Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Seeing Red Cloud

Can you see them? those spectral wagons winding down, ruffling the grass?
Can you hear them? those murmurs and whispers, sounding like the wind?
They’re coming, singing the old songs.

In May of 1908, an old man and his entourage again traveled by wagon over 95 miles of rough dirt roads to a ranch on the Niobrara River in northwest Nebraska, as they had done many times. This time he delivered to his good friend of 30 years a formal written request bearing five signatures and three witnesses:
“… I will soon go to join my oId friends and now on my last visit to you my friend I want to say through my nephew and interpreter Mr. Phillip Romero that in you I think my people will always find a true friend and I want them to listen to your words of council.”
Red Cloud was 85 or 86 years old, almost dead—which he knew to be the case because his mother and father often came and spoke to him. That last trip was his final effort to preserve something of the old times, of people and a culture that would soon be gone. He made very clear what he expected of James Cook:
“I want you to always own and keep that picture—as long as you live, and then let your oldest son have it to keep. Then I am sure my children and their children can always go and look at the face of one of the last of the old Chiefs that lived before the white men came to take our lands and turn us from the old trails we had followed for so many hundreds of years.”
Red Cloud sat for artist Bessie Butler (1) at James Cook’s ranch in 1902 (from NPS exhibit).

Red Cloud died less than a year later. It was the end of a long life spanning a sweeping difficult transition. As a young man Red Cloud was a powerful warrior, first in battles with other tribes and then against the US Army (2). But when he saw the inevitability of defeat, he turned to negotiation. He actively advocated for his people into even old age, and in spite of repeated betrayal and disappointment. Perhaps it’s a testament to the strength of his determination that his 1908 directive to Cook was executed as specified—and then far beyond anything even Red Cloud could have envisioned.

Red Cloud and James Cook first met in 1874, at the Red Cloud Agency in western Nebraska. Red Cloud was 53 and chief of the local Oglala Lakota band (not chief of the Sioux Nation as is often said). Cook was only 17 but already well-respected as a hunter and guide. They were introduced by Baptiste “Little Bat” Garnier, a resident of the agency and friend of Cook. Something clicked, launching a friendship highly unusual for the times, between two men most would expect to be archenemies.
James Cook, age 29 (NPS 2011).
By 1887, Red Cloud and the Oglala Lakota had been moved to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and James Cook had married and taken over his father-in-law’s place on the Niobrara River, which he renamed the Agate Springs Ranch. For some thirty years, he obtained the requisite passes so his Indian friends could leave the reservation. After three to five days or a week of travel (95-150 miles one way, accounts vary), they wound down the hill to the Niobrara River bottom, singing songs, especially one about Cook whom they called Wambli Cigala.
En route from Pine Ridge Reservation to Agate Springs Ranch, 1915 (from NPS exhibit).
Once on the ranch, they were able to return to the old ways. After setting up tipis, they hunted pronghorn antelope, tanned hides, held traditional dances and ceremonies, and—joined by Cook—spend hours recounting stories of the old days. Cook provided fresh vegetables and freshly-killed beef.

The Indians always brought gifts—in appreciation, but also to preserve them and their stories by leaving them with Cook. Some were newly-made specifically for the Cook family—intricately beaded moccasins, beautifully decorated buckskin clothing of exquisite suppleness, and three tipis, including a half-size one for the children. Other items were utilitarian, documenting the old ways—ladles, hide scrapers, a porcupine hairbrush and mirror, saddlebags and parfleches (rawhide boxes). The most valuable gifts were personal belongings “no longer in use but with great meaning” such as pipe bags, shields, charms, and Red Cloud’s shirt.
Beaded moccasins made for James Cook (these five photos are from NPS photo galleries).
Nameplate for tipi.
Leather saddle bag with beads and metal tassels.
Three pipe bags belonging to Red Cloud (center), his father (left) and his son Jack (right).
Red Cloud’s shirt of supple deerskin, with purple and gold porcupine quillwork.

It was all so improbable … a white rancher in rural Nebraska encouraging and preserving traditional Indian culture at the same time that the US government was explicitly eradicating it, through destruction and assimilation. And Cook didn't just preserve artifacts and stories. He created a public museum at the ranch, reaching out to promote Indian culture, and counter the many misconceptions. (It also included fossils from the amazing quarries nearby.) By 1910, there were so many visitors that son Harold, his wife, and his children were recruited to help James with tours (Dorothy Cook Meade tells stories of being a child museum guide in her book, see Sources below).

After James Cook’s death, son Harold maintained the collection at the ranch. After his death, it was given to the National Park Service. The visitor center at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument has two rooms dedicated to the Cook Collection. Now Red Cloud’s portrait is viewed by “children and their children” from far and wide. What goes through their minds when they “look at the face of one of the last of the old Chiefs,” and view the gifts and old photos, and read the stories?
Cook Collection exhibit (NPS 2011).

In September, I made a second trip to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, specifically to view the Cook Collection (on my first visit I got caught up in the spectacular paleontology and ran out of time). The Red Cloud – Cook display occupies a darkened room, with gifts, old photos and stories illuminated. It felt other-worldly, which I liked (3). Of course I would have preferred hearing the stories from James Cook himself, in the den of his ranch house. Best would have been to visit when the old people were there—hunting, dancing and singing. But those days are gone forever. So after viewing the exhibit, I walked along one of the prairie trails, looking and listening, trying to imagine the old ways.
Can you see them?


(1) The Red Cloud portrait was painted by Bessie Sandes Butler, a classmate of Kate Cook (wife of James) who “happened to be” visiting. She was a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute (Meade 1994).

(2) Red Cloud led one of the few Indian victories against the US Army, in his defeat of Fetterman’s column in December 1866. The fear he instilled in local garrisons led to the Fort Laramie Treaty, an amazing achievement at the time, but broken just two years later (source).

(3) My one criticism of the exhibit is that the drumming and chanting playing much of the time was too loud. It took away from the other-worldly feeling … from communing with spirits. Next time I'll use inconspicuous ear protectors.


Baird, MF, and Knudson, R. 2008. In the spirit of old friends: reflections on repatriation at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Heritage of the Great Plains XLI–2.

Meade, DC. 1994. Heart bags & hand shakes; the story of the Cook Collection. National Woodlands Publ. Co. [Dorothy Cook Meade is a granddaughter of James Cook] 2001. Red Cloud, in New perspectives on the West. (accessed January 2018).

National Park Service (NPS). 2011. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Long-Range Interpretive Plan. PDF

Friday, January 19, 2018

Reading the Rocks of Scotts Bluff

Saddle Rock is part mystery book! (click on image for a better view)

Most visitors to Scotts Bluff are interested in history—specifically that of the mid-19th century, when on the order of 350,000 immigrants passed by on the Oregon Trail, headed west. But there's so much more! A story spanning eleven million years is written in the rocks, the longest in Nebraska (1).

For me, the biggest attraction at Scotts Bluff is the Saddle Rock Trail, between the base and the summit (2). It crosses most of the rock layers exposed in the park—pretty much the whole story. Geologic features are common and usually easy to spot. When I first visited, in May 2016, I intended to hike to the summit and back, and decipher what I could of the ancient tales. I was especially looking forward to the tunnel through Saddle Rock! But a substantial part of the trail, including the tunnel and much of interest, was closed for the very reason Scotts Bluff exists—erosion.

For the last five million years, water and wind have been eroding and carrying away sedimentary rocks from the Scotts Bluff area. There’s a great irony here, as they also created these rocks. For 50 million years they had deposited sand and silt eroded off the Rocky Mountains to the west, and a lot of volcanic ash, building an extensive high plain. But then deposition ended, and gave way to erosion (3). Water and wind became destroyers … or perhaps artists. They cut and wore down the high plain, creating river valleys and carving massive sculptures.
Scotts Bluff (mainly Saddle Rock) from lower trailhead.
The “Five Rocks of Scotts Bluff” (NPS); Saddle Rock on far right.
These rock sculptures are temporary. Erosion hasn’t stopped, as is obvious even in our short lifetimes. In December 2015, a large mass of rock broke off a cliff face on the south side of Scotts Bluff, undercutting the Saddle Rock Trail above the tunnel, and blocking it below. The NPS (National Park Service) closed this section for about 18 months to allow the slope and debris to stabilize.
May 2016.
The trail reopened in the summer of 2017, and I returned in September. I walked briskly to the summit, pulled out several geology guides (4), and strolled back down. There was much to see.

Rock layers at Scotts Bluff generally are undeformed, remaining as they were created, “flatter than a pancake” with the youngest on top. That would be the 22 Ma (million years old) Monroe Creek - Harrison Formation (MC-H), which caps the summit. These rocks are resistant to erosion, able to protect the softer rocks below … for now.
View south from summit of Scotts Bluff, capped with the Monroe Creek - Harrison Formation.
Much of the sandstone in the MC-H is cross-bedded. Wind and water repeatedly deposited thin layers of sand at angles to those below. The distinctive angular textures in cross-section are easy to spot along the trail. The presence of cross-bedding created by both wind and water ripples suggests the MC-H was once a dune field with shallow ponds.
Cross-bedding and ledgy concretions.
The MC-H also contains striking concretions—elongate blobs of sandstone cemented with calcium carbonate that probably precipitated out from groundwater. The concretions generally are oriented northeast–southwest, perhaps the direction of groundwater flow 22 million years ago.
Plains prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha) on a concretion.
The trail guide indicated I would soon see lenses of pink or white volcanic ash, but they were hard to spot in the bright light. Finally I found one, mid-photo below. Note the concretions sticking out below it, just above trail.
Wasps were busy doing something in a thin shallow gap between the ash bed and the sandstone below. Building nests?

The trail made a sharp turn north through the saddle of Saddle Rock, passing photogenic rock sculptures carved from the MC-H with its distinctive concretions.
On the northeast side of Saddle Rock the trail left the MC-H, entering the circa 30-22 Ma Gering Formation. The Gering is a fine-grained sandstone that is mostly horizontally-layered rather than cross-bedded. It may have been a playa once upon a time. The next stop was a thick layer of white volcanic ash in the Gering sandstone, not far above the trail. Upon close examination, Loope et al. (2005) found no fine-scale laminations—uncommon for ash fall deposits. They suggested lamination was destroyed due to growth of evaporite crystals (more on this below).
Tunnel mid-photo, below pale ash layer; brown band is an alteration zone, see below.
In addition to distinct ash layers, volcanic debris is a major component of most of the rocks at Scotts Bluff—enough to make them volcaniclastic sandstones and siltstones. Ash in the Brule siltstones (part of the older White River Group, below the Gering) is thought to have come from the Great Basin hundreds of miles to the west, where at least 30 major caldera-scale volcanic episodes occurred concurrent with Brule deposition—truly hellacious times! The ash bed by the tunnel also was deposited during this time, but its composition indicates it probably came from somewhere besides the Great Basin (5).

The trail soon made a sharp turn into the rock immediately below the ash layer. This tunnel was built in 1933, possibly as a test before building the Summit Road (source). However according to Park Service archives, it was built to connect trails on either side (6).
Looking west. Note volcanic ash on ceiling!
And looking east.
The Saddle Rock Trail in the vicinity of the tunnel offers a variety of special bonus features—soft-sediment deformation structures! While rock layers at Scotts Bluff are undeformed on a gross scale, locally they sometimes exhibit soft-sediment deformation. Sediments were folded, warped, mashed, etc. before becoming rock, but beyond that, these features are challenging to explain. The following discussions are from Loope et al. (2005). What do you think … convincing?

Three types of deformation structures are clearly visible along the Saddle Rock Trail above and below the tunnel. The first is “small folds”—circa 0.5 to 2 m wide and 60 cm high—in the ash layer on either side of the tunnel. This ash is thought to have been deposited in the shallow water of a playa. As water evaporated, which happens periodically in playas, evaporite crystals grew, displacing mud as they expanded. This scenario can be seen in “many modern-day analogs”—today’s playas and sabkhas.
Across the valley west of the tunnel are more folds in the same ash layer (below).
Occasionally there are “conical masses” at the base of the ash layer, looking like pale fingers poking into the darker sandstone. These also are thought to have been created by expanding evaporite crystals, which pushed ash into wet sand. But why were only scattered spots wet enough for ash injection? (see paper for discussion).
The third type of deformation structure is visible left and downhill after emerging from the west end of the tunnel (but is best viewed further down the trail, looking back across the valley). These “irregular, large-scale convolutions” make up the mysterious contact I posted about after my first visit—the weirdly-irregular undulating contact between the Gering and the older Brule Formation. Elsewhere in the park, this contact is flat. What happened here? Did something muck up the Brule surface before Gering sediments were deposited? Or was the contact deformed later, after some Gering sediments were deposited?

Loope et al. concluded the latter—that deformation happened after an early stage of Gering deposition. Water percolating through Gering sand reached dry siltstone of the Brule Formation. This siltstone initially had a more open, less dense structure, but wetting caused the structure to collapse. The modern-day analog is collapse of Quaternary loess (silt deposited by wind).
Bottom up: Brule siltstone, undulating contact, Gering sandstone, reddish-brown alteration zone, ash layer.
No reddish-brown alteration zone here.
A reddish-brown “alteration zone” is sometimes present below the ash layer (visible in two photos above). This is another of Scotts Bluff’s geo-puzzles. Loope et al. concluded that “most likely” ponded water in a playa soaked down into dry sediments below, altering the chemical composition (7).

From the west side of the tunnel, the trail continued downhill to the remains of the 2015 rockslide. This part of the bluff is especially vulnerable to rock fall due to joints in the Gering sandstone (2015 was not the first trail closure, and surely won’t be the last).
Re-opened trail across slide.
Finally we reached the Brule Formation, the oldest rocks exposed in the park (33-30 Ma). Here we noticed that wind and water are not the only agents of change at Scotts Bluff.
Great Plains yuccas (Yucca glauca), taking back the trail.


(1) When I read that 11 million years was the longest episode of geologic time exposed anywhere in Nebraska, I thought it was a mistake—much too short. But that's because where I live, mountains have been shoved up and tilted to reveal rocks spanning hundreds of millions or even billions of years. Rock layers in Nebraska and much of the Great Plains are basically undeformed—“flatter than a pancake.” Long periods of geologic time are exposed only where there’s topographic relief, e.g. the North Platte River Valley and Scotts Bluff. Thanks to Mike of CSMS Geology Post for the explanation.

(2) The Saddle Rock Trail is 1.6 miles one-way, and about 740 vertical feet. Dogs are allowed on leash. You can hike one way using the Park Service’s free summit shuttle (not sure about dogs).

(3) The cause of the shift from deposition to erosion five million years ago is debated—perhaps climate change, or broad scale regional uplift.

(4) I recommend the trail guide of Swinehart and Loope (1987), and the Scotts Bluff chapter in Mayer et al. (2003) (see Sources below). The former is technical but informative. The latter provides a broader picture, and probably is more “readable” for most people.

(5) The mid-Tertiary eruptions of the Great Basin were silicic, but the Gering ash bed contains large amounts of sulfur, typical of basaltic eruptions. Loope et al. (2005) determined that this sulfur is indeed volcanic in origin, and suggested the San Juan Volcanic Field as a candidate source. Eruptions there were silicic, but with some evidence of sulfur release. However, there are other problems; see paper.

(6) Some sources attribute the Saddle Rock Trail and Summit Road to the Civilian Conservation Corps. This is incorrect. Private contractors built the trail, and Civil Works Administration enrollees and contractors built the road. Thanks to Scotts Bluff National Monument staff for updated information on trail and road history.

(7) Loope et al. (2005) suggested that percolating water removed iron-bearing clays from the sediments, precipitating iron oxides, changing the color to red. Because the highly irregular lower boundary of of the alteration zone often doesn’t follow bedding, “alteration most likely occurred as ponded water near the playa centre infiltrated into unsaturated sediment behind an irregular wetting front.”


Loope, DB, et al. 2005. Deformation structures and an alteration zone linked to deposition of volcanogenic sulphate in an ancient playa (Oligocene of Nebraska, USA). Sedimentology 52: 123–139.

Maher, HD, Jr., et al. 2003. Roadside geology of Nebraska. Missoula MT: Mountain Press Publishing Co.

National Park Service. 2015. Saddle Rock Trail. GPO.

Swinehart, JB, and Loope, DB. 1987. Late Cenozoic geology along the summit to museum hiking trail, Scotts Bluff National Monument, western Nebraska. GSA Centennial Field Guide—North Central Section.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Our Earliest Bloomer

American pussy willow in February 2015, southeast Wyoming, 7200 ft elevation.

For a month I've been identifying plant specimens collected at Mount Rushmore National Memorial (yes, there’s more to the park than presidential heads). The Park Service funded a floristic inventory to document all vascular plants within the Memorial boundaries. This requires a specimen for every reported species, deposited in a public herbarium, and of course correctly identified. My role is to review the problematic ones, using the wonderful resources of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium—literature and an immense collection of dried pressed plants.

One of the biggest challenges is the genus Salix, the willows. Specimens often include only leaves, with no information about other characteristics, like bark. Flowers and fruit aren't always helpful, being small and nondescript. Differences between species are often subtle, and some species are highly variable. In other words, willows are a pain.

But there are exceptions, one being the American pussy willow (Salix discolor), notable for its behavior. When I looked at the Mount Rushmore “Salix discolor specimen, I realized immediately it was something else because the branchlet had both catkins (flowers, fruit) and leaves. American pussy willow blooms and sets fruit long before leafing out.

That trait was fixed in my memory three years ago, on a cold winter day in the foothills east of town. In a small dry canyon I was shocked to find a willow with pussy paws (tips of emerging catkins). After all, it was February! It would be three more months before the first leaves appeared.
Pussy willow canopy, early June.
A week ago, curious as to how early the pussy paws emerge, I hiked up what has become Willow Canyon to check. Sure enough, it was “in bloom.”
Off to see the willow (terribly dry year so far).
The willow of Willow Canyon is the leafless tree mid photo.
Blooming already! White dots are pussy paws.
Emerging catkin.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Little to Report Except Really Weird Weather

Overwintering boxelder, Acer negundo, in Laramie, Wyoming, USA.
Last Sunday I made my monthly visit to the tree I’m following—a boxelder growing in a shady corner made by two warehouse walls. I didn’t expect to see anything different from what I saw last month, and that was the case … nothing obvious to me anyway. The boxelder probably would say otherwise. It’s metabolizing, but very slowly. Without leaves, it can’t photosynthesize to make food, and probably no cells are dividing.
In spite of our horrendous winds lately (more below), there was no new garbage in the alcove, just dirty old snow.
Emmie reported no new trash.
The road construction project appears to be dormant too. The crew has been gone for weeks, maybe for the holidays. The amazing Gomaco 6300 curb-and-gutter machine hasn’t budged since last month.
Yellow Gomaco 6300 behind barrier on left.
Snow was predicted for the night before my visit, and I had hoped shoot wintry photos of the boxelder. But it didn’t pan out … again. We’ve had very little snow so far. What promised to be winter showed up in mid December, but soon left. Now we’re back to what would we would call spring in Laramie—temps as high as 50 F some days. Really weird!

Maybe you heard about the recent severe winter weather of the plains and eastern US … or experienced it first-hand! But here in Laramie, where severe winters are normal, the weather was abnormally mild. We had highs in the 30s F, while temps were subzero in Cheyenne—just 50 miles to the east (and 1200 feet lower). The map below shows warmer than normal temps in red, and colder than normal in blue (darker means more extreme). The sharp boundary explains those powerful winds we had—average speeds 35-40 mph with gusts in the 50s, even 60s one day.
Arrow points to Laramie Valley in southeast Wyoming.

This is my contribution to the January virtual gathering of tree-followers, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. Interested in joining us? … info here.