Down in the Sink

On the Humboldt Sink, where the water comes to an end. Here it either rises into the sky or seeps into the earth. 

View of the Humboldt Sink from the southeast. Courtesy of photographer Famartin via Wikipedia Commons

Water has been the theme of life lately. More specifically, lots of it! In various forms too: rain, snow, frozen rain, floodwater, ice. Not to complain, I am loving this winter’s latest explosions. Any inconvenience is more than made up for by the good it does for all of us and the world we share with so many other living things. Tonight though, I’m thinking about a place where the water ends. Specifically, the Humboldt Sink. It has always been a place to rush by, the part of I-80 from Lovelock until you crest the hill and start arrive at the Fallon cut-off. A sort of blip in the map. But as I start to learn more about the Great Basin it occurs to me that sinks, even more so than mountain peaks or lush meadows, are the defining features of our part of the world.

A sink is a distinctive geographic feature; a basin from which no water escapes. Rather than flowing into some other basin (like an ocean), the water that flows into a sink does not flow out. It only leaves by evaporation or penetration (i.e., sinking into the groundwater). The Humboldt Sink is the end of the Humboldt River.

One Saturday we set out to explore the Humboldt Sink a bit, along with Lovelock Cave. The cave is an amazing piece of the human record of the Great Basin, a place that was occupied for over 4,000 years! After the cave we drove down the road and just walked out toward the sink. While we didn’t make it as far as the actual playa bed, just walking among the greasewood-dotted sand dunes,  swales and salt grass flats was striking.

This was also the beginning of the dreaded Forty Mile Desert, perhaps the most terror-inspiring and horrific place on the California Trail. Travelers were no fan of the place,

“In place of a great rent in the earth, into which the waters of the rivers plunged with a terrible roar (as pictured in our imagination), there was found a mud lake ten miles long and four or five miles wide, a veritable sea of slime, a ‘slough of despond,’ an ocean of ooze, a bottomless bed of alkaline poison, which emitted a nauseous odor and presented the appearance of utter desolation. ” —Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849

“Even the very wagons seem to know that we are off today for the great adventure—in sand, volcanic ash, alkali, furnace heat, and the stench of putrid flesh—We crossed along the edge of an immense baked plain with the fetid stinking slough for a guide, although the wreckage along the way almost paved our route…. It must have been here that one emigrant said he counted a dead animal every 106 feet.”

It was also an important place for Native Americans, and as such they often came into contact with and conflict with the newcomers. I highly recommend reading Across Nevada, a pamphlet put out in 2012 by the National Park Service from which the top quote is taken. It’s definitely gone into the library. The bottom, unacknowledged, one is from The WPA Guide to Nevada (already in the library).

It is a sink, and walking along in its sand dunes we often started to disappear a bit, giving us an even deeper feeling of walking into a place older somehow than everything around it. A place where more has disappeared than has remained. And, as described by John McPhee in Basin and Range, where a new ocean will one day appear:

“Death Valley. Walker Lake. Carson Sink.” An Exxon map of the western United States is spread open on the seat between us. He runs his finger from Death Valley to Carson Sink and on northward to cross the interstate at Lovelock. “The ocean will open here,” he repeats. “Or in the Bonneville Basin. I think here.” (p. 138 of his collected Annals of the Former World)

I don’t know if this is the most current geology, but this was what most caught my imagination when I read this fascinating book and remains for me a striking image, a metaphor even for the ability of reality to be transformed by the passage of time. That the place that I had driven by hundreds of times, where I walked with Renee and Coco on a calm and cool early spring day, where emigrants had cursed and fought, where Native Americans had seen the beginning of the end of their life ways with the arrival of bands of newcomers with terrible weapons and new diseases, that this place will become an ocean. We come across a perfectly molted snake skin and stop to examine its contours. One day it will open and where we are will be swallowed by a vast expanse of cresting ocean. We walk on, it’s easy to lose yourself in the vast plain until you lift your eyes to the ringing mountains.

Climbing into Reno’s Fiery Past

Clark Mountain from near Washington Hill.

There is a mountain in the Virginia Range I’ve been interested in for a while. I call it The Old Mother Who Sleeps and Wants to Be Left Alone, but it’s known by most people (who know or care) as Clark Mountain. It is the highest northern Virginia Range mountain and always intrigued me. I tried climbing it one day with Coco early this year, but we turned back as the day was getting late. This interest turned into something like full-blown obsession after Renee and I attended the National Earth Sciences outing held by the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology earlier this fall. At the Lagomarsino/Long Valley stop, the instructors explained that the mountain is actually an old volcano, one that would have predated the rise of the Sierra and, when it was active, would have overseen a landscape similar to the Cascades.

Looking toward the first ridge from the Nature of Art in McCarran Ranch.

So on a recent Sunday, I decided to scale it again. The SummitPost directions for the peak give its hike starting point as the Lagomarsino trailhead, but I wanted to try the peak from the McCarran Ranch side. From McCarran Ranch’s eastern trailhead I walked west along the river, past the Nature of Art, which I always love to pass (although hated to see the damage wrought in a small wildfire there this summer), and then turned south and climbed up what is aptly called Giant’s Throne Canyon on my TopoMaps app and which climbs behind a spectacular rocky ridge that also, on the other side, serves as the backdrop for a brothel.

Giant’s Throne Canyon.

Following this canyon is beautiful but a bit rough, but eventually you climb up to a power line road and follow that across two more ridge saddles (which was great for NaNoWriMo write-walking) before hitting the highest saddle from which you leave the road and climb south-ish toward the actual peak. Which was frankly pretty treacherous stone fields.

On the power line road through the final canyon with the peak beyond.

Lunch spot in the last canyon before making the summit climb.

On the way down I took the first canyon I descended into, on TopoMaps called Chalk Bluffs Canyon, and for just summiting the mountain this would have been a much easier up-and-down route. It had a well-used horse trail that seemed likely to have been an old road although it wasn’t as scenic as the Giant’s Throne. Emerging from the canyon there is a lower power line road that takes you back to McCarran Ranch. For me this was a solid late fall day-long hike and rough. I would recommend to hike it with a friend in case you twist your ankle in the loose rock.

The final summit approach just a loose rock field.

I wanted to learn more about the mountain’s volcanism, but have been finding online sources pretty few and far between. In “Geology of the Virginia City Quadrange, Nevada,” I learned that the mountain is one of four vents of the Lousetown Formation. Here is the best description I found of the volcanism, although it doesn’t mention the mountain specifically it is talking about Lagomarsino/Long Valley when it says “here”:

Much of northwestern Nevada is covered by lava flows hundreds to thousands of feet thick that erupted throughout much of the Oligocene and Miocene epochs of geologic time (about 35 million to about 7 million years ago). These rocks comprise most of the Virginia Range south of here and the Pah Rah Range to the north. As you drive along the Truckee River canyon between Reno and Fernley, most of the rocks you see exposed in the canyon walls and slopes are this type of andesitic (medium silica content) volcanic material. The lavas and tuffs came from volcanic eruptions that occurred as a result of subduction of the Juan De Fuca tectonic plate to the west under the edge of the North American plate, causing the ancestral Cascade volcano chain to actively erupt over much of northwestern Nevada. (Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology link here.)

Last light back in McCarran Ranch.

It was a great climb, and even better to climb so deep into this area’s past.