Monday, June 30, 2008

In the Candystore (Mount Lassen)

Lassen Volcanic National Park is just a few miles away from Hat Creek Radio Observatory, so it seemed inevitable that we would go explore it. I was also excited because Lassen was my third national park in the past month (the others being Badlands National Park and Yellowstone), which is an unprecedented record for me and one that has been great to follow through on.

Lassen's claim to fame, of course, is blowing its top about a century ago and being essentially Yellowstone National Park's little brother ever since in the sense that there's some decent amounts of geothermal activity still in the area. It's also a lovely spot with air quality typically used as the standard against which to measure the other national parks, but unfortunately the nearby wildfires meant we didn't get to see that part. It was still pretty though...

The clearest view of Mount Lassen I got all week, taken from the region known as "The Devastated Area," which was, well, completely destroyed by lahar the last time the volcano blew its top. As this was nearly a century ago, most of the area is now covered in a lovely pine forest, though there are still tall boulders liberally sprinkled throughout the forest which were carried down from the summit in the mudslide.

I will say though, one of the more entertaining things to me was not as much the geology itself but watching the geology students. This is because while I have a healthy respect for rocks and have taken geophysics I am not a rock person, nor had I seen a bunch of them out in the field. Letting them loose in Lassen, by contrast, was like watching a bunch of kids in a candy store, and there was much earnest examination of boulders and tiny magnifying lenses used to examine crystals and what not. I rather liked it just because it's always fun to watch people who are passionate about what they're doing, particularly when they're more than happy to talk your ear off so you might learn a thing or two you wouldn't otherwise.
Isn't this a cool plant? If I were filming a movie on an alien world I'd order a bunch and fill the set with them... Alas these guys have a bit more normal an origin, and are known as snow plants. They make their appearance in the late spring/early summer when the snow melts, and live off the resulting moisture. Some years the forest is said to be covered with them, but as it's a bit dry this year (obviously, or the fire issue wouldn't be an issue would it?) we have to make do with a few scattered throughout the forest.
Snow! Yay! The road we were on wound just above 9,000 feet, meaning there was still plenty of snow for snowball fights this time of year. This was also where the biologists took the place of the geologists in the "kids in a candystore" role, as there was snow algae growing on the snow. It makes the snow look red (despite paradoxically being known as green algae- not to be confused with later green-looking algae on the trip that was red algae), and is apparently not well understood because it's rather difficult to cultivate in a lab setting.
An obligatory shot of steam rising from an area known as the Sulfur Works. This particular feature was a boiling mud pot that was pretty neat, actually, both in its nature in itself and the fact that it was right next to the road. There was a nice sturdy fence to keep the tourists away from getting too close, but we were nonetheless right next to it for all intents and purposes so that was neat.
An obligatory "look, the national park is pretty!" picture. Taken exactly across the street from the bubbling mud pool, where the geologists and biologists had happily realized they were both in a candy store at the same time and were running occasionally intersecting discussions regarding the geophysics involved and the extremophiles. Hooray!

We ended the day by splitting up into two groups, one which would be camping in Lassen for two nights and another which would be heading back to the relative civilization of Hat Creek. I confess I was in the latter group- it had been a bit chilly the night I slept out in the telescope array field, and if I knew anything about altitudes it was that it would be even colder in the campground. Turns out I was right, so that was a good decision...