Field Trip Down Canyon is Grand

A Geologist's Mecca

EXPLORER correspondent Susan Eaton, an AAPG member based in Calgary, Canada, got the chance to fulfill a longtime dream recently by taking a field trip down the Colorado River through the famed Grand Canyon.

Along with her were other geologists who loved rocks, spouses who were familiar with rocks and others who had thrown rocks.

For all of them, the trip was one worth remembering.

Numbered among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon continues to challenge all who venture into its depths.

From the hair-raising expedition documented by Major John Wesley Powell in 1869 to the adventures of present-day explorers and outdoor enthusiasts who shoot the rapids of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon continues to humble all who experience its majesty and natural forces first-hand.

The Grand Canyon is to geologists what Mount Everest is to mountaineers — for centuries, explorers have made the pilgrimage to these natural wonders simply because they're there.

The adversity that early explorers faced while mapping the Grand Canyon is reflected in the names they gave the landforms — Boulder Narrows, Upset Rapids, Lava Falls, Vulcan's Anvil, Separation Rapid. During the past five million years, the Colorado River has carved down through the Colorado Plateau, exposing more than one mile of geological section and two billion years of the earth's geological history for the viewing.

This June, an intrepid group of explorers — led by David Lazor and sponsored by the Houston Geological Society — rafted down 188 miles of the Colorado River during an eight-day period. Led by three river guides, the group consisted of 31 participants ranging in age from 13 to 69.

Although diverse in its make-up, the group had one common thread — everyone shared a love of the great outdoors and a curiosity for science and nature.

Roughly half of the participants — friends and family — came from non-geological backgrounds. The group included a crude oil trader, a landman, an environmental lawyer, a chiropractor, a Hollywood actor, a nurse practitioner, a dietician, a junior high school counselor, a satellite communication engineer, a cell phone engineer and two teenagers.

"The Grand Canyon," according to Lazor, "is an open text book and teaching tool." Lazor, a consulting geologist and AAPG member, has rafted the Colorado River nine times, leading seven field trips with HGS.

Here is some of what this group learned — about the Grand Canyon, and about themselves as they experienced the Grand Canyon:

Image Caption

"I hope that you're a better writer than you are boat driver," shouted one of my fellow travelers. Thank you for the overwhelming vote of confidence!

Let's put this uncharitable comment into context: it was the last afternoon of the trip; the Colorado River was flowing lazily downstream; there were no rapids on the immediate horizon; the river guide was within reach, if necessary.

The tiller on the motorized raft, however, was winning the battle.

Admittedly, I cut quite an elaborate zigzag path from bank to bank to bank. And, while the raft didn't actually reach landfall, my prowess in boat navigation was brought into serious question…"

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EXPLORER correspondent Susan Eaton, an AAPG member based in Calgary, Canada, got the chance to fulfill a longtime dream recently by taking a field trip down the Colorado River through the famed Grand Canyon.

Along with her were other geologists who loved rocks, spouses who were familiar with rocks and others who had thrown rocks.

For all of them, the trip was one worth remembering.

Numbered among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon continues to challenge all who venture into its depths.

From the hair-raising expedition documented by Major John Wesley Powell in 1869 to the adventures of present-day explorers and outdoor enthusiasts who shoot the rapids of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon continues to humble all who experience its majesty and natural forces first-hand.

The Grand Canyon is to geologists what Mount Everest is to mountaineers — for centuries, explorers have made the pilgrimage to these natural wonders simply because they're there.

The adversity that early explorers faced while mapping the Grand Canyon is reflected in the names they gave the landforms — Boulder Narrows, Upset Rapids, Lava Falls, Vulcan's Anvil, Separation Rapid. During the past five million years, the Colorado River has carved down through the Colorado Plateau, exposing more than one mile of geological section and two billion years of the earth's geological history for the viewing.

This June, an intrepid group of explorers — led by David Lazor and sponsored by the Houston Geological Society — rafted down 188 miles of the Colorado River during an eight-day period. Led by three river guides, the group consisted of 31 participants ranging in age from 13 to 69.

Although diverse in its make-up, the group had one common thread — everyone shared a love of the great outdoors and a curiosity for science and nature.

Roughly half of the participants — friends and family — came from non-geological backgrounds. The group included a crude oil trader, a landman, an environmental lawyer, a chiropractor, a Hollywood actor, a nurse practitioner, a dietician, a junior high school counselor, a satellite communication engineer, a cell phone engineer and two teenagers.

"The Grand Canyon," according to Lazor, "is an open text book and teaching tool." Lazor, a consulting geologist and AAPG member, has rafted the Colorado River nine times, leading seven field trips with HGS.

Here is some of what this group learned — about the Grand Canyon, and about themselves as they experienced the Grand Canyon:

For Wayne Orlowski, the field trip gave him a chance to share his passion for geology with his partner. Orlowski, an AAPG member who is Americas Marketing Manager (Global Energy Industries) for SGI, took Deborah on her first geology field trip four years ago, on their honeymoon.

"When you go on vacation with a geologist, you see the beauty," said Deborah Orlowski, a junior high school counselor. "And you get the knowledge and understanding, a visual image in your mind."

Added Orlowski, "every day we awoke to another magnificent display of nature. And, around the bend was something even more exciting than the last one."

"Beautiful, unique and … perplexing." That's how Bill Wallace, a retired vice-president of Texaco and AAPG member, described the Grand Canyon.

From a landform perspective, said Bill, "it's a very difficult thing for me to understand. How do you carve something down that straight without the sides collapsing? It just doesn't compute."

AAPG member Dennis Ferstler was, like most, awestruck by the geology. At Blacktail Canyon (mile 120), geologists can actually sit on the Great Unconformity, where the Cambrian age Tapeats Sandstone sits atop the Precambrian age Vishnu Schist.

"Seeing a 1.2-billion year unconformity — that was right off the radar screen for me," said Ferstler, president of Alpine Resources. "That represents 25 percent of the age of the Earth."

(Wayne Orlowski was equally awestruck: "You could spend the rest of your life thinking about the Great Unconformity," he said. "It's mind-boggling.")

Ferstler, who said he enjoyed meeting the older geologists in the group, also saw the Grand Canyon through the eyes of Matt, his 15-year-old son. This trip represented the longest period of time that father and son had camped out together.

"I loved the Grand Canyon … a lot," Matt said. "I felt like I could tell someone about all of the layers of rocks."

One morning, Matt discovered a "bedtime companion" while he was shaking out his sleeping bag — the scorpion became one of several specimens that ended up in plastic bags for the curious to view.

Near the end of the trip, Matt heard one of the guides describing a pair of luminous eyes staring in the dark from a cliff overlooking the campsite.

Was it a cougar, a ringtail cat … or a tall tale? Whatever it was, the seed was planted — Matt traded a view of the Milky Way for a tent.

"Matt," his father explained, "wanted to be away from the creatures."

For some of the older geologists, this trip represented a piece of unfinished business, and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Several of the trip's participants, the senior statesmen, were over 60.

At 65, John Tubb recounted his childhood visits to the Grand Canyon — his father, an engineer, took the family to the South Rim on several occasions, allowing them a mere 20 minutes to look over the edge before departing. A consulting geologist and AAPG member, Tubb had waited 50 years to return to the Canyon, and to explore its depths.

He went on every hike — including a tough, six-mile, three-hour trek with a grueling 800 feet elevation gain.

As the group's undisputed "Audubon expert," Tubb made positive identifications of 23 species of birds, including two species that he had never before seen.

He characterized the trip in five words: "hot, cold, up, down, awesome." He described his parting image of the Grand Canyon, the helicopter ride on the final day, as "living in an IMAX‰ film."

"That young jockey pilot was headed for a side-canyon wall," he said. "I thought, I hope that sucker makes it … "

The forces of nature that shape the Grand Canyon ecosystem — the water combined with the desert's heat and cold — extracted a physical toll on the group. That's part of the Grand Canyon experience, according to Mike Caifa, one of the river guides.

"Adversity brings the group together," said Caifa, who has run the river 179 times. "You step up or you don't step up.

"I find most of the time that people step up to the challenge."

Jim Rogers and his wife, Vicki, were the couple who perhaps suffered the most physically on the trip. For Rogers, a consulting geologist and AAPG member, this was the first field trip he had taken since undergraduate school.

On the first night of the trip he fell in the dark, badly bruising his tailbone. That made sitting in a raft hurtling over rapids — one rapid dropped 37 feet — a delicate proposition and a daily challenge. The hot-dry-cold-wet cycles on the raft caused Rogers' (and others) fingers and toes to crack. Crazy glue, however, bonds to skin quite well, filling in cracks.

"Matt was a godsend for me," Rogers said, "because when you're trying to paint crazy glue on your fingers and toes, you can't do it yourself."

Vicki Rogers, an advanced nurse practitioner, injured both legs (not at the same time). Despite this, she carried on with a makeshift splint, not wanting to miss the hikes up side canyons. The daily treks up the side canyons were punctuated with cascading waterfalls and green swimming holes rimmed with ferns, watercress and columbines, and populated with two- to three-inch-long rainbow trout.

For Vicki — who has been stepping around Jim's rock collection for years — the field trip gave her the basics of Geology 101.

"You couldn't help but learn about geology," she said. "It was constant — the rocks, the vegetation, the whole picture."

Added Rogers, "I felt like I had achieved something that I hadn't achieved before."

Amy Farrington, an actor from North Hollywood, Calif., described the shared experience of a group of 34 people — many of whom didn't know each other before the trip — rafting down the Grand Canyon: "It's like you're in a little bubble; it's your little community.

"And what about John Tubb?" she continued. "What a warrior — he wasn't going to waste one minute of it. That energy and enthusiasm is infectious … It kind of upped the ante for us."

So, what's an actresses' take on traveling for eight days — often in close quarters — with a group of geologists?

She was bang on in her observations, noting that geologists never miss the cocktail hour before dinner — and the socializing and story telling that goes along with it.

"I don't think that geologists are quite so different from us," Farrington mused. "Geologists like to argue about how things came to be because nothing is complete.

"All of them have their own theories," she added, "and all of them think that they're right."

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