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Pacific’s geology majors explore Yosemite for hands-on and boots-on-the ground experience

California is full of geological wonders. If you want to see sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rock formations all within a fairly small area, this is the place to be. And one of the most striking topographies of North America can be found only two hours east of Pacific’s Stockton campus at Yosemite National Park.

At the beginning of the fall semester, students from Pacific’s Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences went on a four-day camping trip to Owens Valley in Yosemite. Accompanied by professors Lydia Fox and Mike Wurtz, they explored the geological features and environmental history of the region.

Jesse: The unique thing about the Owens Valley in Yosemite area is that you have these massive, intrusive, granitic bodies that as the plates are coming together and pulling apart in this area. You had these massive magma bodies underneath the ground that slowly cooled over time to form these massive chunks of granite and then, as we had an uplift, these massive magma chambers were exposed at the surface, which for the scale we have in California isn’t necessarily rare globally, but being able to get all that at once with the sediments and  metamorphic bodies we see all the way up there, I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world you can find that.

Amy: I think, it was my favorite thing I have done at Pacific. It was so much fun. Even though it was classwork, and we were doing lectures out there, it just felt like I was camping with my friends out in the woods, and we were just having a great time. It was just like a vacation, even though it was school, and we worked very hard. But being in that environment and with our peers who are interested in the same things as we are, it was honestly the most fun I’ve had in a very long time.

Jesse: Funny enough, being a geology major and living in California, I actually had never been to Yosemite before so, being this was my first experience, it was amazing because not only was I seeing all these just overwhelmingly large formations as you come into the valley, just see the walls of granite, Half Dome and El Capitan. Pictures never really do it justice. When you’re standing right next to it, looking up, you can’t really imagine it until you’re there and I would say that’s probably my fondest memory.

Jesse: Everyone had to pack tents and sleeping bags. The department provides the food. For the duration of the trip, we would spend the day going from stop to stop looking at the geological and environmental science and historical aspects of the areas and then in the afternoon, we would park at campgrounds and set up a camp before sitting around the campfire and roasting marshmallows, a traditional camping experience.

Amy: It was really fun because some of us had never gone camping before or never used a certain tent before so, we were all trying to teach each other how to set up the pole quickly because we had to get on to our next site.

Jesse: A few nights of the trip Dr. Fox would cook us dinner family style and we’d eat this homemade meal and then we built a campfire together, which was really fun, and we all had s’mores. So did our international students who had never had a s’mores before so we got to show them the American experience of camping.

Jesse: I think it’s a great college experience. What’s interesting about the trip — it wasn’t just a geology trip, but it was geology and environmental sciences, with Dr. Lydia Fox focusing on the geological portions and Mike Wurtz, a John Muir expert at University of the Pacific Library Archives, focusing on the historical and environmental aspects. We had an interesting fusion that complemented each other at each location.

And even more so, having the historical and geological background just adds that next layer of depth and I would say, any student coming into the department, especially those from out of state that may not have been able to go there before, I think this is an excellent experience that they can look forward to in the department.

Amy: Well, everything is so tied together. Mike Wurtz came along because a lot of the work that Muir did was in Yosemite. We talked a lot about how he had contributed to what we think of as nature today. And he’s why Yosemite Valley is a national park now. He said to President Roosevelt, this is important, we need to have this preserved. We talked a lot about what the world would look like if we didn’t have national parks, if we didn’t have John Muir doing this conservancy work.

He was also a geologist and so he also had a lot of ideas about how Yosemite Valley was formed. He changed a lot of people’s opinions about it. They used to think it was one cataclysmic event from earthquakes that formed Yosemite. But he realized glaciers came through here, so he was looking at all of these landscapes and not just admiring their beauty, but he asked a lot of questions of why this is here, why it looks like this, which is what geologists do when they go out on a site.

Jesse Thornton ’22 is a geological and environmental sciences major from Lodi, CA.

Amy Wheeler ’23 is double-majoring in geological and environmental sciences and in music. She also has a minor in pre-law. She is from Bend, OR.

Photos by Jesse and Amy.

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