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Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Friends of the Pleistocene: Alaska's Copper River Basin - Page 4

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.

groupThe next day dawned with cloud cover but no rain, and the campground sluggishly came to life. The beer cans and gin bottles littering the fire-ring were quietly gathered for recycling. Along with learning some geology, I was also learning that geologists like to drink hard and sing loud. All morning the sun battled bravely against the clouds, and finally broke through by afternoon, warming us as we hiked up the marshy slope of a mud volcano.

“They’re not volcanoes, they’re mud springs!” groused the owner of the private campground whose road we had to use to access the site. He sounded a little defiant, and I wondered if he felt the term volcano was too volatile, bad PR for his little recreation area. I wanted to tell him that we were a geology group, that if anyone knew what a mud volcano was, it was these guys. But he was allowing us to park all the cars on his property, so I just smiled, “Okay, mud springs! Do you know which trail we take to get to the mud springs?”

Suzanne McCarthy, a volcanologist, had explained how methane gas was rising from deep underground, raising these hills a hundred feet or so, and bubbling up through mud at the top. At this so-called caldera, the mud was firm, easy to walk on -- except where the cool, watery pools were bubbling. The whole area was pockmarked with moose tracks; they use the volcanoes as salt licks. Laura found a long branch, and poked at the bubbling puddles. The guys from Juneau got themselves all muddy, reaching in to trap the gas in a jar, then igniting it. Everyone could find something to appreciate, it seemed, about the strange mud volcanoes.

On the hike back down, I sought out a geologist I hadn’t spoken to yet, either out of reverence or shyness. Dick Reiger was retired from the University at Anchorage, in his mid-seventies I guessed, and was clearly the quiet authority of the group. I’d heard him lecture about Paxson Mountain on the first morning, and watched the others turn to him when questions arose, and marveled at him scrambling rocky slopes like a mountain goat, carrying hammer and shovel.

“Dick, is this your first trip with Friends of the Pleistocene?” I asked.

“No, no,” he began slowly, almost seeming to time his words with the rhythm of the branch-hopping hike we were doing. “I was on a FOP trip down in the Mojave Desert in 1969….amazing formations we saw down there.” He launched into a series of terms I hadn’t heard yet.

“Sounds a lot different than up here…?” I said meekly, not sure what else I could contribute.

(Page 4 of 5)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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