Sunday, October 30, 2011

Radium Springs Cave, Arkansas

This last spring I had the opportunity to go caving with a great group of cavers in Arkansas. This trip was into Radium Springs Cave in northern Arkansas, sort of a final small event during Hydro Days.

This is one of those great caves that's both large and explorable, but also protected with a lockable hatch, so only certain people are allowed to get in. Even more of a plus, this was not a "show cave", meaning we had no official guide, and we could only see what we shined our flashlights at.

A short walk into the cave we first came to the locked "entrance". This metal hatch was placed over a natural bottleneck. It was quite a small entrance, and a sign to come of the claustrophobic passages we would experience.

Most of the cave was made of large "rooms" that we would spend a while in looking at really great speleothems and cave structures. Between the large rooms, though, we often had to crawl through very narrow, low, and otherwise unnervingly small passages for long distances (I had to take my backpack off just to fit along this belly-crawl passage below. It went for a good 50 feet, and we went one at a time just incase someone had to back out). Since moving to Missouri I have gone on a number of cave trips, and they all had been building me up to be able to handle this level of claustrophobia.

One of the neat cave features are these "boxwork" features, named so because they form these honeycomb shaped features on the cave ceiling which look like old fashioned post office mail sorting boxes. While most ceiling features are formed from calcite dissolution, these are calcite veins from the rock which used to be there. The veins were more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rock, so are remnant features.

Aside from those, there were plenty of the garden variety cave speleothems, as seen below. Stalagmites are the spikes on the floor of the cave. Stalagtites are the spikes hanging from the ceilings. Where a stalagmite and stalagtite grow together they form a column. The large feature on the left (which I always think look like frozen waterfalls) is flowstone, which is formed the same way as the other speleothems.

Our group would often stop in some of the larger rooms and take some fairly spectacular pictures. My little camera was nothing compared to some of the great equipment some of us had.

One of the more interesting concepts of the karst bedrock system is the way in which water flows underground in these areas. While traversing through the cave we often had to hop or otherwise tred through small streams. Underground river systems are the norm in these areas.

One of the great things about this cave being locked off from just anyone is that vandalism and over-exploration would have probably destroyed some of the more delicate formations.

I had been caving before, usually bringing my own headlamp. This was the first time I had been introduced to a carbide lamp. These are flame lamps which are powered by adding little carbide lumps with water in the reservoir of the lamp. This combination gives off a flammable gas which is lit to ignire a small flame. The lever on top controls how much gas escapes and therefore the size and brightness of the light. A little carbide seemed to go a long way, so as long as you had a source of water you had light (handy in a cave).

Below, picture of my masters thesis advisor (left) and myself (right).

I also had the opportunity to go caving with Dr. Arthur Palmer (below, right), whose textbook many speleology classes use, and is well known in the karst world. Great guy!

Despite the lack of visible light there was still plenty of life to be found underground. Below, a cave cricket.

While delving deeper into the part of the cave which is home to a colony of bats we accidentally came across a whole cluster of them. I didn't have time to get a photograph, but I promise there was a huddle of hundreds of bats on the ceiling which became startled to our arrival.

If small spaces wouldn't get you, then maybe a fear of bats might. Personally, bats don't bother me much, but I admit what followed would have caused some issues for others. A piece of advice about bats: if they start flying around, don't freak out. If you stand still and don't move suddenly, they won't hit you. Although I could feel the wind from their flapping wings just barely inches away.

Catching photographs of these bats in flight was not difficult at all. I just kept taking pictures, and there were so many bats flying around that almost all of my pictures looked like these.

I wasn't sure how large the cave was, but we spent around 3 hours underground exploring, so a good hour and a half both ways. That in itself should give you a good idea about how extensive one of these caves can be.

We finally made it back to the surface. In our absence from the surface world it had begun to rain. I couldn't even begin to guess how much extra cave this water would explore that we were too big to fit.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Petrogenesis 1:1

Some of the weirdest ideas come to people that are up way too late and under stress. With that said, it's not a surprise that this following "passage" was the product of taking a Petrology class.

One of the questions asked for a given rock sample is "what is its petrogenesis?", meaning, how did it form, and where did it come from? When given such a loaded question at 2am, the only thing you can do is go off on a complete tangent. The first couple lines were made on the spot between us 3 petrology students that late night, and the rest followed later:


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the magmas. And the magmas were unfractionated and without form.

And God said, 'Let there be Bowen, so that the magma may fractionate, and order be had'. And there was Bowen.

On the second day, He spaketh unto Bowen, 'Seperate the magmas into two series, continuous and discontinuous, so that geologists may spend many hours with petrographic microscopes". And Bowen commanded it so, and there was olivine and anorthite.

On the third day, God spaketh unto Bowen, 'Thou shalst continue in the continuous series of plagioclase, replacing sodium for calcium. The Michel-Levy Method will guide the true of heart'. And there was much rejoicing.

On the fourth day, God spaketh unto Bowen, 'Thou shalst make pyroxene, which is like olivine but more complex and with cleavages' And thus the geologists did rejoice of single-chains.

On the fifth day, God spaketh unto Bowen, 'The geologists have grown arrogant in their memorization. Lo, you shalst create the amphiboles, which are complex with 60-120 cleavage'. And the geologists wailed, and there was much gnashing of teeth.

On the sixth day, Bowen prayed, and said 'I am out of calcium, what shalst I do?' and God said, 'Have faith', and there was albite.

On the seventh day, Bowen said unto God, 'May I have a rest?', and God was displeased with Bowen, and showered him with flakes of biotite and muscovite. And Bowen begged for forgiveness, and continued his series.

On the eighth day, Bowen recovered, his body having been pinched and swelled in tartain plaid. And there was microcline. And God forgave Bowen.

On the ninth day, Bowen prayed unto God, 'But I have nought but silica and oxygen left, what shalst I do?', and lo, God commanded him to take up thine rock hammer, and strike upon the earth. And forth sprang quartz, and God said, 'Its hardness shall be 7". And it was good.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hundred Dollar Hamburger

One of the things I had always heard about when I started flying was the concept of the “hundred dollar hamburger”, or “cheeseburger”, or whatever-food you prefer. Why so expensive? Because you fly somewhere to eat it.

“Is a cheeseburger really worth that?” you might ask. Well, no. But that’s not the point. It’s just an excuse to fly.
A few years ago, while thinking of places to go and build flying time, my friends and I brought up the idea of getting a hundred dollar hamburger up at Grandma’s Restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. I had yet to fly northward from my home base, so I might as well check off that cardinal direction. The thought of flying around Lake Superior was another appeal.

I was going to fly up in the trusty Piper Warrior along with my friend Garrett who had started training recently. My other friend Alex was going to leave just before us in the Cessna 172. It was basically a straight shot north for 170 nautical miles, so would have been just under two hours if it wasn’t for the 40 knot headwind.

Alex stayed a few miles ahead of us the whole time, staying in plane-to-plane radio contact. In our plan to be sneaky we had decided on the code word “pickle barrel” to be said to let the other know we were on the same frequency. I don’t think we ever ended up using it, but while listening in on the major local channels I was fully expecting to hear a quick “pickle barrel” shout out from Alex, followed by a confused center controller.

Once getting close to Duluth I started hearing that Alex was having a bit of a directional disagreement with ATC. An aircraft comes with two direction indicating instruments; a magnetic compass, and a heading indicator. The heading indicator operates on a gyroscope, which maintains one directional orientation and is more stable and less susceptible to bumps than the magnetic compass. But the heading indicator only knows what direction it is when you adjust it to the magnetic compass (usually before takeoff). It is prone to drift in the long run, and after a while of flying it might drift off a few degrees, giving the pilot the perception that they are flying in the correct direction when in fact they are a few degrees off.

This must have happened to Alex, because air traffic control would tell him to fly a certain heading and notice that he was, in fact, not flying it, so they would tell him to “turn right 15 degrees” to adjust. Soon after they would give him a new heading, and again he would go off in a different direction, so air traffic control would again tell him to “turn right 15 degrees”. I could tell both Alex and the controller were getting a little flustered when the controller asked him what heading he was flying, Alex responded “I’m all over the place”.

Flying into the Duluth area was great. Clear skies above the North Shore, all the pine forests below. Because of the wind coming out of the west, we were directed to come in from the east, right over Lake Superior. I had never flown over a large body of water (ok, it wasn’t the ocean or anything). It was fun seeing the tanker ships from above, they looked so small, like toy boats in a bathtub.

Alex made it and landed just fine, but I was trailing behind. On final approach I was asked to go around because my little Piper was quickly getting overrun by an NWA airliner which was on a long final approach. I forgot this was a large airport. I made a traffic pattern to come back around and decided to land long to stay above any wake turbulence from the MD80 landing. I also noticed the halting cable at the front of the runway used for breaking fighter jets. Even aiming for the halfway point of the runway, I still had more remaining runway than I’m used to landing on (Duluth’s runway is about 2 miles long).

I taxied up to the FBO, past all the fancy Cirrus aircraft (this is their HQ) and the NWA airliner which I got out of the way for.

They gave us a courtesy car and we went to find Grandma’s Restaurant. I recall having been there before. The cheeseburger was good, but I almost choked on it while Alex was recounting his directional problems on the way in.

The whole trip was a 3-pointer. Instead of heading back to Winona directly we made a pit stop at Anoka airport just north of Minneapolis. We had taken a little more time than expected with our burgers, so we were in a little rush.

The headwind became a tailwind which pushed us quickly down to the Twin Cities region, leaving Duluth behind. Oh, the joys of dealing with Class B airspace, hoping I wasn’t poking up into somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, staying below the upside down wedding cake shaped airspace layering. On this leg of the trip, I got to Anoka before Alex, he had gotten stuck behind a few Cirrus aircraft. I was on the ramp shutting down when I heard Alex coming over the radio, for some reason feeling it important to state his intent to land, to “get a few drinks and leave”. We were both newby pilots. Sometimes weird things are unintentionally said to airway authorities. Because it was getting late, we decided not to get out, but got underway leaving so we would get back before sunset.

 Flying back to Winona from the Cities is always a breeze, following the Mississippi River the whole way down. It was getting into the twilight hours when we arrived, enough justification to turn on all the runway lights by clicking on the radio (it’s always fun doing that). Soonly afterward we saw a pair of red and green lights coming towards us on the horizon, Alex finally catching up. We were all safe on the ground and still full.

Total flight distance: 370 nautical miles, just to grab some lunch

Price of cheeseburger: way more than $100, but worth it!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mineral Point

Despite the title, this is not a story about rocks, minerals, or any kind of geology, but of my first major cross-country flight.
The first 20-25 hours of flight training takes place either within direct sight of the airport or to a designated “training area” a few miles away.  This tends to create a kind of comfort zone which you don’t realize has existed until you leave it. The first time I flew away from the airport in a direction I had never been it felt wrong, that I was going somewhere strange and unusual, like leaving the country for the first time, despite the fact that I was flying over places I had known for years on the ground.
My first major cross-country flight was from Winona to Madison, Wisconsin, from there to Dubuque, Iowa, and back up to Winona. (KONA > KMSN > KDBQ > KONA), a total distance of about 300 miles, and a 3 three hour flight.

I had fewer doubts about my navigating abilities than I should have, so the concept of traveling a large distance by myself never bothered me. The one factor that always made me nervous, though, was weather, and for cross-country flights I tended to scrap it when clouds were in the forecast, even in legal limits. The thing about weather is it is constantly changing, and things can turn out differently than forecasted, even in 3 hours.
It was a good day for flying, and the only concern was a layer of clouds south of Dubuque which was dissipating slowly as the day warmed up. All indications pointed at this layer both moving south and breaking up, and even so it was up at around 6000 feet, so I could avoid it if I needed to. Elsewhere it was clear.
The flight to Madison was quite uneventful. I usually relied on my sectional chart to navigate using landmarks on the ground (despite the lack of distinguishable features in Wisconsin), but the Piper I flew also had 2 VOR’s I played with to get a better idea of my location. I was a little nervous landing at a larger airport but it actually turned out to be much easier than expected as they vectored me in.

A quick stop, bottle of pop, and checked the weather. The cloud layer was still near Dubuque but had moved to the south and it was still out of the way. With that, I took off.
Halfway to Dubuque I was within range of the ATIS weather reporting system for the airport. As I looked ahead I noticed the sky looked quite hazy; in the 20 minutes or so since I took off the low overcast layer had sidled up and covered the airport. I was at the furthest point from home I could be when suddenly I wasn’t able to land at my next destination.
I quickly thought of my options: A) bypass Dubuque and just plot a course to fly back to Winona, B) make a 180 and head back to Madison, or C) Land somewhere else nearby and see what the weather is doing. Because Dubuque was going to be my fuel stop, and I wasn’t sure if some weather phenomenon was coming in that would get me on the way to Madison. I looked at the sectional and found the nearest landable airport with fuel services – a little place called Iowa County Mineral Point airport. I looked off of my right wing and saw the little city, and began looking for the little airport to the northwest.

After just coming from the largest airport I had been to, I was about to land at the smallest airport I had been to.  Landed without any issues and taxied to the FBO. Luckily there was a self-serve fuel station, so I filled up and went inside to check the weather. I think there was one person around and they didn’t acknowledge me. I believe there was also a cow near the runway.

I called home base and told my flight instructor that I detoured to Mineral Point. She was a new flight instructor and I think I was her first student to go on a cross-country flight, so she sounded a little more concerned than I considered necessary. Since the day was still young I just waited a little for the weather in Dubuque to clear up, and then I was underway again.  I quick touch-and-go at Dubuque and I was on my way back to Winona.
This was the easiest leg of the journey, as all I really had to do was follow the Mississippi River. When flying away from your point of origin for the first time you tend to get nervous in between checkpoints, hoping you don’t get lost, especially when flying in an area where there are isn’t much to see but farmland and kettle lakes.

Knowing that all I had to do was fly up the Mississippi was very relaxing, on top of the fact that it’s beautiful scenery.