Flying Scientists

In 1906 the San Andreas Fault violently unzipped a 296-mile seam through coastal California. At the epicenter, San Francisco was badly shaken, much of it burned. A century later, it’s still possible to find lingering evidence of the earthquake — broken headstones in the Graton cemetery; offset fences at Point Reyes; a redwood tree torn asunder, its two halves continuing to grow near Fort Ross. Details like these are scattered along the ground from San Juan Bautista to Shelter Cove. But the best overall view of the San Andreas is from the air.

Well, usually the view is better. I was doing a book about the San Andreas when Carol Prentice offered to show me the fault’s northern end where she had done so much work for the U.S. Geological Survey. We met at the Palo Alto airport one morning and launched into the notorius Bay Area soup. Norcal Approach vectored us northwest, climbing through 3000 feet as we went over San Francisco International, blindfolded by the fog. We shared the clouds with an unseen 747 arriving from Spain. The pilot, on final for 28R, requested a last-minute change to the left runway. I glanced at Carol as Approach granted the request. She couldn’t hide a coquettish delight when the satisfied pilot replied with the most beautiful Castillian accent, “Cooooool!”

Carol Prentice; Shelter Cove, California

We climbed above the low stratus somewhere near the Golden Gate and proceeded on top toward Shelter Cove. Carol is one of a handful of geologists who have focused their professional attention on recent movement of the northern San Andreas. She was glued to the window as we passed Mount Tamalpais, disappointed that clouds obscured the fault where it cleaved the Pacific and North American plates across Tomales Bay. Oh well, the thin layer would likely lift by the time we returned later in the afternoon.

The coastline remained hidden as we flew on to the northwest. Our intention was to land at Shelter Cove where Carol had studied scarps of the 1906 earthquake on a beach immediately below the airport. But the fog, now only a few hundred feet thick, was tenacious, clinging to cypress and oaks. I peered down the barrel of every canyon that we passed, straining to look under the clouds and see breakers. No doubt there was a lens of clear air just over the water, but I could not find a ladder to climb down from our perch above the clouds. We could always give up and just shoot an approach into Arcata.

When the GPS insisted that we were directly over Shelter Cove I still could see nothing. Phooey. We orbited a few turns, thinking things over. Number one: we didn’t have to get there. Number two: we’d sure like to get there. The mountains along this Lost Coast plunge steeply into the Pacific — better they than I. Flying a few miles west, I spied a small break in the clouds. It wasn’t big but it was big enough. Looking straight down, I could see waves. Carol grinned; down the rabbit hole we went. I had to climb in order to land at Shelter Cove, elevation 69 feet.

On particularly bad days during graduate school, I would bicycle into the hills above Stanford and lay prone across what I thought was the San Andreas, squenching my eyes real tight and double-daring the fault to snap. Nothing ever happened. It turns out the fault was a few miles further up the road. From the air these days, I have no excuse for missing it. The San Andreas stands out with stunning clarity as it crosses central California. That section of the fault hasn’t budged since 1857 and is now decades overdue for an earthquake. When I fly above the Carrizo Plain I always half-expect to see a line of dust rip along the length of the San Andreas as the fuse is lit.

San Andreas Fault; Carrizo Plain, California

I often fly alone when I’m photographing. Most people get bored of sitting at odd-duck airports, waiting for the sun to get right. Once aloft, I get tired of looking over at their bug eyes and bulging cheeks as the plane twists and shouts to get into just the right spot for a photograph. But I make exception for scientists; I fly more sedately with them on board. I was fortunate enough to take Dave Love over his beloved Wyoming. John McPhee had already written Rising from the Plains which had superbly showcased the state’s wild geology through Dave’s eyes. Dave was eighty-two when I met him at the Dubois airport. He had started mapping the Absarokas and Wind River Mountains from horseback in the 1930s and had never stopped. Forty years later, he would be considered one of the US Geological Survey’s most influential field geologists.

From the plane he pointed out this cliff where his horse had fallen, that ledge where he’d been stranded. From ten thousand feet, we considered the odd occurrence of Rattlesnake volcanic rocks that he had found well north of their original source. I thought out loud about sand dunes that we could see lining the Sweetwater River, perhaps forcing it to change course – and maybe explaining the odd northerly occurrence of those volcanic rocks. Dave stroked his chin and said, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?”

Squaretop; Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

We glided down to the abandoned ranch near Poison Creek where his family had homesteaded at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dave had grown up here, a million miles from anywhere, a million years ago. I offered to land on an adjacent road so we could get out and walk around. His voice caught as he said no; it was better for the memories just to stay inside his head

Flying does not distance me from the earth. I still love to get out on the ground, but equally love seeing a bigger picture of the earth from the air. A pair of geology grad students once asked me to help them look at joint patterns in southern Utah. Joints are rock fractures that haven’t gotten around to moving; that would make them faults instead.

Joints; Arches Ntional Park, Utah

The two students dutifully took notes as we flew across exposures of brittle sedimentary layers in southern Utah. We saw the deeply eroded Navajo Fins that stand guard above Moab, and the broad broken backs of sandstone within Arches National Park. We checked out the Cedar Mesa Sandstone where eroded joint lines have isolated spans of rock within Natural Bridges National Monument. At the end of a long day, the students folded their notebooks, put away they pencils, and sat in the Buzzard with hands folded in their laps. I asked one of them where he would be doing field work. “Oh, no, I won’t need to return,” the serious young man said. “I’ll be able to do my thesis with satellite photos and computer modelling.” Something seemed wrong, a connection was missing.

Dennis Trabant, on the other hand, loved to be out among the white landscapes he studied. A few years ago I had helicoptered into the icy interior of the Seward Peninsula with him while working on a book about Alaskan glaciers. We spent a week on Wolverine Glacier, measuring the internal structure and movement of the ice. Dennis had the thick forearms of a supremely confident man who knows how to fix anything. On a beautiful sunny afternoon our snowmobile had died miles and miles away from camp. Dennis was perfectly delighted to have the entire machine disassembled out there on the ice while he figured out and fixed whatever it was that had gone wrong.

Dennis Trabant on Wolverine Glacier, Alaska

The following year I was back in Alaska, and invited Dennis to go for a spin around Redoubt Volcano. I arrived at the Kenai Airport where we had agreed to meet, and was surprised to find him not there. He showed up all greasy early the next morning, explaining that his motorcycle had quit running on the way down from Fairbanks. It had taken all night to repair the bike alongside the road. We found breakfast and returned to the airport in time to watch a fuel tanker taking off on 19R, 7830 feet long. Reaching the middle of the runway, the fully loaded DC-6 had climbed to the dizzying altitude of five feet, at which point the pilot retracted the landing gear and commited the plane to flight. Dennis and I inhaled, then inhaled some more, and inhaled just a little more as the plane’s propeller tips cleared the airport’s southern fence by inches.

Redoubt Volcano, Alaska

We exhaled, boarded the Buzzard, and climbed west across Cook Inlet. Dennis pointed out every feature and named every mountain as we approached Lake Clark National Park. He had hiked on or around them all. Redoubt Volcano, just over 10,000 feet, rose grandly above the Drift River at its northern base. Fifteen years earlier, helicopters had dropped him onto its flanks one hundred and fifty times, so that he could measure glaciers and their response to the volcano’s 1989 eruption. As we circled Redoubt, the morning light was incandescent, flowing like magma down the mountain. Dennis was ecstatic. It was pure pleasure to give him this view from the air that perfectly complemented his knowledge from the ground.  He and David and Carol knew what it meant to be connected.

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About Michael Collier

I had the good fortune to be given five mentors early in life. John Running shared his love for honest photographs. Chuck Barnes showed me how to think like a geologist. Chris Condit, bless his soul, taught me to fly. Walt Taylor will always be the most effectively caring physician I could ever imagine. And Wesley Smith, that night above Crystal, taught me how to pray to the river. My thanks to you all.