This week I finished up training for my new volunteer position at Canyonlands National Park (CANY), "Island in the Sky" district (ISKY). Now I come to work in uniform, greet and provide orientation for guests, cashier at the bookstore, rove trails, and prepare for the astronomy training I'm going to give over the next few weeks. The winter staff at CANY is a small, but very friendly bunch, and I feel I fit in pretty well so far. I've been keeping an occasional journal since I've been here and have posted some entries below along with a few pictures. Before I go any further let me just say that it feels almost impossible to photograph this landscape with the basic point-n'-shoot I've used for the past decade. The panoramic views are too immense, the distances too great, and the light contrast between the sky and the rock too pronounced. NONE of these photos come close to representing the reality of this place...you really have to come here yourself.
Tues, November 10, 2015
I drove up to the Island in the Sky under a chilly gray drizzle. Flat ranges of brush surrounded bulky red-rock tables and stretched toward curtains of cloud that hid the horizon on all sides. Somewhere beyond those clouds is a view I’m about to fall in love with, but until the weather breaks, it’s going to remain a mystery.
I checked in at the visitor center (VC), got keys to my house, and drove back up the road toward the little duplex that’ll be my home for the next few weeks. Turns out, it’s brand new, spacious, and beautifully appointed. Large windows look out over the mesa top, and I can’t wait for the clouds to clear so I can see what I’ll be waking up to every morning! Slushy snow fell as I unloaded my car, and about an inch had accumulated by the time I drove back down into Moab on my first grocery run.
Snow-flocked sage boughs, deep brick reds in the rock and soil, heavy clouds looming like a bruise on the sky—the land around me was heavy, intensely colored, and obscured by banks of drifting fog. On the way back up a couple hours later, the starless night was as black as a raven's wing, and driving snow, dazzling in my headlights, forced me to slow to a crawl. I’m anxious to see how morning will break.
Wed, November 11
I woke up to four inches of snow and a sky as clear as any I’d ever seen. I looked out as the sun was just peeking over the horizon—the last pinkish band of night sliding away in the west.
After checking in with Michael, my boss for the next couple months, I started my exploration. And how lucky that my first views of the park would be enhanced by a fresh snow!
The picture to the left was taken from the Schafer Trail overlook, near that popular road's precipitous (and now snowy) initial switchbacks. Later in the week, melting and refreezing turned the road into a mess of ice and mud that stranded one driver and necessitated a route closing.
Grand View Point. What can I say about this overlook that won’t degrade into a litany of superlatives?
What can anyone say about an unguarded 1400-foot drop straight down from where they stand? Or about vertical red cliffs lording over endless miles of table-top sandstone that then drop another 1000 feet into a canyon of spires, and monuments and, somewhere, a river still carving it all away? You can imagine being at eye level with the Empire State Building—if they’d built it flat on the sandstone shelf below. You can imagine individual grains of sand being gently washed away by the drips and trickles of melting snow you hear all around you...
...just single grains, now and then...
...that over a span of time greater than can be humanly comprehended, eventually add up to the shapes carved into the landscape below. You can feel your feet tingle slightly with an itch to fly…and then step back from the edge a few more paces. But mostly, your brain, or my brain maybe, just gasps, “Whoa…” and then stops thinking.
Upheval Dome: eroded salt dome? …or METEOR CRATER!? You can’t really tell from these photos, but this enigmatic feature is actually a circular bowl cut into the terrain. As a skeptic that would REALLY love it to be the site of an ancient impact, I somehow feel inclined to dismiss that option as the least plausible—just because it’s the explanation I want. Does anyone else do that too?
A few days after I wrote this, a friend sent me links to research that definitively identifies Upheval Dome as an impact site. Now I have to find out why we're still asked to focus on two competing theories, rather than highlighting the AWESOMENESS of the true conclusion!
The desert view can only get better when seen from the back of a whale—Whale Rock, that is.
I originally thought this would be my vantage for sunset, and played around with shadows and reflections for a while as I waited for the sun to fall behind the far western mountains.
But a nagging curiosity about the Green River Overlook eventually lured me down and back to my car. I’m glad it did.
Thursday, November 12
A chorus of coyotes is my alarm clock.
My walk into work.
The view from my office (well...just a quick jog across the street from the VC).
I read, and read, and READ, and observe, and rove a new trail—learn how to follow cairns up steep slickrock a little bit better than I did the day before—and end up looking toward the La Sals at the top of Aztec Butte. There are Ancestral Puebloan granaries up there—hidden by ledges too low to kneel under.
My walk home from work.
Friday, November 13
My good-morning coyote chorus begins around 5:30 am...yawn...
Read, tour the maintenance yard, read, do Jr. Ranger books and Explore Packs, READ, review passes and fee procedures—not that I can take them myself, but just so I know—and then READ som'more. What I got from my reading: the sequence of rock layers exposed in the park (let’s see if I can get this without cheating). Navajo Sandstone and the Kayenta Formation make up ISKY’s mesa caprock, Wingate Sandstone takes you down the first dramatic step, moderated by the sloping Chinle Formation, and then the Moenkopi—Chocolate cliffs!—then we hit the White Rim Sandstone Formation that caps the second major step down over the cliffs of Organ Rock—same stuff that supports the “Mittens” in Monument Valley. Below that, well, I’m a little fuzzy, but way at the bottom is the Paradox Formation—I love the name, it’s why I remember it. Ok. Checking my answers. Yup, got most of them. Below the Organ Rock Shale is Cedar Mesa Sandstone (best seen in the colorful spires of the Needle’s District…they don’t call them hoodoos…I wonder why?), then the Elephant Canyon Formation, Honaker Trail Formation, and THEN Paradox.
What’s more important than the names, though, is what they are and how they were formed: each layer a record of a particular environment that existed in this area hundreds of millions of years ago. Seashores, lakebeds, stream courses, sand dunes—the future Canyonlands grew up out of an extremely varied succession of landscapes. All of them cemented to rock, uplifted thousands of feet, and then scoured into a vast system of canyons by today’s rivers, the Green and Colorado.
|Colorful lichens on sandstone: Murphy Point Trail|
|Green River from the Murphy Point Trail|
|Crescent Moon above Lathrop Trail|
|Glow opposite sunset from the White Rim Overlook Trail|
|An especially INTENSE Belt of Venus seen from my front yard|