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Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Friends of the Pleistocene: Alaska's Copper River Basin - Page 2

Written by Toby Bielawski
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Out of Anchorage and through the Matanuska Valley, we’d been rolling along the Glenn Highway past mountains and glaciers, but in a steady rain that had us worried. The junction town of Glennallen was drizzly and dismal, nothing more than a gas station and restaurant. For the fifth time, I turned to check the back seat, making sure I had packed my L.L. Bean seam-sealed Gore-Tex parka, and was comforted by seeing its bright orange sleeve sticking out from under the tent and tarps.

At least we were all trying to find the same trip – it was just that the leaders were missing. There was nothing to do but get the stoves going and wait. Before dusk fell fully, I went down to take a picture of the Gulkana River, and found myself kneeling to examine the rocks of the gravel pit. They were mostly fist-sized or smaller, all different textures and shades. I could recognize granite, but my mind strained to dredge anything more out of college geology courses. The terms that floated in my head – basalt, olivine, metamorphic – had no relationship to the mixed bag of shapes and colors under my boots. I lifted my eyes and instead studied the yellow birch leaves; they were somehow less complicated

It was late, after eleven, when another van pulled in. Those of us who were still up, huddling around stoves, shuffled over to see who it was: another motley crew of graduate students, this time from Juneau.

By the next morning, a solid gray sky was producing steady gray rain. By the time we got the gear stowed, things were getting pretty wet. I was already aware that the level of Gore-Tex and boots I had were pathetic by Alaskan standards. In fact, I’d learned that Gore-Tex itself is considered a joke and a ripoff in Alaska, where rubber raingear is de rigeur. Everyone else in the group was wearing X-tra Tuffs, the brown rubber boots with distinctive yellow around the rims. It would be another couple hours before my boots began to leak and it was too late, here in Paxson, to do anything about that now.

We were ready to head over to the Paxson Lodge to search for information when I looked out towards the open gravel, and did a double-take: like a multi-colored ring of mushrooms springing up, there was suddenly a circle of people in rain slickers. A third van and several cars were parked nearby. Last night’s grad students were already circled up, and we hurried to join them.

dirt girlsOur leaders had arrived from Anchorage at last. The two Patties, as they were called, were young geology professors who were so immediately exuberant, they easily could be taken for camp counselors.

“Okay, we’re the Dirt Girls! We assume everyone loves dirt, in one form or another, and that’s why you’re here.” It was true: everyone was a geology student, professor, or worked for the USGS, except me, an English teacher, and Laura – who’s at least a civil engineer.

At our first stop, nearby at Meier Lake Overlook, we began with a rainy trudge down the road, single file. Then we climbed the loamy soil, pushed through low brush, and looked back over the landscape. One of the Patties described the mystery here, the bone of contention among scholars: in a 1950s photo of the area, there was no lake. What geologic phenomenon was responsible for the lake? Or was it something non-geological? This spurred a lengthy discussion about beavers, glaciers, earthquakes, and melting permafrost. Patty took her shovel, dug a hole in the earth, and reminded everyone about the layers of soil: the O, A, and E layers. I was startled to learn that the soil topic was worthy of a 45-minute talk. I photographed the lecturing geologists, a voyeur to their excitement.

(Page 2 of 5)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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