Casey Luskin.com

Casey Luskin.com

 

OUTDOORS

 

"The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it..."  
Psalm 24:1

With a lifelong love for sailing, kayaking, hiking, and the outdoors, I've taken a snapshot or two of nature. I'm not to going pretend for a second to be the world's greatest photographer. Maybe not even a very good photographer. But even a broken clock is right twice a day: the beauty of digital cameras is that you can take lots of shots and occasionally get a few worth sharing. The sampling below represents a few of the better photos I've taken. You can read the captions, or you can just enjoy...


Yosemite...

Here's a view looking up Yosemite Valley as you enter the park from the west side. From this view, Halfdome is the small bald peak in the distance just above the very center of the valley. Don't accredit the beauty of this picture to any skills I have. It's impossible to take a bad picture from here.

 

...and a couple closer shots of Halfdome:

 

 


Here's a view looking back down Yosemite Valley towards the west from the top of Halfdome. That's me on the top. The hike took 16 hours, and a lot of water bottles. I recommend this hike to anyone--it is long, but overall it is rarely steep and isn't overly strenuous. If you go, overestimate the amount of water you'll need, and then double it. I didn't underestimate the amount of water I needed, but some of my hiking companions did, and it made the hike much more difficult. But if you bring enough water, the hike is very do-able! There were many people of all ages along the trail.

This shot peers straight down on to the valley floor over edge of the lip of the top of Halfdome. This was a fun picture to take--laying flat, peeking over the ledge, looking down a very long drop!


Yosemite is a haven for studying the geological effects of glaciers. Glaciers leave various tell-tale signs that they were there, including "erratic" boulders which are large boulders carried along by the glacier and are then set down in their final "erratic" resting places as the glacier melts. Here are some nice shots of erratic boulders near Tuolumne Meadows toward the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park:










Yet another sign that a glacier was present is the presence of glacial striae. Glacial striae are parallel scratches on rock surfaces that were rubbed smooth as a glacier scrapes against a rock surface. The glacial striae run in the direction of glacial motion. Though the striae are difficult to see in the pictures below, the patches of rock surfaces that were scraped extremely smooth leave no doubt about glacial action. These were also taken near Tuolumne Meadows:



And finally a characteristic dome and another peak near Tuolumne Meadows:




The Grand Canyon...
Here's another place where it is almost impossible to take a bad picture, the Grand Canyon. This shot was taken about 1 mile down into the canyon during a short hike I took.


Catalina Island...
This is a picture of me and some friends looking back on an incredibly stupid decision we had just made: we walked through a herd of essentially wild buffalo that live on Catalina Island. We didn't have much choice as we were hiking across the island and the herd was right next to the trail. I suppose we could have gone around them but they seemed like nice, friendly buffalo. Again, probably a stupid decision.


Craters of the Moon National Park...
Here I am at Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho. This is one of the lesser-known national parks, but it has its own special beauty. From the top of this cinder cone is an amazing view. In one direction all you see is unweathered jagged lava flows as far as the eye can see. In another direction you see green hills. And in yet another you see the snowcapped Sawtooth Mountains. Astronauts apparently trained here for going to the moon--and it does look like the moon--it is covered with different types of basalt flows, and in some places like this there isn't any vegetation covering the buttes. Parts of this park are reminiscent of what a post-World-War-III earth might look like. If you're driving through Idaho, take the time to see this fascinating but obscure National Park.


Death Valley...
It was from this exact point (more or less) that Obi Wan Kenobi made his famous statement to Luke: "Mos Eisley Space Port. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." In the real world, this is a view of Death Valley, California, looking northwestward from the mountains on the east side. The white valley floor is primarily a giant salt flat. In the original Star Wars movie, George Lucas used effects to make the salt flat appear as the perilous town of Mos Eisley.


This is a closeup of a Pre-Cambrian stromatolite fossil in Death Valley. Stromatolites are basically bacterial mats which grow in shallow lagoons. A colony of bacteria or other microorganisms form on the shallow lagoon-bottom, and then new bacteria grow on top of the old ones, feeding off the dead bacteria underneath. Eventually, a layered structure grows upwards towards the water's surface, which may become fossilized. Stromatolite fossils are recognizable by their layering, and they are fairly common in the Pre-Cambrian record. They are not considered to be true multicullular life because they are generally composed of colonies of one-celled microorganisms. From what I am told, stromatolites do exist today in lagoons in Baja California and Australia. It's illegal to take rocks or fossils from National Parks, and plus outcrops of rare fossils like this should be preserved for the sake of natural conservation and scientific study. But it's fun to take pictures!


Southern California Deserts...
Devil's Punchbowl is an odd geological formation in Southern California, near Wrightwood. The San Andreas fault is nearby, and the tectonics have shoved up some underlying strata which have weathered into these giant mounds which are easy to climb and cool to look at (with some great examples of crossbedding in the strata).


This next shot is a rather random picture of a small but spectacular anticlinal fold in strata near Fishrock Mountain in the Anza-Borrego Desert:


These next two shots are from Fossil Canyon, near Ocotillo about 100 miles east of San Diego. This geology of this area is fascinating but complex. It is riddled with faults from the San Jacinto and Elsinore Fault complexes, and exposed in this canyon are many shell fossils and shimmering coral reefs from the proto-Gulf of California.


The morning sun on the hills around Fossil Canyon...


The Anza Borrego Desert in Bloom:


Switzerland...
Below are some pictures of the Alps, near the Schilthorn in Switzerland. The Alps were pushed up due to the collision between the African and Eurasian plates. They are well known for their tightly folded sedimentary and metasedimentary layers. The second shot provides a striking example of such a fold:


Alpine fold:

...and a meltwater lake near the Schilthorn:


If you've been to the real Matterhorn in Switzerland after having visited Disneyland's fake "Matterhorn," you come to appreciate how pathetic are man's attempts to imitate nature. I kept waiting for the clouds to clear but they refused to do so. So here are the best shots I was able to take when hiking near the famous Matterhorn in southern Switzerland:




These are shots from the Jungfrau. The first looks down the Jungfrau glacier, and the second is taken from inside a man-made ice cave inside the glacier. The final picture is a plaque from the observatory that speaks for itself:






Some beautiful alpine flowers:










Hawaii...
Another beautiful corner of the Earth is Hawaii. Below are pictures of the Io Needle on Maui, and some shots of the rainforest fairly deep in a hike back into the Io Valley:





These two pictures were taken during sunset on the summer soltice near the top of the East Maui ("Haleakela") volcano:


Puu Pehe on the dry island of Lanai, withhan nearby basalt outcrops eroded by countless waves:





This shot below captures the Pacific ocean crashing on to the waterfront in Keanae, a small out-of-the-way village on the northeastern shore of Maui along the road to Hana:


Alaska
When most of us think of rugged mountains thick with forests and glaciers, we don't think of oceanwater. But in Alaska, that's exactly what you get. The uplifted coastal ranges have been carved out by glaciers right down to (and often below) the water's edge, making for stunning scenery and (at least in my experience) an unparalleled form of natural beauty.

These first two shots, taken from the air in the region surrounding the Juneau Icefield, show what happens when the salt water of the Inside Passage (which connects to the Pacific) is mixed with silty glacial runoff in inlets with little flow and drainage:


Glaciers meet meadows, and meadows meet saltwater passages in these two aerial photos:


The Juneau Ice Field, where most (though not all) of the glaciers are receding:






The reason that glacial ice often appears in a beautiful blue hue is because when compacted tightly, oxygen is squeezed out of the ice and in this condition, all colors of light are absorbed except blue. These two pictures don't show it very well but they give a little bit of an idea:


These shots of the Mendenhall Glacier, which is receding, also show the deep blue color of glacial ice:


Two shots of the Mendenhall from afar:


Mount Roberts, overlooking Juneau:
America's symbol, the Bald Eagle, found in great numbers in Alaska and all around the City of Juneau. It is truly a majestic looking bird:











Sunset, followed by a full moon rising, over the coastal mountains near Juneau:






And finally, one of the most incredible places in the Northwest, Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, Alaska. Best seen from the water, in my opinion this area provides some of the most beautiful examples of the glacially-carved-mountains-meet-sea landscape of southeast Alaska.



















Finally, a few shots of glacial scrapes exposed on the barren mountainsides at Misty Fjords:








The Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies...
My wife and I took a weeklong camping trip to the Canadian Rockies, home to some of the most famous fossils in the world -- those of the Burgess Shale. What follows is an informal photo essay about my visit.

While there, we were fortunate to join a guided dayhike to the Burgess fossil quarry in Canada's Yoho National Park. This was a real treat since I had been following Stephen Meyer's research as he completed his new book, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.

Getting There

To get to Yoho National Park from Seattle where we live, it's altogether less than a 12-hour drive. We took it slow, breaking up the journey into several days. The trip was very enjoyable: we brought our kayak and hiked or kayaked almost every day. The day before the hike, my wife and I visited the Yoho National Park Visitor's Center in the small town of Field, British Columbia.



Though it's made for the masses, the Visitor's Center has a nice display explaining the Burgess Shale:



Field is a quaint town nestled in the Kicking Horse River Valley, which has a classic glacier-carved U-shape. The bottom of the valley is filled with detritus through which the Kicking Horse River winds its way.

Near the town of Field are the famous spiral tunnels of the Canadian Pacific Railway, where trains travel through curved tunnels blasted into the sides of Mt. Stephen and Cathedral Mountain. Here's a poor-quality shot of a train approaching one of the tunnels:



Yoho Valley and Takakkaw Falls

After departing the Yoho Visitor's Center we drove northeast a couple of miles along the Trans-Canada Highway to Yoho Valley Road. From there we turned northwest, and drove about 5 miles along the floor of the Yoho Valley to Takakkaw Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. Wikipedia tells me that its highest point is 384 meters (1,260 feet) from its base, with a single cascade freefalling an impressive 254 meters (833 feet).



Since we were visiting in the summer, it was after peak flow from the snowmelt. Nonetheless, Takakkaw Falls creates a tremendous thunder for those standing close by.

A short walk from Takakkaw Falls is the Whiskey Jack Hostel where our hike began the following morning.



The Hike to the Burgess Shale The hike began around 9 am, but wouldn't make it to the Walcott Quarry, the site of the Burgess Shale, until about 2 pm. We had a lot of ground to cover.

First, we hiked south, up the west side of the Yoho Valley. Here's a shot looking back at Takakkaw Falls through the trees from up on west side of Yoho Valley:



Around 10:15 in the morning we arrived at Yoho Lake, a small lake filled with ice-cold glacier water, surrounded by forest in Yoho Pass. A friend of mine tells me that in doing the same hike some years ago, he jumped into Yoho Lake. But cold water and I really don't get along, and jumping in the lake was the last thing I wanted to do. Here are a couple of shots of this beautiful little lake:





From there, we walked up a gentle incline through the Yoho Pass along a path lined with yellow, red, white, and blue wildflowers:







Eventually we came to a sign that indicated we were about to enter a closed area: it was the path to the Burgess Shale. You can't go there unless you are part of a park-sanctioned, guided tour. Thankfully, we were on such a tour.



Up to this point in the hike, the elevation changes had been pretty mild. But then we started to make our way up Wapta Mountain. There were beautiful views of the Michael Glacier, melting into a waterfall going down the cliffs below:





Around noon we had lunch at the north end of Wapta Mountain. Here we encountered the Eldon Formation, a unit of carbonate rocks that sit atop the Stephen Formation (the layer which bears the Burgess Shale fossils). Here are a couple of shots looking up at the Eldon Formation:





For those who love really carbonate rocks, here's a nice shot of limestone rubble at the base of the Eldon Formation on Mount Wapta:



By 12:30, we were hiking along the northwest side of Wapta Mountain. From this point there were incredible views of Emerald Lake below, to the southwest:



After the hike, my wife and I debated whether to stay the night at a lovely lodge at Emerald Lake. For reasons I still don't fully understand, we decided to camp elsewhere, in the rain, and I ended up catching a cold the next day. Oh well, back to the hike...

Around 1:15 pm we turned the bend around the northwest corner of Wapta Mountain and began to make our way on to the west side, hiking southward. We continued to see lots of limestone rubble which had eroded from the rock formation in the mountain above. Some of the carbonate rocks were characterized by alternating light and dark bands, seen in the photo below:



Looking back north at what we'd just hiked past, we could see the towering cliffs of the Eldon Formation at the north end of Mount Wapta:



Directly above us was more Eldon formation:



By this point, we were hiking south along the west side of Wapta Mountain, seen from this shot looking ahead:



Continuing south, we passed above the site where Royal Ontario Museum researchers camped while excavating the Burgess Shale. All that remains now is a cleared area covered in rock rubble:



After walking south along Mount Wapta for about 30 minutes we made it to the base of the switchbacks that lead up to the Burgess Shale fossils. Here's another beautiful photo of the Michael Glacier, seen from the west slope of Mount Wapta:



Walcott Quarry Discovery Site and Trail to the Burgess Shale Quarry

As we approached the switchbacks leading up to the Burgess Shale quarry, we walked past the famous site where Charles Doolittle Walcott first discovered the Burgess Shale fossils in 1909. We retold this story a couple years ago, but even better here is what a Nature article celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the fossils had to say:
On Saturday 28 August 1909, Walcott went up to Burgess Pass, next to Mount Field, to take photographs, and, according to his diary, "found the Stephen formation trilobite bed". His family followed him up to the site on 30 August. The story often told is that Mrs Walcott's horse stumbled on the important 'discovery slab'. Instead, it seems that the man leading the packhorse train crossed over a rock that had slid onto the trail, and Walcott, concerned that his wife's horse might trip, moved it away. The next day, he and Mrs Walcott broke up the offending slab and found "a remarkable group of Phyllopod crustaceans". Walcott sketched three in his diary.

Walcott did not immediately realize the significance of what he had discovered. He spent just five days collecting at the site. But he returned to find the source of the discovery slab in 1910, excavating the source rock layer and making a large collection of fossils.
We walked right over this discovery site, seen in the photo below:



From there, you can look up the mountain and see the Burgess Shale quarry area above:





Around 1:40 pm, as we approached the switchbacks leading up to the final leg of the trail to the Burgess Shale, a sign reminded us that only guided hikes were allowed:



We were almost there.

The Burgess Shale Quarry

Just in case it wasn't clear by now, as you enter the Burgess Shale Walcott Quarry you are greeted by another sign reminding you to stay with your guided tour. And of course, it's illegal to remove fossils.



The quarry itself is only perhaps a couple hundred feet in length, and a few meters in height. The shot below was taken standing near the sign from the photo above, facing north. Most of the quarry is visible in this shot. The green and white metal cabinets at the back of the quarry contain some beautiful representative fossils and teaching tools used by the guides to teach visitors about the Burgess Shale.



And here's a close-up of the wall on the north side of the quarry.



As you can see, the quarry is characterized by piles and piles of shale. Some pieces are small, some fairly large and a bit heavy. They've all been broken off from the rock surrounding the quarry, in many cases blasted away by dynamite.

Along the eastern wall of the quarry are holes left from dynamite sticks that were used to blast away rock. Here are a few blasting holes, with a cell phone placed to show scale:



Who knows how many fossils were destroyed in the blasting process, but I suppose it's the most efficient way to get at fresh rock races.

The shot below shows how the quarry is above the tree line, in an area that is mostly devoid of vegetation. Much further down the mountain are shrubs and then trees, visible in the distance.



Here's the south end of the Burgess Shale quarry, looking off into the distance:



We saw what appeared to be cameras mounted at the quarry to keep an eye on visitors, to make sure they did not steal fossils:



Here's a shot looking north back up the west slopes of Mount Wapta, with some piles of shale in the bottom right:



Burgess Shale Fossils

And now, what you've been waiting for: photographs of fossils from the Burgess Shale!

As I mentioned, removing fossils from the quarry is strictly forbidden. These fossils are too important to be possessed by any single person.

Nonetheless, we were allowed to freely take pictures, and to carefully pick through the shale. While the vast majority of shale fragments did not contain fossils, it wasn't very hard to find occasional ones that did. Trilobites and priapulid worms were perhaps the most common fossils we found. But with a little searching I was also able to find many fossils of limpet-like mollusks called Scenella, a few brachiopods, possibly an Eldonia-like fossil, and a few others I couldn't identify. People would typically set interesting fossils out to the side at the quarry so that future visitors could look at them and appreciate the fossils.

Fossils We Found at the Burgess Shale Quarry

Trilobites

I'll start with some photos of fossils we found that many readers will recognize: trilobites:



I probably should have included an object for scale in some of these photos. The trilobite below is actually quite small, probably only a few cm in length:



To appreciate its small size, here's the same shot without the trilobite cropped, giving a nice feel for how these bugs were just sitting out on pieces of shale on the dirt:



This trilobite below is an interesting one, although unfortunately it is very difficult to see in the picture. This piece of shale isn't sitting on the ground -- it's part of the eastern rock wall of the quarry. The trilobite is on a horizontal piece of rock attached to, and jutting out, from the wall -- so the trilobite (indicated by the red arrow) looks like it is swimming out of the wall:



Many of the trilobite fossils were incomplete fragments, like this one below:



Another small trilobite:



This specimen is probably the most beautiful trilobite fossil we found out among the rocks:



Ottoia

As I mentioned, many of the fossils we found at the quarry were priapulid worms of the genus Ottoia prolifica, so named because they are very common in the Burgess Shale. As I discussed on ENV last year, Ottoia fossils show that the priapulid body plan has essentially not changed from 505 million years ago to the present. Here are some of the nicer specimens we found:







Scenella

Another great example of "stasis" is Scenella, a mollusk that looks pretty much exactly like limpets you'll find growing in tide pools or on seawalls today. We saw many examples of Scenella as well:



Here's a close-up of three Scenella fossils:



Here's a slab bearing numerous Scenella fossils:



Brachiopods

Near the end of our time at the Burgess Shale, I turned over a couple pieces of shale at the north end of the quarry, and discovered a few small shelled fossils that looked astonishingly like modern brachiopods:







Finally, there were a few fossils I could not identify:







Specimens Stored at the Burgess Shale:

As I mentioned, there are some prime fossil specimens kept in storage at the Burgess Shale site. Our guide got them out and was kind enough to explain them to us and let us take pictures.

Anomalocaridids

Some of the most notorious fossils from the Burgess Shale are anomalocaridids -- some reached up to a length of 1 meter, making them the largest predators of the Cambrian seas. This fossil shows the claw of an Anomalocaris:



This claw was used to shovel food into the menacing mouth of Anomalocaris:



Individually you might not think these fossils belonged to the same organism. But other fossils have shown what a fully assembled Anomalocaris looks like. So putting the pieces together, here we see the claw next to the cover of a book that shows how it was used for feeding:



Unfortunately they didn't have a complete Anomalocaris fossil up at the quarry.

Burgessochaeta

Here's a specimen of the polychaete annelid worm, Burgessochaeta, a moderately common fossil in the Burgess Shale:



Canadaspis:

Here's a nice shot of a fossil Canadaspis, a Burgess arthropod, possibly a crustacean:



It's very hard to imagine what it might have looked like in life -- but some online reconstructions give an idea of this creature's body plan.

Haplophrentis:

Haplophrentis was a Cambrian hyolith, a small creature with a conical shell, which probably lived in the mud along the seabottom:



Leanchoilia:

Leanchoilia was yet another Cambrian arthropod, famous for its long whiplike frontal appendages (though they can't be seen here). Stephen Meyer has some spectacular color photographs of this species from the Chengjiang biota of China in his book Darwin's Doubt. But before the Chinese fossils were discovered, this creature was already known from the Burgess Shale. Here's a photograph of a specimen we were shown:



Sidneyia

Sidneyia was another arthropod known from the Burgess Shale, one of the largest arthropods found in that locality:



The species was named after Charles Doolittle Walcott's son, Sidney.

Stephenoscolex

Stephenoscolex was another type of polychaete worm known from the Burgess Shale. This specimen is very small -- only a couple cm in length:



Trilobites

We've already seen some spectacular trilobite fossils, but in addition there were some very nice ones separated out for visitors to see:



This one is of genus Elrathia, a very common species:



These two are of genus Olenoides, another very common species:





Tuzoia

Tuzoia was a large arthropod from the Burgess Shale:



Many specimens of Tuzoia, this one included, are missing many body structures, making it more difficult to classify. Thus, though it doesn't look like much here, check out some reconstructions online for a better idea of its likely morphology.

Waptia

Waptia was a shrimp-like arthropod.



Many fossils of Waptia are more complete than this one, showing its carapace and legs. There are some beautiful photographs of specimens of Waptia in Darwin's Doubt, but again some reconstructions online will give a better idea of what it looked like.

What Lies Beneath

After spending a little over an hour at the Burgess Shale we headed back down the mountain. Naturally, going downhill takes less time, so we were back at the Whiskey Jack Hostel by 5 or 6 pm. This means we covered a total of about 13 km (8 miles) in 8 or 9 hours -- a pretty easy pace, which most in our group probably appreciated given that the Burgess Shale outcrop sits at about 7,500 feet elevation.

In any case, this guided hike -- and the photos I took -- have provided me with memories I'll keep for a lifetime. Of course the reason these fossils are hallowed isn't simply because they're spectacularly preserved fossils, but because they represent the beginning of animal life in the fossil record. What makes them even more important, far beyond the fossils themselves, is what lies beneath them in the record: that is, precious little of any description and nothing at all by way of ancestors. Below the Cambrian strata, there are no direct evolutionary precursors of the Cambrian fauna. Even Richard Dawkins admits they look as if "they were just planted there without any evolutionary history."

Neo-Darwinian theory cannot account for their existence. So why are they there? Indeed, why are we here? For the amazing full story, read Stephen Meyer's newly released Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.


And finally, some outdoorsy links...

  • Ocean kayak (probably the only thing with holes in it so it won't sink)
  • National Park Service ("take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints")
  • The Seattle Center for Wooden Boats
  • Laser II Homepage (if I could afford it, I'd own one)
  • US Sailing (I was a member when I raced competitively)
  • Yosemite National Park (one of my favorite places on earth)
  • Fossil Canyon (a great place to do a geology field trip / desert hike)
  • Contact: e-mail Casey at "casey@ideacenter.org"

     

    Copyright © Casey Luskin 2008