Why Fish Lake Valley? A sparsely populated, agricultural region of Esmeralda County, with the largest town of Dyer in the central portion of the valley. A couple of reasons really, first is the population is so low it presented us no risk of breaking social distancing rules in place, and put no one else at risk in case we were unwitting carriers of the Covid-19 virus. The drive up US-95 was one of the least traffic filled days we have ever seen driving this, usually, busy route. The majority of traffic was semi-trucks still hauling their loads of necessary goods around the west, and the occasional other non-commercial traveler. Once we reached Lida Junction and made the turn west toward Fish Lake Valley we made our way past Gold Point, and Rowland’s Reef (a paleontology story for another day), and up and over Lida Pass. Late spring storms making their way across the Sierra Nevada and dumping the remnants of their formerly moist air baggage on the few passes across western Nevada had left a thin veneer of crunchy looking white on the ground as we made our way up and out of the Joshua Tree’s (Yucca brevifolia) so at home in the Mojave Desert and transitioned upslope into Sage Brush (Artemesia tridentata) and eventually Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla) and Juniper (Juniperus sp.) woodland, birds flitting across the completely empty highway. We even observed Nevada’s State Bird, the Mountain Bluebird (Siallia currucoides) sitting on a road sign warily waiting for the next far and few between traveler exploring the wilds of one of Nevada’s least populated counties. For anyone who has never had the pleasure of visiting Fish Lake Valley, it is visually a spectacular place in our state (shared with California). As we dropped into Fish Lake Valley and made our way north you are presented with the monumental White-Inyo Range on the west side of the valley. This is one of the tallest mountain ranges in the lower 48 of the United States. As the name implies, the higher elevations of this range are typically white with snow year round. From the high white peaks run deeply carved canyons which spill out into massive alluvial fans. Then the geologist in me gets excited even more. This enormous apron of alluvial fan draping the base of this spectacular mountain range is chopped by a huge fault scarp, 10’s of feet if not a 100 feet tall. And through nick points along the terraced old alluvial fans, are new fans which have formed since uplift and dissection of the older fans. Geomorphologists, scientists who study landscapes, use these types of relationships to tell how long its been since an earthquake occurred in a particular area. The sharpness of the scarps makes my non-geomorpholoigst mind think these faults are still quite active (*note: A week after getting home there was a magnitude 5 earthquake in the area). As we make our way toward the far northern end of the valley the highest point in the State of Nevada becomes more and more visible. Boundary Peak (13,147 ft) sits a couple hundred feet lower than Montgomery Peak which is on the California side of the state line. As with future adventures we can’t share the exact routes to camps and fossils sites, so suffice it to say we took a zig and a zag down some particular dirt roads to find our final destination.
Once to our camp site, rather than set up we take advantage of the light, plus Banjo our field pup, has been couped up in a car for 4 hours and wants to stretch his Saint Bernard legs. We change shoes to our hiking boots and suit up in our Osprey backpacks and start overland over the badland topography of the area. The colors out here are always so striking and vivid, browns, yellows, reds, pinks, greys, all sharply contrasted with the clearest of blue skies with the occasional cumulus cloud passing overhead. Speaking of the sky, it is oddly quieter than usual, even for rural Esmeralda County. Realizing the quiet is the lack of even commercial aircraft in the sky, not a jet trail to be seen. The world out here is truly silent except for the sound of our own breaths, the heavy panting of Banjo as he sniffs at every bush and snorts at every lizard, and the occasional snapping of brushy twigs underfoot. This part of the valley is dominated by shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia), occasional Indian tea (Ephedra sp.), and spiny sagebrush (Artemisia spinescens) with interspersed bunch grass. This area seems to be spared of cheat grass or red bromm for the time being. Our focus on this trip is the Esmeralda Formation. This is a Miocene geologic unit which was deposited either right before or as the Sierra Nevada were uplifting. We know this because of the plant fossils studied last century are much more similar to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, with Sequoia (Sequoia sp.), Oak (Quercus sp.), wetland plants dominating. Those types of plants only could have lived in this part of Nevada if the Sierra Nevada wasn’t there to strip all of the moisture out of the sky on its way to the Silver State. In previous trips we have found skulls of four-tusked elephants called Gomphotheres, rhinos, horses, camels, bear-dogs, horned-gophers, and giant beavers. In a future blog we will talk about some really spectacular fossils we are publishing soon. On this trip we are hiking with our eyes on the ground, trying to ignore the beautiful scenery around. About three-quarters of the way to the particular outcrop we had determined was our destination my Suunto watch is already letting me know I have hit my 10,000 steps for the day. The weather is perfect, in the low 60’s for the rigorous off trail journey. We find some really nice specimens, a piece of a femur head to a young camel or horse, a piece of a large heel bone, a piece of a shoulder blade, again of a camel or horse. Lots of pieces of dense bone from plant eating mammals. This isn’t surprising, if you think of a modern ecosystem, like Yellowstone or the Serengeti Plain of Africa, there are always way more bison (Bison bison) or wildebeest (Connochaetes sp.) than wolves (Canis lupus) or lions (Panthera leo). Similarly, in the fossil record we find many more plant eaters. And the dense bones are harder and preserve longer, pre-burial and post-burial. The trip is a success so far with new fossil sites and bones which will be identifiable back in the lab. After several hours of looking and collecting the nice pieces which will help us tell the story of this 16 million year old basin and entombed ecosystem we relax and take in the beauty around us. From there we hike back to our car, the always reliable Honda Pilot which has carried us on many a fossil adventure over the past two years. Once back to the car we set camp in a sandy two track road so as not to disturb the surrounding vegetation and set to making a camp fire and setting up our tent and cooking dinner for the evening. In the field it is tradition to try to fancy up camp cooking, but with the current pandemic and us not wanting to spend any more time in a grocery store than is absolutely necessary the nights fare is a can of tomato basil soup and Nathan’s hotdogs. Banjo seems particularly excited about the hotdogs. We settle into camp, with dinner and a small fire. Campfire conversations are always the most satisfying. We finally retire for the day to come.
In the morning the brisk air blasting down the fresh snowy slopes of the White-Inyo Range has a cold bite to the bone feel to it. Looking to the west at morning light the grey clouds piled up on the windward side of the range build up and pour down the lee side like big fluffy grey waterfalls of immense scale. We fire up the water for hot coffee, the fuel of any true field scientist. As we sit and warm ourselves with a hot cup of smokey, roasted soulful goodness we notice several small birds skitting between the brush. Upon closer exam it’s a small flock of black throated sparrows (Amphispiza bilineata) sharing our camp with us. Banjo is not impressed. We break camp, neatly rolling up the tent and sleeping bags and making breakfast for the hike ahead. After the tent is down and a greasy, protein-rich breakfast is consumed we disassemble our fire ring and bury the ashes. Pick up all of our trash and some non-historic cans and bits of plastic around the old road. Its important when rural camping or even developed car-camping, always try to leave it cleaner than when you got there. Pack all of your garbage out, and even garbage you didn’t make. Its important in being thoughtful stewards of the land. Right now there are way to many stories of people trashing public lands with overflowing garbage bins and unhygienic personal practices. Take the time to clean up after yourselves and trust others will as well, respect the land.
Once our camp was disassembled and the car packed, we load our backpacks back on for a final prospecting outing. We set out toward an area of the outcrop which we have not previously prospected with hopes of a perfectly preserved cat skull or short-faced bear skeleton; as all paleontologists day dream about heading out into the Miocene haha. As we make our way into the deeper back country, only accessible by foot or horseback we find some really nice petrified logs. Pretty in their own right but not what we are looking for. As the morning wears on, that cold wind off of the mountains across the valley accelerates. As our ears begin to hurt from the constant pummeling of the alpine zephyr. We did find a couple of small bone fragments, but nothing really of note. This might be an area to return to in better weather to look harder, but for this first prospecting trip it doesn’t look good. With the weather turning and the hours ticking we decide to head back to the car. From the car we bid our Fish Lake Valley camp adieu. We then backtrack our course to Las Vegas, again taking in the awe of a deserted highway, through one of the least populated parts of the state. A successful quick outing. New fossil sites, identifiable bones, a deep breath of silent air in isolation from the world around. Now back to Vegas to do the science. All fossil collections are done under permit from the Bureau of Land Management, it is illegal to collect vertebrate fossils without a permit. Petrified wood can be collected up to 25 lbs per individual on lands which are not specially protected. If you do decide to collect petrified wood for your personal use, please be respectful and not damage the landscape and take no more than you truly need.
Until the next adventure!