Welcome To My 2021 Field Office

This is my summer receptionist… a Yellowstone 2020 wolf pup of the Junction Butte pack that roams mainly in the Lamar Valley of northern Yellowstone National Park.

My geological field work lately has taken me to several areas of western Montana, so I thought I’d do a visual collage of a few of the landscapes where I’ve been working. To start with, I’ve been spending time flying drones over Tertiary exposures in southwestern Montana, Great fun and good insight into Tertiary geology. Many of my flights are focused on Eocene strata at Pipestone Springs. Along with 3 co-authors (Don Lofgren, Stephen Hasiotis, and Bill McIntosh), we have a paper on Pipestone chronostratigraphy, trace fossils, and depositional environments that is now in review. Below are a couple of drone photos from Pipestone Springs.

Pipestone Springs Eocene strata with the basal lapilli tuff (37.5 million years in age) and the upper trace fossil bed (36 million years in age) indicated. Note the person standing on the surface of the upper trace fossil bed.
A somewhat closer drone view of the upper trace fossil bed with me as pilot standing off to the right side of the photo. My drone landing pad is my friend’s political campaign sign!

My travels through a part of northwestern Montana last week put me in a very different geologic setting from southwestern Montana. Proterozoic rocks are the mainstay in this area, and they make for some spectacular landscapes. So spectacular in fact, that I’ll just do a barrage of photos from the east side of Glacier National Park…

Chief Mountain, located a few miles north of Babb, Montana, is the iconic geologic view of major thrust fault where Proterozoic rocks (Chief Mountain rocks) are pushed over Cretaceous strata (green area of this photo).
No matter how much has changed in this past year because of the pandemic, it is just astounding to me to see a sign that says the Canadian border crossing is closed. It was a heavy mix of emotions being out in the early morning to view Chief Mountain, but then to see this sign and know that we’re still all in this even a year out. Whew…
Of course, no visit to Many Glacier is complete without marveling at Grinnell Point.
One of the positive aspects of getting up very early on a spring day is the sun rise near the Many Glacier Lodge. It didn’t last long as rain clouds pushed in but what a view for a time!
And another plus to being up early in the Many Glacier area is to watch a black bear amble down the road.
Coming back south, down the Front Range of the Rockies, we got out from under the rain clouds. Once again, geologically, the rocks that comprise Dancing Lady Mountain have been thrust over younger, Cretaceous strata (basically the area in green on the photo).

In summary, this is just a quick view of a couple western Montana areas where I’ve been recently. I have to say that I’m really looking forward to more amazing places to work this field season. I may swap out my office receptionist, though.

Hiking to Glacier National Park’s Grinnell Glacier

A few days ago I did the hike to Grinnell Glacier, one of the iconic glaciers in Glacier National Park. The glacier lies within the Swiftcurrent drainage area, in the northeastern part of the park. The hike, at least the way I did it, is about 11.6 miles round trip. It is possible to catch a boat ride at the Lake Josephine Boat Dock by the Many Glacier Hotel, which cuts the hike down to about 7.5 miles round trip. But – the first boat goes out at about 8.30 am, and as I didn’t want to wait around for it, I decided that adding on the extra miles for a fairly level stretch around Swiftcurrent Lake and Josephine Lake would be easy to do. It is an easy hike around the lakes and a very good warm-up for the rest of the climb to Grinnell Glacier. But –  be aware that this area is known for grizzly bear activity as I found out when I met up with a grizzly on the trail. Because I’m writing about this encounter,  it obviously ended OK, although I was glad I had bear spray readily available.

The glacier is named after George Bird Grinnell, who first explored this area during the summer of 1885. Because of bad weather, he did not actually get to the glacier during his 1885 travels. However, during the late fall of 1887, he was able to pack most of the way into the glacier by mules, and then hike the remaining distance by foot.  Although he certainly was not the first person to see the glacier, the glacier does bear his name, presumably given it by a Lieutenant John H. Beacom of the United States Army, 3rd Infantry, who accompanied him on the 1887 trip to the glacier.

It’s fun to see ripple marks in the Proterozoic rocks that outcrop along the Grinnell Glacier trail (Grinnell Lake is in the photo’s background).

Back to the hike – after about a mile from the junction of the Swiftcurrent Lake Trail with the trail coming from the North Shore of Lake Josephine boat dock, Grinnell Lake comes into view. A little further along the trail one can see Grinnell Falls dropping several hundred feet down from the headwall behind Grinnell Lake.

Grinnell Falls drops several hundred feet down from the headwall to Grinnell Lake. The Salamander Glacier can be seen in the photo’s upper right-hand corner; Gem Glacier is in the upper left-hand corner of the photo.

And – even at this distance, Salamander and Gem glaciers pop into view in the distant cirque. The hike continues along beautiful alpine meadows and even through one waterfall that cascades down the cliff adjacent to the trail. There is a rest area with pit toilets right before hiking the final switchbacks that traverse the terminal moraine to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook.

The final part of the Grinnell Glacier trail traverses the glacier’s terminal moraine.

Large boulder (Elrod’s Rock) in the Grinnell Glacier’s terminal moraine. Note the marmot atop the boulder for scale. The glacier’s terminus is now about a mile away from this boulder.

The three glaciers that once comprised the Grinnell Glacier occupy parts of a cirque developed along the area called the Garden Wall.

The cirque of the Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem glaciers.

Grinnell Glacier is still the largest of the three ice fields and covers about 152 acres. Unfortunately, this glacier is receding rapidly as the U.S.Geological Survey notes that from 1966 to 2005 it lost about 40% of its acreage. At about 5 acres, the hanging glacier called Gem Glacier, is the smallest named glacier in the park. It sits in the notch on the cliff face above the Grinnell Glacier. This glacier lost about 30 percent of its acreage from 1966 to 2005. The Salamander Glacier covers about 57 acres on a ledge off to the east side of the Grinnell Glacier. It apparently separated from the Grinnell Glacier sometime before 1929 and has undergone a 23% size reduction from 1966 to 2005.

For those interested in viewing photographs of the Grinnell Glacier from various times and viewpoints, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Repeat Photography Project has many archived photographs. This project is a documentation of glacial decline through photography and it is well worth perusing through their photo archives. Two of the earlier photographs are shown below – one from the original 1887 trek and a later view of the glacier from 1940 just to pique one’s interest.

1887 photograph of the Grinnell Glacier taken from footbridge (Lieutenant Beacon, Glacier NP. Public domain).

1887 photograph of the Grinnell Glacier taken from footbridge (Lieutenant Beacom, Glacier NP. Public domain).

Grinnell Glacier from trail 1900; Credit: F.E. Matthes, Glacier NP. Public domain.