ART, SCIENCE, HISTORY AND HARMONY AT THE GREAT SAND DUNES
December 4th, 2015, at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve... A fellow writer once said - "Strive for excellence in writing, not perfection, because you will never achieve it." Correct he is! However, when I visit the Sand Dunes or other outdoor venues in the area, I have found that Mother Nature is the one force that does achieve perfection, when left alone to do so. She paints sunsets, shoots the moon and stars on night rides across the sky, blows up volcanoes, stirs up snowy and thundery tempests, sends flocks of birds across the valley in artistic formations during migrations, inhales flowing mountain streams deep into the ground and has them resurface elsewhere as wetlands, provides hot springs water at several locations around the valley, and performs many more spectacular tricks. One of these is occasionally unleashing furious winds that add her artistic expressions and impressions in shaping the Great Sand Dunes. But not this day!
Mother Nature's perfect conditions I experienced on December 4, 2015
- The low angle of the afternoon southern sun created sharp contrasts from bright sunlight to dark shadows. A few passing clouds added effect.
- The afternoon temperature hit 44 degrees.
- There was no wind at the bottom of the dunes, only light breezes on the slopes and perhaps a steady west wind of 12 mph at the top sending grains of sand flowing gently across the surface of the dunes. Several inches of snow that had fallen a few days before had mostly melted and remained only where the snow had drifted. These snowdrifts were then covered by layers of blowing sand, then followed by more snow and more sand, creating a cinnamon roll swirl!
- Medano Creek had more water in it than usual for December. The creek usually disappears a half mile or more upstream from the main crossing zone to the dunes near the parking lot. On this day, the creek continued a quarter of a mile to the west before disappearing, but not before creating piles of eerie, creepy, oozing foam. The up close visual is like nothing I have seen as it is quite different than sea foam at an ocean beach. (See pics.) - Parking is never an issue in December!
HISTORY is a logical place to start. The La Garita Caldera on the west side of the valley was a giant volcano that 28 million years ago went KaBlamo! One of the largest explosions on earth, it was 4,800 times bigger than Mount St. Helens blowing her top in 1980. Whoa. Gave birth to the San Juan Mountains. About the same time, in a geologic fault process, the Rio Grande Rift on the east side of the valley, gave rise to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Climate patterns took over and wind and water began their sculpting careers and they continue to work enthusiastically to this day. They have no plans to retire as wind and water enjoy their job of moving sand, snow and water around. However, it is nice when the wind takes days off and makes cool sunny days feel warm! Roughly 28 million years later in early December 2015, along comes me, a wandering ecologist who marvels at these dunes each time I am in attendance.
SCIENCE Plants grab hold in low areas where their roots can gain a foothold. Coyotes, small animals, and birds leave artistic tracks in the dunes but there are not many species that can make their living on, or under, the sand. Physics is the science that dominates. Light physics, especially in December, and how it plays upon everything, is far more noticeable throughout the day than the powers that shape the dunes. The reflections off the wet sands and flowing water are intense. Wear sunglasses! Light energy from the sun is absorbed in the dark tan colors of the sand and turns to heat energy. In the summer, temps can reach 140 degrees and toast your toes and soles of your feet with serious burns. But in December, the sand in the sun is pleasantly warm while on the dark side of the dunes is comfortably cold.
Water takes most of the year off and usually only flows in front of the dunes during the spring snowmelt from late March into mid-summer except in high precipitation years. At first glance it looks as though water is simply running over wet sand. However, there are surges of water that upon close examination, are carrying a high concentration of sand, forming a slurry which allows the creek to push the sand back west into the valley. The stream flows I crossed were carrying quite a bit of sand that spreads out over the downstream sand until it stops moving, dries out and gets blown back into the dune field by the wind when a prevailing southwesterly kicks into high gear. High winds blow clouds of sand from the valley, combine them with surface dune sand and the trillions of grains swirl and dance erasing footprints and reshaping the dunes. Uncomfortable as it is, the process can be seen and experienced by being on the dunes during a high wind. Perils include bare skin getting sand blasted, quite painful from knees down if wearing shorts, and getting sand in eyes, ears and nose plus, backpack, cell phone and camera. How do you think I know that? Once was enough for that experience.
ART My original plan for the day was to wander deep into the dune field. But, I became fascinated with the artistic displays in the flowing waters, the wind sculpted sand, the shapes of footprints on varying degrees of slope. When I came across my first area where grasses were growing, I looked at the base of the sand below each grass bundle and saw lots of marks that looked like tracks. At first hypothesis, I thought small animals were seeking shelter in the grasses. But, then I had a palm to the forehead thud moment, whereby I declared 'duh,' and though the wind was not blowing at the time I realized the tracks were actually brush marks from the grasses whipped around by the wind. Imagine being the wind, water, sun and sand working together to create this beautiful gallery with different art every day! This asks the philosophical question - Is nature's beauty not seen, still beauty?
HARMONY My first task was to enjoy the beauty of the day. And then attempt, through a lens to capture images worthy of Mother Nature's talent. In between images, I was trotting across the dunes, a nice physical challenge. My heavy breathing mixed with the occasional breeze whistling past my ears. At one point I was traversing a slope to meet up with other tracks going up toward High Dune. I looked straight up and it was about 60 to 70 yards to the ridge where I wanted to go. There were no tracks on the slope for two reasons. First, it was steep but I was determined to make it up. Second, as I started to climb, I would slide back and sand would slide and fill up my tracks erasing them completely. I was going nowhere on two feet. So I had to go on all fours. The only technique that worked was to plunge my fingers into the sand, pull down, and then walk with my feet keeping three points in the sand to keep from sliding backward in the loose sand. My fingers were getting pushed back firmly each time and they fatigued. In time, I made it to the ridge. As I looked down, where I had climbed was in no way visible. My efforts were erased forever in the sands of time. However, I did have to remember I was working. What a harmonious day on the job!
Through the lens I have attempted to capture a few of the images of the December dunes.
Armed with a bit of science knowledge, a bit of dune history, an appreciation for art, and a good level of fitness, I had a great afternoon. More reading: La Garita Caldera, Rio Grande Rift, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.