Before I am a Geoscientist working in an oil and gas corporate company,  I was just a student learning Geology.  As a student in the University of Arizona, Tucson, it is compulsory for geoscience student to attend field camp class. I believe, geology field camp course in Arizona is the most challenging among other universities.

Before entering senior year, we had to go for summer field camp in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada. The most interesting part was that we would live like a nomad and live in the tents only. In between mapping, we would have travelling days and day off.

While most of students went home for summer break, the geoscience students had to prepare for the most rigorous class ever. I did not prepare myself mentally and decided to just follow the flow. I realized about this class since my freshman year, so along the way, I planned to try field camp in other universities which don’t require a month of camping. Furthermore, the class credit is six, so being a competitive person, getting less than A is not an option. In addition to that, for 15 days, the field camp coincidentally fell in the month of Ramadan. Unfortunately, as a scholar I was not allow to do the credit transfer.  With heavy heart, I forced myself to go through this. As long as I get through it and back home in one piece it would be okay, I guess? I hope.

In that year, I did not go home for summer so while waiting for the field camp class to commence, I took extra classes. At the same time, me and my buddies prepared all the required material and what we think stuff that were enough for the class (apparently not).

The lists of things:

  1. Tent
  2. Backpack
  3. Daypack
  4. 40F sleeping bag
  5. Sleeping mat
  6. Pillow
  7. Utensils
  8. Clothes to survive for a week (because we will stop for laundry once a week)
  9. Khakis cargo pants
  10. Long sleeve shirts
  11. Hat
  12. 2 water bottles
  13. A lot of snacks (which I could not finish by the end of the trip)
  14. Toileteries (lotion and chap stick is very important)
  15. Warmer
  16. Jacket
  17. Windbreaker

Tucson-Grand Canyon South Rim

Day 1

The D day. I could not sleep that night thinking of what would happen to me throughout the trip. I always have the anxiety before travelling but to travel in a group for once in a lifetime trip like this made me felt uneasy. I need to make sure that everything was properly packed. I felt relieved when the adviser told us that we would camp and able to leave our stuff back at the camp ground or in the van while mapping. So, it would not be that difficult. Though, I was still worried that I need to carry heavy bags from the car to camp ground. What if the camp ground is 2 km away from the car? How many is many to carry? Too many questions rushing my mind until I woke up the next morning to the sound of alarm.

The day was finally here. My senior was already at the front gate waiting for us. Since my mind was wandering here and there, I became emotionless. At least I tried to not let the nervousness clouded my judgement. There were 4 Chevrolet SUVs and a van parked next to Gould Simpson Building. So, we stored our stuff at a car driven by Courtney and Alyssa. Soon after that, we began a 5 hour journey to Grand Canyon South Rim. I had been to Grand Canyon twice before but never been there in the summer. Fingers crossed that no snow would cover the rock layers.

Grand Canyon is a magnificent outcrop. It is massive and you can see the formation miles away. It is definitely a geologist playground and has been extensively studied by many people. So it was not that much of a mystery for us. FYI, we need to memorize geologic time scale and use it throughout our life (until now I am still referring to the table for my day to day work). Grand Canyon is literally the geologic time table in an outcrop setting. From Pre Cambrian to recent, we could see the layers defined geologically. That means hundred millions of years.

Grand Canyon in the summer

We were asked to interpret the rock layers from far and draw what we think we saw. It was not easy honestly. To think about it now, it was difficult because I did not have that much confidence back then. If I were to do it now, I think I could finish the drawing in 2 minutes.

While writing for this post, I understood now that the Grand Canyon drawing was the first exercise before we dive into many more difficult observations for the rest of the camp. It was an introduction.

Pardon me for looking young. This was 6 years ago.

When it was time for me to set up the tent, it took me a while to complete it. I was not a camper person back then. Luckily, I managed to do it without any help thanks to the few practices that I had back home and previous field trips. It was awkward at the first night of camping with basically nothing to do. I even managed to take a shower but the water was too cold!

The food was cook quite early so I might be hungry later at night. Thankfully there was rice (me being Asian). The food was not that bad except I could not consume the meat due to religious reasons. As an alternative, we were provided with tofu. Unfortunately, some of them took our tofu which was cook just enough for the vegetarian and Muslims like us. In the end, three of us ate so little. We were left quite hungry and sad to be honest.

Later that night, I could not sleep that well. It was very cold. The sleeping bag apparently not enough to warm me up so I had to wear extra layers while sleeping.

Grand Canyon South Rim-Sheep Creek

Day 2

Early in the morning, I woke up early and prepared my lunch pack which was just a sandwich. I wondered if it would be enough (it wasn’t enough initially but after a while, I got use to it. I lost many pounds as a result). Repacking my stuff and packing the tent was a tough job. It took me a while to ensure that everything was in place. “It’s ok” I told myself. It had been only 2 days and another 27 days would be enough for me to become an expert camper.

The canyon becomes narrower as we were heading to the north

We all hopped into the cars and I wondered how the next destination would look like. This would also be the first time for me to enter Utah. It does sound alien to me and the landscape was unlike what most people see on Earth. The view along the road was amazing. It was orange and red along the way. We made few stops to do geological works. Roadside geologists usual stuff.

Stopping at a location for geology.
Notice the abrupt difference in the color between Navajo and Moenkopi formations.
It was hot but we had to finish our work.
Sam laying under the rocks. He is Barbara’s dog.
We entered Utah. I entered Utah for the first time.
Kim’s photo: P sign at Page town
The landscape of Utah. Mostly reddish.
The palm like structure

We diverted to a location where there was nothing except rocks and shrubs. The place is called Kodachromme. After having lunch, we were brought to outcrops which looks plain and boring. According to the professors, the rock section consists of formation of different age than we saw at Grand Canyon.

The starting of the hike. I worn jeans because it gave the best protection from shrubs and thorns.
On top of the hill where we observe the rocks.

After returning to the camp, we set up the tents and prepared for dinner. I was actually nervous. There was no toilet around. How am I going to do my ‘business’ here? After dinner, we had to complete the maps and reports before midnight but I was scrambling. I did not know what to draw and I did not know what should I observed earlier. It was that bad. I was so not good in geological mapping. Even though I thought I screwed it up, I was already tired and sleepy to think about it further. Let bygone be bygone.

Day 3

Early in the morning before everyone else woke up the next day, I made my quiet walk to a location far enough from the camp. There, I took the small shovel, wipes and water bottle with me. It was so awkward and gross. I had to dig a hole and that became my toilet. At that point of time, I was not sure if I was able to survive for a month like this.

Alyssa, Husna and Wani.
Getting ready to leave the camp site for the next location.

We continued our journey to next location. It was becoming more like a routine even though I wish we would stay slightly longer and had more rest. We stopped at the roadside to observe some eolian sandstone formations with amazing formations. We drove to the free way and made a stop at a look out point with amazing scenery. This look out point is located at the San Rafael Swell. The perk of learning Geology is that, besides appreciating the view, we could also understand the story behind the formation of the landscape. Most importantly, we know that it didn’t happen overnight. It took thousands to millions of years.

Navajo eolian sandstone.
The clear feature of the formation.
A cave shop at a gas station.
San Rafael Swell. It was an anticline formed due to upwelling magma. It was then eroded and formed what we see today. San Rafael Swell Geology

Not too long after driving pass the San Rafael Swell we made a turn to state route. Trees were becoming more prominent and there were patches of ice along the way. We were entering an area where the red rocks began to disappear from the formations. The change seemed to appear flame-like and the formation on top of it was tan to white.  We drove along a big lake and finally arrived at a camp ground at Sheep Creek. Starting from today, we had been given a schedule on kitchen maintenance. Since they saw Malaysians (3 of us) as a person, we were put together for almost every work including the kitchen duty.

It was pretty quiet that evening with nothing much to do. Every body was just settling around the camp ground. It was literally a calm before storm. Later, the storm broke and thunders woke me up in the middle of the night. I was so scared upon hearing the thunders. We were camped in the middle of an open ground and the risk to be hit by lightning was high. I prayed hard to God that me and everyone else survive the night. I hold myself from the urge to pee and eventually slept all the way through.

Day 4

This would be the first day that we will go through full mapping. So, I equipped myself with rock hammer, acid bottle, camera, 2 bottles of water and a lunch pack (sandwich that I made during breakfast). I was quite nervous thinking off what was to expect during the mapping. At the same time, I was excited to finally be able to start the field work.

We hiked for quite sometime and noticed the camp ground was actually located in a valley. So, I assumed we were safe from last night’s storm because the hills became natural lightning barriers. As we went up higher, the view was becoming clearer and the flaming red formation was becoming more evident. During that time, I did not have much understanding on field geology. I did notice the difference in the formation color from bottom to the top of the hill but could not quite capture what was it all about. Now, I can easily say that there is a formation contact between two different formations.

Kim’s photo: View of our camp site
Having lunch while mapping the opposite hill. There’s a fault there. Please discuss among yourselves.
Continuing the hike.

It took me awhile to really grasp the geology so I was left behind most of the time. But I rather spent more time understanding than being at the front with lack of knowledge. The first day of full mapping, I mostly hiked alone and sometimes, I managed to catch one of the professors like Jay Quade who would sometimes slowed down his pace. Occasionally the lead professor Pete DeCelles would wait for those who were slow but eventually we missed most of the explanations. I had to work extra hard to gain information from other students. It was quite stressful when some of them would not share the info but I believe now that they neither did not understand the whole thing (just pretending they know a lot).

Thankfully, my buddy Wani did not go too far front, so I managed to catch her and asked her questions. She and Husna were more reliable than most of the others (unfortunately Husna was too far at the front). We hiked all the way to the end and discovered the lake that we passed on our way from Grand Canyon to the camp site. I almost ‘died’ from the view. It was so gorgeous. The red formation surrounding the lake was like fire flaming from the water surface. It is literally called Flaming Gorge.

The dam and the red rocks of Moenkopi Formatiob can be seen from the distance.
Barbara gave her piece of geology which is mostly difficult for me to understand.

Not long after that, we hiked back to the starting point and drove all the way to the opposite hill. This time around, we hiked up next to the main road. We were now at the red formation. Apparently, it was not that red. More like reddish brown (I wish I know exactly how to characterize the color back then). I  became more confused than I was before and most of the time ended up sitting and imagining things. At that point of time I felt useless and failure defeated my motivations. I just wanted to be back at the camp site and rest. Just hoping for a better day tomorrow. Moreover, we had to submit the maps and assignment by tomorrow midnight and I was not sure if I could.

Day 5

I woke up and thinking it had only been 5 days. How to survive another 24 days if I was always confused. This was also the third day without shower too. Thanks to the stack of wipes that I bought before the field camp, I could at least wipe myself from the dirt. I just braved myself and woke up and tried to pick up the routine of brushing teeth, wiping my body, changing to the new long sleeve shirt and same pants, eating breakfast and preparing lunch and ready for another challenging day.

Along the way, we spotted grizzly bear at the same location we passed while hiking at the hill. This was my first time seeing a grizzly bear in the wild. Grizzly bear is definitely notorious. It is known to attack and even eat people because of their carnivorous tendency. Black bear on the other hands is more gentle in nature and eat mostly honey and leaves. However, if they are provoked or are with the cubs, they would attack humans without hesitations. Don’t ever think that the passive behavior  shown by the bears means you are safe in the wild. They can definitely outrun you.

If you encounter them, use bear spray immediately and make a lot of noise. They would avoid humans. Another threat is mountain lion. I did not see one throughout the field camp, but one of us saw the tail. When you encounter mountain lion you shall make yourself looking bigger. They might be intimidated by the size. Mountain lions are known to attack people especially hikers who are unaware about its presence.

Grizzly bear chilling at the rock. (Center)

We continued our journey at the starting point which was quite far from the camp. At first, the professors would explain and then, they let us free to roam around. I was again clueless and decided to follow my buddy, Wani. Hopefully we could get something in return. It was definitely difficult for me. I tried my best to identify the beds and do some measurements using Brunton Compass. At the same time, I took as many pictures as I could besides writing the descriptions. It was a mess and I wasn’t sure if I get the correct descriptions. We did until it was already late in the afternoon. We had walked so far away and other students were not seen. Rain began to pour and I had to use my rain ponchos and hid behind the rocks. It was quite scary to hear thunders occasionally.

The rain finally subsided and I decided it was enough for me for the day but Wani had different opinions. She thought that there were more to be seen and she continued her hike somewhere and I hiked back to the main road. Many questions appeared on my mind while walking back. I did not understand any of them. Eventually I just brushed it off and return to the camp and sat quietly at the bench. Most of the students were already  back and they seemed to be okay and not even slight worrying wrinkles on their face. I became more frustrated and stress. I tried to pull myself together and drew a map based on whatever information that I obtained earlier that day. By almost midnight, even though I managed to draw something, I had zero confidence with the outcome and just submitted the assignment to Pete.

We had to complete the assignment in the dark with our head lamps on.

To be continued…