Brilliant but cool autumn days beckon us south to explore again the Lake Idaho seabed, hoping for treasures both emotional and material.
“I’m going to scare you in a moment,” I warned the others. They only looked at me quizzically before we plunged over what looked and felt like a cliff. There were yelps and the dash grabbed with both hands before they could see we were still on the road. Hunter was giddy to re-enact his mom’s alarm.
“I warned you,” I said with a smile, hoping I wasn’t in too much trouble.
Rifts in the high desert continuum show glimpses of alien pasts. We have driven ninety minutes to visit sites Brenna and I explored last year¹ — chalk hills embedded with the ancient animal remains of Pleistocene Lake Idaho and a slot canyon cut deep into underlying basalt.
Dispersed chalk and basalt formations are the only obvious signs of the area’s dynamic past amidst the monotony of sage and bitterbrush stretched fifty miles from Boise’s foothills to the Owyhee Mountains.
starIllustration from USGS, “Geological Field Trips in Southern Idaho, Eastern Oregon, and Northern Nevada” (fig. 4): pubs.usgs.gov/…/Ch7
Outside the Jeep, we all notice the strong smell of sage, an earthiness amplified, perhaps, by recent rains.
Fossilized fish vertebrae are present most everywhere we look on the chalky hillside along unmarked dirt tracks we’ve followed south toward Little Jacks Creek Wilderness.
“This used to be part of a fish swimming above our heads,” I announce, holding one up for the kids.
“Really?” Brenna wonders. “Is that true?” Her young mind hasn’t held on to the other times we’ve talked about Lake Idaho.
We were pleasantly surprised by Hunter’s interest in joining us today, no arm twisting required. We’ve noticed how much he’s matured, physically and emotionally, this year. Telling him he’d have a chance to light-off some of his stash of firecrackers probably didn’t hurt either.
“Look at this one!” we call to each other excitedly, alternatively, minute to minute, with some bit of detritus in hand.
“I could spend hours out here just looking at the ground,” I say. Once you spend a moment to calibrate your palette, you realize how beautiful, diversely colored and textured, these lilliputian landscapes are.
We don’t notice them at first but once we do, we see them everywhere — little spheres, some nearly perfect. We encountered ooids for the first time just a few miles away along Mud Flat Road,¹ millions of white BBs, calcium carbonate concretions around sand grains rolled in ancient surf like tiny snowballs.
These aren’t ooids, though. They’re much bigger, formed in deeper water by cyanobacterial growth around a bit of debris. I imagine the green fuzz sometimes seen on underwater rocks. The bacteria decay as calcium carbonate accretions, layer upon layer, over eons. Each sphere has something a little different inside. They’re called oncoids (fun words, these).
Most of the fossils we see are various sorts of molluscs, big and small. I find some cemented black nodules for a change and joke they must be fish coprolite (fossil poo).
“Look at this,” Hunter says, handing me a small, angular rock.
“It’s a jaw. It has a tooth!” I exclaim as I turn it over in my hand.
“Oh,” he says, “I didn’t even see the tooth.”
Lake Idaho’s fossil fish jaws are well known but not terribly common. Brenna has collected quite a nest of oncoids but Hunter is today’s winner.
“We should probably start circling back towards the Jeep,” I suggest. We’ve wandered farther and farther as our eyes catch one thing then another. Brenna has movie plans with Kayla tonight and we’ll be in big trouble if we don’t get her back in time.
I expected recent rains to leave clean roads, neither dusty or muddy. I couldn’t have been more wrong, probably because I washed the Jeep before we came. Shoofly Cutoff billowed dust and tires on these desert tracks fling mud up the sides, over the hood.
We leave the chalk hills and drive a few miles on to a prominence above Little Jacks Creek canyon. There are no trails but last year Brenna and I found a way to enter the chasm.¹
We descend along brown rock faces, curiously folded and pockmarked. Brenna and Hunter argue about which animals occupy many hollows, big and small.
“Nice one!” I tell Brenna. She took a play from my book and wore flip-flops on a rocky hike and has now bloodied her foot. She’s whimpering a bit.
“Put your flip-flop back on,” her mom says. “We’ll clean it later at the Jeep. You’ll be fine ‘til then.”
And we continue descending.
My beloved sandal breaks when I try to arrest a slide on some gravel. Now Brenna and I are bloody foot twins. A strapless sandal should make the rest of the hike more interesting.
“There’s a dead deer!” Hunter calls back, excited. He has scrambled ahead. We see the pelt and hear the flies when we catch up a minute later. It might actually be an antelope though we feel no need to investigate further.
Hunter wastes no time setting off firecrackers. He tosses some into the water. They send up small bubbles then, balloop!
“Pick up any garbage,” we remind him.
Grey walls tower hundreds of feet over us. Brilliant foliage lines the babbling creek beside us. “This is a great space,” I remark.
“It wasn’t this brushy when Brenna and I came,” I add. “I wonder if it’s a grazing change or just the different time of year” (we were here in the spring). I remember the area’s grazing permits were reviewed in 2013 with an eye to improving water quality.¹
“I’ll wade ahead and see if it’s worth it,” I offer. Brenna and I previously hiked to a magical wall-to-wall pool but some don’t want to wade and brush looks thick along the creek.
“Let’s do it,” I conclude after reconnaissance. “It’s easier to push through the brush than it looks.”
We make our way carefully forward, lending hands and holding branches, until we find seats around the water.
“Brenna and I saw a crawdad last time,” I tell Hunter.
“Do you think there’s any now?” he asks.
Just as I’m about to say I’m not sure, I see one in the water. Soon both kids are spotting another and another.
“What is that?” Brenna asks, pointing at red lines in the water.
“Roots,” I tell her.
“No, those,” she insists, pointing again.
“Those are roots,” I say again. She doesn’t seem to believe me until her mom confirms it.
“Ouch,” I call. I just brushed against something that stung me.
“Stinging nettles,” Hunter says flatly as I look down at the hairy stems.
“What’s a stinging nettle?” Brenna wonders. Once we explain, she’s fearful of all things green.
“Now you’ve been initiated,” I tell Brenna after finding her a big leaf to wipe with after peeing. (I had to rub it on my face to prove it wouldn’t sting her.)
Natural spaces, geological and botanical, tend always to ground our thoughts in a broader continuum, to diminish usual concerns. The kids wouldn’t put it that way, of course, but they too quickly forget the show they wanted to watch, video game they wanted to play or how irritating their sibling is.