Field study helps to enlighten participants

MaryAnne Shults

Led by instructor Jim Repka, 35 students ventured north on the weekend of Sept. 12-14 to the Eastern Sierra for a field study organized by Saddleback College’s Geology department, for a hands-on interaction that others can only capture from a textbook.

“Everyone should take a field study because you learn so much that it’s worth the packing, the cold, and the driving,” said Ashley Dunnicliffe, 18, undecided. “You can’t compare what you learn in a book to what you learn in the field.”

California’s extraordinary geology is the result of volcanic and tectonic activity. The Sierra mountains were shaped by glaciers during the ice ages as well as weathering by wind and rain. The coastline of California is constantly changed by the hammering waves of the Pacific Ocean. California has a wealth of mineral resources, including the gold and silver of the Sierras, a part of our state’s history that students first learn about in their elementary school curriculum.

In his book, Volcanoes of the United States, Steven R. Brantley of the US Geological Survey said, “Though few people in the United States may actually experience an erupting volcano, the evidence for earlier volcanism is preserved in many rocks of North America. Features seen in volcanic rocks only hours old are also present in ancient volcanic rocks, both at the surface and buried beneath younger deposits.”

The students arrived at the Learning Village’s parking lot in the pre-dawn hour of 5:30 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 12. Once the cargo van was loaded with the food, cooking supplies, and the campers’ personal gear, the participants split into three 12-passenger vans and the trek began.

After a stop for breakfast in Adelanto, Calif., the group headed north on Highway 395 where the vans pulled just off the road to view the Coso Volcanic Field. This location is an excellent example of one of the youngest examples of volcanic activity in the area. One can see lava domes and basaltic cinder cones covering a large area. Much of the volcanic field lies within the China Lake Naval Weapons Center.

The next stop was Fossil Falls, located in the Owens Valley in the North Mojave Desert. Geologists have referred to this area as “Land of Fire sculpted by Water.” A number of the large rocks and boulders possess smooth, round basins on their upper surface, where water once cascaded down a waterfall approximately 20 feet.

The surrounding desert contained raw materials for the local Native Americans to use to make stone tools such as projectile points, knives, and scrapers.

“Stopping at Fossil Falls is always a big hit because most don’t know this geological example is just along the side of the road where one wouldn’t normally stop and it’s not in any of the tourist books,” said Repka.

A stop at the Lone Pine Interagency Visitors’ Center allowed everyone the opportunity to review literature and displays relative to the history of the Sierra. In the silhouette of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the state, Repka shared the story of the formation of the Alabama Hills in the foreground.

Further up Highway 395 is the Owens River Gorge, a steep canyon in southern Mono County formed when the river cut through the Bishop Tuff, a layer of welded ash that formed from the eruption of the Long Valley Caldera.

Camp was set up at Rock Creek at the south edge of the caldera, and the group rested to prepare for the four-mile hike the next day.

Saturday’s highlight was a climb from Mosquito Flat to Ruby Lake in the John Muir Wilderness. Starting at 10,300 feet, the trail’s elevation increases over 1000 feet to the lake. This area is perfect for spectacular views of Heart Lake and Box Lake, as well as secluded and picturesque Ruby Lake.

At Hot Creek, once a popular recreation area, geysers of boiling water can unpredictably erupt with violence. Because of this danger, the U.S. Forest Service has had to close parts of the site. Hot Creek is a distinct sign of dynamic geologic processes in this volcanic region, where underground heat drives thermal energy and activity.

After camping near the base of Devil’s Postpile National Monument, near Mammoth Mountain ski area, the last day of the trip included stops at Lookout Mountain for an overview of the entire Long Valley Caldera and Obsidian Dome, that appears like a wall of black glass, where the students could pick up huge black boulders that are deceitful in appearance because of their high concentration of pumice.

“I got a whole new perspective other than just the usual driving up there,” said Monica Carrick, 19, undecided. “It was interesting learning about how the mountains got there in the first place, and, it was fun too.”

Saddleback College’s Geology Department offer weekend field studies twice per semester. Department Chairman Peter Borella, along with Jim Repka, coordinate the studies. One of the spring semester studies is organized in conjunction with the Biology department, chaired by Tony Huntley. On the calendar for Spring 2009 are trips to Yosemite and Death Valley. Past trips have also covered many of the geological examples in Southern California including the Central Coast, and the Anza-Borrego and Mojave deserts.

“The field studies offer the opportunity for us to expose introductory level and non-geology students to the processes and landscapes that may have not been familiar to them, through our eyes,” Repka said.

One of the highlights of the Geology field studies is a seven- to-ten day trek to one of the west coast’s national parks. Past participants have experienced the grandeur of the Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Zion National Parks.

Anyone has the opportunity to experience one of these field studies; all one has to do is register through Saddleback College. Participants have ranged in from those just out of high school to retired teachers.

The next biology field study is Sept. 18-21, organized by instructor Zane Johnson and the Biology department, to study the flora and fauna of the Grand Canyon, followed by a geology field study to the Central Coast, including Santa Barbara and Morro Bay, on October 3-5, headed by Peter Borella.

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