beneath the lion’s skin – the basalt canyons of central oregon

Among the highlights of my recent wanderings, was the geology encountered along the way. I’d traveled through parts of Oregon and California in the past, so had some expectation of seeing many extraordinary sights. I was not disappointed. This is the first of a small series of posts which I’ll be making related to geology. I hope they’ll be of interest to some of you.

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On a previous trip to the west, I had ventured east of the Cascades, onto the plateau region of central Oregon. Almost immediately, I was captivated by a landscape of undulating grain fields stretching off to meet the sky. But the sculpted softness of these rolling lands conceals a dark and violent geological history lying just beneath. Of this, I became aware as we stopped atop a small bridge to gaze down into a zigzagging, deeply-cut creek. Huge, black, basalt columns rose from the earth, their exposed crowns emerging along the near vertical banks just a yard or two below the surface of the surrounding fields. [Edit: Maybe just a foot or two would be more accurate.]

I frowned and puzzled over the sight for awhile. I’d never seen quite the like. Could these huge columns be part of a greater mass lying just beneath the soil of these croplands? The answer soon became apparent as we traveled further into an autumn landscape of golden stubble, the road occasionally dipping down a few hundred feet to pass through, or wind along, river-carved canyons. Steep hillsides banded with terraces of dark basalt columns, interspersed with layers of lighter colored soil, rose to either side of the road.

The geology throughout much of Oregon is complex and constantly challenges you to think – very hard – about what you’re seeing. It’s a place where volcanic events have shaped the landscape at almost every turn. In central Oregon, a series of massive volcanic eruptions flooded the region with thick layers of basalt spreading out over hundreds of square miles to form an immense plateau. The most cataclysmic volcanic activity produced hot gases and ash that burst across the land creating sheets of very hard “welded” rock known as ignimbrite. During the quieter times between these eruptions and lava flows, layers of ash and earth accumulated. After volcanic activity spanning many millions of years, a time of relative calm arrived. During this period, the ice ages came and went, and over time, faulting, weathering and erosion wore and carved the landscape that we find today. That’s the boiled down technical explanation for what we see when traveling through the basalt canyons of central Oregon today (*see n.b.).

However, there’s more to the landscape than the technical stuff of geology textbooks. If you’re the kind of person who responds to rock, soil, flora and fauna, you can’t help but be moved by this landscape. By late summer, the surface of the land lies like the golden skin of a lion. The soft greens and brilliant yellows of sagebrush and other vegetation carpet the roadsides. But, just beneath, the legions of black basalt columns crowd together. Still deeper layers are revealed in the river canyons. Dropping down to the level of the river, we descend through the lion’s skin, into the flesh and bones of this landscape, to find unimaginable secrets of the earth revealed — more than 20 million years of geological history laid bare before our eyes.

I’d like to share a bit of correspondence sent along by my good friend and fellow traveler, Wilbur “Sparky” Rawlins. During and since our wanderings, we’ve discussed the basalt river canyons. His words describe so well why it is that these places are so… well.. “mindblowing” is the about only word I can come up with to describe how I feel about these canyons:

The place on the river where we got the stickers in our feet – I really liked it there. The shape of the canyon and the colors. The basalt-layered canyons are SO mysterious. Aren’t they?

I guess because you can SEE the Ages.

They are PILED one on top another.

And then – *worn through.*

So you can SEE ’em!

If one assumes the lava flows would have covered things somewhat “evenly,” and I see no reason they wouldn’t, being mostly fluid – and stacked in layers – then you realize that every layer you see above you, in every direction exposed, has been cut away. The space you’re standing in has been opened up by wind, rain, river, ice, and TIME.

A few rabbit feet, too, I spose; but the Total Rabbit Wear is probably not more than a HUNDRED TONS OF ROCK. Think? What’s 30 million years of rabbit wear?

Some elk wear; deer wear; a little bit of fish wear – after all, salmon lift stream sediments in dusting up their redds, and off it flows – prolly a lot more than rabbit wear. And – can ya give the birds any wear? They usually stand on branches, not soil/rocks, so it cant be much – but it’s the millions of years that matter.

Turning basalt to sand and dust, long enough to wear valleys in hard-rock plains, is not a job for the easily worn. You have to be tireless.

As in always there.
As in always coming back.
Like Time does.
It always comes back.
We know that, because we can *see* it.

I guess a person could learn how much the mouth of the river is dumping into the Columbia each year, and somehow try to measure the dust blown away – probably a greater tonnage? And some is carried away by forest fire smoke? You need to try to account for everything, or your imagination isn’t getting the picture.

Every open space has to have gone somewhere, and more importantly, BEEN MOVED.

Down to the elevation of the River, as much has been removed as remains – it’s a total SHITLOAD of material. Looking at the rock walls, the opened space is a reverse image of the ground remaining above the river. It all had plants and trees and animals on it…billions of bunny feet. Highly erosive bunny feet….

“I want you all to clear out of here” is a command only Nature can give, with the means to carry it out on this scale.

Time. Scale.

I see an Awards Ceremony where Nature The Great looks upon her thirty millions of works and awards all the participants for their patient toil to turn a rock plain into a ribbonaci of canyons.

This Present, is a gift.
A decorated gift.
The remains of the days.

Days like today.

Eleven hundred million of them.

It’s an interesting…place.
An interesting “think.”


Postscript: Our conversation about the basalt canyons and columns hasn’t quite ended. This morning, after posting this piece here on Burning Silo, I wrote the following to WR. He suggested I post it here, so I have:

The thought of it…of all that basalt just standing there right below??
Totally blows me away. yeppers.
The basalt is not like other rock.. like, let’s say, worn down granite or something.
There’s something weird about it.. like an army of soldiers hiding right below…
Like those terracotta chinese soldiers they found under the ground.
Yeah. like that.

***Note: For an explanation of the geological history of central Oregon, see Roadside Geology of Oregon by David D. Alt and Donald W. Hyndman, Mountain Press Publishing Company. Pages 161 to 176 are particularly good.

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6 Responses to “beneath the lion’s skin – the basalt canyons of central oregon”

  1. Dave Says:

    Great post! Literary interpretations of geology are far rarer than they should be.

  2. burning silo Says:

    Dave – Thanks! WR and I are both a little wild over geology and tend to discuss it in terms that fall more onto the literary side than the scientific. It’s a bit different way of thinking (and writing) about geology, but often captures the excitement of place.

  3. pablo Says:

    I’m going to Oregon (Eugene) next summer. I wonder if I could find a way to head a little to the east.

  4. Wayne Says:

    No, basalt is quite unlike any other rock! Isn’t oceanic crust basalt? At any rate, it’s certainly not like granite.

    Concepts of time are endlessly entertaining to me, and the even shallow understanding of what tens and hundreds of millions of years can accomplish when things keep on happening little by little are the reward for that kind of thinking.

    On the other end of the scale, should we be able to slow down by, say, a factor of a thousand or so, it would be fun to watch plants move about. Not like animals, but movement nonetheless.

  5. Wayne Says:

    Oh – and by the way, not that “by the way” exactly does them justice, those are fantastic, mystery-loaded pictures. Ain’t like anything around here, that’s for sure!

  6. burning silo Says:

    pablo – There are definitely a number of places of geological interest within driving distance of Eugene. If you’re looking for some ideas, drop me an email and I can make a few suggestions.

    Wayne – Basalt comes in so many fascinating forms – and Oregon is the place to see a good many of them. I’m not certain about the composition of all oceanic crust, but one seafloor rock that is commonly seen in various places on the west coast is Serpentinite. Sometimes, there are great outcrops of it in roadcuts in places where sections of seafloor are now found far inland. Very neat. And you’re right, there are very few examples of anything geologically similar on the east coast that is found in the west. That’s not to say that there’s nothing of interest in the east, but just that it’s very different.
    I think it’s neat to try to get our minds around the “time” factor in all geology. As you’ve mentioned, contemplation of the work of time can be entertaining. When I’m somewhere with unusual geology, I like to sit down for awhile and just try to contemplate what I’m seeing — how it was made — what it’s made of — how it must have changed over time.
    And regarding the photos – thanks! I think it’s safe to say that “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” I still have a few surprises up my sleeve. (-: