Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Did the Cardenas Party Leave a Rock Inscription in Grand Canyon in 1540?

An inscription on the Esplanade Platform near the Bass Trail stirs debate (photo © Wayne Ranney, 1991)

A geologist in Colorado has proposed that a mysterious rock inscription found in the Grand Canyon may record the exact place where people of European descent first descended into the Grand Canyon. Traditionally, historians have proposed that the "first descent" should be located somewhere between Desert View and Moran Point, in the far eastern part of the canyon. Their reasoning stems from journal references to a place with "low twisted pines and open to the north", and the fact that their Hopi guides would not have walked any farther than necessary from the journey's origin on the Hopi Mesas. Additionally, journal entries state: Captain Melgosa and one Juan Galeras and another companion ... spent three days on this bank looking for a passage down to the river [and] made an attempt to go down at the least difficult place... They returned … not having succeeded in reaching the bottom ... They said they had been down about a third of the way and that the river seemed very large from the place which they reached. [emphasis added] 

Using these very subtle landscape clues (ones that allow geologists to see a bit more into the mystery than perhaps a historian can), geologist Ray Kenny of Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado thinks he may have found where the "first descent" may be. He thinks it could actually be located farther west in the vicinity of the South Bass Trail, where low twisted pines are also located. There, a cryptic rock inscription about a third of the way down on the Esplanade platform can be found, that reads simply, "Monte Video" (perhaps roughly translated as, "I see the mountain"). The calligraphy used is reminiscent of early Spanish script and it appears to be of rather old age. One wonders, if not a Spaniard who wrote this, who then? William Wallace Bass? Not likely. I think Kenny may be on to something. You can read about the hypothesis in its entirety here

I visited this remote site in April, 1991 while serving as a guide on a Museum of Northern Arizona Ventures trip. I was led there by historian Jim Babbitt who was my co-leader at the time. Memory recalls that Babbitt had been long perplexed by this odd inscription and its cryptic message. I too became curious about the inscription but never gave it much thought until the NPS article above was brought to my attention. Kenny's hypothesis seems reasonable to me. The calligraphy is certainly from an antiquated time. And known Spanish incursions into the canyon were quite rare until we stole - er acquired - the land from Spanish domination. But more important is the notion that the "first descent" party would necessarily travel the shortest distance possible to reach the river (which was the primary objective for the trip west from Hopi in the first place - to resupply the Coronado Expedition via the Sea of Cortez by ship). This is Euro-centric thinking at its finest - "get me there in the shortest, quickest way." 

While it's still possible that they could have first approached the canyon from a point farther east, it's also likely that with "three days exploring this bank," they could have wandered farther west to the South Bass area. (As Kenny points out, it's likely that the Hopi would not want the perceived intruders to know about their routes into the canyon in the Desert View area). Also, "a third of the way down" would take them to the Esplanade level in the Bass area of the canyon and the Desert View to Moran Point area is one of the least likely places in all of Grand Canyon to attempt a trip down off the rim. Lastly, the Hopi used a well maintained trail from their mesas to the canyon home of the Havasupai, and the South Bass area is not that far from this route. 

A landscape perspective has not previously been utilized in attempting to solve the mystery of where the "first descent" party saw the canyon. And so the Grand Canyon again leaves us with a wonderfully appetizing mystery. Let's see where this one leads us! (All photos this posting © Wayne Ranney, April, 1991)

View to the north from near the South Bass Trailhead. Fossil Mountain on the left with Mt. Huethawali on the Esplanade Platform to its right. The terrace north of Mt. Huethawali is where the inscription is located. View of the Esplanade Platform from near the inscription site. The Esplanade has formed a broad terrace in western Grand Canyon where the Hermit Shale has retreated off of the harder sandstone below. Looking at the inscription near Mystic Spring. It's tantalizing the think that members of the Coronado Expedition in 1540 left this inscription.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Guided Walk on the Trail of Time

This past Saturday, I led a group of about 30 people on the "Trail of Time" at Grand Canyon. They were members of the Central Arizona Geology Club in Prescott which is very active with lectures and field trips. They posted a short blog about the trip here. It was wild and windy day but thanks to their interest we made a one mile walk in three hours! Only at the Grand Canyon do you get "brownie points" for taking longer walks!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Geology and the 2010 Moab River Rendezvous

The 2010 Moab River Rendezvous was held under sparkling sunny skies from November 11 to 14 and featured a one-day float trip on the Colorado River, numerous lectures and films, and a gathering of scientists and river enthusiasts. I was honored to be the Keynote Speaker on Saturday, Nov. 13, with "Carving Grand Canyon". This lecture was very well received and has been revamped to include the latest findings on how the Grand Canyon formed. Pictures of a lecture are not that exciting but look below to see how the river trip worked out!

(You can also read about and see photo's from my posting on the 2009 Moab River Rendezvous here).

The trip took place on Friday, Nov. 12 and put-in at the Hittle Bottom ramp near the Fisher Towers. One of the highlights of the Rendezvous was the participation of three historic replica boats from the 1950's. Here the Flavell and the GEM (replicas) take to the water at the put-in.

Gus Scott and Richard Quartaroli stand in front of the Flavell before she was launched on her maiden voyage

One of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing geologist Peter Winn again after nearly 18 years. On my very first Grand Canyon river trip in 1976, Peter was an ARTA boatman who shared a story about transgressing Cambrian seas. I remember the proverbial "light-bulb" going on for me at that moment and knew that geology was what I wanted to pursue after hearing his stories from the rocks.

Myself with Peter Winn at the lunch stop

A picture of me with Bill Bishop, a colleague from our days as boatmen with Worldwide Explorations

Here is a shot of the two main organizers of the event - geologist Tamsin McCormick and Director Michael Smith of Plateau Restoration. PR does great work rehabilitating beaches from exotic plant invasions and placing students in conservation positions and careers. They are the main sponsors of the River Rendezvous. Board member Leif Johnson looks on from behind.

River historian Roy Webb (University of Utah) looks at a piece of driftwood on the lunch beach. But this is not just any old piece of driftwood - it is a piece from the old Dewey Bridge upstream on the river. In April, 2008, the bridge caught fire and was destroyed. You can read about this historic loss here.

Michael Smith examines some of the hardware that was used to identified this historic piece of driftwood. He proposes to raft this piece of history back to town where it can be preserved as a part of Moab area history.

Now for the geology part! I took this picture from the boat beach which shows rounded river boulders resting on an outcrop of the Cutler Formation. Across the Colorado River and far in the distance are the Fisher Towers, fantastically eroded monoliths cut into the same formation.

The La Sal Mountain laccolith received a dusting of fresh snow just a few days before the Rendezvous began. These spectacular mountains provide much of the scenic charm found everywhere in the Moab area. They formed when magma spread laterally within sedimentary layers and cooled into a dense rock called trachyte. This all happened between 28 and 22 Ma. Relatively recent erosion has removed the once-enclosing sedimentary rocks and left the intrusive rocks in these peaks. Not visible from this angle is Mt. Peale, the highest point in the range and considered the highest point on the entire Colorado Plateau at 12,726 ft. (it barely beats out Mt. Humphrey's on the San Francisco Peaks at 12, 633). To read more about laccoliths see my previous postings on the Henry Mountains and other Plateau laccoliths.

Fantastic outcrops of Triassic rocks near Castleton Tower. Aprons below consist of the Moenkopi and Chinle formations, The towers are cut into the Wingate Sandstone. To see photo's of Castleton Tower from the open doors of a helicopter look here!

Eroded rills in the Moenkopi Formation along the Colorado River near Moab

The trees were still showing gold in Moab at this late date. All of the fall colors out west are a little later than normal this year.

Jason Hughes takes the oars of the GEM while boat builder and river historian Tom Martin looks on (left) with his wife Hazel (right). The 2010 Moab River Rendezvous was a great success. Plan on attending it in 2011!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

"Sedona Through Time" Wins National Award!

The Association of Earth Science Editors awarded my book, "Sedona Through Time" its Outstanding Publication for 2010! AESE is a bi-national organization of editors, journal managers, and others in the United States and Canada who are dedicated to excellence in the field of earth science publication materials. The award was given at the group's annual meeting, held this year in Victoria, British Columbia and was accepted on my behalf by local resident and long-time friend Karen Keeney. I am extremely gratified to have received this award in recognition of my efforts to bring relevant landscape histories to diversified and curious audiences.

"Sedona Through Time" was first published in 1993 and released in a new, fully updated 3rd edition in January, 2010. Many thanks to my wife Helen who prompted me to keep the book in print. I was tempted to let it "die" an honorable death until she convinced me that a new edition was a worthwhile endeavor. Also, Bronze Black Design of Flagstaff did a bang-up job in designing the book, which is full color and quite attractive. Bronze does great work and I am sure that the award was made easier by the books easy of navigation. Pam Frazier Enterprises of Sedona completed the copy edits for me. Since AESE is a group of editors, Pam's efforts were critical in claiming the award. My heartfelt thanks to all of these gracious and talented contributors!

The goals of the AESE are: To strengthen the profession of earth science editing; to foster education, and to promote the exchange of ideas of general and specific problems of selection, editing, and publication of research manuscripts, journals, serials, periodicals, and maps pertaining to the earth sciences.

I printed 3000 copies of "Sedona Through Time" and after only 10 months in circulation, I have sold almost half of those. Look for a gold medallion on the cover of the second printing, which is likely to appear towards the end of 2011.

The weather is fantastic in northern Arizona right now! Fall colors are everywhere and the rocks are still as red as ever in Sedona. This Sunday I will give a lecture entitled, "Sedona's Geologic Heritage" which will tell the story that is contained in my book. If you are in the area, come see me at Red Rock State Park. More information can be found here.