Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Kansas Chalk: odds, ends & final thoughts

I too wended my way to this wonderful group of chalk outcrops.

Kansas geologists seem to be apologetic about their state. I say this because in the various guidebooks and websites that I read before my trip, the writer often began with something like the following:
“At first glance Kansas is_________, but there are_________things to see.”
The first blank contained words like boring, monotonous, covered in corn, flatter than a pancake. The second would counter with interesting, unusual, entertaining, educational, surprising, etc.

Some of my own impressions match the first blank: mile after mile of corn and sorghum (milo), orthogonal networks of perfectly straight roads, very few people except in widely-scattered small towns, and expansive vistas with little topographic relief (Kansas truly is flatter than a pancake, as has been shown scientifically (1)).
Pancake on left, Kansas on right (1).
But those impressions quickly faded as I explored western Kansas, which is indeed interesting, unusual, entertaining and educational. And I wasn’t surprised. The more I travel, the more I’m convinced that an open, curious and friendly mind makes for a great trip. But would Kansas have been as interesting without my passions for geology, botany and history? … that’s an unanswerable question.

Knowing that today’s chalk outcrops were once limy planktonic muck at the bottom of a sea gave the landscapes an other-worldly feeling. Imagine a sea inhabited by giant fish and marine reptiles with pterosaurs flying overhead, where today’s chalk monuments rise above shortgrass prairie and yucca!
Modern-day creature of the chalk. This tarantula was 15 ft up, crawling straight down the face!
Dan Burgevin’s “Processions of the Prairie” shows this fascinating juxtaposition of Kansas past and present. It’s on display at the Fick Museum, above one of George F. Sternberg’s Xiphactinus fossils. When I asked about the painting, I was given a poster version! (from a stack donated to the museum for local school kids).
The Fick Fossil Museum was a nice surprise. It’s in Oakley, population 2045, a small town with big grain elevators south of Interstate 70. I was the only visitor that weekday afternoon. The museum was overseen by a woman who obviously was working on other things. But she was happy to stop and visit when I walked in. Most locals I met were proud of and eager to talk about their chalk.

The museum was created by Ernest and Vi Fick to house their fossil collection and Vi’s artwork. It also includes fossils donated by legendary paleontologist George F. Sternberg, old photos from the time when Sternberg was excavating fossils from the chalk, and other historical items from the area.
Tylosaurus, the Kansas marine fossil.
Vi Fick worked in what has to be a unique medium—fossils! She incorporated many small fossils, often painting them first, to make landscapes. This speaks to how incredibly abundant some types of fossils are in the chalk—sharks’ teeth, vertebrae, small shells.

For a Wyoming naturalist, Kansas is different kind of place. There's very little public land. Most chalk exposures, and all of the more spectacular ones, are privately owned. Yet it’s still possible to see the chalk up close. The owner of Monument Rocks (Chalk Pyramids) has opened this National Natural Landmark to the public! This is so different from Wyoming, where landowners tend to be almost paranoid about letting strangers on their land.
I was disappointed to learn that the chalk badlands of Little Jerusalem are now closed to public access. But the new owner of the Smoky Valley Ranch, The Nature Conservancy, will open it in the near future. Now I have a reason to go back! Check out the Wichita Eagle’s video: Drone View of Little Jerusalem. Currently, there are horse/foot trails open to the public in the prairie portion of the Ranch (dogs on leash), where there are occasional exposures of chalk in small drainages.
Little Jerusalem, Kansas (source).
Chalk in a small draw on the Smoky Valley Ranch.

In putting together these posts about the Kansas chalk (2), I wondered: Would other people find it as intriguing as my stories and photos suggest? Another unanswerable question! Experiences are so strongly shaped by our past and our hopes for the future. Our stories are our own.


(1) Kansas is indeed flatter than a pancake. In fact, it’s “considerably flatter” as has been shown utilizing topographic geodetic survey:
“One common method of quantifying ‘flatness’ in geodesy is the ‘flattening’ ratio. … we approximated the local ellipsoid [for both Kansas and a well-cooked pancake] with a second-order polynomial line fit to the cross-sections. These polynomial equations allowed us to estimate the local ellipsoid’s semi-major and semi-minor axes and thus we can calculate the flattening measure f.” Full details here.
(2) Other posts about Kansas Chalk: To Kansas to See the Chalk, A Ghost Rock Speaks and Charismatic Kansan Megafauna.

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