Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Escape to Lower Antelope Canyon

Descending from the cool air of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon into the high desert of northern Arizona proved to be an energizing affair. Specifically, an huge increase in temperature as the mercury rose from 58F to 102F as I arrived in Paige, AZ to tour Antelope Canyon on Navajo lands.

With some luck I was able to fill in one of the last spots of a tour group just four minutes before the group marched across the hot desert to descend into the cooler desert underbelly. My luck was fully realized when I began to talk to Carl, my Navajo tour guide. He was intelligent, witty, kind, and helpful.

The rest of the group was made up of eleven Polish tourists who were celebrating two graduations form Stanford graduate school. I spoke to one of the graduates a few times, but almost every other word the group spoke was incomprehensible to my ears. I was, thus, once again reminded of my limited knowledge as I meander through life.

We descended a metal stairway into the narrow Lower Antelope Canyon and immediately escaped the direct rays of the cruel sun and the 102F temperature of the desert. I didn't carry the Kestrel, but Carl assured me that the temperature was usually in the low 60s during the summer. A cool breeze made this unique experience more enjoyable. While I had walked through a slot canyon on my own a hundred miles north in UT, I did not have Carl to provide information about the canyon or how to take creative photos with my iPhone.

There is an Upper Antelope Canyon with an entrance just across the road. It is highly recommended by all who know the canyonlands. The best time to visit it during the summer is about 11 am due to the angle of the sun (pics!). That is precisely what time I arrived in Paige, but I chose to go with the Lower canyon because of fewer charter busses and the accompanying shorter lines. I believe that I made a good decision because my choice resulted in my meeting Carl.

Here are some of the many photos I took. As Carl stated before we descended into the cracked Earth, I took far too many pictures that seemed to confuse and repeat the scenery. As usual, I discarded most and selected some of the survivors for this blog. If I were a good photographer I might have taken fewer, but I tend to do a wide sweep and then look for the best of my lot. These photos really don't create the full aura of Antelope Canyon, but they might give you an incentive to journey through this and other slot canyons in the southwest.

The entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon
Carl leads us into the abyss

Carl was such a poser!
This photo is what I found after Carl snatched my phone
Super cool angle on an canyon upslope!

One of the Stanford graduates
They took hundreds of photos!
Carl through dirt into a light shaft
The exit slot
More of Carl's fine work!

Grand Canyon: A Star Party

Another long and adventurous day ended just after sunset when I arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon just in time to see total darkness fill the the massive hole as if it were being filled with crude oil. The South Rim lights were, uncharacteristically, barely visible as a steady flow of California forest fire smoke made its way east through the chasm. Upon taking a seat at the Roughrider Saloon I learned that a man's body had been helivaced out of the canyon earlier in the day.

A smoke filled canyon that had experienced another death was not what I was expecting as I drove down from Moab. Two nights of Star Party star gazing, hiking, writing, and a pint or two of that Sweet Devil Stout were what I envisioned. The beer seemed slightly bitter that night, but my palate might have been seasoned by the conditions.

The Star Party did not disappoint the crowd of people who had gathered on the Grand Canyon Lodge veranda. There were only six telescopes this year, but they were all operated by knowledgeable and friendly people. Star Party hosts from the Phoenix Saguaro Astronomy Club brought in amateur astronomers, and their telescopes, from all over the country. Lines formed at each telescope while the stars and planets gradually appeared to the naked eye.

New friends were made in each line. Picture the scene; Whispers in near total darkness between silhouettes hailing from all over the world.  Conversations varied from the meaning of it all to the existence of God to the limits of man's unifying theory. If you know me, then you know that I love to share and learn in these situations.

Telescopes of various sizes (up to 18 inch) and types (refractor, reflector, compound) were angled and focused to allow us to see the Moon, Venus, Saturn, star clusters, and galaxies. I will cherish vivid memories of Saturn's rings and moons, the craters of the Moon, and the whirlpool galaxy M51. Seeing them in pictures is one thing, but really seeing them is, for me, more rewarding.

Going to an observatory or getting the opportunity to look through telescopes like those at the Star Party provides a better understanding of the size of the universe. There are massive stars and intriguing galaxies like M51 among the estimated 70 billion trillion (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!!) stars in the universe. Most of us have so much light pollution that we can only see dozens or hundreds of stars in the night sky. A dark place like the North Rim allows us to see thousands of Milky Way stars clustered so closely that they overlap into what looks like a cloud. Still, that represents a minuscule portion of the 300 billion (300,000,000,000) Milky Way stars. And note that the Milky Way contains only 4EE-10% (0.0000000001%) of all stars.

And our home, Earth, is a comparable tiny mass in our own solar system which is a tiny part of the Milky Way. The information is overwhelming to our brains since we cannot adequately comprehend extremely small or large quantities. Go here to find an awesome interactive description of the size of the universe. It will help, but it is still mind boggling to think about.

Before I turn this post over to the photos from my long weekend at the North Rim I will turn the focus back to that 70 billion trillion mentioned above. In my chemistry classes I am blessed with the task of teaching students about atoms, which are unfathomably small. To make this point I deliver a talk about Avogadro's Number holding a small vile of water. That water is measured to have a mass of 18.016 g (less than a fluid oz). I tell the students that the vile contains Avogadro's Number of water molecules. Then I ask how large a container would be required to hold the same number of M&Ms. Avogadro's Number, 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, is written across the board. Note how similar it is to number of stars estimated to exist. Again, our brains do not translate these huge numbers in to observable, accountable reality, so my charge is to make them less abstract.

Guesses come in. The room? The Ford Center next door? The Grand Canyon? Nope. None of these are large enough. Avogadro's Number of M&Ms would cover the entire surface of the Earth to a depth of fifty miles. Let that sink in. And note that Felix Baumgartner used a space suit to jump from a height of about 24 miles above the Earth. Avogadro's Number of M&Ms is a heavenly LOT of M&Ms! Now reflect upward in size to the number of stars in the universe. Is your head spinning?

On a side note, our New Horizon spacecraft reached dwarf planet Pluto while I typed this post. It took New Horizon nine years to travel more than 3 billion (3.000,000,000) miles to the outer reaches of our solar system which is but a dot in the Milky Way.

From atoms to galaxies, this universe is a wondrous place. Our infinitesimal sphere of existence is so large compared to us and so filled with various features that we do not have enough time to possibly experience them all. A lifetime is fleeting and precious whether is lasts a few or a hundred years. And that is why some of us find it impossible to sit inside looking at walls or screens for long periods of time.

It seems logical when following this chain of thought that we should get out there to meet people, see things, create experiences to fill our inestimable time.

Here are a few of the shots I took recently while pausing to absorb the sights and sounds at the Grand Canyon. I sat and pondered. I wrote. I talked to dozens of friendly people. I hiked around the North Rim, where it was cool, and into the canyon until I reached a depth where the air temperature hit 100F in the shade. (Yes, I took a Kestrel weather meter). It was, indeed, another grand visit! ST

Looking up at the Kaibab Limestone Layer near the rim
Descending the Supai Group Layer in the cool shade
The haze is smoke from CA wildfires
See the bridge? The hot sun moved across it before I reached it.
Late start due to too much partying!

Looking back up through the Supai Group and Hermit Shale Layers
The hope was to at least reach this bridge. Done and then some.
Unfortunately, the sun had also reached it.
Evidence of the forest fires.
Obligatory rim shot
Cycles of Life

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Changing Landscapes: Tetons to Canyonlands

Within a twenty four hour span I was fortunate enough to scramble through a snowy boulder field at 13,000 ft on the Grand Teton and meander along a rolling desert trail through the depths of Canyonlands National Park. Of course, the many miles between northern Wyoming and southern Utah resulted in several short excursions and visits.

This journey seemed to present Life Goal List activities on a regular basis. Objects that aided me during this phase of the journey included a long bungee chord, a canoe, a parachute, a summit pack, a White Noise Hefe, a raft, and a telescope. So, as usual, there is a lot more to the story, but because this is a public blog, I choose to hold some information for a more private crowd.

A late morning arrival in Canyonlands National Park during the month of June will present a dilemma when considering indoor vs. outdoor fun. The best time to hike in this high (4000-6000 ft) desert is sunrise when the air is cool (50s-60s). By midday the sun's intense rays have heated the rocks as if they were in a stone pizza oven, making outdoor activity less comfortable and even dangerous if proper precautionary measures aren't taken. A quick stop at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center to fill up water jugs and check the weather forecast allowed me to create a plan.

First up was a hike on the 6.1-mile Neck Spring Trail (5.8 by GPS tracking tangents). This loop trail originates from a roadside trailhead just south of the visitor center. It drops a few hundred feet into Taylor Canyon without venturing far from the main park road and its traffic, which can be seen and heard at times. The constantly undulating and winding trail was well designed, giving hikers a grand tour of this desert ecological system. The path varies from a single track through dirt to a cairn led path over stone. A few cottonwood and pinyon pine trees near the springs offered short breaks from the hot sun while cliff edge vistas offered spectacular panoramic views.

As per my style, I moved swiftly while taking in as much in as possible, stopping to "smell the cacti" and to ponder a life that people have carved out in those arid and harsh living conditions. Animals I saw included a mule deer, dozens of lizards, various birds, jack rabbits, a rattlesnake and a kangaroo rat. I also saw bobcat scat on the trail, which I have come to believe is their taunt at us humans who rarely actually see then. Most of these sightings were in the shade near water sources. Life is abundant in the desert, even midday at 101 degrees.

Near the end of the hike I came upon a man and woman who had also chosen to hike in the heat. The man, who I learned during conversation after, was 68 years old. He was an avid hiker, but he had chosen to hike the rocky desert trail in a worn out Five Finger "shoes."  His feet were bruised and aching. Furthermore, the pair had run out of water with a mile to go. Because I had fueled up with salt water before and during the hike/jog I felt fine, so I offered them my remaining unopened bottle of water. He declined. I offered again. He declined again saying the trailhead and their car was just ahead. I offered again and he seemed to get irritated with my offering, so I wished them well and walked on. I was enjoying a beer and a veggie burrito on the lip of Shafer Canyon (opposite side of The Neck from Taylor Canyon) when he eventually staggered past me. He called out that he was glad that he made it back. So was I.

Four hikes later I had seen Anasazi cliff dwellings, arches, domes, and the ever carving yet constrained Green River. I drove out of the northern section of Canyonlands NP feeling inspired, irritated, and with a new item on the Life List. I've got to stop reading the writings of Ed Abbey while I'm in his field.

I next visited some of the sites in Arches National Park, which is basically "across the street" from Canyonlands. There were a few rock formations that I wanted to see at sunset to get the light from another angle while once again trying to comprehend the making of those massive the formations and arches. (Did you find the family in the photo of Balanced Rock at the top of this post?) I've seen those arches enough now that I really just visit to reflect on life, science, and theology. This reflection was continued during a multifaceted conversation with several people while being reenergized by tasty brews at the Moab Brewery. A high action twenty two hour day ended at Drinks Canyon Campground next to the Colorado River northeast of Moab. Little sleep was had, though, as I gazed wide eyed at the billion star blanket of lights in the clear black Utah sky until just before dawn.

A long meandering drive from desert hot (102F) Moab would lead me to the cool (56F) rim of the Grand Canyon by nightfall, but that is another story. ST

Shafer Canyon
Shafer Canyon Trail - the road to the bottom
First picture taken from horizon center in this one
Neck Spring Trail
Desert Forest

Abundant life near every survival source

Follow cairns to the top

Neck Spring Trail rock scramble

Mesa Arch
Looking through Mesa Arch into Buck Canyon
Pinyon Pine - how old is it? Older than you are likely to guess
Green River in Coleman Spring Canyon
Anasazi Cliffside Food Storage
Landscape Arch at Sundown - would span a football field

Arches NP Magistrates

Sipping yerba mate latte next to the Colorado River
knowing Arches NP is beyond the other bank
One last morning hike to Delicate Arch