Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mesa Verde National Park

Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park (which is Spanish for "green table") was created in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt and now covers 52,485 acres (80 square miles.) The park provides visitors a glimpse into  the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people from 600 to 1300 AD. Over 4700 archeological sites have been discovered in the park, 600 of which are ruins.

Ninety percent of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings contain 10 rooms or less. One-third have only one or two rooms. This explains why Cliff Palace and its 150 rooms (photo below) , Long House, also with 150 rooms, Spruce Tree House with 130 rooms, and Balcony House with 40 rooms have become the more famous and popular cliff dwellings.

Utilizing what nature provided, the Anasazi built their homes under the overhanging cliffs. Their basic construction material was the sandstone which they fashioned into rectangular blocks about the size of a loaf of bread and bonded together using a mixture of mud and water for mortar. Rooms averaged about 6 feet by 8 feet, providing space for two or three people. Crops were generally stored in rooms on the upper levels and in the rear.

Local cowboys discovered the cliff dwellings over a hundred years ago, and ever since, archaeologists have been trying to determine and understand the life of these people. Much has been inferred, but despite decades of excavation and analysis, our knowledge remains sketchy and we may never definitively know much about their lifestyle for they left no written records.

Ladders would have been important implements in their lives.

This multi-story structure's floors were supported by the wood "joists" seen protruding from the front wall.

This photo shows the floor "joists" as I look up into the tower...

Contrary to popular belief, the Ancestral Puebloan people of Mesa Verde did not disappear. Rather, they migrated south to New Mexico and Arizona and became today’s modern pueblo people, probably due to extended drought conditions.

Mesa Verde is a World Heritage Site because large portions of the sandstone and mud-mortar multi-storey buildings have survived intact in form and materials, a tribute to the engineering skills of these early peoples as well as the dry environment of the mesa’s alcoves. These architectural remains reflect the range of ancient Pueblo construction techniques as well as settlement patterns. These exceptional archaeological sites provide eloquent testimony to the ancient cultural traditions of Native American tribes and represent a graphic link between the past and present ways of life of the Puebloan Peoples of the American Southwest.

A subterranean kiva remained about 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year round, so for the Ancestral Puebloans, it stayed cool in the summer and only a small fire was needed to keep it warm in the winter.

Plateaus are taller than they are wide at the top. Mesas are bigger on their top than they are tall. But the correct geological term for Mesa Verde is cuesta. Cuestas are similar to mesas, but instead of being relatively flat, they gently dip in one direction. Mesa Verde is inclined slightly to the south at about a seven degree angle and has been highly dissected by wind and water erosion into a series of canyons and smaller “mesas.” Elevations range from about 6,000 feet in the canyon bottoms near the southern park boundary to 8,572 feet at Park Point, about ten miles north.

Mesa Verde is prone to lightning strikes, often 100 per day in the summer, and since it is a semi-arid averaging only 18.4 inches of precipitation a year, and is an area populated with dense pinyon and juniper forest, fires can be large and intense. The most recent large fires of 2000 and 2002 have helped archeologists discover 682 previously unknown sites, leading archeologists to discover that the Ancestral Puebloans were even more successful farmers than originally believed. Post-fire surveys have led to the discovery of many more check dams and water control features than in previous surveys. These features typically consist of retaining walls placed on slopes in order to direct water to catchment features or to agricultural plots. Here's info on fire in the park.

The park's habitats support a great diversity of wildlife including resident and migratory mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and invertebrates. Because of Mesa Verde’s protected status, many plant and animal species that have disappeared or are rarely seen in the southwest region still exist in the park, including breeding pairs of peregrine falcon and Mexican spotted owl. Many species of rare plants survive on protected park lands. Some of these rare plants, such as the Cliff Palace milkvetch, are endemic to Mesa Verde and are found nowhere else.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Channel Islands National Park

California's Channel Islands National Park includes five islands as well as their surrounding ocean environment, protecting a wealth of cultural and natural resources. Eight islands make up the Channel Islands, and in 1980, five of those islands were granted national park protection: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands. The islands are home to an astonishing 2000+ plant and animal species, 145 of which are found nowhere else in the world. The isolation of the islands has allowed evolution to proceed independently and marine life varies from microscopic plankton to the largest animal on earth, the blue whale (10% of the world's blue whale population gathers here in the summer.) 13,000 years of human habitation can be traced on the islands. It is also the home of the oldest dated human remains in North America -- Arlington Springs Man from 13,000 years ago.

The secluded location can be accessed only by boat and small plane, making the park one of the least frequented in the country. In addition, entry visitation is limited thereby enhancing the feeling of solitude and protecting the fragile resources. The national park is home to more endangered species found only here than any other park in the country.

Transportation to the island is available from park concessionaire boats listed here.

Here's the dock and the entrance stairway to the island.

I found this sign very interesting since it shows that most of the national park is not just barren cliffs but abounding with underwater life forms (click to enlarge.)

The Anacapa lighthouse was turned on in 1932 and was the last permanent lighthouse built on the west coast.

Because of their isolation and remoteness, the islands support fewer native animal species than similar habitats on the mainland. Only species that could fly or swim or raft over on floating debris made it to here. Some of the species evolved into distinct subspecies, different even from the sister islands' species, such as the deer mouse and the island fox.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park displays the handiwork that took the Gunnison River two million years to create. The canyon extends 48 miles, with 12 miles being within the park, although the park contains the steepest and most dramatic section of the canyon.  It derives there name "Black Canyon" from that fact that parts of the deep gorge receive only 33 minutes of sunlight each day.

The namesake Gunnison River drops 34 feet per mile through the entire canyon, making it the fifth steepest mountain descent in North America. Its greatest descent is 240 feet per mile at Chasm View. By comparison, the heralded huge rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon drop an average of 7.5 feet per mile.

It became a national monument in 1933 and a national park in 1999. In the 1903s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the North Rim Road. 250,000 visitors a year enjoy the park.

The local Ute Indians knew of the canyon though they avoided it due to superstition. They referred to it as "big rocks, much water." By the time we declared independence from England in 1776, two Spanish expeditions had already passed by the canyon. The first official account of the canyon was by Captain John Williams Gunnison in 1853 as he led an exploration searching for a route from St. Louis to San Francisco. He skirted the canyon to the south, and after his death at the hands of the Ute Indians later that year, the river was named in his honor. The photo below shows the Rim Road.

In 1882, a railroad was completed at the bottom of 15 miles of the canyon, and a team was sent deeper into the canyon to survey for a route through the entire canyon. Their planned 20 day trip took 68 days, after which the leader declared the canyon "impenetrable" though "spectacular."

The river can be reached by steep, unmaintained trails called routes or draws from both rims. Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared to self-rescue in emergencies. These routes require about two hours to climb down and up to four hours to ascend.

I watched these two climbers from an overlook. All inner-canyon ascents/descents are strenuous and require Class 3 climbing skills.

The river and its class III to V rapids can be run by expert kayakers, but sections are impassable and require long, often dangerous portages.

The visitor center is in this log cabin atop the rim. The building is about 40 feet wide, the same width as the bottom of the canyon at The Narrows!

The canyon walls range from 2700 feet in depth to 1750 feet. The river's average fall of 95 feet per mile gives the river the energy needed to cut downward through the rock faster than erosion can widen the canyon.

I camped for several nights as I hiked and explored the park...

...and I was sharing my campsite with these fawns and their parents (or should I say they were sharing their home with me!)  Each day they walked past my tent and table, even when I was sitting in my chair or at the table, unafraid of me but curious.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a huge 13,188,000 acres in size, over six times as large as Yellowstone, and in fact large enough to include Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks and the country of Switzerland within its borders! It stretches from one of North America's tallest peaks, 18,008 Mt. St. Elias to the ocean, with peaks upon peaks and glacier after glacier in-between. Four major mountain ranges meet in the park (the volcanic Wrangells, the Alaska Range, the Chugachs, and the St. Elias) which includes 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the country.

The namesake Mt. Wrangell rises 14,163 feet in elevation and is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and the namesake Mt. St. Elias at 18,008 feet is the second highest peak in the United States. Here's a map of the park.

Only two roads travel into the park, both gravel. The 42 mile Nabesna Road heads into the northern section of the park and is lightly used but offers many opportunities for hiking and camping. When I drove it I saw very few other vehicles.  The 59 mile McCarthy Road was built on the old Northwest-Copper River Railroad bed right-of-way and used to be called the worst maintained road in Alaska until improvements to the tune of $6 million dollars were begun in 2006. We drove it in 2004 before the improvements and were fortunate we did not incur one of the 100+ flats it meted out every year. It takes you to the settlement of McCarthy seen below. The population at the 2010 census was 28 people (down 14 people from 2000.) McCarthy began as an area where the copper workers could enjoy alcohol and prostitution, both of which were prohibited in Kennecott.

A hike four miles north from McCarthy takes you to the remnants of the old copper mining site of Kennecott, now a national historic landmark. This is considered the best remaining example of 20th Century copper mining. From 1911 to 1938, nearly $200 million worth of copper was processed here, and at its peak, about 300 people worked in this mill town and another 300 in the actual mines. Kennecott was a self-contained company town that included a hospital, general store, school, skating rink, tennis court, recreation hall, and dairy. Many of the buildings have been abandoned now for 60 years and need stabilization to keep them standing, which is an ongoing effort.

Some lands within Wrangell-St. Elias are designated "national park" and other lands are designated as "national preserve."  Rural Alaskan residents that can prove a history of family subsistence in the area are eligible for subsistence fishing and hunting in both the Park and Preserve. Others can participate in sport hunting and fishing only in the Preserve. The next two photos show one of the subsistence fishing areas. The salmon season was over when we were there, but the equipment of the subsistence fishermen was evident at the river's edge...

The national park contains 14,185 square miles of designated wilderness, more than any other unit within the national park system. Canada's Kluane National Park in the Yukon abuts the park, along with British Columbia's Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and America's Glacier Bay National Park, and together they include 24.3 million acres of protected lands, the largest internationally protected ecosystem on the planet, an international World Heritage site.

June and July are the warmest months, with highs even reaching 80 degrees, but it can snow any month of the year in the high country. Rain is not unusual during the summer and increases in August and September, especially near the coast. Fall color change begins in mid-August and snow often falls in September. We camped in the campground across the river from McCarthy at the end of September and the overnight temperatures were in the teens and 20s and my water bottles froze in the tent overnight.

Winters are long. dark, and extremely cold. The highs may reach only 7 degrees and lows can dip to minus 50 degrees. Daytime skies are clear and the Northern Lights are said to regularly dance overnight.

Spring has average highs of 40 to 50 degrees but lows may dip into the teens or even single digits.

Below is a sunset photo from our campground.

The Root Glacier and the Kennicott Glacier meet at Kennecott. The Kennicott Glacier was named for Robert Kennicott, a naturalist who explored in Alaska in the mid-1800s. Due to a clerical error, the name of the mining corporation and town (Kennecott) were misspelled with an "e" instead of an "i" like the glacier's name.

Two of us chose to take a guided hike of Root Glacier on our free day.

The crampons on our boots allowed us to climb up steep icy inclines with ease.

Not a place you'd like to fall into!

We camped at the Glacier Campground which is across the creek from McCarthy, a private enterprise now that even offers cabins for rent and a restaurant. Looking at their website, there are more amenities now than back in 2004.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park

Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park is located at the farthest edge of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, just southwest of Prince William Sound. It is a locale where the ice age is still lingering, though it is gradually receding. The park covers a total of 669,984 acres. Exit Glacier is one of only a few Alaskan glaciers that is road-accessible, and the only section of the park accessible by car is the Exit Glacier area which has short trails and informational signage.

It became a national monument by presidential decree in 1978 and promoted to national park status in 1980.  In 1968, a party of seven made the first documented crossing of Harding Icefield traveling west to east on snowshoes and skis in seven days. They completed their traverse at the appropriately named Exit Glacier. But the area had been inhabited for thousands of years by Alaskan natives, notably by The Alutiiq 1000 years ago.

The Harding Icefield and its outflowing glaciers cover 700 square miles of the Kenai Mountains in glacier ice. Created more than 23,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, the Harding Icefield was a small piece of the vast ice shelf that then covered much of South-central Alaska. Exit Glacier is one of 38 glaciers that flow out from the Harding Icefield.

As I drove into the park, I began seeing signs along the entrance road showing where the glacier used to extend to in previous years, with signs marking every decade or so.  Using aerial photos taken since 1950, coupled with biological calculations prior to the photographs (as lichen growth), they have measured a total glacier retreat of 1.25 miles since 1915.

Below are the photos I took as I approached the glacier, and the walking path is obvious heading to and then alongside the glacier.

Alpine glaciers such as this form when more snow falls on mountain peaks during the year than melts during the summer. As the snow pack builds up and thickens, its immense weight compresses the layers of snow below which turn to ice.  As the layers on top accumulate, the glacier grows, and ultimately the overwhelming weight of the ice begins to push the lower ice down the mountainside, and as it very slowly flows downhill, it scrapes the ground beneath, scouring the valley floor and carrying with it the dislodged rock and debris, or glacial till or moraine, which is the black sediment you see alongside the edge of the glacier.

Exit Glacier retreated 187 feet during 2014, with 80% of the loss occurring during the summer months. From 1815 to 1999, it retreated an average of 43 feet per year.

I also took an all-day commercial day cruise out of Seward in order to experience the namesake fjords of Kenai Fjords National Park. Below are some scenery photos from that boat excursion...

Leaving Seward...

Holgate Glacier...

The beautiful dark blue color is the result of snow being compressed by subsequent layers atop it as it becomes part of the glacier. Air bubbles are squeezed out and ice crystals enlarge, making the ice appear blue. The red, orange, yellow, and green wavelengths of light are absorbed so the remaining light we see is composed of the shorter wavelength blue and violets. This is the main reason ocean water is blue -- it owes its intrinsic blueness to selective absorption in the red part of its visible spectrum.