Sunday, November 15, 2015

Descent Into The Underworld

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Natural Entrance to the Carlsbad Cavern Bat Cave
Take a leisurely but steep stroll eighty stories under the earth and experience the majesty of the netherworld know as Carlsbad Caverns. Located outside Whites City this famous national park is a spelunker's dream to explore. The photo above is one of 119 known cave entrances in the park. Shown is the walk-in natural entrance descending over 1,600 feet to over thirty miles of interconnected caves formed in the limestone mesa towering above Whites City and the nearby city of Carlsbad, NM. This is the nation's deepest and and its third longest.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of at least ten national parks or monuments in the US that contain explorable cave geology:

I've been in lots of caves before but this park astounded me with its variety and the cave's intricate and delicate decorations. From enormous flowing stone columns to elaborate forests of spindly stone branches to the most delicate and graceful chandeliers of exquisitely shaped crystal-like spears held fast to the ever changing ceiling of enormous caverns. And then there were the reflective mirror pools formed over centuries from tiny mineral laced water droplets.

"The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time."   - Henry David Thoreau
Shark Mouth Feature
And there was life in the darkness: nearly a thousand species of small organisms, large colonies of cave swallows and up to a half-million Brazilian (Mexican) Free-tailed bats. There are sixteen varieties of bats that call Carlsbad their summer home. Their numbers were down during my November visit because most migrate south to Mexico and beyond for the winter.
Natural Entrance Amphitheater

Some, however, linger here year round. Near sunset human visitors can sit in the Natural Entrance amphitheater and watch the silent and graceful swarms of bats exit the cave in a beautiful and mesmerizing cyclone of life. The experience is nothing like the wild fury of bats portrayed in movies (e.g. Batman Begins). They spiral from the cave in graceful, measured spirals. Silhouetted against the evening sky one can barely imagine that this event has been repeating itself daily for millennia.


There are more than 100 entrances to caverns in the park. I spent two days in the bat cave bowels in a reverent state where I was awed by the beauty and complexity of everything I saw. On the first day I took about four hours to walk into the Bat Cave to reach the beginning of El Salon del Gigantes (The Big Room) to see a cavern that could hold three football fields containing thousands of natural wonders.

Throughout the journey no headlamps or flashlights are required as the pathway is gently lit by artificial lights. Originally designed by a Hollywood lighting specialist the accent lighting surely deserves an Oscar for lighting design.

The route is 100% on a hard surface that provided excellent traction in humid environs of the cave. This is so unlike the early days of the caves operation without elevators when visitors were lowered in buckets that doubled as hoppers for hauling out enormous quantities of bat guano for local agricultural use.

At the start of my visit the elevator that carries visitors down to the bottom had just broken. It got stuck in emergency brake mode and in recovering normal use the large motor burned out. As a result everyone had to both walk down and back out on the steep path of the cave. All the ranger led cave tours were cancelled and everyone received free admission to the cave if they could walk in and out. This no small feat for mere mortals.

There were lots of generous and dedicated parents hauling complaining children back up the 800+ feet to the main level. I counted over 80 steep switchbacks on the route.












































On my second trip a week later the elevator was still not back in operation and I couldn't take any of the six National Park Service ranger guided tours. I wanted to take the Left Hand Tunnel Tour, an historic candle-lit lantern tour through an undeveloped section of the cave on unpaved trails.

Despite the cancellation, the Big Room holds enough splendors to satisfy any visitor.  Shared here are some of the highlights of my stroll through the room.



The Lion's Tail


The Chandelier 
Path Near the Bat Cave Elevators



I highly recommend that Carlsbad Caverns National Park appear somewhere near the top of your must visit travel list.
One Happy Old Geezer Spelunker

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Smokey Gets In Your Eyes

Smokey Gets In My Eyes
I'm on a circuitous route to my next Habitat For Humanity house builds in Hobbs, NM. From Alamogordo I bypassed some mountain passes in my RV to get to New Mexico's Smokey Bear Historic Park in Capitan.  Like Disney's Bambi and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Smokey The Bear was a fixture of my youth. I loved them both.

From the backseat of the family station wagon travelling in Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Michigan whenever I saw a live white-tailed deer along the road (there were plenty of dead ones too) I'd squeal "Rudy, Rudy, Rudy!" (Not to be confused with Rudolph Valentino that was also a movie favorite.)

Bambi, the movie, was produced in 1942 and had eight years to infuse the culture before I was born into its place in history. Like Smokey, Bambi played an important role in educating the public about preventing forest fires.

In that period it was not uncommon to see white-tailed deer and black bears either in the local county dump (well before landfills became the dump du jour) or in cages at roadside tourist spots. "Take your Picture With Bambi" or "Feed The Wild Bear" the signs would shout. I probably didn't associate the real Smokey with living in a cage despite the fact that Smokey spent all his 26 years in a cage at The National Zoo in Washington, DC.


At the roadside stops one could buy a bottle of sweet soda pop and feed the depressed bear ensconced safely inside a chain link fence. It's terribly disheartening to think about now, but to a child it was thrilling and astounding to be that close to a wild creature. As an adult I'm saddened by the loss of innocence. That tear in my eye isn't from smoke. That feeling is probably why some fifty years later I volunteered at the Vince Shute Black Bear Sanctuary in Orr, MN. But, I certainly do digress, don't I? I blog about more bears later.

Boy Scout Fire Prevention Poster
Smokey The Bear was and still is an important part of twentieth century lore. He pulled at the emotional heart strings of America in the 1940s and 50s.

Wartime Poster
He became part of the war effort in 1942, was a central theme of the Boy Scouts of America in their conservation activities, and helped start the wildland conservation movement we witness today.

The Smokey’s Museum opened in Capitan, New Mexico in 1961. The museum is housed in a rustic one room cabin full of Smokey The Bear memorabilia, photos, and posters that chronicle the influence of Smokey The Bear on preventing forest fires.

Smokey at Age 8 in
The National Zoo
"The Museum is located a 102 Smokey Bear Blvd, on the north side of State Highway 380, just west of the intersection with State Highway 48, and just east of the Smokey Bear Historical Park."

Want to know more about Smokey? Please visit the museum or this historical outline website.
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Smokey's Timeline

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Prehistoric Trackways National Monument

Continuing My Journey South Along the Rio Grande Rift


In September I wrote about Petroglyph National Monument and the Rio Grande Rift along which the City of Albuquerque is built. The rift was created between 29 and 35 million years ago and extends from Colorado to Texas.

While volunteering in Las Cruces at Habitat For Humanity I took a short trip to the western outskirts of town to visit Prehistoric Trackways National Monument managed not by the National Park Service (NPS), but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In as separate blog I write about the eastern outskirts of Las Cruces.

If you like identifying and following game tracks in the woods, then this is your dream destination because of the huge number of visible tracks exposed on the ground of the monument. What kinds of tracks are viewable? How about primitive scorpions, giant centipedes, millipedes, worms, horseshoe crabs, flying insects, an assortment of crawling bugs and beetles, shrimp, jellyfish, sea anemone, brachiopods, salamanders, and assorted other amphibians?

Prehistoric Trackways National Monument was established only this decade by Congress on March 30, 2009.

In cooperation with Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History citizen scientist Jerry MacDonald extracted 2,500 slabs of dinosaur trackways within the monument and they are now on display in the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Las Cruces.

The video I've included below is a great primer on the Rio Grande Rift and its role in presenting us with the massive collection of tracks from the Early Permian Period, which was the last period of the Paleozoic Era. Recall that the Permian Period ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth's history, in which nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of land dwelling creatures disappeared. During this period, all the Earth's major land masses were collected into a single supercontinent known as Pangaea.


My biggest complaint about this 5200 acre monument is the lack information about how to access the area with most of the tracks. Entrance signage to the parking areas is lacking and the gravel access roads way into the sites require a four high-wheeled vehicle or a long hike in an unmapped area. Its best to call the HQ office a 575-525-4300 for directions and guidance.

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Deadly Dunes in the Serene Desert

White Sands National Monument


During the 1950s I developed along with many other children a fascination with early space exploration. As such, the science history of the period interests me. In addition, during the forty plus years since my first wife informed me that she spent her junior high school years in the White Sands Missile Range region where her father served I've wanted to visit the awesome White Sands National Monument, in part, because of its nearby rocket and atomic bomb development history, and because of the rare gypsum sand (think gazillions of white toy sand box sand bags) deposits found there

The missile base is the birthplace of US rocket programs and the national monument is totally surrounded by the missile range. Access to the monument is closed for a few hours during each of the 800+ missile tests conducted each year.

The infamous Trinity Atomic Bomb Site is located 70 miles north of the monument and is only open to the public twice per year. How fitting is it that the Trinity Site is located in a place the Spanish settlers originally named Jornada del Muerto — the Journey of the Dead? First hand observers descriptions of this explosion and its impacts (pun intended) on the local environment are recorded here..

SE New Mexico 
White Sands National Monument is perhaps more famous for its 275 sq, miles of tall gypsum sand dunes. It has been a destination for tourists since it was established in 1933. That was well before creation of the rocket and atomic bomb programs associated with the region.

Chihuahuan Desert
Very Large Array

The nearest town is Alamogordo, NM which is where I stayed for a couple of weeks between Habitat For Humanity Builds. Nearby attractions include the New Mexico Museum of Space History and the Lincoln National Forest.

Nearer to Albuquerque is the Very Large Array (VLA) astronomical radio observatory that is famous for its 27, 82 ft. wide receiver dishes. The biggest employer is Holloman Air Force Base which is home to the F-16 fighter jet.

I was fascinated to learn that White Sands has a sister national park in Mexico, Cuatro Ciénegas. Both are located in the Chihuahuan Desert, and don't just blow away as one might expect because they are nearly 100% humid beneath the surface. This moisture along with plant life bonds the small gypsum crystals creating resistance to wind erosion. Most of the dunes I walked on were quite stable except for the leeward side of steep dunes. So stable were dunes that visitors etched albeit temporary signs on to their sides.


The monument is literally blinding beautiful and blisteringly dangerous. Hiking options are strenuous and have been known to kill underprepared hikers. Yet, the dunes serve as a playhouse for hikers, geologists, sand surfers, balloonists, desert explorers and photographers.

Earless Lizard 
Amazingly resilient species survive the extreme environment of the constantly shifting dunes.

Plants, animals (especially lizards) and even fish are able to adapt to wild swings of temperature, moisture and salinity. The plants help shape the windblown dunes.


This most excellent, hour-long video, White Sands, White Wilderness: A Visual Exploration of the World's Largest Gypsum Dunes, superbly documents some of the wonders of the dunes.



This aerial map demonstrates how the water and wind-based erosion from the San Andreas Mountains to the west has contributed to the creation of sand within the monument.

Unending Variety of Dune Formations Yet Based on Six Styles:
Dome, Balchan, Reversing, Transverse, Star, and Parabolic



As long as one can tolerate the swings in temperature, visitors could take a couple days to fully explore the wonders of this national treasure. I took the five mile morning hike out to Alkali Flats to take the photos shown in this blog. The loop trail is well marked so you can venture off trail without getting lost if you stay within the loop. Doing so you'll be able to see the infinite variety of dune formations from different perspectives.

If your goal is to go sledding in the desert you can rent or buy ($$) plastic sleds in the gift shop.
Alkali Flats East of the San Andreas Mountains

BTW, you will get sand in your shoes and every other piece of clothing and equipment you have with you, especially if the wind is blowing. Take plenty of water and apply sunscreen. You can get a great tan or sunburn depending upon your preparedness.

Old Geezer in the Desert