December 31, 2020
Welcome back friends and supports, and welcome to new readers of our adventure blogs! Our latest adventure across the State of Nevada was inspired a little different than most of our outings. I have served in the leadership of the Geological Society of Nevada (GSN) for a little more than a decade, through graduate school and my professional career. Every year this professional society puts on a big annual field trip. In addition to being informational for participants, field trips bring people together to network, and dues from the trips are a revenue source for the society. Well with COVID and everyone having to think differently about social interactions and how we even get networking done anymore the leadership of the GSN decided that rather than cancel the big annual event, that they would do a one-day scaled down outing. It was proposed to do a field trip to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park and an adjacent mineral deposit in Buffalo Canyon, both in central Nevada. GSN Vice-President and excellent field trip organizer Patsy Moran, asked me to lead the ichthyosaur part of the trip. Given it had been probably a decade since last I visited the park Becky, Banjo, and I looked at our schedules and determined we could do it. On a Friday late morning in October we loaded up the Honda Pilot and set our sights north along US-95. The same escape route from the urban asphalt ecosystem of the Las Vegas Valley that we often take on our trips. Unlike our last adventure which was a leisurely stroll up the arterial between southern and western Nevada we were on a mission to make our destination at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park before too late so we could set up our camp not in the dark. With one pit-stop in Tonopah to top off the gas tank and have a snack and a quick craft beverage. While in Tonopah we serendipitously bumped into friends/colleagues Will and Lauren and their travel companions. Will and Lauren are traveling to the same field trip we are leading. We decide that rather than taking the Gabbs Pole Line Road we will take the long way round to Luning and then east through Gabbs to Berlin. As we make the turn east from Luning the sun is low in the sky and the saltbrush in the valleys is casting long shadows across the landscape. For those who don’t find themselves out of the Las Vegas or Reno metro areas often, there is a sense of freedom when you can see across a valley 20 or so miles across and not see a single other car or trace of humanity other than the asphalt in front of you and the weedy graded shoulder of the road. This is what it feels like to be Nevadan, and for the law enforcement readers, never mind the speedometer while I’m having this moment of Silver State clarity. Eventually the road slows down as we approach Gabbs, nearly geographically smack dab in the middle of the state. Gabbs boasts the longest operational mining operation in the entire state. Immediately on the south edge of town are the workings of this prolific magnesite mine. Magnesite is used in many refractory processes. After Gabbs we take the right hand turn for the road to Berlin. We zig and zag along the road through the foothills as we then begin to go up and over the last pass before Ione Valley. As we go up the grade now the sun is barely peaking over the ranges to our west making the landscape glow gold and highlighting the mountains with their mottled coverings of juniper and pinyon trees various hues of indigo to purple. Banjo hates the twisting turning roads, whereas Becky is hanging out the window trying to capture the golden hour of this remote part of the Great Basin on film. We make our way down into the southern end of the Ione Valley and hit the dirt road up to Berlin ghost town. As it gets dark we set our tent in the picnic area of the park, temporarily turned camp ground for our group. We find a big pinyon (Pinus monophyla) to pitch our tent under. We fire up the propane grill and cook up some all beef cheddar Nathan’s hot dogs and some baked beans. Since this year has been one of the driest years on record, as of this writing Las Vegas hasn’t had measurable rain in over 6 months, camp fires aren’t permitted. In exchange for a camp fire Becky, Banjo and I join several other folks from our alma mater to circle around a citronella candle for “campfire” conversation and beverages. Such ends day 1.
Day 2 we are on for our field trip of the Fossil House at the State Park. Becky and I enjoy some Entemann’s Danish’s and hard boiled eggs, Banjo enjoys a cold hot dog from the night before. Any camping trip demands coffee. As the water boils, since we came in late we didn’t get to see who was camped around us, other field trip participants wander through camp to say good morning and hello. All of this being done with proper social distancing, which is socially awkward for a networking event, but such is the world right now. Becky and I make our aeropressed coffees and we even press a couple cups for some old timers in dire need of the black gold in the morning. As we sip our coffee’s and chat we notice some noisy birds hopping around the pinyons, I quickly identify them as a pair of noisy Stellar’s Jays (Cyanocitta stellari). These are beautiful birds native to the mountains of western North America, cousins of crows and ravens, these birds are a deep blue in color on their bodies and have a black head and tuft on their heads. As we are breaking our kitchen and camp its nice to see a former student from my professor days and his family are in camp for the trip. Banjo enjoys the scratches from Chris’ young son. Once camp is broke, Becky, Banjo and I head up to the Fossil House ahead of the group so we can get prepared for the trip. Its nostalgic to be back, when I was a kid growing up in Fallon my parents would take me and my brother camping at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park and touring the fossil house was always so much fun. Being back, the Fossil House looks the same. The exhibits have been updated and State Parks has done a great job keeping the place in immaculate condition. Its nice that with years of fossil experience I better understand the anatomy of the animals laid out before me. For those of you who have not been, Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park highlights a bonebed of over a dozen giant ichthyosaurs who perished at the same time in the Triassic shallow seas of central Nevada. The Fossil House is an enclosure over the original 1950’s to 60’s dig site of Dr. Charles Camp of the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley, CA. Camp removed one animal from the site and pieces of others. He left the rest of the animals in place, along a single bedding plane. Why would he leave all of these beautiful animals in the bedrock? Well each one of these animals is the size of a whale! So the logistics of digging up and storing such a cache of bones would have been a nightmare. As such he left them in place. The one animal he did excavate became the holotype specimen of Shonisaurus popularis, Nevada’s State Fossil. You can see Camp’s holotype partially on display at the Nevada State Museum-Las Vegas. As the group assembles as the Fossil House we do introductions and we begin the tour. I explain what I just did about Dr. Camp. The tour through the Fossil House goes smooth with an enthusiastic group. We had a great conversation about the geology of the rocks which entomb the giant sea-going reptiles and hypotheses about how they came to be where there are. Its been a great trip, despite the COVID social distancing, we were able to catch up with friends and acquaintances from across the state and were able to make a number of new connections too. The whole point of professional meet-ups being to make these sorts of connections, the trip is a success. The majority of field trip participants gather to head to the next stop, a tour of the Berlin ghost town. Becky, Banjo, and I load up, waive to everyone as we pass them in front of the historic stamp mill still standing overlooking Ione Valley to the west. We make our way down the dirt road to a fork in the road. This time we head right up Ione Valley toward the town of Ione.
The dirt road to Ione is another one of those truly Nevada by-ways in which you may or may not see another car for the whole day. Sagebrush in the lower elevations, pinyon and juniper as you up and over hills. Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) along the slopes above the washes. As we come into Ione and reach a short stretch of asphalt we take a moment to stop and take in the closed old gas station and bar building, some of the old mining architecture, and the scenery of the small central Nevada town. We continue on and up and over the Shoshone Range and down the other side to the Yomba Reservation. From there we turn north up the Reese River Valley. We drive up the valley with tall sagebrush lining the roadways and old family farmsteads in the valley bottom. Herds of healthy cattle slowly, and indifferently grazing. In the distance to the east the Toiyabe Range rises from the valley bottom and the color contrast from the greyish green sagebrush scrubland gives way at elevation to the darker green hues of the pinyon-juniper woodlands. We eventually make our way to US-50 to the west of Austin, Nevada. Austin being one of the few permanent towns in Lander County. We make our way through the town, US-50 goes right through the middle of it. We make the zig and zag of the highway up the steep grade out of town and continue on. Part of our journey we are hoping to find some pine nuts. Pine nuts are the seeds produced by pinyon pines every couple of years and they should be in season this time of year. A favorite childhood pine nut collecting spot of mine is not to far to the east of Austin in the Toiyabe’s. We find our way to “the spot.” All of the pine cones are empty, or on the ground. The couple of nuts we find are dry and not in that great of shape either. So we either missed the season, or the couple of years of brutal draught hitting the west has led to a less than spectacular pine nut harvest this year. Needless to say I am a little disappointed. We continue our journey eastward on US-50 toward Eureka. As we pull into Eureka we meet up with my Grandmother JoAnn and her friend Jim. Grandma made the trip to Eureka so she could say hi to us as we pass through town. Her friend Jim lives in Eureka. We have a nice dinner in town catching up at the famous Owl Club. Anyone passing along US-50 through Eureka would be good to stop in for a bite to eat.
Day 3 Our objective is to scout where we are going to broadcast our “Dinosaurs of Nevada” Virtual Field Trip. We have a number of fossil sites which have been the focus of our research for the past decade. We had to find a site which had a nice geologic view, and most importantly for a remote program, we need a spot with good cellular service. It takes some driving around and some test calls to our friend and collaborator Ralph Krauss of Edutainment Learning. Ralph is always patient with us when it comes to scouting. We finally find a spot, not too far from Eureka, right on the 105 million year old, reddish sediments of a Cretaceous flood-plain of a river which drained the mountains of the time to the west. These sediments would settle during floods along the sides of the river as it made its way via numerous intertwined channels on the way to Utah. Living in this floodplain were fish, freshwater sharks, turtles, crocodiles, armored dinosaurs, iguanodon dinosaurs, long-necked sauropod dinosaurs, and raptors. There are also a number of dinosaurs which we have not yet identified. This is the focus of our Virtual Field Trip! Once we have our spot scouted, we head back to our camp in the rural reaches of the remote Fish Creek Range and set out to do some more prospecting for new fossils sites and to check on old sites. We see some nice turtle shell and crocodile bones. Our known dinosaur sites are holding up over the summer. Covid, funding and other issues out of our control haven’t allowed us the time to properly come back and excavate one of these critters in the ground. This animal has waited millions of years, it can wait for a happier healthier 2021 to reemerge to the world! We get back to camp at dark to make dinner and eat in the dark. The extreme fire danger, we don’t want to be responsible for a wildland fire.
Day 4. Show time. Becky, Banjo and I pack up camp and eat a quick breakfast. We drive up the dusty Fish Creek Valley road back toward Eureka and pull off at the site we picked the day prior. We set up on the rusty, Cretaceous hill side in the pinyon-junipers and set up the tripod and iPad. We get online with Ralph and do our Virtual Field Trip (https://youtu.be/Kqyj1DJguGY). The program is a great success as we had over 3,000 participants from across Nevada, the country and the globe tune in. After we pack up our gear, drive into Eureka for a quick lunch and hit the road back to Henderson. We head back through Duck Water, Current Creek, Lund and Alamo. A route which I have wrote about a few times now in these adventures.
Stay tuned for our adventures in 2021!!!
By Josh Bonde, Becky Hall, and Banjo
Greetings followers of the Nevada Science Center, new fans, and the Nevada curious. Time again for the accounts of another adventure into the rural reaches of the Great State of Nevada. With the run up to Labor Day many people ask themselves where they are going to vacation, whose bar-b-que they will attend and other such social questions, but alas, 2020 has rendered most of these questions moot and I recently read a new term, at least to me, called travel shaming. Well not to get into the doghouse of travel shaming, Becky, Banjo and myself decided that it was time for us to get out of our new Henderson headquarters and set out for responsible scientific adventure across the state. Our original plan was to do an uncharted lap of sorts around the state for a week to document geology, biology, paleontology, and scientific history. Well as life goes we got half of a week, but we decided to take full advantage anyways. So rather than an uncharted lap we decided that our goal would be to slowly make our way up US 95 from downtown Henderson, to Tonopah, left at Coaldale, and down into Fish Lake Valley, and back the same.We set out from Henderson with adventure and natural history on the mind (I suspect camp hot dogs were on Banjo’s mind). With no sense of urgency we made our way north out of the Las Vegas Valley, looking off toward the clear blue sky over the dark blue-grey of the Paleozoic ancient reefs of the Spring Mountains on one side and the dusty, sun burnt tan hoodoos of the Las Vegas Formation of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument on the other. Gradually the exits and subdivisions under construction giving way to first Spanish bayonet (Yucca sp.) and Creosote (Larrea tridentata) and eventually a few Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) as we crest the Kyle Canyon alluvial fan to make our eventual escape trajectory out of the Las Vegas gravitational center. Making our way on this particularly hot Wednesday morning northbound we made our way past Indian Springs, and en route to Beatty we stopped at the gates of a conspicuous red hill being mined on the east side of the highway. This is one in a sequence of Cinder Cone volcanoes which have erupted in south central Nevada since 10,000 years ago. Cinder cones are not like Mt. St. Helens, they are more like geological pimples. Just like pimples you don’t want to be too close when they erupt. This particular blister left a nice sized cone composed of the frozen blobs of lava erupted from the vent, called cinders, which then pile up like an ant hill around the eruption. This particular cone is accompanied by a small lava flow as well. So why is this volcano being mined? Cinders are mined for decorative stone, for bbq’s, fire places, and for abrasives. From this modest turn out on the side of the highway we continued north but a few miles until the turn off to Big Dune. Becky, Banjo, and I all looked at each other and asked if any of us had ever stopped at this non-conspicuous pile of Anthropocene sediment across the north end of Amargosa Valley. Since none of us had had the pleasure we decided to take the scientific side trip to check it out. Many large sand dunes in the Great Basin are the left overs of Ice Age lake shore sands that existed in the various valleys of the intermountain west until just a few thousand years ago. Consider the waves crashing against the bedrock for hundreds of thousands of years breaking the rocks into their constituent minerals. Now the waves gone the wind takes the burden of perpetually pushing the sediment around. Geomorphologists classify most of the dunes in the Great Basin as Star Dunes in shape. As we approach the Big Dune I am actually reminded of a story I had heard as an undergrad at the University of Nevada-Reno, from one of my mentors Dr. Rich Rust. Rich was an entomologist who studied dune endemic beetles and ground nesting bees. Rich had actually told me a cool story about how working with federal biologists and off highway vehicle groups, they had worked together to set aside a portion of the Big Dune area for the well-being of a threatened sand beetle while ensuring the OHV groups could still enjoy recreation of the big pile of Pleistocene beach sand. As we continued toward the dune we soon realized the limits of the 2 wheel-drive Honda Pilot in loose sand. With the aid of the WeatherTech floor mats (which are usually used to, somewhat, preserve the vehicle from field work), some rocks and sticks, my back, and no help from Banjo, we were again free down the dusty trail back to the asphalt.As we continued north on US 95 toward Beatty we observed the number of abandoned mining structures along the way. The State of Nevada was built on mining, this legacy having left its mark across many landscapes of the state. The partially standing structures of a long-abandoned mining town to the east on the alluvial fan, the abandoned steps of a long weathered away stamp mill on the side of a hill to the west. As we pass through town we observe a number of healthy, famous locals, donkeys (Equus asinus) have made the area around Beatty one of their favorite homes here in the state. Donkeys are feral domestic animals, and we have heard at least a couple true locals begrudge their orneriness and late-night vocalizations across town. We make the obligatory purchase of sweets in town as we continue our journey north.As we pull into the next “major” town along our route, Goldfield, county seat of Esmeralda County we decide to take a slight detour to admire the standing mining artifacts around town. It’s hard to imagine this town which noted a population in the hundreds during the last census had a peak population near 20,000 during its boom slightly over a century ago. Headframes from mines of that time and more recent mining enterprises dot the landscape around town. After admiring the sights, we press on to our next stop, another county seat, this one of Nye County, Tonopah. Tonopah was also a mine boom town last century. Mining history looming large over this town and mining futures too. Alongside the artifacts of long abandoned mines are drill rigs exploring for the next big play in the mining district. As we head down the hill into town we decide to take a side road to check out the Central Nevada Museum. With Banjo along we couldn’t go in the indoor interpretive area but were greeted with a large outdoor interpretive park. The signage well done and effective on stamped tin plates. Every aspect of mining, geology, botany around the park interpreted. While Becky and I enjoyed our stroll through the outdoor exhibits Banjo is more interested in the jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) hiding behind the saloon building. As 5:00 pm comes and goes a museum employee lets us know they are open tomorrow if we want to come back. We load up Banjo, both pleased with the well-done museum experience that is free to the public! From here we get back on US 95 and press north as the sun begins to cast long shadows across the valley. Lone Mountain casting the most prominent shadow across the valley as we descend the hill from Tonopah and start the turn west toward Coaldale Junction. We head west on US 6 as the sunlight hits that special Nevada angle where the mountains turn purple, the hills gold, and every object carries a glow. We pull into our camp in Fish Lake Valley at a hot spring the locals call the hot box in the dark and set camp, grill hot dogs, take a dip in the concrete lined soak pool and hit the hay.The second day of our trip starts early, as the sun rises over Fish Lake Valley and illuminates the White-Inyo Range. The full moon from the night before hanging over Boundary Peak and reflected like a pane of glass from the hot spring pool. Since we got in late the night before Banjo didn’t realize we were by a pond, despite being chewed alive all evening from the mosquitoes. He was excited at the American Coots (Fulica americana) playing and rough housing in and amongst the tules (Schoenoplectus acutus) and cattails (Typha latifolia). I take the time to dig out the National Geographic Bird Guide and watch the pond. In addition to the coots we also see a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus), a flock of ducks which I am 95% sure were blue-winged teals (Spatula discors), and then the distinctive call and then visual of a pair of killdeer (Charadrius vociferous). This calm serene scene briefly is interrupted when a number of coots start calling in alarm and all of a sudden a female Northern Harrier hawk (Circus hudsonius) glides over the ponds. Becky and I decide to take our coffees to the hot spring and enjoy one last soak before breaking camp and heading back out.From camp we make our way down a couple dusty twists and turns and down a sandy wash to a place locally referred to as “the Sump.” The Sump is a visually stunning exposure of Miocene (~14-16 million year old) sediments of a swampy woodland which dates from the very earliest uplift of the Sierra Nevada when moist air from the Pacific ocean readily made its way into the now parched Great Basin desert. These sediments have abundant petrified wood, lots of volcanic ash from long extinct volcanoes, and occasionally the remains of the animals that lived along the swampy margins of this lake. Animals which have been found include 4-tusked relatives of elephants called gomphotheres, rhinos, horned gophers, giant beavers, camels, horses, bear-dogs, and primitive cats. Its not long before we find a bone of a rhino weathering out of the badlands, then a rib of a gomphothere. Its important to note here that it is illegal to collect fossils of vertebrate animals without a permit from the agency that administers the land. Here that is the Bureau of Land Management. We have a permit to collect fossils, but this is not a collecting trip. We note where we found the bones but leave them in place for mother nature to continue the arduous task of unearthing these large beasts for the centuries to come. The air is hot and there is not a bird in the air, or a bug buzzing in the sky. Despite telling Banjo repeatedly to stop running zig-zags and up and down the little hills, he has gassed himself out. With the air hot, water waning, and at Banjo’s request we start back toward the vehicle. From the Sump we journey back to the asphalt and begin our journey home.En route back towards Tonopah, we decide to take a quick side trip down the Gabbs Poleline Road to look at the solar power facility, Tonopah dunes, and some Miocene sedimentary units on the south end of the valley. We make our way through Tonopah, past Goldfield, and passing through Beatty our trip is momentarily delayed as a donkey decides to lazily make its way across US 95 (in a cross-walk mind you). We make our way back to Henderson as dusk is settling on the unseasonably warm desert southwest. We get rested up, especially Banjo, as we have another adventure coming soon!