Rockin’ the Pass: CCHS Geology Tour
Thu, 07/20/2017 - 5:00am admin
By Eleanor Guerrero / CCN Senior Reporter
The Carbon County Historical Society and Museum’s annual Geology and Ecology Tour of the Beartooths on Saturday, July 8, ended with a grand finale at more than 10,500 feet on the top of the pass.
Geologist Dr. Ennis Geraghty swept his hand along the horizon. “This is one of the wonders of the world,” he said.
“Heart Mountain” (Wyoming) was faintly visible just over the horizon on one end. Geraghty said it was an old Madison limestone formation, dated at 350 million years, that “had traveled from the other end of the horizon, a total of 30 miles from near Cooke City” to drop down in the Big Horn Basin on top of a 50-million-year-old formation.
Scientists know this by studying the age of the rocks.
The normal rate of movement for the Himalayas would take 150 million years to travel that far, according to Geraghty. But he said, “It had to have happened, now get this…in an hour and a half!” to get to its present location.
“How does that happen? We must reconcile ourselves [that] – no matter how it happened – there it is. It’s one of the wonders of the world to me,” he said with a smile. Geologists have to get a little “crazy” to figure it out.
Such were the insights and wonders in a day spent amongst spectacular alpine scenery as the Karst Stage tour bus ascended up the Beartooth Pass from Red Lodge with 35 passengers aboard.
Since 1996, Dr. Phil Robertson has led such one-day excursions exploring the Beartooth Mountains, focusing on the ecology of the region. He was joined by Geraghty who spoke of the geology.
Robertson is a native of Silver City, N.M., but has lived in Red Lodge with his wife Martha since 2003. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Plant Biology at southern Illinois University.
Geraghty is a native of Warrensburg, N.Y. He is senior project geologist the Stillwater Palladium and Platinum Mine.
After speaking with the Beartooth Highway road crew, he said they believed the recent earthquake caused more debris on the road.
The Beartooths were formed by ages of geological action, bringing them in from the coasts, but around 66 million years ago, according to scientists, they experienced dramatic uplift. The exposed limestone jutting out on the mountains around Red Lodge looked like teeth to some, raised up almost vertically from a horizontal position.
Although this was around the same time the dinosaurs were destroyed by an asteroid in the Gulf of Mexico, Geraghty said there was no connection, “The collision of plates (causing the uplift) was well underway.”
Hell Creek Formation
Underfoot in Carbon County are some of the last dinosaurs, according to Geraghty. They disappeared, he said, with the great asteroid that landed in the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago. This Hell Creek Formation extends to North Dakota and Wyoming (called Lance) where large finds have been made. Carbon County dinosaurs are probably 700-1,000 feet deep, however, he said.
The tour headed up from the Fort Union sandstone at Red Lodge and down through the ages of ancient layers on top due to its history of great activity.
Since leaving Piney Dell by Rock Creek Resort south of Red Lodge, it was explained, the bus left the “mudstone” and rose up the pass to the crystalline family. Geraghty said, “We traveled up among the granite family, the igneous and metamorphic rocks.” He told to look for the layered metamorphic rocks, the oldest in the world, except for one spot in Australia more than 4 billion years old. In the Beartooths, the metamorphic rocks run 3.4 billion years old.
Ecotypes of the Beartooth Corridor
At different altitudes, attendees learned about the various ecotypes of the Beartooth Corridor. Through a series of stops, the scientists gave their often mind-blowing talks explaining the formation of the region covering a vast period from the present to 350 million years ago. Robertson explained the systems at different levels of earth, organisms and flora.
At Lake Fork, off Highway 212, a stop was made at the mountain meadows, below 9,500 feet. Geraghty walked to the top of one hill built up from a large mound of boulders dropped by the last alpine (mountain) glacier about 10,000 years ago.
“This is where it stopped coming down,” he said.
Robertson explained that mountain meadows are dominated by grasses and forbs (non-grass, herbaceous flowering plants). They may include scattered stands of Engelmann spruce, sub alpine fir, Ponderosa, Limber and Lodge Pole Pine. Lodge Pole needs an open area with mineral soil and lots of light. Ponderosa needs fire. While crown fires open up an area for Lodge Pole, the Ponderosa is considered dependent upon fire for its pine nuts to open and fall. Spruce can grow more than 200 years. Firs can grow 300-500 years or more. Limber pines can live even longer.
Aspen is totally dependent on fire. With an extensive root system the top can be destroyed and it can sprout 50,000 to 100,000 new suckers after a fire.
Robertson said, “Aspen rarely reproduces by seed. It all comes back. If you see an aspen stand, it’s been in place over a thousand years.” Fire creates good grass habitat for wildlife like deer, moose and elk.
From Vista Point, Geraghty pointed out “a tan scar” that was a chrome mine in Hellroaring Plateau’s top tree line. In the Second World War, African chrome was cut off to the United States because of German U-boats.
“From 1941-43, they trucked it down the switchback to Red Lodge,” Geraghty said.
Robertson said Whitebark Pine trees are a “keystone species, one on which many others depend like Clark’s Nutcracker and Grizzlies. The trees catch snow and the stands provide shade, slowing runoff, giving the trees a “hydrologic component” in value in addition to its nuts.
Pointing at a hub of Whitebark pine trunks growing out of one area, he said, “A lot of the birds and ground squirrels buried their caches. They forget them!”
Gazing up he remarked, “These stands are old-makes them susceptible to insects and fungi.
We’ve kept fire out of these stands. They don’t burn frequently, but when they do, it’s catastrophic.”
Besides the decades-old policy of preventing any forest fires, global warming and drought were additional factors stressing the old trees.
“When we see an infestation from an indigenous beetle it’s really fascinating biochemical ecology,” Geraghty said. “Some biochemical factor affects the survival or health of another organism. Old trees get susceptible and give off a compound the beetle can detect. The colonizer beetle hits the tree. It goes back and tells the other beetles. Then when it is saturated, the beetles give off a compound that lets beetles know when a tree is full: ‘Don’t come!’”
Scientists used this knowledge to create packets of pheromones that can be placed in trees to repel the beetles. While it’s impossible to protect a forest, it can be effective for a yard or campground.
Traversing alpine meadows
Above 9,500 feet, the group toured alpine meadows. Straight out of “The Sound of Music,” the group stood amongst a riot of wildflowers covering every inch of meadow with high mountain vistas all around. It was a breathtaking view above Twin Lakes.
Low-growing grasses, forbs and occasional shrubs tolerant of cold temperatures and windy conditions dominate tundra vegetation in an alpine meadow. The Beartooth Highway is one of the longest paved roads in America to traverse alpine meadows.
The passengers learned words like “Krummholz”, a German word meaning “elfin timber” or “crooked wood” to describe stunted trees, like Limber pines, found at high elevations. One side is totally stunted from years of wind, hail and rock pellets and the other side is growing each season. Below them, seemingly delicate wildflowers lie low and hug the rocks. Robertson said, “As I tell my students, when the going gets tough, the biomass goes underground.”
The tour aimed to educate, but also to share the lecturers’ passion for the wonders of the region.
There was Bear Butte-one of only two places in the world where the formation called the “Bear Butte Formation.” The limestone and conglomerate has a dramatic thin line of red shale. Scientists date its rocks back to the Devonian: 416 million to 358 million years ago.
A riot of wildflowers filled the alpine slopes.
“Spectacular!” said Robinson. “Maybe one other time, they were this good. Over 200 plants are found on top of the Beartooths, none of them exotic.”
The group listened amidst a heavenly setting over 10,000 feet up, surrounded by electric blue Forget Me Nots, clumps of colored Phlox, handfuls of deep purple dwarf Columbine, yellow buttercups, blue delphinium, primroses and more.
Asked about the pink snow on high, Robertson identified it as blue algae excreting a pink gel. He added, “I heard from people in the know, if you eat it, you get quite a case of the South American Green Apple Quick step” and also cautioned against ever eating yellow snow.
Robertson sprinkled his talks with some cowboy poetry that he is well known for throughout Montana.
It should be noted the altitude increase is great, almost doubling that of Red Lodge. One passenger had to skip some stops, feeling flushed, but later rebounded to attend the final talk near the summit. Drinking water is crucial and plenty is provided along with lunch.
Bus driver Bob Riesner has driven this pass for 27 years. He kept the cowboy Poetry going, sharing Baxter Black’s poem of the perils and glory of the rugged West quoting from “The West”:
“And the Rockies have shoulders have granite. They’re big and they make their own rules. So take what you need but you better pay heed. ‘Cause the mountains don’t tolerate fools.”
Riesner told of a group of Mississippi Extension agents who traveled to Montana for an ag tour. He picked them up at the airport and when told they must pay extra for a Beartooth Pass tour, they complained, “You Yankees are soaking every penny from us.”
As they rose up the pass, perhaps for the first time, the group left behind all memory and comfort of being at sea level. Their silence grew as the altitude increased. By the time he started down, they had all hushed except for one who said quietly, “It was worth every penny.”
Attendees agreed the CCHS Geo Tour is clearly worth the penny. It appeals to all ages, tourists and locals too, with an opportunity to learn about geological history, view the incredible and unique majesty of the Beartooths and have one great time.