Archive for the ‘fossils’ Tag

John Day Fossil Beds: To Clarno & Beyond   9 comments

Good day Central Oregon!

This is the last post in a series on the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon.  Be sure to check out the last two, which have tips for visiting the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock Units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  It’s at Sheep Rock where we pick up the big counter-clockwise loop.

Just north of Cant Ranch on Hwy. 19 is a great hike.  Blue Basin is a fantastic section of blue-green sedimentary rock that rivals the Painted Hills.  It is the Turtle Cove member of the John Day Formation, some 30 million years old.  The blue-green color results from weathering of the volcanic ash in the rock to oxygen-poor iron oxide (green) and the clay celadonite (blue).

You can do a short in and out hike with interpretive panels, or a longer hike that takes you up and over the formations on a 3+ mile loop.  Make sure and take plenty of water, especially if it’s summer when this area can get very hot and dry.

Blue Basin with purple sage in bloom.

Blue Basin with purple sage in bloom.

Continuing north of Blue Basin, you’ll come upon an interesting geology stop.  A large lens of conglomerate is bisected by the road at Goose Rock.  The cobbles within the rock are perfect, like they had been plucked from a rocky stream.  But that stream flowed millions of years ago.  Continuing north you come to Cathedral Rock, which in the right light offers great photos with the John Day River as leading line.  Continue to the town of Kimberly, then follow the highway west along the John Day River to Service Creek, where lodging and camping is available.

Service Creek is a popular place for rafters and canoeists to put in for a float down the John Day.  In late spring, the river is perfect for this.  Rapids get up to class 3 but in general the river is quite mellow.  If you can handle a canoe through moving water, I recommend this over rafting, though both are a great idea.  It is an easy 2-night, 3-day float to the bridge crossing at Clarno.

Springtime brings green along creek bottoms in central Oregon.  Osage orange blooms on the right.

Springtime brings green along creek bottoms in central Oregon. Osage orange blooms on the right.

Keep on Hwy. 19 north through pine forests to the town of Fossil.  On the way, a detour can be made to the ghost town of Kinzua.  Two small forest service campgrounds are found along the route; they’re in pine trees not far south of Fossil.  Near these is Pioneer Park, which is perfect for a picnic.  A cold spring is one of its features, great for filling up with fresh clean water.  The creek running through is perfect for hunting crawfish.  If you have kids with you, this is a must stop for burning off some of that excess energy.

In the town of Fossil are two spots I recommend visiting.  One is the General Store, a very authentic old place that turns the pages back to a simpler time in America.  The other is the High School.  Why the High School?  Well, the hill next to it is one of the easiest places to find fossils I know of.  It’s an ancient lake bed that some 30 million years ago filled with sediments rich in volcanic ash.  Now perfectly preserved leaf fossils are revealed on dinner-plate rock surfaces.  The best part about it is you can dig your own fossils, and for a very small fee keep your favorites.  Recently established, the Oregon Paleo Lands Center here has a very helpful staff who will get you started and make sure your dig is successful.

A fossil leaf is perfectly preserved in lake-bed sediments rich in volcanic ash.

A fossil leaf is perfectly preserved in lake-bed sediments rich in volcanic ash.

From Fossil, take Hwy. 218 west toward Clarno.  Along the way an old homestead on the right makes a great photo stop.  When you begin to see tall cliffs on the right, you have arrived at the Clarno Unit of the National Monument.  There are a couple hikes here worth taking.  One, which takes off from a parking lot with bathroom, follows Indian Creek up to a shallow cave with pictographs.  This gives you a great feel for central Oregon’s ranching country.  Beautiful flowers bloom in April.

Another short hike takes off from the same parking lot, heading along the highway a short way before following a couple steep switchbacks up to the base of the cliffs.  You may see birds of prey hunting here.  The spectacular cliffs, called the Palisades, are made up of the Clarno Formation.  The Clarno, Eocene in age, is the oldest major formation in the Monument.  It is most famous for its fossils of huge mammals, along with one of the world’s premier fossil nut beds.  Very near here is an exposure of rocks where perfectly preserved nut fossils weather out like marbles.  It’s amazing:  some look as if you just reached into a bowl of walnuts – except they are heavier and made of stone.

A diorama depicting life in central Oregon when the area closely resembled modern Panama, but with early mammals prowling the forest, many now extinct.

A diorama depicting life in central Oregon when the area closely resembled modern Panama, but with early mammals prowling the forest, many now extinct.

A rare nearly complete skull of Eusmilus, a saber-toothed pre-cat of the John Day Fossil Beds.

A rare nearly complete skull of Eusmilus, a saber-toothed pre-cat of the John Day Fossil Beds.

If you want to visit the nut beds you can keep going on the trail up Indian Creek, but ask a ranger (back at Sheep Rock) for detailed directions.  There is also a fossil tree along the way that is upright and even includes traces of the roots!  But be aware that this area is shared by a science school.  In season (April – October) there are sessions taking place, with schoolkids getting a great field-based science education.  It’s best to give groups of kids and instructors their space and not attempt to hang out with them.

Following 218 west you cross the John Day River and climb over a pass to the tiny town of Antelope.  This was the base for a bizarre chapter in Oregon history.  In the 1980s a man from India, the Baghwan Shree Rashneesh, bought a ranch near here.  Having started his own religion, he brought a large group of followers and moved in.  The quiet ranching atmosphere was changed overnight, caravans of luxury cars and strangers running around.

It soon became clear that this was a cult.  The followers turned into a problem after several strange incidents and standoffs with local and state government officials.  It came to a head when they were caught poisoning the salad bar in a restaurant in the nearby town of The Dalles.  The Baghwan had also been dodging taxes.  The cult soon collapsed and broke up, and the Baghwan deported.  The ranch remains; I have toured the place and it is creepy-fascinating.  There is an old crematorium tilted over and rusting away in the sagebrush.  The followers included many talented engineers and other skilled people.  And they had not been idle.

Turning north at Antelope and staying on Hwy. 218 through a series of tight curves takes you up onto the plateau, to a ghost town named Shaniko.  Though a few people live here (which to me means it isn’t a ghost town), it is a shadow of once it once was.  You can get some good pictures wandering this little town.

Shaniko was once one of the busiest centers of sheep-ranching in the west.  This is the historic Shaniko Hotel.

Shaniko was once one of the busiest centers of sheep-ranching in the west. This is the historic Shaniko Hotel.

From Shaniko, if you follow Bakeoven Road, you come to the little community of Maupin, straddling the beautiful Deschutes River.  You can go white-water rafting or kayaking.  Continue west on Hwy. 216 back up out of the sagebrush and into the forests near Mount Hood.  You’ll hit Hwy. 26.  This is the fastest (and most scenic) way back to Portland.

I hope you enjoyed this little tour of central Oregon.  You may have heard that Bend is central Oregon, but it’s really not.  This large region, the John Day Basin, is both the geographic and cultural heart of central Oregon.  It is much more than the Painted Hills.  If you want to explore a fascinating and non-touristy part of the west, a region with great photo opportunities and interesting human and geologic history, you can’t do much better.

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John Day Fossil Beds & Climate Change   4 comments

An old dairy farm along Bridge Creek in eastern Oregon near the town of Mitchell, it appears to have once been a going concern.

An old dairy farm near the town of Mitchell, Oregon appears to have once been a going concern.

As mentioned in my last post on the Painted Hills, this area of Oregon is about so much more than some colorful formations.  A little preview at the end of that post last Friday was a short description of the old dairy farm near Mitchell (see above).  And it’s from there that we’ll continue our road trip through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon.

Travel east from Mitchell on Hwy. 26 toward the monument headquarters at Sheep Rock.  You will first come to Picture Gorge, a spectacular cut through stacks of basaltic lavas.  The Picture Gorge Basalt is a southern outlier of the great Columbia River Basalt flows to the north.  The gorge is named for ancient Native American rock art found on the walls.

Since I can't find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Since I can’t find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

To see and photograph some pictographs, drive to the east end of the gorge and park alongside the John Day River.  Look up to the walls across the road.  From here, if the river is low enough, you can get a much closer look at great rock art alongside the river.  Just drop below the road and walk a hundred yards or so upriver, looking for short, smooth walls to your right.  A rare pictograph of a salamander can be found.

Midway through Picture Gorge you’ll turn north on Hwy, 19 and drive a short distance to the Sheep Rock Unit.  There is a great museum that explains the areas rich fossil heritage.  This is an important region of the world for paleontologists.  Along with Wyoming’s Green River area, it is where well preserved fossils of ancient mammals, plants and other creatures can be found.  These remains, preserved within colorful sedimentary rocks shed off  ancient volcanoes that were eroded away long ago, document the explosion of mammalian diversity in the Eocene (56-34 million years ago).

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

Mammals started off very small, literally in the shadow of dinosaurs.  Once the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, mammals slowly evolved and diversified until an inevitable point.  Just as happened with dinosaurs near the peak of their diversity, mammals began to evolve into huge forms.  This is well documented in the John Day.  In fact, the region has abundant mammal fossils all the way up through the Miocene (23-5 million years ago).

One of the largest mammals of all time was the huge rhino-like brontothere.  Enormous ground sloths roamed here as well.  Other mammals of the John Day:  early horses the size of dogs, camels, a large variety of canids, cats (including early saber-toothed varieties), rodents, even early primates.  And it’s not just mammals:  huge fossil turtle shells are found.

A very important part of the John Day fossil beds is the amazing variety of plant fossils.  This allows the environments in which these animals once lived to be worked out in detail.  A period of global warming is documented here, followed by a long slow cooling and drying trend that has continued to the present day.  Nowadays of course humans are busy driving the climate in the opposite direction, toward a climate last experienced by those now-extinct mammals of ancient North America.

The old homestead  Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background.  Click on image if interested in it.

The old homestead Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background. Click on image if interested in it.

An Aside:  Climate Change – The Debate?

I recall having a group of high school science students at the museum at Sheep Rock.  I was showing them the fossils and how they told us the ancient climate was lush and subtropical.  On the wall was a chart that showed the estimated CO2 levels in the atmosphere during that period, and how they coincided with the types of plant and animal fossils.  A man and his wife were listening off to the side.

Later I heard him telling his wife, “see, what did I tell you?  Global warming happened in the past and was natural.  We don’t have anything to do with it, even if it was actually happening.”  Or words to that effect.  I wanted to correct his misinterpretation of the meaning of the evidence but realized it was not a good idea for several reasons.  For one thing, a person who uses faulty logic certainly missed something early in their upbringing/education.  When they got older they internalized this way of thinking, so that any faulty interpretations they make are perceived to be merely “common sense”.  Very difficult to explain anything to such a person.

Though it’s true that a warm, tropical climate is very conducive to a diversity of life, it is the change to those conditions that poses the risk.  And that’s especially true for very rapid changes like the one we’re entering now.  A transition to an ice-free world is upon us, and we can only pray that it will only be accompanied by a drowning of our coastal cities and dramatic changes to agriculture and water supplies.  The worse-case scenarios are much more dire.

Scientists are much too conservative to talk about these darker scenarios with the press.  But trust me, they aren’t pretty.  Picture enormous clouds of poison hydrogen sulfide gas spewing out of stagnant oceans, killing everything that breathes unless it is hidden underground.  There is evidence that this happened during past mass extinctions.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Leaving aside all these sunny thoughts, it’s amazing to think this semi-arid region of grassland looked like present-day Panama in the early Eocene (about 50 million years ago).  It had active volcanoes and the coastline was closer.  With no Cascade Mountains, there was no rain-shadow effect.  The warm Pacific Ocean sent abundant moisture over a lush river-laced landscape dotted with volcanoes.  Many of the animals (e.g. camel, rhino & elephant) that during present times are found only in Asia or Africa roamed (in early form) the jungly American wetlands of the west.

Animals like horses and camels evolved here in North America, then migrated across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and eventually Africa.  They went extinct here.  Many other now-extinct animals, like brontotheres, oredonts (large & pig-like), creodonts (looked like a cross between a hyena and cat but more heavily built) and nimravids (a sleek & agile saber-toothed pre-cat) all lived, died and eventually went extinct here.

A mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

A museum mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time out here teaching science.  After a time, I got to where I could experience that ‘other’ Oregon.  Believe it or not, for paleontologists or anyone who sees enough fossils, absorbs enough knowledge, and then quiets themselves while out in the places where the fossils are found, it is possible to time-travel with your mind.  You can bring up vivid images of that other world in the silence that surrounds you during semi-meditative states.  You actually start to feel the humidity and hear the buzzing of tropical insects.  Very cool.

So check out that museum!  Right across the road lies the historic Cant Ranch and picturesque Sheep Rock.  This is a great place for photos, with the old barns, the John Day River and Sheep Rock begging to be part of your compositions.  The rangers run tours of the historic ranch, giving you a picture of the old homesteading days when the west was first being settled by whites and their livestock.

The last part of this series covers the northern part of our loop, including the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset, John Day River Valley, central Oregon.

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