Saturday, August 21, 2010

older than old: eastern oregon

We celebrated our anniversary by camping, hiking and exploring in Grant and Wheeler Counties in eastern Oregon. High points included a hike to Strawberry Falls -- not terribly long but elevation gain was enough for both of us to feel the effects and challenge us a bit -- and side trips to Kam Wah Chung Museum in John Day, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and a stop at Wheeler High School in the town of Fossil, to dig in the fossil beds behind the school and see what we could find (digging in the Fossil Beds National Monument is forbidden by federal law, but you can drive on another thirty miles or so and dig behind Wheeler High for a $5.00 fee -- the money collected supports the high school's performing arts and athletics programs).

I marveled at finding fossils of leaves, twigs and seedpods, holding them in my hand and remembering that these tiny stones with imprints of rather "modern"-looking vegetation were something like 40 million years old. I imagined -- feared -- the whole place could be dug up and completely devoid of fossils at some future point, perhaps in my lifetime; but I was reminded that Fossil, Oregon isn't really on the way to anywhere else, so huge crowds are unlikely to swarm the site. Sweetie and I saw just four other people there when we stopped, and we were done digging within half an hour. The sign indicated we could each take home up to "two handfuls" of fossils. Still, we didn't didn't see any point in being greedy, so we limited ourselves to just a few pieces each. And the fossils were ridiculously easy to find! I'd brought along a hammer and a hand trowel, along with some garden gloves; but didn't really need these, as I spotted my first fossil on the pathway up to the dig site, and a few more just laying among the debris laying all around the digging area. I remembered someone at the John Day Monument saying that researchers were amazed by both the quality and the sheer quantity of fossils to be found in the area, and realized that folks would be looking for fossils in this area for many years to come.

Sadly, our schedule and chosen route did not give us time to see the Painted Hills from the trailhead (it would've meant traveling too far east and then having to backtrack, a lot of driving for Sweetie who already did practically all of the driving for our trip). But we saw stunning views of the prehistoric landscape while traveling from John Day through the fossil beds, and northwest through Wheeler County. The hills all around us were indeed "painted" in bold stripes of sedimentary layers -- in tan, orange and gold, and even green and blue! -- and every turn in the road revealed something new and amazing to see.

Strawberry Peak, as seen from the trail up to the falls:

A fossil we found behind Wheeler High School:

More pictures can be found here.

No comments: