Remembering Geology Field Camp, Summer 1979

by Laura Dwyer, MSDC Member

Lehigh 1979 Field Camp Class in the Copper Basin, Idaho. Laura Dwyer is in the back row, 5th from the right, next to Mike Wise who is 4th from the right.

I graduated from the University of Virginia (UVA) in May of 1979 with a major in Environmental Sciences, concentrated in geology. Geology field camp was strongly recommended for students planning to attend grad school in geology but it was not available at UVA. Based on the recommendation of a previous graduate, three of us, including Mike Wise, enrolled in Lehigh University’s Geology Field Camp, which was to begin three weeks after graduation.

To complicate things, my wedding had long been planned for the week after graduation in Charlottesville.  Soon after our wedding, my husband, Kevin, and I left for Texas where Kevin worked for the Army at Fort Sam Houston and I had been accepted to Grad School at the University of Texas - Austin in the fall. In early June I departed (Kevin says “deserted,” but despite that, we are about to celebrate our 45th anniversary) for Lehigh’s Summer Geology Field Camp, joining the class in transit in Chicago.

Lehigh University’s Geology Field Camp, a 6-credit hour course, was a “travelling” six-week camp with stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. We travelled in school vans with our duffle bags and equipment packed in an old horse trailer. We camped in four-person tents, took turns cooking meals and cleaning up for the whole camp, hiked 10-12 hours a day, and then drew our maps by flashlight at night. We woke early each day and after breakfast we packed a daily lunch of PB&J and an orange and filled our canteens directly from a nearby (untreated) stream or lake. We were cautioned not to drink from our canteens until after lunch in order to make our water last the whole day.  

Badlands of South Dakota
Devil's Tower, South Dakota

Unsurprisingly by the end of camp, many of us were infected with Giardia – a parasite that lives in contaminated water and infects the intestines – which made hiking all day a challenge. The medical clinic in Ketchum, Idaho reported that we were the largest infected group they’d ever treated. (Sometimes we would hear rumors of other university field camps, where students mapped geology but lived in dorms/hotels with beds, electricity, indoor plumbing, and cooked meals; surely these couldn’t be “real” field camps!)

Field Camp class picture in snow at Togwotee Pass, near the Continental Divide in the Absaroka Range, WY, 6/19/1979. Laura is front row, 2nd from left; Mike Wise is back row, 4th from left.

Despite the challenges of an “Outward Bound” program, we really did learn field geology while exploring some amazing parts of the country!  We learned to describe formations, compose and correlate stratigraphic columns, and make geologic maps using our field data and air photos. We identified rocks, minerals, and fossils in situ.  (No surprise that Mike Wise was exceptional in identifying rock and mineral hand samples!)  

We saw bison, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, prairie dogs, and prairie chickens. We travelled to the Badlands, the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, the Homestake Gold Mine, Devil’s Tower, the Wyodak Coal Mine, and the Bighorn Mountains. It snowed overnight on June 18 while we camped (Brr! So very COLD!) near the Continental Divide in the Absaroka Range, a major source of glaciation for Yellowstone. We saw Jackson Hole, the Red Hills, the Gros Ventre Slide, and we rafted down part of the Snake River. We mapped glacial geology near Pinedale, WY. We saw the Tetons, spent Independence Day touring Yellowstone, and visited the Hebgen Lake earthquake area and the Madison Slide.

Scar of Madison Slide from 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, MT
Field Camp tents, Copper Basin, ID
Stream by Copper Basin camp (with a student washing her hair)

We spent nearly two weeks mapping in the Copper Basin of central Idaho, located between Mackay and Ketchum/Sun Valley; and although this wasn’t a collecting trip, I found a beautiful jasper spear point and some malachite there. Before leaving Idaho, we visited Craters of the Moon Park and swam in a hot springs pool in Ketchum. At the end of camp, the vans were driven back east and I was dropped off in Chicago for my flight back to San Antonio. I was exhausted, hungry, grungy, and still recovering from Giardia, but so looking forward to being home with Kevin!

Hiking rain or shine, Copper Basin; Laura is 1st on left with tentmates
Malachite and spear point from Copper Basin, ID