Gorge-ous Ithaca: A Change of Plan

A wise man once said “You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

For my last day in Ithaca last summer, what I wanted was to go to Buttermilk Falls, one of those MUST-SEE places people were talking about. What I got was a balky knee that wouldn’t handle the steps to the second floor without complaint, much less all the climbing to be done at Buttermilk.

Change of plan.

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Gorge-ous Ithaca: The Geology of Taughannock Falls

Before I came to Ithaca, NY, I never really questioned why waterfalls occur where they do. It’s a simple equation: Steep mountainsides + creeks = waterfalls.

I wouldn’t have called the Finger Lakes Region “mountainous,” though. Not compared to the Adirondacks or the Appalachians. “Rolling hills” is more like it. So where did all these gorges and waterfalls come from?

To find out, I walked through Taughannock Gorge – and back through time.

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Alien Landscape


Reentry was a little bumpy. Our Harrier-class starship, still smoking, touched down with a series of thuds on what seemed from the stratosphere to be a landing pad. It wasn’t though. Some kind of exposed rock outcropping, blindingly white. Continue reading

A Watery Cave

161029_pa-penns-cave_2373acsWe like caves.

My friends and I have been trying to get to Penn’s Cave for three years now. We’ve been to Crystal Cave and Lost River Caverns in Pennsylvania, Seneca Caverns in West Virginia, and Luray Cavern in Virginia. We’ve learned about stalactites and stalagmites, cave bacon, frozen waterfalls, cave draperies and fried eggs. We’ve seen columns and straws and flowstone. We’ve learned how dark it gets in a cave when the lights go out, and we’ve endured just about every bad joke a cave tour guide could come up with.

Luray Cavern pretty much spoiled me for any other cave experience. But Penn’s Cave, in the center of Pennsylvania, looked unique – an all-water journey through the cave in a boat. I mentioned it in my post about Crystal Cave three years ago; we’ve been talking about going to see it for a long time. At the end of October, we finally made it.

161029_pa-penns-cave_2287acsDown a long flight of stairs to the cave we went. A fleet of flat-bottomed boats awaited. These proved to be really tippy as the cave tourists came on board.

Our boat was also packed pretty tight. Turning to take photos was a challenge, and although the boat ceased to rock when it got underway, it was a far from motionless shooting platform. As if shooting in a dark cave wasn’t hard enough!

161029_pa-penns-cave_2294acsThere were fish in the water. Trout, of some sort. I know next to nothing about fish, unfortunately. I do know that’s a fish swimming there in the foreground of this photo.

The waterway flowing through Penn’s Cave is Penns Creek. Named for William Penn’s brother John, one of its sources is a spring in the cave.

161029_pa-penns-cave_2472acsCave curtains, one type of formation typically found in caverns.

All caverns are caves, but not all caves are caverns. Wait, what?

Any cavity in the ground large enough that some portion does not receive sunlight is a cave. A cavern is a specific type of cave formed in soluble rock and decorated with speleothems.

With what?!?

A speleothem is a cave formation. You don’t remember learning all this from the Wild Edge three years ago? Read it again here, there will be a quiz later.

161029_pa-penns-cave_2334acsThe ceiling of Penns Cave. The scale is lost in this photo, but this room was huge, and the ceiling far away.

Like every cavern I’ve toured, the formations have names. Fittingly, there’s the Nittany Lion. The Statue of Liberty. The Straits of Gibraltar was a narrow passage with rock angling in on both sides. We had to duck.

161029_pa-penns-cave_2520acsThe light at the end of the tunnel. Penns Creek exits the cavern into a small man-made lake called Lake Nitanee.

161029_pa-penns-cave_2538acsLooking over Don’s shoulder as we approach Lake Nitanee. After a short cruise, we turned around and returned through the cavern to the entrance.

Quiz-time! (Didn’t believe me, did you?)

How do speleothems form?

161029_pa-penns-cave_2702acsBack on top of the earth. The surrounding area is mountainous and agricultural. Penn’s Cave offers a Farm, Nature & Wildlife Tour. The park’s 1600 acres are home to longhorn cattle, bison, bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats and wolves.

161029_pa-penns-cave_3046acsSome live in roomy fenced enclosures, like this handsome wolf.

161029_pa-penns-cave_3072acsThere are five wolves in the Penn’s Cave pack.

Like all wolf packs, there’s a pecking order, with an alpha male and an alpha female.

These wolves were hand-raised from pups, so they are accustomed to humans.

161029_pa-penns-cave_3310acsYou’re in Lion Country now, son. Penn State’s mascot, the Nittany Lion, is a mountain lion like this. She was housed in a zoo-like enclosure behind glass. When she heard my camera’s shutter, she turned and looked right at me for a long moment.

161029_pa-penns-cave_3377acsOur last wildlife of the day, a red squirrel. Not behind an enclosure, but free and strolling across the replica mining sluice. These critters make a call most unlike our familiar gray squirrels.

Got your quiz answer ready?

How do speleothems form?

That’s right, speleothems form when rainwater and calcium carbonate form an acid that eats through soluble rock like limestone. As it drips, it leaves behind calcite deposits.

Give yourself an A!

My friends and I gave Penn’s Cave an A, too. Three years we waited, and it was well worth it.


150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1277acs“Grandfather, look what I found!” said the young boy. “It’s a dragon egg!”

“No, my grandson,” said the old man as he stood along the river shore.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9511acs“It is indeed an egg, but not of a dragon, for they left our land many ages ago. This is the egg of an Osprey, the masked hawk that fishes in the River Delaware. But where did you find it?”

“In the grass at the base of the red rock cliffs.”

“You must return it to the nest. Mother Osprey will be looking for it. The cliffs are high and dangerous, but you are young and strong. I have confidence in you.”

“I will try,” replied the boy somberly. “But first, Grandfather, tell me again of how these cliffs came to be?”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9523acs“Very well, my grandson, I will tell you. Rest here amongst the flowers while I weave my tale…”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9545acs“The Nockamixon Cliffs tower 300 feet above the River Delaware. They are made of red shale, siltstone and sandstone.

“200 million years ago in the Triassic Era, hot molten diabase boiled out of the earth. Its heat baked the shale and siltstone to an unusual hardness.

“See how the rocks tilt to the northwest? Over time tremendous pressure twisted the stone just so, and weathering has left them exposed for us to view from below.

“These palisades host an arctic-alpine plant community that is rare in this land, as well as more than 90 bird species, including peregrine falcons and the Ospreys who are even now looking for their egg.”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9606acsThe boy looked up at the towering cliffs, swallowed hard, and nodded. “I will do my best, Grandfather.”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9707acs“Do you see the Indian carved in the stone?

“If you lose courage, look to him; he will give you strength.”

The boy nodded again, tucked the egg carefully into his clothes, and began to climb. 150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1243acsIt seemed easy at first, as he pushed his way through the leafy branches at the base of the cliffs.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9603acsHe came upon a small waterfall spilling in sinuous braids down the ledges. How slippery the footing was here! “I shall be as supple as this water,” the boy said to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9589acsAlong the way, he marveled at the perseverance of the plants. Ferns, bushes and even trees seemed found no difficulty in rooting themselves in face of the stone. “I shall be as tenacious as these trees,” he said to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9554aAs he neared the top, the boy found the climbing difficult. So high up he was! He tried not to look down. Slowly he moved, clinging to the rocks, wedging his fingers and toes into any crack he could find. “I shall be as strong as these cliffs,” he thought to himself.

At last the boy reached the top. Gingerly he took the egg from his clothes; tenderly he placed it in the Osprey nest. Mother Osprey watched him intently, fierce emotion hidden behind her glittering golden eyes. “I shall be as fearless as this Osprey,” the boy thought to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9590aThen he looked over the edge of the cliff, down to the riverbed and the old man far below. The boy gulped.

Now what?

Frigid Fossil Hunt

After such a mild winter, why, oh why, did we choose the only truly FRIGID weekend to go fossil hunting along the Chesapeake Bay?

160214_MD Flag Ponds Nature Park_0252aCalvert Cliffs on the western shore of Maryland is well-known for fossils, in particular fossilized sharks’ teeth. Dreaming of returning with fists full of teeth, Robb, Don and I spent a cold weekend on the Chesapeake Bay exploring Calvert Cliffs and other nearby sites.

Take a little trip back in time, 15 million years ago. It’s the Miocene Epoch, and southern Maryland is covered by a warm shallow sea. In the sea swim ancient species of whales, porpoises, turtles, sea cows, and rays. Several species of shark, including the giant White Shark Carcharocles megalodon, feed on the vertebrate population. Ancient invertebrates inhabiting the seas include clams, oysters, crabs and corals.

As each sea critter died, its carcass sank to the sea floor, to be covered with sand and silt. Generation after generation, the layers of bones accrued and fossilized.

Fast forward to the present. What was once sea floor is now a formation of clay, sandstone and shale cliffs known as the Calvert Cliffs stretching for miles along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Imbedded in those cliffs are the fossilized remains of over 600 species of extinct Miocene animals.

While the cliffs themselves are mostly on private property, there are a few public beaches where fossils appear – usually shells and corals – and the public is encouraged to fossil hunt. The real stars of the fossil hunt are the shark’s teeth. The teeth of extinct species of tiger, hammerhead, sand, and best of all Megalodon sharks can frequently be found here.

FUN FACT: Sharks, both prehistoric and modern, have an unlimited supply of teeth, which they lose frequently and which are immediately replaced by already existing teeth. Over the course of millions of years, that’s a lot of sharks’ teeth falling to the sea floor.

Don promised there would be “trillions” of fossilized sharks’ teeth out there for us to find.

160213_MD Drum Point Lighthouse_9881acsOur first stop was the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. This was a great waterfront museum with an emphasis on natural and maritime history. We enjoyed the aquarium and other displays, but it was the fossil collection that we came to see. It was well worth the trip! There was a prehistoric time line, a reproduction of the Calvert Cliffs, and fossils of Miocene shells, sharks, whales, fish and crocodiles. Looming over it all was a HUGE replica of the extinct giant shark fondly known as Megalodon.

160213_MD Drum Point Lighthouse_9911acsWe also toured the decommissioned Drum Point Lighthouse. Previously I have only seen tower lighthouses that stand on the shoreline. Drum Point is a screwpile lighthouse that once stood over the water off Drum Point. The octagonal structure encloses a two story cottage for the keeper and his family. Moored next to the lighthouse is the skipjack Dee of St. Mary’s. Skipjacks were used to dredge oysters from the Chesapeake Bay.

The next afternoon we went to the beach near a portion of the Calvert Cliffs, hoping to find fossils. The gatekeeper showed us some fossils he’d found recently, petrified wood and a shark’s tooth. He said he’d found them yards out in the water, where the Bay is very shallow. Oops! Mistake #1: we left our muck boots at home. With temperatures hovering around 22° and a stiff breeze, there was no way we were walking in the water.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0240acsThe beach was unlike anything we’d seen before. Hundreds of yards wide, peppered with large pools and stands of beach grasses.

We walked for a long way right at the edge of the water, looking for fossils and teeth. Trillions of sharks’ teeth? Nope.

160302_MD Fossil Hunting_1612acs copyWe did find a few of these fossilized corals, which I photographed at home later.

160302_MD Fossil Hunting_1613acsHere’s a close-up of the coral.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0193acsThe cliffs south of us were dramatic. Even from a distance, the striations were obvious. It was also obvious that I’d made a miscalculation in suggesting the afternoon for this trek. I’d hoped it would be warmer. But the afternoon sun left the cliffs in deep shade, and none of my photos do them justice. Mistake #2.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0246acsAn island of terraced sand looked enticing. Surely there are shark teeth in those layers? But it was out of reach across the water. We’ll never know.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0323acsWe found rocks with fossilized clam and scallop shells embedded in them. Pretty cool.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0262acsBeach sculpture. Again, humans’ need to create art wherever they are amazes me.

In our exploration of the beach did we find trillions of sharks’ teeth? Nope. Not one.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0310acsCoral, yes. Clam shells imbedded in rocks, yes.

Sharks’ teeth, no.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0157acsNo matter. We explored a beach unlike others we’ve seen, saw some honest-to-goodness fossils, and marveled at the massive Calvert Cliffs.

Frigid fossil fun!