stop at Dinosaur National Monument, but I keep getting distracted with all the majestic views outside my window while David drives. I don’t mean to complain, but it does make me think I’ll be blogging for weeks to come once we return.

In the mean time, please check out the eye candy I’ve uploaded to our flicker page. I’ll label and explain it all some day soon. The next few days we’ll be taking it a little slower, so the blogs may come faster. We’ll be driving through Death Valley and into Yosemite, so we’ll see!

Stop 2: Ashfall

Today we finally arrived at a place I’ve been looking forward to since last fall. When I began planning this trip, I did some internet searches for important/interesting places to visit to learn about geology and paleontology. The La Brea Tar Pits and the Grand Canyon were obvious sites that I wanted to include on the trip, but I figured there were other places out there that I was unaware of. Ashfall was one site that was listed as “must see” on all the lists I came across, and now I know why! We arrived on Saturday morning and Rick Otto, the superintendent of the site, met us at the Visitors Center to give us a tour.

Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Site is located about 100 miles west of Sioux City, Iowa in the northeastern portion of Nebraska. About 12 million years ago (11.81 +/- 0.03 million, based on radioactive fission trails in the microscopic glassy ash pieces), there was a large volcanic eruption in what is now southern Idaho. This volcano is now dormant, now that the North American plate has moved across the hot spot below it. The plate moves about an inch every year. The hot spot is currently under Yellowstone National Park and is the reason for all the geysers, mudpots, and fumeroles there. Back 12 million years ago, this part of Nebraska was a warm grassland with some forested area. A variety of animals lived here, including many species of large mammals. Five species of horses, three species of rhinoceros, three species of camel, saber-toothed deer, and many different predator species lived there. When the volcano erupted, the ash cloud spread out over Nebraska and much of the Midwest.

Driving from our hotel in Randolph, NE (population 995), we noticed a huge change in topography shortly before we arrived at Ashfall. As I said yesterday, Iowa and eastern Nebraska are flat and corn corn corn-y! But within about two miles of our destination, the land became rolling hills, obviously not so suitable for farming. When we arrived, I mentioned it to Rick and his response was the same one you’d get if you asked a geologist about the change from flat to hilly when driving from Indianapolis to Bloomington: glaciers. Glaciers scraped the eastern portion of Nebraska flat, but stopped just east of the Ashfall site. Turns out this is a very good thing because the glaciers could have very well turned this important fossil site into rubble had they pushed any farther west.

In 1971, a paleontologist from the University of Nebraska was studying the valley of Verdigris Creek and noticed something sticking out of the wall of a ravine. Upon closer inspection, he found that it was the jaw bone of a rhinoceros, buried in ash. After further excavation, he found that the whole skeleton was there, and not squished flat by the overlying rock, like so many dinosaur fossils are. Eventually, both the University and state of Nebraska, and the National Geographic Society provided funding to turn the site into the museum, research facility, and park it is now.

Today, some skeletons have been removed, but most of the fossils are left in place, just as they lay down when they died. Looking at the animals uncovered, but left in situ inside the Rhino Barn (a temperature-controlled building erected to keep the fossils from deteriorating due to exposure to the elements after all these years), their story becomes clearer. These animals all gathered in one place, then lay down and died. But the displays, working paleontology students and Rick really helped us understand their story and explained the evidence behind what we know.

Outside the Rhino Barn

Here is my version of the story of Ashfall. When the ash cloud came over Nebraska, there was a low area that was an ephemeral wetland. Because no fish fossils have been found there, it is clear that this was not a year-round pond or lake, but amphibian fossils have been found there, indicating that water was there regularly for part of the year. When the ash began to fall, it must have damaged the lungs of all the animals. Those animals which had small lung capacities must have lost the ability to exchange oxygen fairly quickly. For this reason, the smallest animals are found at the bottom of the ash layer. These animals (such as crowned cranes – similar to those that now inhabit Africa) must have felt parched by the powdery ash and sought out water. They died at the watering hole, probably while trying to relieve their dry throats. All the while, the ash fell. After some time, the larger saber-toothed deer, then even larger horses went for their last drinks at the wetland. These can be found in a layer of ash on top of the birds and other small animals. And still the ash fell. The rhinoceroses lived the longest of all the Ashfall animals. By the time they stopped for their last drink, they had been fighting painful lung failure for as much as two weeks. During this time they developed a whitish outer covering on their bones, which is indicative of Marie’s disease (Pulmonary Osteoarthropathy). These animals must have suffered in their last days. And still the ash fell. There is evidence that several species of large dogs scavenged at the watering hole, disarticulating a few animals and leaving their bones strewn about. Since many herbivores (as many as 100) are needed to feed a similar-sized top carnivore, it should not be too surprising that none of the scavengers who left their bite marks in the skulls of horses and deer have been found at Ashfall. Rick said the current Rhino Barn holds another 15-20 years of summer excavation, so finding a carnivore buried in the ash is an exciting prospect on the horizon.

The Rhino Barn

Just inside the Rhino Barn

From the Visitors Center to the Rhino Barn to the Geology Overlook Trail, the story of Ashfall is displayed beautifully for visitors to learn from. Several hands-on displays allow young and old alike to touch fossil bones, dig them out from pebbles, and look through microscopes to see the evidence for the events depicted in the videos and posters. As one astute geocacher said, “you can’t even go to the loo without learning something” because the restrooms include large fossil pieces with interpretive signs (yes, Ashfall has an earthcache). I highly recommend a trip to Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park for any curious person. Learning the story of the end of these animals’ lives is a spectacular way to see how all the disciplines of science (from nuclear physics to vertebrate biology, to botany, to microscopy, to geology, to paleontology) can use the methods of science to piece together a remarkably clear snapshot of a disastrous couple of weeks in the lives of some animals 12 million years ago.

Rhinos and horses

Here is some video we captured at Ashfall.

Miscellaneous fun, part 1

Like I said before, Evan packed the truck with fun things to play with in our down time. Last night we arrived in Randolph, NE (pop 995) fairly early and had some time to kill. Kieran enjoyed playing on the swing set for a while, but we decided to go find a bigger park in town. The wind was pretty strong, so we thought we’d play with the kite. In Indiana there are some places to fly kites, but it seems like we never have wind on the days we’d like to do it. In Nebraska, there appears to be no shortage of wind. So a-kite-flying we did go, and while our kite isn’t very good, we had plenty of practice launching it up. With a little tinkering, we had a bit of luck. We also happened to have a very fancy sling-shot, so that got some use as well. It was a nice excuse to stretch our legs. After going back to the motel and waiting for the sun to set (I was thinking of getting some nice sunset photos, Evan was thinking of getting out the telescope), we ate dinner. I did get some nice sunset shots, which can be found here: When it was finally dark, David stayed at the motel and the boys and I went to find a good place to set up the telescope. The first place we tried was a hill near the motel that had a cemetery on top of it. We decided sitting with our flashers on, by the side of the road, under a full moon, next to a cemetery, on Friday the 13th, in a small town where no one knows us might not be wise. We ended up going back to the kite park. We set up a camera tripod and telescope, and believe it or not, many people drove by and no one stopped to see what shenanigans we were up to. We got a couple of decent shots of the moon and even tried mating the camera up to the scope. That didn’t really work, but it was an interesting experiment. Next purchase: telescope mount for the camera. Some day.

Also in the flickr photos, there are some beautiful shots of the Sandhill area of Nebraska and the HUGE turtle David rescued from the middle of the road.

On the road (corn corn corn)

Corn in Iowa

Cell phone snapshot of Iowa

The following is Lisa’s bored ramblings on blogging, Iowa, and the start of the trip.

Yesterday we got packed up in our rental truck (2014 Ford Expedition – which started with 10 miles on it) and headed out. I don’t really have much to report at this point, but David’s driving and I’m getting bored. Thanks to a little wifi hotspot thingy that I got to take with me, I have great internet access while we drive (thank you, Ron)! Last night we stayed in Coralville, Iowa, and now we’re back on the road. Today we stopped for a lunch/snack at Exile Brewing in Des Moines and got some great food (“American” fries with truffle oil and garlic aioli plus lamb sliders) and a couple of good beers. Now we are headed to Nebraska and our first point of interest: Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park.

Here is what Heywood Banks has to say about Iowa on I-80 (thanks, Jen):  I think that pretty much sums it up, although it is more hilly than Indiana. We’re not used to seeing terracing where we live, so that’s kinda cool. Here is a picture I took after Kieran and I found a geocache. I thought it represented the area nicely.

While I’m sharing other people’s work with you, I thought I’d share a blog post by one of my favorite writers. Neil Peart is best known for being the drummer for the band Rush, but he also writes most of their lyrics and has a blog where he writes about his travels. I loved reading what he had to say about one of the places we’re going on this trip: Death Valley. He was probably smarter than us, because he visited in April. We decided to go to the hottest place on earth in June… brilliant, I’m sure! Well, with the year-round school calendar and the kids’ band and sports schedules, we didn’t have too much of a choice. Anyway, Neil wrote about Death Valley in his usual humorous and poetic way, so enjoy! By way, this is the standard by which I have been judging my blog. I am still struggling a bit with posting my ramblings when I know there are better writers out there, but it is what it is.

We are not superstitious, but it is a full moon Friday the 13th, so here’s to getting a few more miles behind us before we stop for the night. Maybe we’ll get some good night sky photos tonight, since we should be well away from light pollution (although new moon is really best for seeing the Milky Way). Evan insisted on bringing the telescope (as well as two drum pads, several sets of sticks, bongos, a darbuka, a tambourine, a guiro block, and a triangle – in case a spontaneous drum circle breaks out), so that should make for a fun evening. I’m thinking the scope and drums will be our only entertainment for the next few nights, since we’ll be staying in some pretty secluded locations.  Oh, hey look!  We’re in Nebraska!

Stop 1: Let’s start at the very beginning – Indiana

Let’s start at the very beginning. Not the beginning of time, mind you. Just the beginning of our journey. We will start in Indiana, since that’s where I’ve lived all my life, and that’s where my geologic curiosity started. Today I had my first meeting with an expert. Walt Gray is the educational outreach coordinator for the Indiana Geological Survey. We met in his office on the campus of Indiana University. Because I am a graduate of Purdue University (IU’s big rival, for readers outside of Indiana), I was a little reluctant to travel to Bloomington for the visit. Evan and Kieran accompanied me, and Evan constantly made comments about how beautiful the rolling hills were in southern Indiana, and how spectacular IU’s campus is. He is considering attending IU next fall to study physics, much to my dismay. I’d reply, “Yes, southern Indiana is beautiful and yes, IU’s campus is amazing, but wouldn’t you like to go to the school Mom went to?!” Sigh. The boy has a mind of his own. Although I am a die-hard Boilermaker, I must admit, Indiana University is an excellent institution, and I’ll be very proud if Evan decides to go there.

Actually, it is fitting that the Indiana Geological Survey is located in southern Indiana, because the topography of that region is much more interesting, and there are far more road cuts in which the geological layers can easily be seen. Central and Northern Indiana, where we live and where Purdue is located are in a region that saw significant glacial action in the last ice age. Much of this region has been scraped flat by the glaciers, which left mixed sediment there as they receded. The bedrock is just not as obvious there. Also, I don’t think that IU could possibly be covered with more Indiana limestone than it already is! It does seem to be a great place to house the IGS.

When Walt and I started talking, I said something along the lines of, “I don’t have a ton of questions, just… could you tell me the entire geologic history of Indiana?” That’s not much to ask, right? As I’ve been reading John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World I’ve come to understand the Big Picture of geology a little better, so I really enjoyed Walt’s description of the history of Indiana. Years ago, I had learned that the bedrock in Indiana is mostly limestone which was created when Indiana was the floor of a shallow sea. This is why the fossils I always find in the creek beds near home are crinoid disks (parts of filter feeding marine animals similar to modern sea lillies), brachiopods (which look like clams with a dent in their shells), and parts of sponges… no dinosaur bones (although Kieran always asks). What Walt helped me understand was how all of this developed. We talked through the history, then made a short video with his explanation of how the stratigraphic column of Indiana’s rock tells the story of Indiana’s voyage from Pangea, when it was South of the equator and the north end of the state was pointed east; to it’s current location. My students always tell me it’s easy to understand how to solve chemistry problems when they watch me do it, but hard to understand on their own. In the same way, I found it easy to understand Indiana’s geology while Walt explained it. I certainly would not have pieced it all together from the reading I’ve been doing, although I feel like the reading has helped me get a good foundation, and I highly recommend McPhee’s book to anyone interested.

Here is a link to the video. It might have been longer, but I accidentally left a soccer game or two on the camera, so I didn’t have as much space as I would have liked. The video starts with a couple of clips of Walt explaining a bedrock map of Indiana and the stratigraphic column. Then, he demonstrated the reaction of several different forms of calcium carbonate rock with hydrochloric acid. At the end, there is a quick clip (I was running out of space on the camera) of fossil skulls of animals that lived in Indiana during the ice age. We start with a peccary, then a sabre-toothed cat, then a dire wolf. The last two fossils are molar teeth from a mammoth and a mastodon. I would like to have more time to make it all smooth with a title slide and nice fades between clips, etc. I’m a little nervous sharing this, as I’m a bit intimidated by both my weak video skills and the geology itself. But I have a great deal of packing and reading and to-do list checking to do right now, so this rough video will have to suffice. I tend to get bogged down with details as it is. I hope to have time when I get back home to clean things up a bit. Maybe one day I’ll have all my little videos “branded” with my own style of title slides and stuff, or maybe life will get in the way again. Well, without further ado, here it is… Video #1 in the series:

Things I learned today:

  • Limestone forms in situations where corals and other filter feeders thrive: shallow, warm salt water that must be free of sediment influx. If the water is clouded with too much sediment, the filter feeders take in too much sand or silt and not enough food, so they die off. Geologists refer to periods of time that meet this criteria as the “carbonate factory” being turned on, because these filter feeding animals make calcium carbonate or calcium magnesium carbonate shells out of dissolved minerals in the water. When they die, their shells get buried, then compacted into stone
  • Indiana’s shale and sandstone come from periods when Indiana’s shallow sea was getting a lot of sedimentary matter that ran off the land at higher elevation (the Appalachian range and/or from higher ground in Canada). During these times, the carbonate factory was turned off.
  • Indiana’s geology has been shaped by plate tectonics, despite the fact that the area is not currently very seismically active. Pangea formed due to plate collisions. The North American plate collided with several continental plates, including those of Eurasia and Africa. These collisions bent and folded the North American plate and pushed the Appalachians upward. If you look at the eastern US on a map with satellite view, the wrinkles are really clear!
  • When the Appalachians were being built, two bowl-shaped basins formed near the edges of the wrinkles. One is centered on southern Illinois and Indiana, the other is centered on Michigan. Indiana’s rock layers were bent as these two areas dipped down, and the rock between them was pushed up. This explains why older rock is near the surface in the southeastern part of the state, while younger rock is exposed to the southwest and northeast.
  • “Indiana limestone” is really just the Salem limestone. Much of the limestone in the state does not make for great building material, but the Salem limestone does. This stone has been used for many federal buildings across the US, a great number of buildings in Indiana, and even the Empire State Building.
  • Always clear the camera before doing an interview, so there’s plenty of space!
  • And lots more!

After the interview, the boys and I ate lunch with Michelle and her son David. Evan and David are both seniors this year, and it was nice to see them together again. They’ve known each other since they were babies, but with all of their extracurricular activities, they rarely get together anymore. It was great to talk to them about their futures and how their junior years went. We enjoyed some Indian food at a restaurant on the square called Bombay Cafe. I’m going to have to work out a way to explain to ethnic restaurant owners that Kieran likes all kinds of food and handles spicy food better than most six year olds. They always suggest that he won’t like this or that item. He and I shared a veggie combo plate and he ate nearly all of the medium-spicy dal. That’s OK… more paneer for me! The paneer is their signature dish, and all you kiddos going (back) to IU next year, you NEED to go try it. It’s amazing. I guess I have a reason to look forward to going back to IU again!