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number eight
Carbon Canyon
River Mile 65.1

Veronica and Trevor Geek Out

The Grand Canyon’s Carbon Canyon is a place of rock scree, expansive views, fat sunbathing chuckwallas, crystalline rocks and impressive faults that tell the story of continent collisions.

Halfway through our hike there, river guide and recent UC Davis graduate Blake Friedman says, “It’s pretty funny how we can’t walk more than 20 feet without seeing something interesting.”

It’s true. Every few steps, this group of UC Davis graduate students stops to point out something.

A billion years in sandstone

Geology grad student Michael Kenney admires a hollowed out piece of Dox sandstone and says, “You can stick your head in about a billion years right there.”

Plant sciences professor Truman Young bends down by a prickly pear cactus and picks up a scale insect that lives on it, the cochineal. He rubs the insect together, and a crimson dye stains his hands. The insect produces this dye, which Native Americans once used to color fabrics.

Geology graduate student Trevor Waldien breaks out into an impromptu lecture about faults and earthquakes when we hit a striking example of “folding,” where movements deep in the earth’s crust pushed the rock layer up, so that it points vertically rather than turned on its side.

Geology professor Nicholas Pinter hiking in Carbon Canyon
Geology professor Nicholas Pinter hikes in Carbon Canyon, taking in the passing of time recorded in the rocks. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Geeking out about rocks

Geeking out about rocks is as natural to Trevor as blinking his eyes. He seems to live and breathe it. For example, a couple of days later in this trip, we’ll be together on the boat, about to slip down the river’s tongue and into one of its gnarlier rapids. While I’m holding on tight and thinking mostly about death and concussions, he’s pointing out different rock formations, completely absorbed, and saying something like, “Now look at that! That’s a perfect example of ….”

After our hike today, I float away from Carbon Canyon with Trevor and geology graduate student Veronica Prush. They are teaching assistants together for a class on structural geology — how faults, folds and rocks form — and they’re quite a dynamic duo.

Strip the jargon, or not

Part of my role here is to help students strip the jargon from their science communications. But when it’s scientist to scientist, it’s game on. And so it is on the raft with Trevor and Veronica. Here’s a taste of it:

Veronica to Trevor, pointing to the canyon walls: “Here’s a little baby for you. Perfect conjugate fault set right there. That’s amazing.”

Trevor to me: “So the idea there is if you compress any type of solid, it will make fracture sets that are about 60 degrees from each other, and that’s exactly what’s in the hillside right there. It’s a conjugate fault set.”

Guide Blake: “Does the angle depend on what kind of material it is?”

Trevor: “It can, yeah. …”

And here he continues with a technical explanation of the compression direction, which frankly loses me. But that’s OK. Even when they lose me, I love watching the students get so animated about what they’re seeing.

UC Davis grad student Trevor Waldien gives the scientific explanation of what makes this billion-year–old rock in the Grand Canyon so awesome. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis
“Being here is like having every structural textbook picture laid out for you in order, just going down the river.” – Veronica Prush, geology graduate student

Geological textbooks come to life, strata by strata, in the Grand Canyon. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Bringing the map to life

“So you guys seem really excited when you see this stuff,” I say. “Have you ever seen this before?”

Trevor explains to me that he and Veronica do field research in somewhat exotic places — she in northern China; he in Alaska. They go in with dreams of collecting data that will tell them something specific.  And while they do collect data they learn from, it’s rare that it all just clicks into place.

“Being here is like having every structural textbook picture laid out for you in order, just going down the river,” Veronica says. “It’s like, here’s this feature you’ve seen in a textbook, and here it is being perfectly expressed. It’s really fun.”

Among the materials for the lab they help teach is a geologic map of the Grand Canyon and a series of questions for the map.

“This is the first time we’ve actually been here to look at the rocks that are on the map that we teach from,” Trevor says. “So that’s pretty cool.”


- Kat Kerlin

grey arrow Continue the journey at Stop 9, Unkar Delta

Geology grad student Scott Tarlow talks about the tapeats rock complex and the first signs of life on Earth. Credit: Scott Tarlow/UC Davis
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