An Accidental Miocene Safari

By | April 25, 2012 at 7:37 pm | No comments

Photo by samutahjazz via flickr

In the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington State there are a chain of lakes that gather winter storm water like mega-puddles, and then spend the summer evaporating in the thick heat of desert coulees. One of these lakes is called Blue Lake, which in the summer feels like the comfortable confinement of the terrarium of some cherished reptile. The seasonal occupants of this habitat are inclined to bar-b-q, boat, swim, cultivate sun burned skin, drink cheap beer, and sit at a distance from unnecessarily large bonfires. These avid “recreationalists” aren’t, generally speaking, avid naturalists. However, an individual that explores beyond the small beach and picnic tables of the main resort will find an understated wilderness where the splintering heat batters the new sprout in favor of, that which is, hard and ancient.

The best way to venture beyond the campground, in my opinion, is over water in un-motorized craft utilizing the resistance of liquid against wood to move your boat forward. Seconds off the beach a paddler may find himself on clear green water, watching reflected sunlight waver across the hexagonal geometry of basalt cliffs like sheets of twisted gold paper spinning in a hot updraft. These walls are uniformly dark except for radioactive green and rust splotches of lichen, and the white patina of accumulated excretion found below long occupied birds’ nests. One is forced to squint into the heat waves that wash over the expanse of broken rock and withered grass that surround Blue Lake. Thoughts of exploring the desert beyond the cool edge of the shoreline can be brutally cooked out of the brain, comfort returning only after a critical plunge into the jade water.

The human will overcomes heat, this has been demonstrated innumerable times. Few things inspire the human will like the idea of making a unique discovery. On a summer day at Blue Lake I was given such an idea by a group of non-descript middle-aged men that happened to arrive at the boat launch at the same time as my wife and I, ready to launch their canoes just as we were. This group was excited and boisterous as they unloaded life-jackets, backpacks, paddles, and the other assorted gear of a day hike in the desert. One of the men noticed my wife and I preparing similarly.

“Are you guys going to see the Blue Lake Rhino?” one asked.

“No,” I replied, “just out canoeing. Wait, what rhino?”

“The Blue Lake Rhino!” answered another member of the group.

“What is that?” my wife asked laughing. We were completely out of the loop.

“Oh you gotta come see it. There is supposed to be a rhino fossil in the cliffs around the bend in the lake,” the first man answered. “That’s where we’re heading.” My wife and I looked at each other and decided with a glance that our leisurely paddle had just acquired a definite goal: find the Blue Lake Rhino if it existed. We put our canoe in next to the small flotilla generated by the group of 8 men, and we all set out together, happy to be dipping a paddle under a clear sky.

“So I guess these cliffs are lava beds,” offered another gentleman from our group of companions. “And then some very large floods came through and carved these canyons out of the lava. I can’t really imagine how that could be possible. The rhino fossil is exposed in the cliff face. That’s what we read anyway”

My wife smiled proudly. “He’s a geologist and a hydrologist,” she said gesturing to me with her chin. “He would just love to tell you all about it.” The truth is a geologist would love to tell you all about it; any chance to talk geology is not passed up. I happily rattled on about eruptions and vast lava flows, ice ages, extinct lakes, and earth ripping floods. I was really just getting warmed up to my subject, remembering obscure facts, when our canoe suddenly nosed onto a beach. The rest of the boats glided to a crunching stop on the gravel and we all disembarked.

“It’s somewhere up there,” one of our cohorts pointed to the horizontally banded cliffs to our right. There was an obvious trail heading off from the beach and leading to the base of the cliffs, up a cone of scree, and onto a bench about halfway up. Every eye traced this route expecting it to terminate at the Blue Lake Rhino. We were all looking for a small cave according to the description that our new friends had received. There wasn’t anything obvious. We all strained in silence to spot what could possibly be a small cave that would house a rhino fossil.

“Hmmmm, could that be it?” someone pointed to the cliff face another 100 ft above the bench where the rest of us had been focusing, the place where the obvious trail ended. The pointed finger of our observant friend guided our eyes to a large letter ‘R’ scrawled on the cliff in faded white graffiti, with an arrow pointing left along a ledge in the cliff face. Following that line we all saw two small holes in the rock. There was a good chuckle at this, both at the convenience of the direction, and at the understanding that it invasively defeated the purpose of our search. We grabbed our water bottles, head lamps, and cameras and headed toward the cliff.

The climb was not friendly. The rock was sharp and loose, and once some altitude had been gained the consequences of a missed step or slip became somewhat life threatening. We lost several of our group along the way as wisdom and better judgment cautioned them to turn back. The casualties urged us to go ahead, saying that someone had to confirm the existence of the rhino. Onward we went.

Mid-way up the face of the 200 ft cliff with little more than a 3 ft ledge to stand on, a handful of us stood looking up at a shoulder width hole in the cliff just above our heads. The excitement of the group was hushed as we took turns climbing the last few vertical feet and squeezing through the opening, each finding the Blue Lake Rhino in his turn. What we found wasn’t a typical fossil such as one would imagine with bone turned to stone. It was a cast, the negative space describing the absence of a rhino body that had been buried and then decayed long ago.
This animal met its fiery doom during a Vulcan rampage that erected the cliffs surrounding Blue Lake. This was the Eocene era, some 17 million years ago, when lava flows enveloped tens of thousands of square miles of what are now Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. There were many eruptions during this time that poured out in layers and stacked one upon the other. Enough time would pass between flows so that a mature landscape would evolve on top of the long-cooled magma. There would likely have been streams, lakes, wetlands, forests, grasslands, and the entire assemblage of creatures that lived in these environments. Whatever was occupying the surface of the last lava flow, such as a hapless rhinoceros grazing in a wet meadow, would be subsequently buried by the next.

Our small group took turns ascending into the cave and investigating the fossil. Each of us came out with a new clue or insight, another piece of evidence in the rhino puzzle. We even found a small geo-cache hidden behind a rock with perhaps 100 hand-written notes from geology classes, or random searchers who came to find the rhino. Many had come all the way and left notes describing their failure to find the cave. This made us all feel a little loftier in our accomplishment. After spotting the last person up into and out of the rhino cast, we started down the slope. Descending the slippery talus became the most difficult portion of the whole trip. An extremely necessary plunge in the lake ended the climb down. It turned out to be an interesting and unexpected visit to a unique geologic feature nestled within an equally unique landscape.

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