Category Archives: Nature

Manitoba’s Cactuses



In June 2016 I went on one of my most spectacular botany trips ever. That is saying a lot since I have on some outstanding trips. This was truly one of the best.

Normally I am a bog guy. I love bogs. I love the orchids and other plants that inhabit our wetlands. Most of my flower hunting has been in these wetlands.  Today I felt a bit like a faithless lover because I wandered a near desert in search of cacti. I have come to love cacti as much as orchids. Both are pretty close to divine.


I love deserts. I just never thought I would experience one in Manitoba. Actually, I did not experience one that day. It is not really a desert but it is as close as we get in Manitoba. Spruce Woods gets about twice the amount that is the limit for what is considered a desert. The annual moisture received there is 300-500 millimetres per year-nearly twice the amount received in a true desert region. This rainfall enables plants to colonize the sand dunes, hiding most of the sand. In fact as I walked along the trail I was struck by the great variety of vegetation. For a plant guy like me that was fantastic.


Of the original 6,500 square kilometres of delta sand, only four square kilometres remain open today. The balance is now covered with vegetation that is gradually covering the sands. Most of the sands are now covered with a rich variety of plants and wildlife. The Spirit Sands had their origin more than 15,000 years ago when the ancestral Assiniboine River, was much larger than it is today and it created a huge delta as it carried glacial meltwaters into ancient Lake Agassiz.

The origins of the Spruce Woods require one to consider the massive continental ice sheets that covered Manitoba and much of the northern part of North America.  About 20,000 years ago, all of Manitoba was covered by an enormous ice sheet that in many places was up to 2 km. deep.  There was an awful lot of water locked up in that  ice.

When that fantastic ice sheet started to melt, a wide melt stream flowed into the recently created Lake Agassiz.  It was the largest lake the world has ever seen! As the water flowed in it dropped silt, sand, and gravel into many parts of Manitoba including a pathway that was centred roughly on what is now the Assinboine River.  This created a huge river valley.

The sand deposits thus created were vast and deep. In places they were up to 200 feet deep and covered approximately 6,500 square km. These deposits spread out in a fan shape that reached as far as Portage la Prairie. Winds created heaps of sand that we call dunes. Large dunes were built up in this area. Those dunes are still active today.

When the great continental ice sheets finally melted away, about 12,000 years ago, the Assinboine River was a mighty river, about 1.5 km wide. The modern descendant is a puny shadow of that.  The river drained into huge Lake Agassiz just south of present day Brandon Manitoba. As the glacier continued to retreat northwards Lake Agassiz drained south—opposite of today. The massive ice sheets blocked northward flow. This south flow of the river exposed massive sand from the river delta.


To the aboriginal people the Spirit Sands were a spiritual place close to the Great Spirit or Kiche Manitou. The present name—Spirit Sands acknowledges the religious importance of the dunes to indigenous people.

Today Spirit Sands is a fragile sand dune about 4 km2.  The rest of what is left is covered with vegetation. The dunes are moved along the prevailing northwesterly winds and like so many dunes, cover anything that stands in their way.


Cactuses or cacti  are magnificent. I have spent  a few winters now in Arizona looking at cacti and have come to love them nearly as much as orchids, as heretical as that might sound.  Our Manitoba cacti are small low plants but the flowers are extraordinary and can hold their heads up high to any Arizona cacti.  And they love sandy conditions.

Many people are surprised to learn that cacti can be found in Canada. After all, are cacti not a plant of the southwestern deserts? Yes and no. Certainly they can be found in the southwest of the US and are in fact famous for that. Yet they can survive in the north as well.

There are actually 4 species of cacti native to Canada. These are Escobaria vivipara, Opuntia fragilis, O. polyacanthaand O. humifusa. None of these species are found farther north than their locations in Canada.

There is another species of cactus in Manitoba that I have not seen yet. That is prickly pear and it can be found from BC to Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. There are as well a few sites in northwestern Ontario. I have seen this cactus in Manitoba but not when it was in bloom. A nature group of which I am a part, Native Orchid Conservation Inc. went to see it but I had to miss that field trip. Sometimes life sucks.  Next year for sure!

David Suzuki and the Indigenous Attitude to Nature

At the University of Winnipeg talk after showing the film Beyond Climate, Suzuki also discussed a new attitude to nature. He  began by talking about the American economy.

After World War II and the end of the Great Depression, America President Franklin Roosevelt realized that the war economy had saved capitalism from self-destruction. But a war economy carries with it enormous unpalatable costs far beyond mere economic costs. He realized that what it needs is consumption. Constant relentless consumption. That was his solution.

Of course what the United States has actually done is to maintain both a consumer economy and war economy. The U.S. spends as much on the military as the 9 countries that are next in line, spend combined.

Suzuki thought we needed a better way. Climate change was just one of the things such an attitude had ushered in. He said  he had learned a lot from indigenous people. In fact he said, “Indigenous people have taught me all I know.” This was important because much of the film dealt with the opposition of First Nations to the plans of Alberta and the Canadian government to build pipelines from the Oil Sands of Alberta to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) or oil or bitumen to the coast of British Columbia. Alberta was upset that the federal government could not ram through the pipeline approval process. Of course that is just not feasible. Those days are done. The Supreme Court won’t put up with it.

In the late 1970s Suzuki realized that we needed a new attitude to nature. And he found it. He found it in the 1980s when he went to interview indigenous people at Haida Gwaii. He wanted to talk to them about the protests by indigenous people over logging on their land. He talked to forest company executives, environmentalists, politicians, and, most importantly Haida. That was how he met Guujaaw a young artist who was leading the Haida opposition to the logging.

Suzuki wondered why the Haida were so vehemently opposed to logging since many of their own people got jobs with  logging companies. And many of them badly needed jobs. Suzuki asked him, “What would happen if the trees were cut down?”  His reply was profound, but Suzuki did not realize at first how profound. Guujaaw said, “Then we’ll be like everyone else, I guess.”

A few days later Suzuki thought about that answer and it “opened a window on a radically different way of seeing the world.” As we keep getting reports from the World Wildlife Fund and others about the incredible impact humans are having on the world, I think a new attitude to nature is exactly what we badly need. Suzuki explained it this way,

“Guujaaw and the Haida do not see themselves as ending at their skin or fingertips. Of course they would still be around physically if the trees were all gone, but a part of what it is to be Haida would be lost.  The trees, fish, birds, air, water, and rocks are all part of who the Haida are. The land and everything on it embody their history, their culture, the very reasons why Haida are on this earth. Sever that connection and they become ‘like everybody else.”

Indigenous people around the world have similar attitudes. They  are based on a deep attachment to the land they occupy. They are connected to that environment. It is part of who they are. Suzuki like other people from the west had a different attitude to nature and that has made all the difference. To the Haida, and other indigenous people, and as Suzuki concluded,


“…there is no environment ‘out there,’ separate and apart from us; I came to realize that we are the environment. Leading science corroborates this ancient understanding that whatever we do to the environment or to anything else, we do directly to ourselves.The ‘environmental’ crisis is a ‘human’ crisis; we are at the centre of it as both the cause the victims.”

 Suzuki realized he had found the new perspective he needed. It allowed him to see the world through different eyes.  He realized, as the Haida had before him, that what we needed to survive and thrive was not more money in order to live rich and healthy lives. This new attitude to nature was reflected in all the Haida did and found its fruits in how they wanted to interact with the land. As Suzuki said, “Rather than being separate and apart from the rest of nature, we are deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on the generosity of the biosphere.” I use the word “affinity” to describe this new attitude to nature. I will comment on again in these blogs.

It is this attitude that Albertans don’t understand. It is not just a matter of paying the Indigenous people money. They want jobs, they want money, but not at any cost. They don’t want it at the cost of their identity. That is why some of the indigenous people, but not all of them, do not want pipelines on their land and will sacrifice the jobs if necessary. I know that seems bizarre to Albertans and most Canadians for that matter. Alberta and Canada have to learn to respect that. Only then will they be able to successfully deal with Canada’s first nations.  And perhaps Canada will learn something valuable in the process. Perhaps there is something of value in that new attitude to nature.

Golden Circle Tour


Our last day of the Iceland tour was something called the Golden Circle Tour. This has nothing to do with Trumpian hijinks. The Circle Tour is a famous one-day trip around many sites within a couple of hours of Reykjavik. That is all most tourists see of Iceland. Don’t get me wrong, it is a a wonderful part of Iceland, but it is only a small part. We were very fortunate to be able to see large part of the  island from west to east and north to south.

Skálholt, which is Iceland’s first Bishopric (that is not Bishop’s prick). Christianity in Iceland  has been a powerful religious force for more than 1,000 years. This power was carefully built up over hundreds of years by an influential dynasty of chieftain priests. Naturally, like the rest of Europe no one believed in the separation of church and state. The first of the bishops was Gissur the White a bombastic priest who led the pro-Christian faction at the AD 1,000 Alpingi where the people’s leaders decided to convert to Christianity mainly to improve their chances of trade with Europe rather than out of any sincere religious convictions. The people of course had no say in their conversion to Christianity, not unlike the princes of Germany in the German Reformation. Commerce was more important than religion. Sort of like it is now.

Often the best part of church interiors is the stained glass. This was one of those churches.


On the Circle Tour was Geysir which has lent its names to all water spouts around the world. Actually Great Geysir started erupting in 1294 and reached heights of 60 metres (200 ft.) but it has not kept up for decades.  In the 20thcentury, eager (read stupid) tourists tipped gravel and garbage into its mouth hoping to cause an explosion. They also used soapy water on special occasions such as Independence Day but that did not help either. As a result of this abuse, the geyser became nearly dormant. Surprisingly, in 2000 it sprang back to life spouting 40 metres (130 ft.) into the air. It is no longer that robust but still lifted off impressively.

I am supposed to be the orchid guy, but while we were looking at the geyser and some hot pots of water, Chris spotted an orchid with her eagle eye. According to a German tourist near us it is called Knabenkrautin German. I think the common English name is marsh orchid or Common twayblade.  I tried to photograph it, but we were too far away and were not allowed to walk closer.


After that we drove to Gullfoss(Golden Falls). No this was not a golden shower either. This is one more spectacular waterfall. Actually, it is a double water fall. First the River Hvítá tumbles 11 metres and then the lower falls drops 21 metres. The rock of the riverbed was formed during an interglacial period. Apparently it has flowed for thousands of years. It was a very impressive falls.

We learned that at one time Iceland was planning to build a hydro electric dam and plant here, but a heroic protester led the opposition. She said, “I don’t sell my friends.”  Now it is a UNESCO world heritage site, one of two we visited today on our golden circle tour. No doubt Iceland has earned more money from tourists visiting the site than they would have from the electrical power from one more damn dam. I promise this is the last waterfall I will show from Iceland.

Our last stop on our Golden Circle Tour was Thingvellir National Park the historical heart of Iceland and now the second UNESCO world heritage site we saw in one day!  It is a fantastic natural site as well as the site of the Viking Parliament, the first in the world. The National Assembly was established there by the Vikings in 930 AD and was regularly convened there until 1798. As well the geology there is incredibly important because one can see the continental tectonic plates pulling apart.

This was the end of our tour around the island of Iceland. we finished our visit with a  couple of days in Reykjavik.





Today I went in search of more orchids. I started out at Belair Provincial Forest. The orchids I was looking for reside in dry pine forests, unlike most other Manitoba orchids. It was extremely hot today. In fact it was so hot even the mosquitos did not venture out. Only mad dogs and orchid nuts go out in the mid day sun.

I found what I was looking for.  Moccasin-flower or Pink Lady’s-slipper as it is sometimes called. I don’t really think they look pink. More maroon I would say.

The name for orchids is derived from the Greek word ὄρχις (orchis)which means testicle. Looking at the moccasin flower you might think you knew why. But you would be wrong.  The name actually was used in reference to the underground tuberoids of orchis that are supposed to resemble testicles.

Arches National Park


I remember well a day 2 years ago when we visited Arches National Park in Utah. It was an extraordinary day. It was one of those travel days that I will never forget. It was not a long day. Sadly, our visit was all too brief.

The Geology of Arches National Parkis as fascinating as the arches. It is history told in the language of stone and rock.         The story of the area now contained with Arches National Park (“Arches”) began approximately 65 million years ago.  At that time this area was a most improbable sight for what we see today. At that time it was a dry seabed that spread from one horizon to the other.  For example, if you stood in Devils Garden 65 million years (‘mya’) ago the red rock features that make up this fantastic landscape would not have been visible at all. Everything would have been buried thousands of feet below the surface. Like the marble that lay in front of Michelangelo, all would have been uncarved raw material.

65 mya geological forces started to work on this rough landscape.  The first geological step was for geological forces to wrinkle and fold the buried sandstone.  This process has been compared to a person with a giant rug gathering the two edges toward each other. Such a process would make lumps across the middle. Geologists call these lumps Anticlines. As the sandstone warped, fractures tore through it establishing the patterns for rock sculptures of the future.

The great uplift of the Colorado Plateau occurred about 200 million years after that some 40 million years ago.   The entire region began to rise thousands of feet above sea level.  That happened for much of the American Southwest. As the Colorado Plateau rose up, layers of sedimentary rock were presereved in tact. Now, as a result,  scientists can read those rocks like a geological book. The Grand Canyon is one of the places where this geological book is most readable. The entire region, though particularly the Grand Canyon of course, is famous for its multicolored layer cake geology where each layer tells a distinctive story about a particular historical epoch that began in the Precambrian nearly 2 billion years ago and ended 570 million years ago.

Our first stop in the park was near to Park Avenue. There is a short trail that is referred to as Park Avenue because of the many rocks that resemble city skyscrapers. We also saw some rocks that appeared to be balancing on pillars. These were starkly unlike. We did not walk far down the trail as we had little time for hiking. That was a shame. Next time I hope we have more time. Nearby I also stopped for some photos of the wonderful snowcapped La Sal Mountains to the east

We next drove around the trail and stopped at the rock that is referred to as Courthouse Towersbecause it does look like a classic American courthouse. These reminded me of some of the rock formations I had seen a few years ago in Monument Valley, still my favorite place in the American Southwest. Of course, I was compelled to take some more shots with my camera.



Of course, nothing ever stays the same in geological terms. What was lifted up fell subject to the forces of erosion over long periods of time. Specifically, the forces of erosion carved layer after layer of rock away from the surface. One it was exposed, the deeply buried sandstone layers rebounded and expanded, like a sponge expands after it is squeezed. Of course this process takes a very long time. This created even more fractures in the rock and that permitted water to seep into the rock and break it down even further.

It seems odd because this region is so dry, but today water is the force that shapes the environment here more than any other force. Rain erodes rock and carries sediment down and washes that sediment down washes and canyons into the Colorado River. In winter snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities and often it freezes and then it expands as all water does when it freezes. This breaks off chunks of sandstone. Small recesses develop and grow bigger with each storm.  Little by little over thousands of years, this process turns fractured rock layers into fins and in time, fins turn into arches.



Delicate Arche

Over very long periods of time the forces that created these arches will continue to widen them to such an extent that they become unstable and collapse. That happened just a few years ago.  In 2008, Wall Arch collapsed reminding us that these rock forms are not permanent. Noting is permanent, except change. Someday Delicate Arch will collapse too. Of course most of these arches will remain much longer than I will. After all this landscape took 65 million years to be sculpted. It really is an improbable landscape.

Like a fingerprint, every arch in the park is unique. Each arch tells its own distinct story of rock, water, erosion, time and change. Yet there are some interesting categories of arches. The free-standing arch is the most obvious type of arch. It stands alone, independent of other rock walls or fins. It seems to stand proud spanning an opening. Some arches of this kind have been called Windows. Often they frame a scenic view. Of course, in Arches,everyopening frames a scenic sight. It is entirely unavoidable. The most popular arches in the park, such as Delicate Arch belong in this category of arches.


Delicate Arch

Chris and I both saw Delicate Archfrom the lower viewpoint area. She stayed behind while I walked to the Upper Arch viewpoint, but I did not walk all the way up to the Arch. It would have taken me about 45 minutes to walk up to it but I felt we did not have enough time. This is the most famous of the park’s arches.

More than 2,000 arches have been identified in the park. That is an astounding number. Arches National Park has the densest concentrations of natural stone arches in the world ranging in size from sliver thin cracks to spans of more than 300 feet.

The rock layers that are frequently visible in the park today, were once buried by over a mile of other rock. This overlying rock first had to erode to expose the sandstone beneath, for arches to have formed. Arches National Park is a wonder of nature. It truly is. I am convinced there can’t be anything like it anywhere else in the world.  Wall Arch, the 12thlargest arch in the park, completely collapsed overnight in August 2008. Wall Arch fell on August 4, 2008 while people were sleeping at Devil’s Garden Campground not far away. Many reporting hearing the sound of thunder, but the skies overhead were clear. Yet thousands of tons of sandstone came crashing to the ground. The sound was deafening.

For most of the history of what we now call Arches National Park there were no red rocks here at all. Salty inland seas, braided river systems, coastal plains, and sand dunes were what we would have found during most of the history of this park. Geologists know this because they are smart and they know what to look for. The clues are there for the discerning eye to see and interpret. Geologists interpret clues such as fossils, ripple marks and cross bedding to understand the history of each geological layer to compose their picture of what happened here.

It is worth remembering that every arch, spire or other rock shape for that matter is a remnant of ancient massive layers of rock that once covered the entire region. Over time the layers of rock bulged, cracked, and then began to erode. Of course, over time every arch will collapse and crumble. That is entirely inevitable.       Although every arch will fall, collapses are actual rare occurrences. I was surprised to learn that there is no good way to predict when an arch will be pulled to its grave by the irresistible force of gravity.

Balanced Rock

 On our too brief drive through the park, we stopped at Balanced Rock with the La Sal Mountains in the background. This was an improbably and acutely precarious balanced boulder sitting on top of a sandstone spire. Together with the arches this is one of the signature rock formations of the park. It looks like it is ready to fall off at the next summer breeze. It has been estimated to weight 3,577 tons, the weight of an ice-breaker ship or 27 blue whales.

Balanced Rock

We had spent about 4 hours in the park and travelled right to the end of the self-guide tour. Not nearly enough time, yet this concluded one of my best days sight seeing ever! This was right up there with my experiences at Monument Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Sedona, Canyon de Chelly, Plitvice Lakes Croatia, Saguaro National Park, Churchill, and a few others.  My camera shutter got hot from over use. I used the word “Wow” far too often to count. If I had shot film images at the rate I shot digital images, I would have had to declare personal bankruptcy.  Thank goodness digital “film” is “free.”  Long live digital photography.

I still have one of Utah’s 5 National Parks to see–Canyonlands. Next year I hope to see it.

Bryce National Park: “Poetry in Stone”

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has been described as “Poetry in Stone.” I loved that description.  Each of us who visits Bryce has to remember that the landscape is never static. It is always dynamic and changing. Change is the only constant. The forces of weathering never get fatigued and exert a relentless force on the rock. Bryce Canyon consists of a series of deep amphitheaters filled with a variety of colored rock formations. Some of them are called hoodoos and they are what Bryce Canyon is most famous for.   Hoodoos are eroded columns of sandstone.  They were formed when wind, rain, and ice eroded “fins” of harder rock that eventually being columns and then further eroded into strangely shaped hoodoos. When those windows grow larger, their tops eventually collapse.  Everyone wonders why do they appear here and not in many other places of the world, though I have seen them in Alberta. Frank Decourten wrote a book called Shadow of Timeabout Bryce and its hoodoos “the grand icons of erosion.’ He also pointed out that “Hoodoos are ephemeral–new columns form while older ones are destroyed–and erosion is both their creator and, eventually, their executioner.”  They are created by differential erosion, the cap is harder and does not erode as fast, protecting the column underneath.


We loved the views at the various look offs. Each was spectacular in its own unique way. The spires of pink, orange, and red spires were breathtaking. The Paiute Indians who used to hunt here described them as “red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped recess.” The image above is a panorama. That means I combined a number of photos into one image. If you click on it, I hope it gets bigger.


Of course in the world of geography nothing is forever. As Decourten said, “Inevitably, even the pillars, protected to some degree by dripstone and caprock , succumb to the relentless attack of the elements and the hoodoos begin to crumble.”   Bryce really is a phantasmagorical funhouse made of stone. Bryce is one of the few places where people notice–really notice–the rock. That is because it is so strange. There is no place like it. But they are not only beautiful, they are fascinating if you dig into the geology of Bryce. As Decourten pointed out, “The vibrant colors, the intricate patterns of erosion, and the infinite variations in the surface textures of these rocks are both enchanting and mystifying.”


If you look closely at this picture of me you might be able to see Fear.

Bryce was affected by the Cretaceous Period is one of the most interesting periods in the history of our planet. It lasted approximately 79 million years145.5 million years ago 65.5 million years ago when the dinosaur disappeared. Decourten said “The Cretaceous was perhaps nature’s greatest excursion into mayhem. It was a time when the gradual, steady, geological processes of the planet went haywire.  For example, the slow spreading of the ocean basins which results in continental drift was proceeding at a rate up to three times greater than the rate at which such spreading occurs today!  During the Cretaceous, the plates of the Earth’s brittle crust were dashing around the planet at a geologically reckless speed–as much as 8 inches per year–about five times faster than your fingernails grow (the normal speed of the tectonic plates). Partly as a result of the high rate of seafloor spreading, great quantities of magma were produced and volcanoes erupted on an unprecedented scale with astonishing intensity.  More igneous rock formed worldwide during Cretaceous time than in any other period of geologic history (except perhaps the period just after the formation of the Earth). Ash and gases erupting from the Cretaceous volcanoes seem to have created a natural “greenhouse effect” which profoundly changed the global climate. It was warm 100 million years ago, very warm.  Tropical forests grew as far north as Alaska. The arctic zones disappeared and temperate conditions at eh poles caused the icecaps to melt. Water released during this great thaw lifted the world’s oceans onto the low borderlands of all the Cretaceous continents.

On land and in the swollen seas, a riot of evolution, induced by the rapid and profound environmental changes, produced bizarre life forms: giant seagoing lizards (mosasaurs); flying reptiles the size of small jet aircraft; the horned, armored, and duck-billed types of dinosaurs (not to mention the fearsome predators, such as Tyrannosaurus, which fed on them); tree-sized ferns and other primitive plants. Finally, there is some good evidence the Cretaceous might have been punctuated, 66 million years ago, by a collision between the Earth and an asteroid, an appropriately violent end to a turbulent period. A great extinction followed this event resulting in the extinction of vast amounts of life on earth, including, the dinosaurs.  Much of that ancient history is told in the rocks and fossils of Bryce. The story is endlessly fascinating.


An inland sea divided North America east to west 90 million years ago (‘mya’). During this time sediments were deposited at the bottom of that sea, forming the oldest rocks in the park. Before the canyon was filled with hoodoos it was filled with water. I am particularly interested for some reason in the fact that much of North America was at one time split by an ocean seaway. How can that possibly be? How weird is that desert regions like the American southwest were at one time inundated by this interior seaway? This has been called the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. When this interior seaway covered much of North America, including Manitoba, coal, sandstone, and mudstone accumulated along the western edge of this seaway. If it had accumulated on the eastern edge we might be richer here in Manitoba today. What a pity. During this time what we now call the Gulf of Mexico penetrated north across the low plains of central North America and joined the waters that were advancing from the northern Arctic Ocean. This incredible seaway in time submerged the entire region where the Rocky Mountains are now found (though they were not in existence yet at that time). This great interior seaway divided North America into two island continents!

Between 55 and 40 mya years ago much of Utah was a basin of water encircled by mountains.  That seems impossible now because it is so dry. Yet for millions of years rivers deposited sediments –mainly dissolved limestone—into a system of large lakes at the top of the Plateau . 20 mya ago, as the Colorado Plateaubegan to be uplifted the lakes dried up and their mixtures of sediments became the muddy limestone that geologists now refer to as the Claron Formation. Then massive tectonic plate activity from 20 to 15 mya began to push up an incredible part of the Earth’s crust. Eventually this uplifted the region by an astonishing 2 miles, creating the 130,00 sq. mile Colorado Plateau that I have come to know a little bit and love a lot.

If one stand on the rim of one of the amphitheaters in Bryce Canyon and thinks about things like this one’s mind is expanded to near stretching limits. The world is and has been a very strange place and much of that strangeness can be detected right here at Bryce.  This ancient world has been recorded in stone. That stone of course was subject to what Decourten called “Water, wind, gravity—nature’s wrecking crew—worked in concert to efface and obscure. He also said, The erosion which removed much of the younger layers created this glorious shrine to the dynamic artistry of geologic processes. Whatever else Bryce Canyon National Park may be, it is certainly a monument to erosion.

What we saw today was the product of massive rock layers that had been uplifted and fractured over millions of years and then submitted to the relentless never-ending forces of erosion. Those forces are not at sleep today. They never sleep. What we see tomorrow will also be the product of those same forces.


I have fallen in love with geology the study of how these forces have shaped our wonderful planet.  That is to me an astonishing admission. I would never have dreamed this were possible when I was a liberal arts student as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba. I despised all science. I was enamoured of the arts and humanities. Science was irrelevant. Now I know how foolish I was. Science is critically important to understanding our world. If we understand it, even if we don’t solve all of its mysteries, we can’t help but love it and if we love it we will try to care for it. That is why science—just like arts and humanities—is vitally important.


Our next stop was one of my favourite—i.e. Natural Bridge formed through the erosion of rock by streams or rivers. This window or arch formed from a combination of processes. First, frost wedging, which is the expanding of cracks in rock as water turns to ice, weakened the rock. Then over time, dissolution occurred as a result of chemical dissolving of the rock by rainwater that cut away at the top and sides of this wall of rock. Over time the relentless force of gravity pulled loose the weakened pieces of rock at the center and that created a hole in the wall that we could clearly see and photograph today. That is why the “bridges” of Bryce Canyon, such as Natural Bridge, are spectacular examples of arches that, like the hoodoos, are constantly at risk of destruction as the never ending forces of erosion chip away at the rock. Nothing stands in the way of time. Everything changes.

Zion Canyon: And some people thought I would never make it to heaven


Last year we visited 2 of Utah’s 5 National Park. Zion Canyon lies at the heart of Zion National Park. It might be the most popular of Utah’s wonders. It certainly was on the day we visited last year, but partly that was because it was Easter and entrance to the park was free. We loved that, though we loved the crowds less.

At thee visitor center I noticed a poster with a quotation from one of my heroes–Edward Abbey.  It said, “Wilderness is not a luxury. It is one of the necessaries of life.” I agree.

We stopped at a few lookouts to take photographs of the mountains from beside the road. We were allowed to drive through the park, but to explore the canyon area we had to take the shuttle. The buses came by frequently so this was no burden. In fact it relieved us of the burden of driving. It made numerous stops and we could easily hop on the next bus. I loved the park; I loved the transportation system. It was another example of the commons!

Zion Canyon was carved by the Virgin River. That seemed impossible for it was such a gentle shallow stream, but appearances can be deceiving. Mountain streams can turn nasty during heavy rainfalls. No doubt over eons that is what carved this wondrous canyon. John Wesley Powell described this well: “All of this is the music of waters.” In a desert the great sculpting force has been water. Go figure.

The Virgin River is the driving force behind the wonders of Zion National Park.  Looking at that gentle stream this seems inconceivable, but it is true.  The flowing waters over millions of years cause the cliffs to disintegrate. When the canyons deepen forested highlands and lowland deserts are established. A wide array of plants and animals follow. The water creates green oases of lush plants in an otherwise red desert.



People have enjoyed the canyon for thousands of years. From early on people saw it as a sanctuary in the desert. The very name, “Zion” refers to the “Promised Land.” I thought that apt. And some people thought I would never make it into heaven!


It is difficult to fathom that in this desert landscape, water is the force behind everything that we see. North of Zion, rain falling in the highlands of the Colorado Plateau races downhill and carves the relatively soft layers of rock into the magnificent shapes that we saw today. Of course, that work of sculpturing is never over. Nature is never satisfied with its creation. It refines and amends relentlessly without ever stopping.

Millions of years ago streams, oceans, volcanoes, and deserts deposited thousands of feet of mud, lime, sand, and ash. The immense pressure of that pile of debris and sediment and the heat created by the accumulating layers of sediment turned lower layers into stone. Later underground geological forces raised up the Colorado Plateau creating a 130,000 sq. miles of uplifting rock 10,000 feet above sea level. Rain and the streams and rivers worked its way into the cracks in the rock, loosening grains of sand and widening those fractures especially when the water froze in those cracks and widened them by the force of its expansion as ice.  The forces of erosion created the wonderful canyons we saw today.

Of course these processes continue to this day. Rivers still deposit sediment that still turn to stone. From time to time earthquakes punctuate the Plateau’s upward journey. Erosion then continues to pry pieces of rock, some of them huge, from the cliffs.  Whether we like it or not, this canyon someday will melt it away.  Like all creations of nature it is doomed. The only constant is change.


At one of the stops of the shuttle we saw some mountain climbers climbing up what appeared to me to be a sheer cliff. I was scared just watching them.  We were told that the climb ordinarily took 2 days, but one intrepid climber had climbed solo without ropes in half a day. That man must be mad. I took a number of photographs of them and even with my 300 mm zoom lens, the climbers looked like tiny specks. One climber I realized when I saw the images on my computer was standing at the top waiting for his buddies to get up to join him.


On the way out of the park we stopped for more photographs. I never get enough in such a magnificent place.  We saw a mule deeralong the way as well as Bighorn Sheep. In fact we saw a small herd of sheep coming up and down the mountain right beside the road. I noticed that the female sheep had horns.

I took a lot of photographs today. In other words I had a fantastic time.  It was another of those days, like last year in Arches National Park, like the time we visited the Grand Canyon, like the time we visited Monument Valley, and others, where I was enthralled by the natural world around me and I tried as best as I could to capture it in photographic images. I know I am too poor a photographer to do that, but it is sure is fun trying. This was a fantastic day. It was an experience of a lifetime. It was almost heaven.


Capitol Reef National Park


Capitol Reef National Park was the 4thof the “Big 5” National Parks that we have seen.  The Park is most important geological feature is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust that extends for nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. It was created over a long period of time by 3 gradual but powerful forces: deposition, uplift, and erosion. The result is a stunning example of what geologists call a monocline, or one-sided fold in the crust of the earth in what are otherwise largely horizontal rock layers. This fold runs north and south through the Utah desert. Waterpocket foldwas form about 65 million years ago when the earth’s surface buckled upwards. This was around the time the dinosaurs went extinct.

The climate in the region changed fantastically over millions of years. During the past 280 million years ago this region changed from ocean to desert to swamp and river bed. During this time 10,000 feet of sedimentary rock consisting of limestone, sandstone, and shale was deposited.

That was followed by uplift between 50 and 70 million years ago when an ancient fault was reactivated during tectonic activity. This lifted the land to the west up by 7,000 feet higher than the land in the east. The land did not crack, rather the layers folded over the fault line. 20 million years ago it was uplifted again.

After that erosive forces shaped the landscape. Much of this sculpture work occurred between 1 and 6 million years ago. Moving water and gravity were the main erosive forces. Powerful rains, flash floods and awesome freeze/thaw cycles loosen and crack the rock after which much of it is washed away. Often this left behind stunning canyons, cliffs, domes, and natural bridges or arches made of rock.

The original European explorers thought it looked like an ocean reef and thought its white domes looked like the American capitol and hence gave it the name Capitol Reef.

People have lived here for long periods of time.  As a result the park contains Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs and a preserved Mormon homestead.

Charles Dutton the famous geologist who first scientifically explored much of the American Southwest in the 1880s described it like this, “…the light seems to flow or shine out of the rock rather than to be reflected from it.”

Grand Canyon


There is no doubt that the Grand Canyon is exactly that—grand.  That word is used too often to describe features that are far from grand. But in this case the description not only fits—it is an understatement.  As Heidinger said, “Some of nature’s finest work is here on display, created by her artists: water, wind, and time.”


John Muir, one of my heroes, said that this about the Grand Canyon


“It seems a gigantic statement for even nature to make, all in one mighty stone word, apprehended at once like a burst of light…coming in glory to mind and heart as to a home prepared for its from the very beginning.

Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size.  Not even from high mountains does the world seem so wide, so like a star in the glory of light on its way through the heavens.

…Here, for a few moments at least, there is silence, and all are in dead earnest, as if awed and hushed by an earthquake.”

President Theodore Roosevelt said that it was “the one great sight which every American should see.” Elizabeth Browning’s brief but profound remark, “Earth is crammed with heavens.”


Each year I have gone to Arizona I have tried to learn a little more about geology. There is no better place to learn about geology. The Grand Canyon is that deep gash  which an  early runner of the river called a “dark and mysterious cleaving, actually stretches from 600 feet to 18 miles depending on where you find yourself.  And that gash exposes nearly two billion years of the earth’s history visible in its distinct layers.   Juanita Brookes quipped about the gash, “What God hath put asunder let no man join together.” The natural forces of running water, heat, frost, gravity, abrasion,upliftand faulting all worked together at different times to carve this astounding chasm.  As one looks down into that canyon one looks at nearly 2 billion years of the earth’s history written out in a colorful palette of different colors each representing a different age. John Muir called it a“grand geological library, a collection of stone bookscovering … tier on tier conveniently arranged for the student.”

Its “layer cake geology” reveals years of stratified rock in chronological sequence. The younger rocks are above and the older ones lower. In the upper layers one can find evidence of ancient rich marine life.  Deeper and hence older layers of Vishnu Shist do not reveal any former life at all. Marine deposits were laid down over 45 million years ago when a clear sea formed resistant Redwall limestone . Muav limestone in front of the redwall formed in shallower seas and late eroded in gentle patterns of cliff and shapes and ledges.

At the bottom of the canyon there are remnants of Precambrian rocks that are nearly 2 billion years old. The processes that triggered the immense canyon started about 1.68 to 1.840 billion years ago. At that time enormous continental tectonic plates moved slowly across the surface of the earth. Then a plate that carried island arcs and the plate that became North America collided. Heat and pressure from this process changed the existing rocks into dark metamorphic rock that can now be seen in the basement of the canyon. The oldest rocks are at the bottom.Molten rock then squeezed into cracks and hardened as light bands of granite.


About 70 million years ago the Rocky Mountains began to form, and the Colorado Plateau rose up as the North American plate pushed up the Rockies Mountains and the plateau when that plate overrode the Pacific Plate underneath it.  In the process a large part of what is now Utah, northern Arizona, western Colorado and a corner of northwestern New Mexico slowly rose up from the sea level to elevations of thousands of feet. The Plateau is about 130,000 sq. miles in size. That is how the ocean floor close to modern day California ended up so high!  These powerful geological forces created both the Rockies and the Colorado Plateau. This was how the Colorado Plateau was created. This rising up occurred with very little tilting or deformation of the sedimentary layers.

But the sculpting of this natural work of art was not done. After that the Grand Canyon was carved. About 5 or 6 million years ago, the Colorado Riverflowed across the Colorado Plateau on its way to the Rocky Mountains and ultimately to the Gulf of California. Each rain washed sparsely vegetated desert soils into the river. There was little to hold the soil together. A steep gradient and heavy sediment loads created a powerful tool for erosion.

The process of erosion was assisted by rain, snowmelt, and tributary streams that entered the canyon throughout its length. Windwas also influential. That wind has been called the greatest sandblasting machine on earth. The volume of the Colorado River varied greatly from year to year. When the last Ice Age ended some 12,000 years ago, the Colorado River may have had a flow 10 times what it is today! As the river cut down into the canyon the canyon deepened.

The fact is of course that the rocks of the Grand Canyon are not unique, but the clarity of the exposure geological record is unique. So it possible to read that history in the rocks. It was a fantastic example of what Chris and first heard in Grosse Morne National Park in Newfoundland—there is a lot of history to be learned from rocks.  As my guidebook said,

“Grand Canyon’s mulitcolored layers of rock provide the best record of the Earth’s formation of anywhere in the world.  Each stratum of rock reveals a different period in the Earth’s geological historybeginning with the earliest, the Precambrian Era which covers geological time up to 570 million years ago. Almost 2 billion years of history have been recorded in the canyon, although the most dramatic changes took place relatively recently, five to six million years ago,when the Colorado River began to carve its path through the canyon walls. The sloping nature of the Kaibab Plateau has led to increased erosion in some parts of the canyon.”


Ultimately that is what the Grand Canyon experience is all about—an appreciation of immense amounts of time. Geology is the science that deals with immense time. James Hutton considered by some to be the founder of modern geology wrote a grand opus on the topic. His main theses were very controversial at the time, though they are universally accepted now. The first was that the Earth’s surface is constantly being eroded by water, ice, wind which together grind old rock rock into smaller chunks, pebbles and fine sediment.  These are then carried down stream by rivers and eventually are deposited in the bottom of the sea.  Then those sea bottoms are transmogrified slowly by pressure and heat from below and then become stratified into layers of new rock. That heat also causes uplift of those strata and of the magmas of molten rock beneath them that eventually form jagged mountains, domed plateaus, and grantic knobs, great rifts, warpings, and exposures and juxtapositions of variously tilted strata. Those of course are then eroded all over again.  As David Quammen explained it,


“in short, mountains become silt which becomes sedimentary rock which becomes mountains, with erosian driving the process from above and subeterranean heat driving it from below,in a repeating cyclethat seems to go on indefinately, ‘showing no vestigage of beginning,–no prospect of an end.’

As John Muir said, the world, though made, is yet being made.  That this is still the morning of creation.  That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes. ”

He also said,

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul and alike.”


After all, J.B. Priestly had said this about the Grand Canyon in Harper’s Magazine,

“There is of course no sense at all in tyring to describe the Grand Canyon.  Those who have not seen it will not believe any possible description. Those who have seen it know that it cannot be described… It is not a show place, a beauty spot, but a revelation.  The Colorado River made it; but you feel when you are there that God gave the Colorado River its instructionsThe thing is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in stone and magic light.   I heard rumors of visitors who were disappointed. The same people will be disappointed at the Day of Judgment.”





There are many spectacular places in Arizona.Sedona is certainly one of them. Chris and I have been here many  times. This year we actually did not go there. These photos are from previous years.

One of the most photographed places in Arizona is Cathedral Rock. It is spectacular.



This is a panorama taken from above the city by the airport where there are great views.Every where you look there is spectacular scenery.


It does not matter how often I go to Sedona. I never get enough of it.


This is called Bell Rock.


Another view of Cathedral Rock