Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Lovely Rocks!

It's becoming a bit of a family joke now, particularly after our epic, life changing trip to Grand Canyon. As my step daughter 'Splodge' commented after my last blog (see below), my love of rocks is a well established fact. Only last weekend, my mother commented to Rufus, "oh, he likes his rocks, doesn't he"? This was after I was telling her the age of my favourite rock sample, a piece - well, actually more of a slab, of mica schist from the Scottish highlands. Now, there's a story to this piece of rock.

Let me explain.....

Let me take you way back to the summer of 1976, in that long forgotten era when summers were long, warm and sunny! Yeah, you remember, that big bright shiney thing that we used to see in the sky every now and again? No? Oh well, don't despair! Anyway, this particular summer my mother and father decided on a family summer holiday to Scotland, which invariably isn't the wisest choice if one is hoping to experience a prolonged period of sunshine. If I rightly recall, my younger sister, being a bit of a 'sun-worshipper', wasn't best pleased with the choice of destination, but for me, even at the tender age of 16, I was more than happy to make do with countryside, forests, hills and ...... ROCKS! Add to that plenty of walking and I reckon you've got the perfect holiday, even when it's with your parents!

This year though turned out to be exceptional. It wasn't just warm, it was hot - damned hot! It was one of those 'hottest since records began' sort of summers and for Scotland was quite unprecedented. On one particular day my father took us on one of his now legendary walks. I must emphasise, they were legendary for all the wrong reasons! You see, my father had the map and chose the route but somehow 'scale' didn't seem to register. More often than not, after what seemed like hours of aimless trudging, one of us would dare to ask "so how far is the car park then?" to which the reply would be "it's just round the next bend, not far."

Bless him! In fairness, they were invariably cracking walks.

Anyway, on this particular walk in the highlands I was to stumble upon a nice shiney rock, glistening at me in the summer sunshine. I can't even remember exactly where we were other than to say it was somewhere in the vicinity of Ben Nevis, but there on the ground, was this....

On closer inspection the rock contained numerous small flakey minerals on the surface and was made up of crystals in striped bands. Being the curious type, I just couldn't leave this rock behind until I found out what it was. The only way to do that would be to take it with me, back to the car and then home. That seemed like a reasonable idea, but what I failed to consider was the effect that such a great slab of rock would have on my puny teenage wrists!

But, get it home I did and I then set about the task of identifying the great lump! This however, was not an easy thing to do. When attempting to identify birds for example, it seems that so many of them fall into that miscellaneous category 'little browny-grey bird'. Rocks are similarly difficult to identify, especially if you know nowt about them and have no idea what to look for. Enter my 'big brother' who had I think by this stage embarked on an 'A' level in Geology, so knew a bit about the subject."Oh that's mica schist", he proclaimed confidently." You see all the shiney bits? They flake off in thin layers."

They did too and he was right as it turned out. The more one looks at this piece of rock, the more fascinating it becomes. As well as the mica, the crystals beneath are laid out in stripes and the whole slab curves in a gentle 'S' shape. Add to that some rust coloured areas on the rear, (which I presume is exactly that, iron oxide?) and it makes for the most exciting lump of rock I've ever seen. After being in the care of my mother for the last 19 years, my chunk of Scottish schist has been reclaimed and is currently sitting on the television stand where our huge widescreen telly used to be before it conked out last week!

Now this is the point when my eldest step daughter gives me that 'look' that says "you are so SAD"! Well, maybe it is a little, but when I look at that piece of rock I see about 500 million years of history before my eyes. I wonder what the world was like back then, when the sediments were originally laid down and what happened 100 million years later when the original rock was metamorphosed to become the schist that it is now!

You see, that's where the fascination lies. It's not just the lump of rock, it's the history story, the complex puzzle and the inevitable questions that mount up as you try to make sense of what lies in front of you. That's what happens when I look at my lump of schist and that's what happened when I visited Grand Canyon. And that my friends, is why I HAVE to study geology. Educational inadequacies (both my own AND my school) were responsible back in 1978 for my working life following a completely different path to the one I ideally wanted, but there comes a time in ones life when those dreams need to be fulfilled. Studying geology has been a dream of mine for longer than I care to remember. It simply has to be eventually and with the support of my wonderful wife, it will be in the not too distant future.

Cheers for now!


Thursday, 3 July 2008

Holiday in Paradise!

In my 'debut' blog last week, I did promise not to make every blog of mine a collection of moans and grumbles at life's injustices. As therapeutic as that may be for me, it will almost certainly make for a very dull read for anyone else. That is assuming of course, that anyone else does indeed read this stuff! Doubtless I will need to get things off my chest - I'm long overdue a rant about the abominable treatment of 'Nellie' (my 1964 Morris Minor!) and I by other road users! Arrrrrrgghh!

Don't get me started! I'll save that for another time.

So, to try and enlighten you all as to what sort of things, other than my dear wife, make me squeal with joy, or at least say "Wow!", take a look at this......

The magnificent Grand Canyon - awesome or what?
(Photo by Splodge during tour by Papillon Helicopters)

Firstly, here's a few facts about Grand Canyon, taken from one of the best books covering the geology of the region: 'Carving Grand Canyon' by Wayne Ranney:- Grand Canyon is...

  • 277 miles long

  • on average 10 miles wide and 18 miles wide at its widest

  • on average 5,280 feet deep and 6,000 feet deep at its deepest

  • 7, 000 feet above sea level at the South Rim & 8,200 feet at the North Rim

  • and finally about 4.5 million people visit Grand Canyon each year!

Nothing, but nothing could ever prepare you for the emotional impact when you first set eyes on Grand Canyon. One of the seven natural wonders of the world, its awesome beauty is well documented, but it is the sheer scale that staggers the mind. 277 long miles long is about the same as the distance between Kendal and London roughly. So look at the above photo and try to envisage 277 miles of similar geological features!

If you are visiting Grand Canyon and want to get a handle on the sheer scale of this phenomenal natural wonder, a helicopter tour is I think essential. My family and I went with Papillon Helicopters who were quite excellent. There are many such tour operators offering tours of varying lengths and costs, but whatever your budget, just do it. You will not regret it!

It is said by many that to appreciate Grand Canyon at it's finest one needs to get up good and early and wait for sunrise. We did this twice and it was well worth the effort. Dawn temperatures in March are a little chilly, but a small price to pay given the spendour that unfolds before your eyes. As the sun slowly creeps over the rim, small patches of canyon wall begin to catch the light and the whole canyon magically comes alive.....

Grand Canyon South Rim at dawn, from outside Bright Angel Lodge.

(Photo by Grumpychops)

Now here's a staggering thought - 1.8 billion years of earth history is represented by the rocks exposed in Grand Canyon, the oldest being the vishnu schist at the bottom of the Canyon while the youngest rocks present are the Kaibab limestone at the top at a mere 255 million years old. The layers inbetween tell one of the most complete geological history stories on earth.

Even so, if you were to ask the simple question, 'How was Grand Canyon formed?' the only response to which all geologists will agree upon is that the Colorado River carved the canyon. Exactly how, when and under what circumstances has been the subject of fierce debate for decades and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future. Sadly, much of the evidence that could answer the questions has been long since eroded and washed away leaving huge gaps in the story. Research that is attempting to solve the puzzle continues apace. However, I suspect a complete answer will forever be tantalisingly beyond our reach!

I will delve deeper into the differing theories surrounding the formation of Grand Canyon in a future blog. Stay tuned and in the meantime, I'll leave you with another breathtaking photograph.



Grand Canyon South Rim from the South Rim Trail

(Photo by Grumpychops)