The sun grazes the tops of the canyon walls as the songbirds sing and the clouds disappear. The air is cool and the breeze light. It is morning within the canyon. Today is our third layover day along the Dirty Devil, a winding silt-filled river flowing from up past Hanksville, UT, southeast down to the Colorado River. We have reached the halfway point of our twelve day backpacking trip, four days of which are dedicated to staying in camp and learning not only about the living communities around us, but about the history of our surroundings along a geologic timescale.
We wake for the day, eager to begin class and exploration. But first, oatmeal. We fill our bellies with oatmeal, coffee, and tea, and then gather the group to set out across the Dirty Devil from our canyon campsite to a more open terrace. Katie, our instructor, asks us to look around upon crossing and find “something special.” About five minutes later that something was found, and boy was it special. Dinosaur tracks! These tracks, found by a Wild Rockies Field Institute student a few years ago, have since been studied by paleontologists and students alike. The tracks were fossilized in the uppermost level of the Chinle formation, a sedimentary rock layer formed in the Triassic period about 245-286 million years ago. After assessing the tracks and theorizing what type of dinosaur they could belong to and the environment in which they lived, it was revealed to us that these footprints belong to that of a Grallator, a predatory bipedal dinosaur resembling a modern day turkey. About 250 million years ago, a group of Grallators were running around in the mud near a shoreline that no longer exists. The tracks were overlaid with sand, which formed sandstone millions of years after that, which then waited millions more years for us to find it!
We spent the rest of the morning discussing the tracks and speculating about what life must have been like so long ago. In an effort to understand this, it required a conversation about deep time, and the defining characteristics of geologic eras and how they apply to our surrounding environment. This concept of deep time remains abstract and somewhat foreign to me. It is hard to conceptualize a time scale so grand when our own personal lives are barely a percentage of that. But here along Dirty Devil we have been able to give these abstract ideas much thought: not only do we discuss them in class, but we have long days of walking to ponder. Much of our hiking in this section happens within the Dirty Devil river itself, where the sandy bottom and occasional pull of quicksand force us to slow our pace, allowing us even more time to think and reflect.
Within our time along the Dirty Devil we have familiarized ourselves with each of the present sedimentary rock formations, what they look like, how they were formed, and how they have been shaped. Each day we hike, we occasionally pause to study new layers, analyzing how the light reflects differently from one layer to another, how the sun highlights its many features at different times of the day, and how putting our noses to the wall to examine its grains can give us insight to their relationship with the greater landscape. Taking this time to slow down and learn makes conceptualizing abstract ideas all the more accessible. We have quickly come to understand that this land has lots to teach us, and we are lucky to have the time to immerse ourselves, savoring every moment. Our pace may feel as slow as the formation of a new rock layer at times, but our learning is constant and continually growing.
As our day comes to a close we share our final thoughts, curiosities and stories. We tuck in for bed and watch the moon rise. Nighttime in the canyon brings starry skies and heavy eyes. I lay in my sleeping bag reflecting on the day and our time along the river, and I realize that the landscape and the rocks have stories too, and we have been lucky enough to start hearing them.