Masters of Science

Chuck Barnes taught me an important lesson when I was trying to pick geologic topics to study. He advised first choosing a good location, then figuring out the relevant scientific questions later. His advice struck a chord when I was a graduate student and it continues to resonate now. I avoid photographing or writing about a place if I haven’t grown fond of it.

For my thesis, I chose not just the bottom of Grand Canyon, but an isolated stretch along the Colorado River that could only be reached by boat. Years earlier Peter Huntoon had described a ‘river anticline’ where the Bright Angel Shale had presumably been squeezed up like toothpaste. From Fishtail to Tuckup, thin layers of the Muav Limestone were folded into a kink that looked like manhandled spanikopita.

Structural geologists usually wave their arms about incomprehensibly huge stresses within the earth’s crust to explain how rocks are beaten into folds. But that wasn’t going to work for the river anticline because it faithfully follows the serpigenous Colorado River at every bend — not the regional stress field. The river writhes like a snake through this stretch of Grand Canyon. By eliminating the larger tectonic stresses, I was left with a single force: the weight of the surrounding walls. That I could handle. Maybe.

John at kink fold above Matkatamiba Canyon

I planned to make three research trips on the river. Each would last three weeks, necessarily floating 225 miles from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. I had to find boatmen and borrow inflatable rafts. I bought food by the pickup load and beer by the barrel. The trips were not without distraction. On the first one in July 1977, Mark Arnegard boarded the remains of a dory that had been thrashed and abandoned in 25-Mile Rapids a few weeks earlier. We were in a quiet stetch of Marble Canyon, so the other three of us gave him a kayak paddle and rowed on downstream. Once we were out of sight, Mark waved non-chalantly to commercial motorboats that passed him for the next few hours.

Mark paddling in Marble Canyon

My father came along on the second trip in October. Others on the trip included John Running (my photography mentor) and Jimi Hendrix (a good boatman and the human embodiment of Brownian motion). When Dad asked about gear he might bring, I said that river etiquette strictly precluded blasphemous widgets like his transistor radio. On the night we camped above 75-Mile Rapids, I cooked dinner. No matter how loud I yelled that burritos were ready, Dad and Jimi didn’t show up. Too bad; John and I started without them. Half way through, Dad and Jimi suddenly erupted up from behind a boulder not fifty yards from the kitchen. Reggie Jackson had just hit his third home run in Game 6 of that year’s World Series.

Jimi and John near Nautiloid Canyon

Once the real work started below Fishtail, I repeatedly criss-crossed the river to measure rocks on both banks. I learned to anticipate how different members of the Muav would behave as I traced layers back into side canyons. An understanding of the fold slowly emerged as I mapped petite thrust faults and symmetric kink bands. I had found a perfect natural laboratory where stress could be calculated and strain could be measured. How cool is that?

Back in my cubbyhole on the Stanford Quad after the first two trips, I spent endless hours navigating the frightening formulae that would harness stress to strain. I am not a mathematician by trade or training, but somehow got through it, even enjoyed the beauty of the equations. Huntoon was wrong. The Bright Angel Shale had not squeezed up like toothpaste; instead the Muav had been pushed sideways toward the river by the weight of the canyon walls. I wrote it all up and gave a preliminary draft to my advisor, Arvid Johnson.

Hugh in Lava Falls

I planned one last research trip to fill in a few blank spots on the maps and fact-check what I thought I already knew. “Arvid,” I said, “I need your comments and criticisms. I’m leaving for Arizona in two weeks.”

“Arvid, I’m leaving in one week.”

“Arvid, I’m leaving. Send your comments to me in care of Chris Condit in Flagstaff.” Four of us packed the trip, checked the mailbox one last time, and left empty handed for Lees Ferry. I’d have to get by without my advisor’s comments. The trip was exquisite: perfect April weather, almost no one else on the river. Hugh rowed one boat; I rowed the other. Jane and Tisha came along for moral support. Chris and two other friends, John and George, hiked in and joined us for a couple days from Hance to Boucher. Chris was my flying buddy. John was the surgeon who had whittled here and there on me a few years earlier. George was the geologist who would fall into a lava flow on Hawaii and live to tell about it.

Tisha in Stephens Aisle

The first ten days of the trip — pure play — drew to a close as we neared Fishtail where the work would begin. But a mile or two before we got there our reverie was broken by the sound of an approaching motorboat. The boatman, his assistant, and their twelve commercial passengers sidled alongside our much smaller rafts. These fourteen men, four days out from Lees Ferry and already missing the comforts of home, took inordinate interest in the two women stretched out catlike on the tubes of our boats. For some reason, the motorboat hung around much longer than I would have expected.

Then I heard the faint drone of an airplane and saw it about even with the Redwall Limestone. The single-engine plane was two thousand feet above us but still very much down in the Canyon. I caught the faint whisp of irritation that passed over the boatman’s face — how dare an airplane intrude on our wilderness experience. The plane disappeared.

Jane on the Colorado River

The plane returned, though, now level with the Tapeats. The boatman openly shook his fist at the intruder. Mind you, this was 1978, well before the FAA made it illegal to fly within the Canyon. I recognized the lovely round tail of a very familiar Cessna 170 as it passed. Sure enough, the plane pirhouetted and came back at us, this time not a hundred feet off the water. As he roared overhead, Chris leaned out and dropped a tupperware box suspended beneath a white parachute. As it floated down, I could read lettering on the parachute that stenciled the good news: Emmylou Harris was alive, well, and still in love with me.

I rowed over as the box settled onto the river. Off came the duct tape and I whoooopped to read Arvid’s note that said I had a masters degree. In Science.


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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.