Faces of Death Valley: Field Trippers Survive!

Nairi Chopurian
El Vaquero Staff Writer

Slideshow: Death Valley

The second-highest air temperature ever recorded was taken in Death Valley ? so Darren Leaver decided that would be a good place to take his Geography 111 class.

For the record, no temperature records were set during the April 26 to 28 trip, (in fact, that second-highest temperature ? 134 degrees ? was set in 1913) but it was a memorable trip, nonetheless.
After seven hours of going through narrow roads built through mountain passes and wide roads built on alluvial planes and waiting for the passing of a stalled cargo train, the 46-person student and guest crew

finally made it to Death Valley?s landmark, Stove Pipe Wells hotel.

The next morning, breakfast was served at 7:30 a.m. Geography major Stephen Haase, 40, had taken the initiative to collect money from the students and bring breakfast and lunch for everyone.


After breakfast the students were bused to their first stop, Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Badwater lies between the Funeral Mountains to the north and east, the Black mountains to the south and the Amargosa Mountains to the west.
Maureen Fanous, 19, was impressed with Badwater.

?I can be at that level [282 feet below sea level] and not stand in an ocean and drown,? she said.

The reason is that Badwater is surrounded by bedrock through which water cannot seep.

?If we were to drill a tunnel to the ocean, this place would flood with 282 feet of water,? said Leaver.?

The salt that has accumulated in the valley in which Badwater lies is a result of the flooding of the mountains around it.

?The water breaks down minerals, they release ions and they recombine to form salts after evaporation,? Leaver explained to the class.

Many students got on their knees to pick up and taste the salt. They were careful not to remove any salt, even accidentally, as Death Valley is a national park, where removal of any artifact, including salt, is prohibited.

Afterwards, the students packed up and went to Golden Canyon. Golden Canyon is subject to the eroding force of floods. Carved in time are the ripples of a lake that used to exist in the valley, whose shore is now the canyon?s walls.

?This is a chance to explore hands on and see firsthand all the things we?ve been learning, from rock formations to vegetation,? said Peter Braganáa, 20.


The next stop was the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. There was a raised relief map and some preserved animals in the center. Students were particularly interested in the display of a preserved bighorn sheep, seldom seen in the valley.

Getting off the bus, it looked like there was nothing there besides a boardwalk. However, when the students got near, they saw an ecosystem in its own right. Hundreds of tiny pupfish swam in the waters of the narrow, salty creek. Students had to read and take notes from the informational boards placed along the boardwalk, as part of the lab work they were doing

?Death Valley, in spite of its name, is very much a living place,? said Haase. ?We saw the pupfish and the 30 root vegetation. It has a lot of life in it, [it is] not like the southern part of south California,? he said. Putting the purpose of the trip into perspective, Haase said that students needed to understand the difference between the land formations and ecosystems they see regularly, and those in arid places like Death Valley.


The bus stopped at the sand dunes three hours before sundown. It looked like a scene from ?Arabian Nights.?

With sand in their shoes and the sun in their eyes, students walked westward, climbing dune after dune.

Sarafyan and a few other students were so affected by the heat and the wind that they became nauseated, and so went back to the bus. The wind started blowing stronger around sunset, and it got to the point where students could not go on anymore.

?It was almost like spirits were undulating the curvature of the dunes,? said Braganáa.

?I got scared because the wind started getting up and hitting me in the face ? but it was like I conquered my fear,? said guest Jairo Calderon, 14, accompanying his mother, Zenaida.

Some students, like Maggie Rochin, 31, thought the best part of the trip was that it differed from regular lab work.

?We really got to know each other and made friendships that will go beyond the Geography 111 class,? she said.

?Despite how bad or good any place can be, you missed out ? you just don?t know how good it is [if you didn?t go], you can?t say ?I?ve been to Death Valley,?? said John Carter, 19. ?I?ve been to Death Valley,? Carter said proudly.

Sixteen hours of fieldwork are required in order to pass the class. Even though many people think the desert is a desolate place, Leaver said that there are ways for plants and animals to live there.

Leaver said the next trip is scheduled for October and that the class will probably be going to Yosemite and camp in tents.

?It would be really sad if, with the budget cuts, they decide to cut the field trips,? said lab technician Catherine Crawford. ?For a lot of students with hard financial situations, this is the only chance they have to go to places as diverse as Death Valley.?

Slideshow: Death Valley