May 21, 2014

A helluva place to lose a cow

Sunday May 18

Day off. Got caught up on email, blog, FB...all the busywork associated with money and communications. Won't get to check for responses for another day.

Finished up just in time to go watch Cheryl give a geology presentation at Sunset Point. Wind was strong and sent laminated paper visual aids flying everywhere. Fortunately a quick moving spectator gathered them all up before any ended up in the bottom of the Canyon...or I now know, Bryce is not a Canyon...the park could more correctly be called Bryce Amphitheater. Canyons, like the Grand, Zion, and my hometown Little Cottonwood are deep gorges carved out by rivers or glaciers. Bryce is a high plateau whose defining features have instead been carved by seasonal effects of freezing and thawing—so technically not a Canyon. The canyon designation was just a nickname given by early Mormon settlers who called this maze of hoodoos that existed behind Ebenezer Bryce's land “Bryce's Canyon.” “A hell of a place to lose a cow.” according to Ebenezer.

The sediment that makes up Bryce's layers was laid down by millions of years of sea, desert, and lake. Uplift raised the plateau to its present height. As periodic rains gush down its walls and uncover harder layers of rock, those newly exposed layers are sculpted into fins by a process known as frost wedging. Water seeps into cracks, freezes and expands. Pieces of rock are pushed away from their parent body and fall into the depths. Fins, windows, arches, and finally hoodoos are left behind...well, that, or the greedy Legend People were turned to stone by Coyote for their selfish avarice. A beautiful morality tale told by ancient tribes of native Americans who lived in this area.

I got another roommate today. Kara, an intern for the Geological Society of America, arrived this afternoon. Remembering how lost I felt when I first got here, I resolved to share everything I know about how the program runs, and where stuff is. Though there are still a few gaps for me, at least she knows the layout of the VC, she's got most of her uniform (minus the hat), and now knows how to read the schedule. 

As this is her first visit to Bryce, and indeed the southwest in general, we also toured the lower Amphitheaters, and hiked to Mossy Cave, a short trail accessed outside the Park's main entrance. I just realized that I didn't take any pictures of the cave. Oops. I did catch some views of the lovely stream running along the trail...

A waterfall...

A nice row of windows...

And a red rock formation I thought resembled a barking dog...

 After dinner and a couple games of “Eight Minute Empire: Legends,” we drove out to the rim at Fairyland Point to (on advice from our supervisor Geoff, who will be arriving in June) weep over Bryce Canyon's unbelievable night sky. My first great night out as well, we were both giddily stunned by the sheer numbers of stars. As it is spring, the main swath of Milky Way—from Cygnus to Sagittarius—that most people adore for the grand north to south arch it makes in summer, was just starting to rise in the east. A little lost in the thicker atmosphere on the horizon, we only caught hints of the glory that is soon to come. I pointed out a few prominent constellations. Though with so many stars it was “hard to see the trees for the forest” so to speak. Not a problem I'm likely to complain about too much! We also caught some beautiful binocular views of M4 and M13—both globular clusters. 

All in all a satisfyingly full day.

Monday May 19

Found a copy of “Track of the Cat,” the first Anna Pigeon novel, among a collection of donated books in the laundry room this morning. Before leaving for Bryce two people recommended that I check out this series. Each novel is set in a different national park and the protagonist, Ranger Anna Pigeon, encounters mysteries—in this first book, a supposed mountain lion kill in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas which Anna believes is actually a murder. I've never read mysteries in the past, but have been enjoying this one so far. Perhaps a nice stand-in for the mystery tv shows Rob and I have gotten into recently: Morse, Lewis, Luther, Sherlock...

Checked in with Jan Stock and Kevin Poe at the VC this morning. Got a stack of helpful reference books about Bryce Canyon to increase our knowledge of the park, its history, geology, flora, and fauna. Instead of doing our regular solar observing tomorrow, we've been asked to walk the main trails in uniform making visitor contacts when possible. ”Roving” I guess it's called.

Kara and I hiked the entire rim portion of the Fairyland Loop trail this afternoon. Only 2.7 miles one way (5.4 for us since we went out and back), but with a lot of up and down, so we both got pretty tired. The sun feels VERY close here. Just a little too easy to get burnt. The high altitude that contributes so nicely to a pristine night sky makes extra vigilance necessary during the day. Water. Sunscreen. Rest. The environment is beautiful though. At this point I feel I can easily recognize some of the most common members. Ubiquitous Manzanita, Utah Juniper, Ponderosa Pine, Limber Pine, Uinta Chipmunk, Stellar's Jay. We also saw lizards, a vulture, raven, and some kind of amazing ant that was covered in bright red fur. I think I've heard of something called a velvet ant?

In the evening, not too long after the sun had set, I drove a little ways south in the park. Stopped along the way to check out a couple viewpoints and trailheads. Coming back in the deep twilight, expansive meadows along the road were filled with Pronghorn. I could see their gray forms darting around in playful circles. A game of chase? Clocked at 55 mph, these animals are the fastest in the world next to cheetahs. One was perched right at the edge of the road standing tall and still in my headlights as I inched by. I said silent prayers that he wouldn't decide to dart in front of me at the last minute. Hitting a Pronghorn would NOT be the best way to star off the season.

Tuesday May 20

A hummingbird at my window this morning!

Roving the Queen's/Navajo Loop trail proved a delightful four hours of work. From the VC shuttle stop to the trailhead then down among the hoodoos and back, we encountered 88 people. Hailing from all over the world, some wanted directions, or asked advice on what else they should do later in the day, some had questions about the local geology or wildlife (thank goodness for our handy field guide), some were curious about our position as volunteers—where we'd come from and how we'd gotten involved—and some just wanted assistance with photos—sometimes requesting photos of us two “charming Ranger-ettes.” 

And thanks to a gusty wind at my back for adding 30 lbs around my mid-section. 

Our mini conversations often allowed for brief mentions of Bryce's superlative night sky, and some interesting things that may be observed there...a chance to advertize the astronomy programs taking place later that evening. We climbed up to the rim along the steep switchbacks of Navajo, and finished the 3 mile trail dusty, a little out of breath, and really needing a bathroom! But who can complain about such things with a job like this?

After a brief lunch, we headed back in to the VC for project time and, in my case, front desk duty.

A sad bit of news. There was a heart attack today—the man passed away. Bryce averages less than one death per year, but heart attack is the leading cause. It's followed by falling off cliffs, lightning, and vehicle accidents. Unpleasant statistics that should remind us all to behave more safely—wear good footwear, head indoors in a storm, drive the speed limit...oh, and DON'T drive your motorcycle out onto Inspiration Point, like some wholly OBNOXIOUS risk-taker did today. I heard that a few onlookers captured photos. Hopefully the NPS will be able to extract his plate # and issue a citation.

A partly cloudy and windy day gave way to a spectacular night of observing! Best night so far in my opinion. As the night deepened we treated loooooong lines of spectators to views of the planets, star clusters (I claimed my old favorite the “Beehive”), planetary nebula (the Ring), and at least 3 galaxies. I first went to M51: the “Whilrpool.” The large member of this pair of interacting galaxies showed off some striking spiral structure—something I'd NEVER been able to see in a galaxy until tonight! I was blown away! Couldn't stop exclaiming that “Bryce is AWESOME!” I also helped the other operators get the “Sombrero” , M104, into Thor's aview. They'd been struggling to find it for a few minutes, but as M104 has been a recent favorite of mine, I was able to locate it in seconds. “Wanna know how to find M104?” I asked, planning to show them “Jaws,” the helpful little asterism that points right to the galaxy like an arrow. “Just call Kelly!” came the response before I could say anything. My little head swelled just a bit too much with that one.

Don't worry. I was sufficiently humbled later when I tried going back to M51and was totally unable to relocate it. How is that even possible?! After being so easy the first time, I discovered when I got home that I was aiming just a little off course. Ugh! How embarrassing. With the preponderance of computerized go-to scopes, I've remained an advocate of learning the sky and navigating to objects manually. I've always found it quicker and easier than trying to get everything aligned and waiting for a slow motor to slew to the vicinity of an object that you later have to locate precisely yourself anyway. Easier, that is, until you have a major brain fart, like I did in this case. Sigh. Better luck next time. I'm gonna get this one down so it's second nature.


  1. M51 has proven to be an elusive object for me as well. I found it Sunday night and didn't want to leave it for fear of not being able to find it again. My fears turned out to be well founded! I keep telling myself it's just gotta be a matter of practice- go west from the last star in the handle of the dipper to star 24, then just a bit further west and then south to the triangle of stars just outside of which resides M51. No spiral structure noticeable from my backyard here in Ohio.

  2. I'm sure we'll both be experts by the end of the summer. Good hunting!

  3. Can't wait to come down and observe with you. Sounds like work is AWESOME!!!