Lessons learned in the high Sierra

By Paula Phelps, BS Geology ‘18

GRASS LAKE - This year’s backpacking research trip to Desolation Wilderness with Dr. Burmeister and his team was an epic journey. This year’s party was split into two groups. The first five researchers headed into the mountains on August 4th. Jessica Robinson and Allison Jones – Tuttle Lake Formation field research vets – were among this group. By the time the second leg of researchers (Dr. B, Lauren Herbert, and I) joined the group two days later, they had already collected an enormous amount of data! I was impressed by the autonomy of the initial Sierra team. They didn’t need to be overseen to be productive – their work ethic and zeal for geology pushed them to succeed. 

Lauren and I didn’t have to wait to reach Grass Lake for the learning to begin; the hike into the study area with Dr. Burmeister was informative in its own right. We began our hike at the Fallen Leaf Lake trailhead. Lauren and I wasted no time to begin inundating Dr. B with questions about the amazing rock exposures we passed. Dr. Burmeister has a clever way of teaching – he asks targeted questions and encourages our own thought processes. These questions helped us use our current knowledge to unravel the story of the rocks with an accuracy we didn’t think we were capable of. Each time we finished one of these talks, we would return to the trail and felt as though we had accomplished a great feat, learned much, and gained optimism for the next conversation. On our hike we learned about the foliated metamorphic rocks of the Sierra Nevada fault zone, the Sailor Canyon & Tuttle Lake Formations, how rocks oxidize in the presences of hot groundwaters, stratovolcanoes and marine basins full of sediment that predate the sierran granite. Indeed, Lauren and I had already learned a great deal and we had yet to reach our destination!

This is truly one of the benefits of being an undergraduate researcher at a small liberal arts college; learning environments like these are second to none. It’s truly a gift when students can be in the field with knowledgeable professors that are willing to create opportunities for quality, one-on-one interactions and make sure that no questions go unanswered. One might even say no rock goes unturned!

We were met with a warm welcome when we rolled into camp on August 6th. We spent the evening setting up camp, catching up, and making a game plan to ensure that the next four days were productive. Dinner on that first night was my favorite because we were all together as a big group. In the morning, most of the first group of researchers would head back to civilization. The stories, hot chocolate, and laughs flowed freely long after every star was visible in the gorgeous wilderness night sky. The sheer number of stars that filled the sky that night was spectacular – another awesome byproduct of being a geology major. Fortunately, Allison Jones and Alexis Lopez stayed behind for the trip’s duration and helped Dr. Burmeister show us the ropes. They are very familiar with the Grass Lake study area and were happy to bestow their knowledge upon the newbies.

During my first day working in the Tuttle Lake Formation, I learned about the rocks in the study area and how to use a Brunton compass to measure a strike and dip. It was exciting to learn just how critical observations and measurements are to research and I really developed an appreciation for the fact that there is no substitute for learning geology in the field. Lab exercises definitely help students understand lecture material, but it is best to apply that knowledge in the field as soon as possible. I am grateful to be a student at Pacific because we have some spectacular opportunities for applying what we learn in the field, and we know that these experiences give us a real leg up when we enter the workforce!

Over the five days I spent at Grass Lake with the Pacific Structural Geology Group, I learned much more than how the Tuttle Lake Formation is a collection of sedimentary deposits that were metamorphosed and hydrothermaly altered by heat and fluids associated with the Kieth’s Dome pluton. I began to learn how to conduct research and how to collect my own field data. I realized first hand that geologists have the best office of any profession. I learned to beware of freeze dried lasagna. I developed an appreciation for geologist’s “camp fire” stories. I also learned how easy it is to loose a field notebook. Above all else, I was able to confirm that I am in the correct major at the best school and working with the most amazing people. 

Category Tool: