Wake up. Birds singing. Raisin bran. Coffee? No coffee. Shoes on? Good. Walk to the office. Another day of archiving in the librar–
My boss stands up as I enter the room. “So I was thinking we’d head up to some dinosaur tracks early today,” he says.
Welcome to Week Five at Dinosaur National Monument.
There are four of us paleontology interns here this summer, but as the week started, Elliott was visiting friends and Trinity was on the river helping the Weed Warriors count beetles and pull tamarisk. Park Paleontologist Dan Chure addressed just Marie and I in the office that morning, and the three of us started our day hiking over one of the steep ridges near the Quarry Visitors Center, to a nearly-vertical wall of Triassic sandstone in the Nugget formation. Paleontologist George Englemann and his student Mike were already there, standing at impossible angles on the marbled gray-and-reddish rock face. Ostensibly they were mapping dinosaur tracks.
Tracks? I thought. Where? But as we leaned in to a particularly colorful patch of sandstone, Chure and Englemann eagerly pointed out the characteristic three-pronged shapes of tridactyl footprints. (Tridactyl is paleontologist for “three-toed.” Not much more you can tell about an animal from its tracks sometimes.)
I’d seen dinosaur tracks before. Just off a stretch of desolate highway called Tuba City, Arizona, is a patch of red sandstone, where Navajo interpreters will show you a series of depressions in the ground that were unmistakably made by the feet of large animals walking by. You can see how the mud warped around their toes, and imagine the sandstone as a soft shoreline.
The Nugget sandstone tracks were less obvious. Firstly, they were more vertical than horizontal, an effect of the tilting that happened to their rock layer as continents shifted and shrugged. Secondly, they weren’t depressions. They were stains.
The marbled effect comes from bioturbation, or the mixing up of sediment layers by lifeforms.
I mentioned the sandstone there was a marbled gray and red. The marbled effect comes from bioturbation, or the mixing up of sediment layers by lifeforms. Burrowing animals move dirt and all it contains up and down through sediment, tree roots crack and shape the ground they grow into, and large animals, apparently, smush layers around in interesting ways when they walk over them. (Chure called this “dinoturbation” one day.) At this particular site, the animals had smushed alternating red and gray layers into each other, leaving red, foot-shaped smears on the gray layers and gray smudges on the red layers.
By my third application of sunscreen, I was getting pretty good at spotting these vague tracks. I was even seeing them where there were none.
we managed to get in an hour of archiving before Larry Smith started a fire in the maintenance parking lot
The hike back was hot and steep, and Marie and I headed straight for the bunkhouse to make lunch. Then we managed to get in an hour of archiving before Larry Smith started a fire in the maintenance parking lot.
We made the appointment for hands-on fire safety training back in Week Two, right after all-employee training. Today was finally the day.
The parking lot already felt like it was on fire when Larry pulled in. He gave us a recap of the basics we heard at all-employee training: inspect fire extinguishers monthly; fire extinguishers are an escape route, not a means of saving an entire burning building; there are different classes of fire extinguisher for different fires; and when it’s time to use one you pull the pin, aim at the base of the fire, squeeze the handle, and sweep the spray back and forth. PASS.
Then he opened up the fire box. I inspected my extinguisher. First I checked the label to make sure I knew what class it was. A is for “ash”; anything that leaves ashes when it burns, like paper and childhood dreams. B is liquids. C is electrical. I turned it upside down to make sure the powder hadn’t compacted into a solid cake. I could feel it falling from bottom to top like a jar of sand. Next I looked over the tag–there had been an inspection a few months ago. The meter was next. It was in the red “recharge” zone. That might mean there wouldn’t be enough internal pressure to make the extinguisher work. We decided to see what happened. Lastly, I looked the whole thing over to check for damage and peered into the tube to make sure it wasn’t blocked. Apparently chewing gum is a bit of a problem in public fire extinguisher tubes.
Larry doused a pile of cardboard (class A!) in the fire box with a gasoline/diesel mix (class B!) and set it aflame. OK I’ve totally got this, I thought. I double-checked checked the extinguisher’s label: class ABC. We’re good. Now for PASS. Pull the pin, good. Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire, done. Now squeeze the handle… Squeeze! Dammit! Nothing came out. That meter wasn’t lying–this fire extinguisher should have been recharged months ago.
The fire raged on while I scrambled for one of the backups. This time all four steps of the PASS methodology were executed without a hitch. A cloud of white erupted from the nozzle, shooting at a spot on the ground near the base of the fire, but not directly at it, to avoid spreading the embers. Now sweep. The fire was out within fifteen seconds.
Marie’s turn went more smoothly, and when her fire was out, we helped Larry cool off the remaining cardboard with a few gallons of water and pack up his equipment.
When I got back to the bunkhouse, the first thing I did was inspect the fire extinguisher. The meter was in the green. Phew.
The rest of the workweek may have lacked the adventure of Monday, but was no less exciting for me in its own way. I spent it working on our first prototype of the digital quarry map.
For the sake of simplicity, I began with a single set of twelve bones: the articulated diplodocus leg near the center of the quarry. I started with the Adobe Illustrator file of the map that last year’s GIPs made, and exported the bones I wanted as an SVG file, which can be copied as text and pasted into HTML for website use. It worked beautifully, and because we’d named each bone illustration in the Illustrator file by its corresponding museum catalog number, I was able to easily identify it in the SVG markup. This allowed me to design interactions for each bone individually. By Friday I’d taught myself some new jQuery, learned a couple of extra CSS tricks, studied Bootstrap, deleted at least four times as much code as I’d written, and published a working prototype. I’ve since moved on to the larger demo, but you can still check out the simple diplodocus leg prototype at http://cretaceousmantua.com/tharkibo/test.html.
On Friday evening I celebrated with a hike on Chew Ranch with Marie and Celia, one of the park’s interpretive staff. Celia showed us some secret dinosaur tracks and took us up to a perfect sunset watching spot on top of a smooth outcrop of Nugget sandstone that had once been a desert sand dune. We could see ripple marks in some of the alternating layers, which Marie and I interpreted to mean there had been an inter-dunal lake there that disappeared and reappeared several times, much like the one at the Saints and Sinners Quarry we’d excavated the week before.
We finally stopped geeking out on the rocks long enough to enjoy the sunset, and it was spectacular.
Marie, Trinity and I finished the week out on the Ruple Point Trail, just off Harper’s Corner Road on the Colorado side of the park. Most of the trail meanders through sagebrush and cow pasture, under a big sky, high above the valley that the Green River winds through.
The point itself was unbelievable. We could see three of the rapids we went through on our river trip, impossibly tiny below us. The overhang at the end of the trail was so high up we couldn’t even tell how far we’d fall if we fell off of it without getting too close for comfort. If geology teaches you anything, it’s the impermanence of stone.
A thunderstorm followed us back in, cooling us off and filling the air with the summer desert smell of wet sage and dust. We followed the lightning back to the trailhead.
Week five ended late that night over card games and burritos. With our time here almost half over, who has time for sleep?