Hike to bring geology alive


In one direction, you can see land that the dinosaurs once trod. In another, peaks stand where super-volcanoes spewed lava sky-high.

And under your feet? Basalt and ash from those volcanoes, along with sediment and boulders laid down by ancient rivers.

Geologist and author Paul Bauer will help make those long-ago events come alive in a hike up Shadow Mountain on Black Mesa on June 2. Combined with an afternoon barbecue, the event is a fund-raiser for Earthwise Learning, a relatively new nonprofit group that offers nature-based learning programs for young people – and adults – about 10 miles south of Ojo Caliente.

The cost? Give what you can, said Dave Wassil, who founded the nonprofit with his partner, Glenna Gerard. “I’m not going to turn someone away,” he said.

Earthwise Learning — it was granted its official nonprofit status last November – was born after the pair finished building and settled into their straw-bale, passive solar home on more than 100 acres they own along the Ojo Rio Caliente called Paseo del Ojo.

“Glenna and I were wondering in the last few years how we could create a better sense of community, and how we could do that with our property,” said Wassil, who retired after decades as a river rafting guide. Gerard is a private consultant who conducts productivity workshops for companies and takes people on self-discovery journeys, he said.

They incorporated Earthwise Learning in February 2011 and have offered several programs since then. The first project, Wassil said, was a weeklong day camp last July for children 8-11 years old. Activities included building a small boat out of plastic bottles, constructing a solar oven and cooking lunch in it, making something out of clay and firing it in a small adobe kiln, and walking into the badlands to learn about plants and animals there, he said.

Three different weeklong day camps are scheduled for this July. Groundwork is also being laid to recruit older teens as paid counselors, he said.

Field trip programs also have been offered to children from local schools, as well as those who are home-schooled, with similar activities.

A $1,500 grant from Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation’s STEM program helped Earthwise set up a bosque monitoring program along the Rio Ojo Caliente, modeled after one set up along the Rio Grande by Albuquerque’s Bosque School with the University of New Mexico.

“We’re teaching kids about the scientific method and the skills needed to collect data,” Wassil said. Monitors are set up to record river temperature, measure rainfall and humidity, record tracks and animal signs, and track the type of insects caught in a trap, he said. The data will be displayed on the nonprofit’s website for anyone to use to analyze trends in the bosque, he said.

Wassil said he also built a trail on their land up Shadow Mountain, 1,000 vertical feet to the top. “It was a pretty demanding trail – I made it a little easier,” he said of his work.

That’s where Bauer will take guests on a geological hike June 2. Associate director and principal geologist of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, Bauer has written “The Rio Grande: A River Guide to the Geology and Landscapes of Northern New Mexico.”

Hikers on the trail, he said, will be walking on fairly young sediment washed down by the river in the last few tens of millions of years – not that long in geologic time – that fill the Rio Grande Rift. The mesa top itself, he said, is covered with basalt that flowed from a volcano farther north about 3 million years ago.

The sediment underfoot could range from silt and clay to boulders, containing many quartz grains and pebbles and cobbles that eroded off nearby mountains, Bauer said. Basalt and rhyolite make up some of the volcanic rocks.

Walking up the slope, hikers will see whitish layers of rock, which are made up of volcanic ash, some of it laid down by supervolcanoes in the San Juan Mountains 20 to 30 million years ago, and more recent ash from volcanoes in the Jemez Mountains, he said.

“The next big geologic feature to the west is the Colorado Plateau – the high area with all the red rocks,” he said of looking out toward the Abiquiu area. That is a continental feature laid down during the Mesozoic era, which covered the time 65 to 250 million years ago. That’s also the time when dinosaurs were walking the earth and many modern mammals and birds, flowering plants and insects were developing, Bauer said.

The rock was formed by rivers and streams dropping sediment, large lakes, and the repeated retreat and advance of a sea that covered parts of New Mexico, he said. And the red color of the rocks in that area, he said, comes from iron oxide. “The rocks have rusted,” he said.

And looking a little northward, hikers might see the Chuska Mountains, some of the oldest rocks in the area at close to 2 billion years old, according to Bauer.

All that history can be seen in the land, which continues to reshape itself. And while everything high keeps getting eroded down, new heights can form through volcanoes and uplift.

“There have been more than 700 volcanic eruptions in New Mexico in the last 5 million years,” he said.