Six Weeks in Sinks Canyon

Editor’s Note: In the summer of 2013, Teresa Avila spent six weeks as both a geology student and a science journalist at the University of Missouri’s Branson Field Laboratory, a geology field camp in Wyoming. Avila is pursuing a double major at MU — in Geology and in Science and Agricultural Journalism. She successfully completed the geology field class. She also reported and wrote the following piece of literary journalism as part of a journalism independent study class.

By Teresa Avila

A rusty red wall of rock sits at a tilted angle in central Wyoming. The highway next to it, U.S. 287, is a relatively quiet one. Especially so at 8:00 in the morning, when the wind rattling past green-silver sagebrush is still chilly enough for a jacket.

The low whooshing sound of an approaching vehicle echoes in the distance. Soon enough, a caravan of six white vans rushes into view. Leading the caravan is a navy blue truck, driven by a woman in her thirties with a tomboyish figure and a cloud of dark, curly hair above a tanned face. In the back of the truck, Miriam Barquero-Molina has a bicycle for when she makes her way back to the University of Missouri’s Branson Field Laboratory, about 22 miles and two hours away.

The truck and vans speed past the red rock, only to pull into a small gravel parking lot a few minutes later. From the vehicles clamber 43 undergraduate geology students, seven teaching assistants, one geology professor and one Australian shepherd/border collie mix.

The only thing in sight besides the fenced-in lot, the highway and a faded blue Porta Potty is a landscape of geology. Massive layers of rock rise up from the earth, their reds, pinks, oranges and tans dominating the landscape’s color palette far more than the ragged vegetation.

The students keep up a low chatter of conversation as they slather on sunscreen and adjust packs. Yesterday, the first official day of field camp, was all basic work done in the camp’s back yard. This will be the first real day in the field.

With a signal from Miriam, the crowd begins hiking toward the red tilted rock cut they passed earlier. Miriam’s dog — Kilah — prances through the students with her pink tongue hanging out at an angle.

They stop in front of the red rock and wait for the stragglers to catch up, observing the way the layers shoot upwards going from right to left.

The Red Peak formation formed in the Triassic, most likely in a desert environment that stood next to an ocean.  Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

The Red Peak formation formed in the Triassic, most likely in a desert environment that stood next to an ocean.
Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

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Field Reporting Institute Day 1 Reflection

The first day of the FRI has been overwhelming and completely awesome.  I have already started a running list of story ideas to pursue in the future. 

 One of the biggest surprises for me is the openness of the traveling faculty.  I’ve been able to sit next the most of them on the bus today, and have had some great conversations with them all. 

 One conversation that really sticks in my mind is my chat with Greg Laslo on our way from Peck Ranch to the restaurant.  We talked about the possibility of writing news stories in more experimental forms.  It really made me think about how we, as journalists, shouldn’t be afraid to break away from the way we learn to write in school.  Maybe being a little creative will make our work more appealing to a wide audience.  

 And, I can’t wait for tomorrow’s adventures!  But first, some sleep. 

Sex on the river

Zachary Matson

The Jack’s Fork River meanders slowly through a landscape of rolling Ozark Mountains — weathered to their core by hundreds of thousands of years of natural elements. Tall limestone bluffs, stained with dark lichens, tower over the river like the granite pillars of a national monument.

Narrow short-leaf pines and thick, sturdy oaks stand tall in thin soil and a rocky foundation. On the riverbanks, dull bushy sycamores envelope green willows, and a Small Copper butterfly’s orange wings shimmer in the midday sun as it flutters across the river, hunting for insects and mates.

Large schools of minnows gather around large, mossy rocks in the clear water while large trout circle like sharks.

King Fishers, swallows and a Green Heron beat their wings as they glide gracefully and methodically up and down the river corridor, inches above the slow moving current. Two or three Turkey Vultures dry their wide wings in a tall, dead tree, while another group picks at a carcass on the gravel bank below.

Water strider bugs hover over the water as swarms of mayflies celebrate their brief orgies in the great evolutionary struggle.

“These bugs are very happy today. It’s their one day when they can fly around and have sex,” said retired entomologist Dennis Kopp as he pointed to a swarm of mayflies, which hatch from their larval stages and breed for about 24 hours.

“It’s a sign of river health; it’s a sign of minimal river disturbance,” he said.

“Jack’s Fork River” More Like “Jack’s Cans River”

By Annette Jenkins

Imagine floating down Jack’s Fork River. The cool water laps at your feet as you hang them out of your canoe, the warm sun overhead. Your cooler overflows with ice and cans of cold Mountain Dew. As you dig through the empty cans to find a full one, the breeze catches one and it’s tossed into the river, quickly filling with water and sinking. You can’t retrieve it. “It’s just one pop can.” But it can do more damage than you think.

Rebecca Landewe of The Nature Conservancy describes links between small things we don’t realize actually have a huge impact on the integrity and health of this river.  Human litter and waste create bigger problems down the line than we can imagine.

More than one million visitors come to Jack’s Fork to float every summer. If one can is dropped for every five people, imagine the amount of trash swallowed-but not digested-by this pristine area.

Even something as small as using the woods as an outhouse during a long float trip can affect the health of the river, Landawe said. She described how human defecation adds nutrients to the water. “Algae feed on those nutrients, then suck oxygen out of the water. Other fish and wildlife need that oxygen,” Landawe said.

Landewe is working with the Department of Parks and Recreation to help educate the public on the treatment of the water in the popular floating season. She wishes people were more responsible when it came to keeping it a place everyone will want to visit, Landawe said.

Family Comes First at This Cattle Ranch

By: Rachel Raines

The Barnitz family believes their cattle ranch isn’t just about the profit you get from beef.

Starting with only 12 acres in 1868, the Barnitz family has come a long way in building their family farm over the past decade.  With over 1,000 head of cows, the Barnitz cattle ranch is one of the largest operations around.

Although the family takes on this large responsibility, they refuse to cut corners.

“We make extra steps to make sure we do everything we can for our live stalk,” Frank Barnitz, owner of the Barnitz family ranch, said.

While at the cattle ranch, we saw three baby calves that had been rejected by their mothers that the Barnitz family decided to take care of.  The family will bottle feed these calves until they are able to live on their own.

The pride and love that the Barnitz family has for their cattle operation is contagious.  In years to come, the family hopes more people will come visit their farm.

Oh, What a Trip!

By: Rachel Raines

After more than 75 hours of field reporting, my brain is fried from an information overload.  This weekend we traveled more than 500 miles across the state of Missouri, visiting sites and landmarks that I would have never thought to travel to, and meeting people from numerous different backgrounds.  This trip was incredibly planned and easily one of the best learning experiences of my lifetime.

My main highlights on the trip were visiting Fort Leonard Wood, driving the elk tour, canoeing on jacks fork and visiting the cattle ranch.  Each of these events were so interesting and places I could have spent endless amounts of time.

Today we visited the cattle ranch and jacks forks river.  Both of these stops had so much heritage to learn from.  I especially enjoyed riding down the river with JB Forbes and watching him take photos on the water.  The colors of rocks, the dead trees and the numerous amounts of fish and minnows truly brought out a scenic story on the float trip.  Visiting the cattle ranch was exciting as well.  We witnessed the operations of a passed down family farm and heritage and passion behind their day to day operations.  The family was extremely compassionate about their work with cattle and so proud to tour us thru their pastures and animals.

Now that the trip is over, I can not help but look back and appreciate everything we did.  I feel so blessed to have met and worked alongside such great faculty and active members of the agriculture community.  In the days to come I hope to take the facts I learned on this trip and apply them to my future work and life.

Who’s to blame for water quality issues?

The Current River snakes it’s way through Missouri’s Ozark Mountains. Float down it and you’ll likely see turkey vultures riding thermals overhead. Cicadas on either side of the river chirp and oak trees sprout out of rock.

“It’s a trout fisherman’s paradise,” Dennis Kopp said.

Kopp, a retired entomologist professor at North Dakota State University, pointed out the mayflies, an indicator of high water quality, hovering above the river. There were too many to count. 

The water looks the way Mother Nature intended. It appears clear enough to see the mossy rocks at the bottom. Trout swim underneath the canoe.

And there it is—someone’s Bud Light can; the sure sign of our collective impact on the environment.

The signs of our impact aren’t always as apparent as a beer can at the bottom of a river. Rebecca Landewe, Current River project manager said her team collects water quality samples as one way to gauge the quality of the water.

Human and horse excrement increase the level of bacteria in the water. In turn, more algae grows causing oxygen levels to decrease. This hurts the water quality for other wildlife who live in or otherwise depend on the river.

It’s a safe assumption on July 5th you won’t see as many mayflies.

Edited by Erin Schell