Human interactions with the Lava Beds landscape

The Modoc group of Native Americans have lived in the region that is now the Lava Beds National Monument for thousands of years. They left little imprint on the land, but they did leave some rock art that is interesting to examine. Two caves—Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge Cave—contain pictographs that are painted onto the rocks with a charcoal-based substance. The photo below, taken by Jay, is in Symbol Bridge Cave. Archeologists don’t know what the geometric symbols mean, but they do know the symbols are not writing. It’s fun to imagine what these early people were expressing when they did their art. The age of the paintings is also uncertain, but they were probably done sometime over the past few thousand years. It’s intriguing to think about how these people would have responded to the frequent eruptions of lava, and if any of the symbols relate to those natural events. The area is still active and new volcanic flows can be expected in the not-too-distant future.

_DSC0306 sm 1

Another style of art is the petroglyphs visible at Petroglyph Point, an outlier of the National Monument on the eastern edge of Tule Lake near the town of Tulelake. This type of art is carved or pecked into the rock, which at this location is an ash-flow tuff (pyroclastic flow that erupted explosively from more silica-rich magma) that is older than the basalt in the rest of Lava Beds National Monument. The photo below, taken by Jay, shows some of the great variety of images that are displayed along what was the edge of Tule lake when it was much larger, before it was drained for agriculture. There are more than 5,000 individual carvings, making this one of the most extensive representations of Native American rock art in California. These carvings could only have been done during dry times when the lake was lower—although it is even lower now because of human activities. One estimate is that the carvings are between 1500 and 400 years old.


Unfortunately, as in other parts of the Americas, the native people were treated poorly after white settlers arrived and demanded that the Modoc people be removed to a reservation. The Modoc War occurred from 1872 to 1873, when the Modocs made a last-ditch effort to return to their native lands after being expelled to the reservations of other native groups with whom they had conflicts. Within Lava Beds National Monument is Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a natural lava fortress where a young Modoc leader named Kientpoos (called “Captain Jack” by the settlers) and several hundred of his people held off U.S. military soldiers for months. The Modoc people ultimately lost this war, of course, and it is only in recent years that some of them have returned to try to reestablish their spiritual bonds to the land of their ancestors. This “totem” in the stronghold contains various momentos of recent visitors to the area.

Note the broad, low-relief shape of the shield-type Medicine Lake volcano in the distance (view looking south). The remaining bit of snow is on top of Glass Mountain, on the eastern flank of the volcano.


Another group of people were more recently mistreated in this area, when after the attack of Pearl Harbor during WWII the U.S. government demanded that Japanese-Americans be relocated to internment camps, one of which was located on the eastern edge of Tule Lake. This area is now a National Historic Landmark and visitors can learn more about it on a tour with a park service guide. The government sold off the barrack-style buildings long ago, but the map in the guide’s hands shows the hundreds of housing units that were built close together and inadequately constructed for the weather extremes in the region. This is yet another very sad tale of U.S. discrimination—Japanese people were forced to leave their businesses and most of their possessions behind and were incarcerated with poor living conditions until the war was over. In our group was a woman from the San Francisco Peninsula whose father and mother were both interned in these camps when they were young people and U.S. citizens.


The Lava Beds National Monument and the Tule Lake Segregation Center National Historic Landmark are two national sites that deserve more visits from the public.


Lava lava everywhere—Lava Beds National Monument, NW California

I’ve said there are just two Cascade Range volcanoes in California—Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta. But there is a third called Medicine Lake Volcano, as shown on the map below (from Lava Beds National Monument is located just north of the volcano, where numerous flows have completely covered the landscape during the past 500,000 years.


Because it is a shield volcano, like the volcanoes in Hawaii, the Medicine Lake volcano is not as obvious in the landscape as the classic-shaped composite (or strata) cones like Shasta and Lassen . Shield volcanoes have a low profile because the lava forms from silica-poor magma (mostly basalt) that is more fluid and can’t hold up steep-sided cones like their composite cousins with more sticky, thick eruptive materials formed from magma richer in silica. The photo below (view to SW from Schonchin Butte) shows the western half of the Medicine Lake volcano with many cinder cones of various ages on its flank. One is obviously very young because it lacks any vegetation. In contrast, Mt. Shasta in the background (right side of photo) has steeper slopes and an overall higher elevation. Although Medicine Lake volcano may not look as impressive, by volume it is the largest Cascade Range volcano!

_DSC0270 sm 1

Why is the Medicine Lake volcano different than the other Cascade Range volcanoes? Because it is at the intersection of the Cascade Ranges and the Basin and Range province, where normal faults are causing Earth’s crust to be pulled apart and where avenues are provided for magma to travel more directly from deeper depths (the mantle), without as much mixing with the silica-rich continental crust. The photo below (view to the NW from Schonchin Butte; taken by Jay Ach) shows Gillem bluff, which is a fault block that has been uplifted and tilted westward (left side of photo) relative to the down-dropped block to the east that is occupied by Tule Lake and agricultural fields. The dark area in front of Gillem bluff is the Devil’s Homestead flow that erupted about 10,000 years ago.

_DSC0277 sm 1

The Medicine Lake volcano has had eruptions of more silica-rich magmas—for example, Glass Mountain on the eastern flank, where a ~950-year-old eruption produced extensive obsidian flows. But at Lava Beds, most of the lavas are basalt that form a wide variety of small cones and flow types. Just like in Hawaii, visitors can see rope-like “pahoehoe” lava (photo below) that forms when the lava is very hot and flowing freely.


When the lava is cooler and flowing more slowly, it forms “aa” lava. In the photo below, Jay is saying “ah-ah” as he tries to walk across the very rough Devil’s Homestead flow.


Most of the flows in Lava Beds emanated from Mammoth Crater, an impressive hole-in-the-ground at the southern end of the park, where the Big Nasty Trail provides an interesting 2-mile-long excursion across lava that is really not all that nasty.


A map in the Visitors Center, located near the Mushpot Cave, shows how lava from Mammoth Crater has flowed north across the landscape. It also shows where the most popular caves are located.


In addition to cinder cones, there are “spatter cones”. It is fun to imagine blobs of hot lava being spewed from a hole in the ground and being slapped onto a growing pile. This spatter cone (with Karen for scale; photo taken by Jay Ach) is located on the Big Nasty Trail.

_DSC0118 sm 1

The main attraction of Lava Beds is the lava tubes that form a wide variety of caves ranging from easy (i.e., one can walk upright) to difficult (i.e., it’s necessary to crawl through some parts). We elected to stick to the easier caves, which still provided lots of interesting features. Good lights are necessary in all caves; for protection, hard hats and warmer clothing are useful in some caves. Below is a photo of Jay and me at the entrance of Valentine Cave, our favorite because of the large variety of lava features, including canals along the tube edges that formed by fast-flowing lava as it moved through. Note the “lava stalactites” that formed on the tube’s roof by the bits of lava that lingered after the flow had continued farther downhill.

_DSC0182 sm 1

Also visible in Valentine cave is lava “frozen” in place while flowing through the tube. It is easy to imagine the lava when it was actively flowing. The photo was taken by Jay using “light painting” to illuminate the space.

_DSC0164 sm 1

The bleakness of the landscape was punctuated by the colors of wild flowers in the month of June when we visited the park. We particularly liked the penstemon flower with its brilliant purple-blue color. The photo was taken along the Big Nasty Trail.


Others interesting features of the park are the desert vegetation and the sky. The photo below was taken by Jay in the campground as the sun was setting, using some clever lighting techniques. The trees are junipers.

_DSC0095_HDR sunset trees

The night sky is particularly stunning in this location far from any city. Jay took this photo of the Milky Way in the campground, again using clever lighting techniques to show the trees and the sky in the middle of the night.

_DSC0214 sm mod

It was close to a new moon during our visit, which helped make stars in the night sky even more clear. Jay took this photo just before sunrise; the planet of Venus is also prominent in the sky. The disk of the moon is only visible because of the long exposure.

_DSC0233 sm mod


Pyla dune—the highest sand dune in Europe

The last three posts touched on how the landscape of Bordeaux affects wine characteristics. But there are landscape features that are just fun for their own sake. Billed as the highest dune in Europe, we had to visit Pyla Dune, a geologic feature along the Atlantic coast south of Arcachon, a popular seaside that is an easy 52-minute train ride from Bordeaux. Bike paths are prevalent, so we rented bikes to ride along the coast of Arcachon Bay to Pyla Dune, a pile of loose sand that continues to be pushed inland by the wind. On the map, loose sand is a light tan color; it appears as a beach along the sand spit north of the entrance to the bay, as sand bars near the entrance to the bay, and as a large rectangular block just south of the bay’s entrance (the Pyla Dune).


Currently, the dune is migrating eastward an average of 3–5 meters/year. Because of changing positions of the bay’s entrance and sand bars, the dune is eroding on the western (seaward) side. This erosion has exposed 4 paleosols (ancient soils) that show a dune has been at this location for at least 3500 years. Soils have been dated by radiocarbon analysis of organic components and by human artifacts—one paleosol contains Bronze Age tools and another contains 16th century coins. (The web site——has more details about the site.) A pine forest was planted in the 19th century to stabilize the dune, but this forest is being slowly buried as the dune migrates east—this east side of the dune is shown on the photo below.


The dune provides a popular site for people to visit and climb. Although the dune achieves a height of about 107 meters (350 feet), most people can manage to make the climb. From the top there is a fabulous view of the bay and Atlantic coast.


The sand is mostly fine and made of quartz; there is also a small percentage of dark-colored heavy minerals like magnetite that make interesting patterns. This view is looking north from the dune along the east shore of Arcachon Bay to the forested town of Pyla-Sur-Mer.


Pyla-Sur-Mer is a residential town located between the dune and Arcachon. Its seaside location, upscale homes, and pine forest reminded us a great deal of Monterey and Carmel in California. Hopefully, this town will not be buried by the dune. At current rates, the road and campground directly east of the dune will be buried in 40 years.


Arcachon is famous for its fresh oysters, so we had to sample them in a Pyla-Sur-Mer restaurant, which also served us excellent moules frites (mussels and fries) and fish.


This was an interesting outing from Bordeaux, to which we returned for a day exploring the city. Here is Jay with Lynn, our Ashland friend who, together with her husband Mark, are studying wines in Bordeaux for several years. (Mark was working in the harvest that day.)  We then got on our bikes and traveled to Toulouse, the journey’s end.


Biking between two rivers—the Entre-Deux-Mers region

The Entre-Deux-Mers region is located between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers that feed into the Gironde estuary. The name, though, is “between two seas” or “between two tides” because the rivers have a tidal influence. The Gironde has a large tidal range and during the largest tides, a tidal bore (single wave) will move upstream in the rivers. One of our B&B hosts said her daughter rode it one time!


Like the Saint Emilion region, this region is also characterized by mostly limestone bedrock with thin, clay-rich soils. An agricultural irony is that the poor soils are what make Bordeaux wines so good. When the vines have to compete for limited nutrients and water, the grapes achieve more concentrated and distinctive flavors. (By the way, it is not legal to irrigate the vineyards here.) If you find the Entre-Deux-Mers label on a French wine, you will know it is made with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes, sometimes with added Sauvignon Gris or Muscadelle. They are always white and range from dry to sweet. Red wines are also made here but they must be labeled as generic Bordeaux or (for the better ones) Bordeaux Superior. In contrast, in the Médoc region, only the red wines can have the Médoc label, and white wines must have the generic Bordeaux label. How nice to find a free tasting room along our path.


But our focus in this region is on biking—through the UTracks (Canadian) company we did a 5-day self-guided bike tour from Bordeaux to Toulouse. They supply the bikes and the maps, and we get ourselves to the destination where our luggage and a B&B room are awaiting us. Our travel is mostly on “vélo voies verte”—bicycle green ways—with some scenic back roads thrown in for interest. The first day was a path on an old railroad bed that is named after a French man who won the Tour de France in 1939.


Most of the journey was along the Canal de Garonne, which was built in the mid 1800s as part of a system that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea (see map above). The autumn colors and temperatures made for a scenic, pleasant journey. The scene below was typical, with the path on the canal’s left bank.


There are many locks along the way that are still used by boats. There are nautical stops where people can store their cruising boats. Some of the lock houses have been converted into museums or restaurants. This restaurant, named Le Poule à Vélo (the chicken on a bike), felt particularly welcoming to bicyclists and served a lovely 3-course lunch.


The landscape is dotted by quaint medieval-aged towns that could be explored because of their position adjacent to the canal or just a short distance away. The landscape is relatively flat, except where the rivers have cut down a little. In addition to grapes, there are many other agricultural products. We saw large orchards or apples and kiwis. The photo below is La Reole village.





The terroir of Saint Emilion

The terroir of the Saint Emilion AOC (see roundish purple region on the Right Bank in previous post) differs from that of the Médoc (of course). The climate has less of a maritime influence, and the limestone bedrock is close to the surface, with only thin, mostly clay-rich soils. We visited just one Chateau—Troplong Modot. Notice that the rocks in this vineyard are angular because they are pieces of the underlying bedrock, whereas the rocks in the Médoc are very rounded because they are pieces of rocks from the Pyrenees that were transported a great distance by rivers.


The clusters that remained on the vines at Chateau Troplong Modot were stunning bundles of fruit that appeared to burst with flavor. Also at this Chateau is a restaurant with one Michelin star—Les Belles Perdrix. The food was outstanding, and the  presentation exquisite. The chateau’s own wine provided a stellar pairing (like the Médoc this AOC is also primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but the Merlot grape tends to have the higher percentage). It’s hard to imagine what a three-star restaurant would be like!


The region surrounds the village of Saint Emilion, which is named after a monk who in the 8th century lived in a cave here and allegedly performed many miracles (for which  he achieved sainthood). The town is typical of a medieval village—buildings are made of stone and perched on a hill with crumbling remnants of an ancient wall. It does have one unusual element. The bell tower appears to come out of the ground, but it is actually sitting on top of a cathedral. It’s just that the cathedral was carved out of the limestone bedrock rather than being built above ground where everyone could see it. It’s possible to visit this underground church—called the “Monolithic church” because it was carved into “one rock”. It is reminiscent of the underground churches that are found in Cappadocia, Turkey.


The photo below was taken from the bell tower; it illustrates a distinctive aspect of the Saint Emilion terroir. In the Médoc, slopes are very gentle, whereas the region here is much more hilly, so grapes experience even more variation depending on whether they are on a slope facing north or south or east or west. But like the Médoc, the landscape here is also dominated by seemingly unending vineyards and chateaux.


Terroir extraordinaire—a key to understanding the wines in Bordeaux (and elsewhere in France)

The ancient Greeks understood the effects of location on wine characteristics, but it was the French who really ran with the concept, coining the term “terroir” and making it an essential aspect of their appellation d’origine controlée (AOC), the controlled designation of origin that is granted to wine, and other agricultural products, based on the location where the product is grown. Take wine, for example. In the U.S., we tend to focus on the varietal, and every bottle will tell us the wine within was made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or other grape varietals. In France, however, the varietal is rarely mentioned. Instead, if the wine is from Burgandy, an informed drinker will know that whites are made from Chardonnay grapes and reds are made from Pinot Noir grapes.

In Bordeaux, almost all wines are a blend of grape types, with a focus on red varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the dominant grapes—other varietals added in smaller proportions include Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Below is a map of Bordeaux that shows the major AOCs. While every word is not clear, you can at least see the different colors that pertain to the different AOCs. While in Bordeaux, we have focused on the Médoc—the long purple region on the Left Bank (SW side) of the Gironne estuary—and Saint Emilion—the roundish purple region on the Right Bank (NE side). Two rivers—the Garonne and the Durdogne—flow from the southeast into the Gironde estuary, where they mix with salt water from the Atlantic. In a few days we’ll be bicycling for 5 days in the Entre Deux Mers region, which is the large green area on the map located between the two rivers.


You probably know that terroir relates to geology! The rock and soil type in which the grapes are growing can impart qualities such as minerality and acidity. Climate and slope are also important aspects of terroir. Small differences in location—for example, north-facing slopes versus south-facing slopes—can result in variations in temperature and moisture that affect characteristics of the grapes and the wine produced. Consequently, the main AOCs are subdivided into sub-appellations based on these location differences. Of course, human ingenuity is also essential to the wine-making process!

We visited three chateaux in Médoc. It’s important to know that they aren’t called wineries here; in France, chateaux refer to the places (which indeed do usually include large house-type structures) where the grapes are grown and the wine is made and bottled. The wines are then labeled with the name of the chateau and the region. If produced in The Médoc region, although it will not say so on the label, we will know that most of the wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, with a large proportion of Merlot +/- Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The terroir of The Médoc is defined by the Quarternaire (Quaternary) soils that are very gravelly. The gravel was eroded from the Pyrennes during glacial periods (past 2 million years) and carried north by rivers. The gravel soils are thick and bedrock is not much of an influence. Check out all of the gravel in the soil where I am picking the grapes at Chateau Le Crock (St Estéphe subappelation).


We are fortunate to be here during the harvest, and some of the grapes still hang in full, beautiful clusters on the vines. At Chateau Le Crock, we were able to accompany the workers into the field (although we only picked enough grapes for the photo) and to have lunch with the workers, including the wine maker and the vineyard manager.


In the Médoc we also visited Chateau Lèoville Poyferré (St Julien subappelation) and Chateau Prieuré Lichine (Margaux subappelation). The Médoc is almost 100% about wine, and the countryside is covered with vineyards and exquisite chateaux. Here is a photo of Chateau Margaux, that produces one of the most famous, and most expensive, wines in the world.


Climbing Mount McLoughlin—one of the lesser known Cascade volcanoes

Mount McLoughlin is located 63 kilometers (38 miles) east of Ashland, Oregon, where I now live. As shown on this map by the U.S. Geological Survey, Mount McLoughlin is located between the volcanoes of Mount Shasta and Crater Lake, which is the remnant of Mount Mazama that exploded to become a caldera 7,700 years ago. All of the Cascade Range volcanoes have been formed as a result of the Juan de Fuca plate (offshore oceanic crust) subducting beneath the North American continental plate.

Mount McLoughlin is a volcano with primarily basaltic andesite lava that has been built within the past 200,000 years or so; the most recent flows occurred within the past 20,000 years. Glacial action during late Pleistocene glaciations (last one 18,000 years ago) left an imprint on the north side of the mountain, which is eroded and very steep.


The mountain is most impressive in the winter when it is capped by snow. Here is a photo from the 2015-16 winter, when Jay and I were cross-country skiing along the Buck Prairie trails that have excellent views of Mount McLoughlin to the east.

IMG_3067.JPGAt any time of year, though, the volcano is a prominent feature on the landscape. This photo is a view to the north from the Indian Memorial Highway. Note the smooth, symmetrical sides of the volcano on the south flank.

P1070924.jpgAnita, a friend who has accompanied me on previous adventures (see January and February 2012 posts of our explorations in Argentina), accompanied me on a climb to the top of Mount McLoughlin on 22 August 2016. At 2894 meters (9495 feet), Mount McLoughlin is one of the lowest Cascade peaks and one of the most accessible, although it’s still a grueling climb, with an elevation gain of nearly 4000 feet (12oo meters) from the parking lot trail head to the peak’s summit. On the photo above, the trail extends up the right (east) side of the cone.

P1070883.jpgThe path is clearly visible through the pine trees and lava boulders up to an elevation of about 2400 meters (8000 feet). At this point, the hiker is above tree line and the summit is visible. This is a good psychological boost, because the trail gets harder to follow and rougher. But the views keep getting better and better…

P1070903.jpgMount Shasta is visible along most of the upper part of the climb. It is at the right side of this photo (looking southwest), although haze obscures the view. Fish Lake, where we camped, is in the foreground; Howard Prairie Lake is a thin sliver in the photo’s center. Pilot Rock is also visible, if you know where to look.

P1070910.jpgOnce at the top, there is a stunning 360-degree view of surrounding mountain ranges. This view, at the summit, is toward the west, with the northern part of the Rogue Valley visible in the upper left part of the photo.

IMG_1553.jpgAnother view from the summit looks eastward, toward Klamath Lake in the distance; the smaller lakes are Lake of the Woods (right side) and Fourmile Lake (left side).

P1070914.jpgHeading east, looking down from the summit, it’s possible to see the contrast between the south side of the volcano, which is less steep and forested, and the north side, which is very steep and eroded from glacial scouring. The upper part of the trail parallels this prominent east–west-trending ridge.

P1070921.jpgAnother view of the steep, eroded north flank gives a sense of how much of the volcano’s mass has been removed by glaciers. Mount McLoughlin is within the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area that includes these ranges north of the peak. With binoculars we could see in the far distance the Two Sisters and Mount Bachelor volcanoes that are located west of Bend.

P1070916.jpgSome hikers speed hike the peak, making it up and down in less than 6 hours. We took our time, pausing to rest and savor the views, taking 9.5 hours in total. It was satisfying to “bag” this peak that is such a distinctive part of the local landscape.