Brianna Rykken: A Day Behind Glazed Eyes

Bri blog 2 photoWith this piece I am portraying two of the values of the wilderness; accessing the concrete, physical attributes that surround you and the reflective thought that they provoke. Some choose to see value in what is before their eyes whereas others find value in the opportunity to explore what goes on behind them. I have found the two to be more connected than one may think. Here is a day in the two intertwined realities that wilderness inspires.

                The day began heading down into Woodenshoe Canyon. The crisp morning chill was still in the air but the hot desert sun was making its way into our skin. This canyon is immediately different than the previous trips. There is a cleared, single-file trail for one! Also, a new rock layer is present, the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. It switches back and fourth from a deep red to a muddy white. It is home to many more tree than we have seen before. There are so many trees! Ponderosa, Pinons, Junipers. Everything is so green. It feels so alive.

Everything is green. It feels so alive.
I haven’t thought that since I was back home in Minnesota.
I wonder how everything is back home. I haven’t had much thought
of my family, we have been so busy. How are my parents? My sister
graduates soon. I am so excited to see them again.
Everything is green. It feels so alive.

                Camp is finally in vision. Hips are red from where packs rested all day. The wash near our site is dry but walking upstream, a vibrate swamp comes into vision. There are scattered pools throughout. The water is covered in a fine layer of pollen, but for tonight it will have to do. There are little flowers everywhere. The Naturalist Guide says they are Carpet Phlox. Nearing camp, there are tracks in the mud. There are bear prints! They have five short toes. This one must have been huge! It is so nice to be back in the wilderness.

It is so nice to be back in the wilderness.
What exactly is wilderness? Thomas Fleischner think it is where we
fall in love with the world. Wallace Stegner thinks it is simply an idea that
keeps him going. Funny how he sits at a desk and thinks about the
wilderness whereas I sit in the wilderness and think about him.
Its so nice to be back in the wilderness.

                Class begins in the late afternoon. The canyon walls rise high above us, forming the boundaries of the Dark Canyon Wilderness. The reading for today was The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by William Cronon. “Wilderness, in short, was a place to which one came only against one’s will, and always in fear and trembling.” Why did they see things so differently?

Why did they see things so differently?
It’s a fair excuse, they didn’t know any better. I wonder who it is in
todays world who is so unable to see. Is it the miners? Or the environmentalists?
Or is it me?
Why did they see things so differently?

                The buttes around us glow under the setting sun, signaling that the day is coming to an end. A chill is creeping back into the air. Its smells of fresh pine. It is time to start tonight’s reading. Land management of Bears Ears National Monument is the focus. The administration justified this change by stating that the Monument was not “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected…” as the Antiquities Act states, although this matter is still in litigation. It also stated that “Public lands will again be for public use.”

Public land will again be for public use.
Does this mean the workers who want the land for its resources?
What about the Native Americans who revere the land for its
sacredness? Or simply the hikers who love the land for its beauty? Is it
crazy to imagine that one day we could all see eye to eye?
Public land will again be for public use.

                The night has gone cold. One by one, the illuminating lights of headlamps are turned into darkness. The silence is only occasionally broken by the wind blowing through the trees and the deep breathes of the slumbering creatures who fill Woodenshoe Canyon tonight. The world is lit by a sliver of light brought by the infinite number of stars.


Keagan McCully: Of Time and Energy

CottonwoodI sit perched on a sandstone ledge overlooking a bend in the wash of Larry Canyon. From here I can see the white salt deposits from the stream, blanketing the dry regions of the wash beneath the luscious green cottonwood leaves. A light breeze keeps the gnats from buggin me. Occasionally the breeze picks up, rustling the pages of my journal, allowing my gaze to drift upward. I’m surrounded by red cliffs, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. The visual differences between the rock layers—boxy and jagged darker rock and the lighter, smoother, tafoni-filled sandstone—symbolize the different environments that this landscape has seen throughout history. Every few moments, the overcast sky gives way to an expanse of blue. The bold contrast of the blue against the red rock is unlike anything I’ve seen. Here you hear the wind before you feel it. A brief period of silence is interrupted by the distant howl of the breeze flowing like water through the canyon. It rustles the cottonwood leaves and then it reaches me, wrapping and warping itself across the contours of my body, raising hairs on my arms as it passes.

Each element that fills my senses does not aid in helping me grasp the complexities of the concept of scale. Scale of size, magnitude, distance, time. I am miniscule compared to the canyon walls that surround me, yet I tower in comparison to the sand grains whose intricate crystalline structure allow the cliffs to tower above me. A gnat comes and lands on my hand. Curious, it crawls around for a few seconds before returning into the air. In a few days its life will have passed. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to me. I wonder if the canyons feel the same way about me. My lifetime is but a heartbeat to them. Here, time seems unfathomable.

If you look closely enough, you can read Earth’s history from the layers and composition of rocks. Their near-permanence has harbored billions of years of knowledge, embedded in minerals, crystals and their chemical composition. One story told by these ancient beings is about the Earth’s climate. On geologic timescales, rocks exert a great amount of control on the climate. The chemical weathering of carbonate rock (as well as volcanic outgassing of carbon dioxide) has provided life on Earth with carbon—which helps keeps the temperature of the atmosphere relatively warm and is perhaps the most essential elemental ingredient for life. But rocks also take in carbon from the Earth’s surface, and recycle it back into the asthenosphere. Carbon-clad organisms that fall to the sea floor eventually become part of new rocks and are brought into Earth’s interior through the subduction of oceanic plates. For billions of years, this system has been one of the main drivers of climate on Earth. Now global climate has begun to shift on a rate never seen before as humans fill the atmosphere with carbon that has been naturally sequestered in rock layers over the past hundreds of millions of years. This is happening all over the world, Utah is certainly no exception.

The sun was fading, hiding itself behind the western cliff above Angel Cove, our first campsite along the Dirty Devil River, as we settled down to begin class. Our topic for the day was energy—primarily fossil fuels and their extraction in Utah. Our discussion recalled several points from the day before, when we met with Sarah Stock, a WRFI alumna and current environmental activist in Utah. Sarah described to us how the state’s geological landscape has allowed for the extraction of petroleum and uranium, and another non-conventional oil source known as tar sands. Similar to petroleum, tar sands are the remains of organic material that has been chemically transformed into a thick substance known as bitumen. Unlike petroleum deposits, which tend to concentrate into locations known as traps, this substance is spread throughout layers of sand. Extraction methods vary by location, but in many areas in Utah steam extraction is used. In this process, steam is pumped into deep holes drilled into the deposits. This heats up the bitumen, making it less viscous, and then it is sucked out of the rocks. Before the oil can be refined, it must be separated from the sand. The whole process is extremely energy intensive—it has been estimated that tar sand mining produces five to ten times more carbon dioxide than conventional oil extraction (already a very dirty process), and requires copious amounts of water, a resource which is very limited in this landscape. If this were to happen on a larger scale in Utah, the environmental effects would be immense. Luckily, due to the relatively cheap price of oil, tar sand extraction is uneconomical. But if the global oil market were to shift, it may make this process financially appealing to US energy companies. Sarah is working to combat the industries which still seek to extract these tar sands, engaging with local and statewide communities fighting for the health and future of the planet. Her stories were inspiring to us, as we have learned and recognized the severity of the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on local and global socio-ecological systems.


A few miles down the river, we settle into a quiet cove. Perennial shrubs and invasive annual grasses spread across the flat valley. Scraggly oak trees stand rooted in groups along the eroded slopes where the canyon walls meet the ground. I dodge the cryptobiotic soil and settle down in an open spot facing the south canyon wall. These must be the biggest cliffs that we have seen yet in the Dirty Devil. The warm evening light kisses the red canyon walls as the sun sinks below the horizon. There is an intoxicating stillness here, interrupted only by the sound of the wind rustling the oak leaves and the occasional laugh of one of my friends, echoing off the varnished walls. Deep in thought, I am able to contemplate my purpose here. I look to the Earth for guidance.

These canyons have stories to tell. Tales of cultures, of ecosystems and of a landscape that we will never see, of times so far from our own that they seem otherworldly. These canyons are our cathedrals. To me, they harbor a sense of infinite wonder, spirituality and sacredness, and allow my curiosity to fill every pore, crack and void within their surface. They represent but a taste of the Earth’s beauty and history, yet are now so deeply embedded in my story. For this moment, we live here. Beneath the cloudless, starry desert sky, we fall asleep in the softest sand. We are nine unique souls, each searching for something different, with the privilege to experience firsthand the unrivaled beauty and tranquility of this magnificent landscape.

Sarah Bartz: Layer by Layer

layer by layerAs our group sits beneath the glow of the evening sky, the smell of a warm peanut butter, soy sauce, brown sugar, veggie, and rice noodle feast wafts around us. It is our first night back in the wilderness after a quick resupply in Hanksville, and I am happy to be immersed in the backcountry of the canyons once again. This section will allow us to take a deeper look into some of the different rock formations we journey through during our time on the Colorado Plateau.

“What is something you all feel a strong connection to,” asks Bri. Savoring our first few bites of dinner, we contemplate the question. Tonight marks our 16th dinner together, and each night the cooks of the day have come up with a new topic for the group to discuss while we eat.

“I have always felt a deep passion for music,” says Keagan. “Good things always seem to come my way when I’m out of my comfort zone,” states Madison. “I feel most at peace when I’m outdoors,” adds Sierra. Around the circle we go, revealing the things our minds are drawn to and gaining insight on each other’s lives.

Beginning our journey down Horseshoe Canyon, and now continuing it through a section of the Dirty Devil River Canyon, through dinner chats (serious and light hearted) and by experiencing this landscape together, we are slowly exposing our inner selves. As we discover more about one another, we are also building our knowledge and observations of the ancient rocks that surround and intrigue us.

The WRFI trailer shudders around us from the force of a 50 mph sandy wind storm. Unlike anything we have experienced before, there is nothing to do but huddle together and take in the power of the Colorado Plateau. On our breezy descent into the Dirty Devil River Canyon, we begin a more in depth identification of the different formations of sandstone we see. Dave points out the top layer we will be studying. This dark, reddish-brown cap rock (being harder than the rock below it) is known as the Carmel Formation, and is the youngest of the rocks I will be discussing. It was created around 160 million years ago during a time of shallow seas transitioning from marine to continental landscape. Similarly to the way in which the Carmel layer holds and protects the layers beneath it from the elements, sitting upon this first layer’s crust brought us closer as we protected and comforted each other from the elements of a desert wind storm.

The Carmel Formation is much thinner than the rest of the layers and we quickly spot and discuss our next type of sandstone. Making our way down the remaining sloping cliffs to the river below, we trek across gritty slickrock and over ledges of vegetation.

Upon reaching the base of the canyon, we wade into the cool, cloudy river beneath smooth, tan cliffs of Navajo Sandstone. Distinct groupings of lines travel along the walls with us. These markings, known as cross bedding, tell us this rock was formed by the compression of ancient sand dunes. The particles of sand that formed this layer are said to have blown all the way from the ancient Appalachian Mountains and were likely part of the largest dune field in the history of the planet. Erosion of this layer creates many amphitheaters and alcoves with beautiful acoustics, which gave me the confidence to push past some of my self-consciousness and sing from my soul for the group.

Slowly making our way down the river, feet occasionally getting stuck in the gooey sediment, we start to notice a new geologic formation emerging beneath the Navajo. Darker reddish-brown tones sparkle amongst chunky, box-like walls with layered, ledgy swoops and curves. The Kayenta Sandstone that unfolds around us originates from the deposition of perennial rivers flowing from the ancient Rocky Mountains. Its erosion in uneven patterns creates many small shelves for vegetation. I enjoy this layer because with some imagination you can pick out figures and faces in the sides of the old, textured rock.

After a long day of hiking, we set up camp and spend another night sleeping amongst the stars. The morning sun of another cloudless day leads us further down river, exposing us to the vast cliffs and alcoves of the Wingate Sandstone. Similar to Navajo, this layer was also formed by ancient sand dunes, except these geologic masterpieces hold compacted sand from past North-West American regions. Tall, sheer, reddish-tan walls showcase a key feature to this layer- sporadically placed and grouped swiss cheese-like holes known as “tafoni.” Wingate’s tafoni are caused by the high porosity of its interior particles, allowing water to seep through and erode small to large, varying shaped caverns on its face. These holes remind me of miniature, mystical elven cities carved into the side of a hill and make this my favorite layer of sandstone we’ve seen thus far.

Desert varnish is also very visible on Wingate Sandstone. Its black/grey streaks down the cliff wall result from the minerals manganese and iron oxide mixing with water, and can be seen throughout nearly all the layers of rock I discuss.

Nearing the end of our 7th day on the Dirty Devil River, Chinle Sandstone begins to reveal itself. This geologic layer varies widely in texture, shape, and color. It holds reddish brown boxlike layers with edgy grooves (similar to Kayenta) to purple, green, grey, yellow, blue crumbly walls mixed with conglomerate rocks. Its wide range of formations and differential erosion is attributed to its varying depositional environments, including marshes, rivers, and seas. We found an abundance of petrified wood while walking through this layer, and its uranium stores have been of great mining interest throughout the years.

As we continue the rest of our way down the canyon, we encounter additional formations of Moenkopi and White Rim Sandstone. These are the oldest rock we have seen, formed around 250 million years ago. I run my hands along their surfaces and can feel the immense natural history and wisdom they hold.

Similar to the particles that form the ancient rocks around us, each of us on this journey come from a variety of landscapes and histories. The more time we spend together in these canyons, the greater understanding we have of each other and the environment around us. By immersing myself in the many layers of geology here and the people experiencing them with me, I begin to discover the different layers that form myself as well.