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School of hard rocks explores Summit County

Geology students scour the side of the road near Peoa two weeks ago as they map geological phenomena. (Scott Sine/Park Record)
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They may appear to be a chain gang from cars whizzing past at 60 miles an hour, but that group along the side of the highway is actually made of the some of the brightest geology students in the nation.

For better than 40 years, college students from the Midwest have made their way to the Park City area to study the unique geology of the region. At first, these students came as part of a longer western road trip, but the geologic properties of Park City and its environs convinced them that a long field trip just to Park City would be worth their while.

The program has expanded of late and now includes students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Iowa, Michigan State, the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota at Duluth. All of the students study geology, but their specific areas of interest vary. Some students may ultimately pursue careers in petrology while others may search for jobs in mineralogy.

While in Park City, all of the students focus on building their field skills. Under the guidance of university professors, the camp makes daytrips to road cuts and longer sojourns to other destinations including a mine between Elko and Winnemucca in Nevada.

As the job market has heated up for these students, this trip serves as a possible recruiting visit for the mine. Of the 40 to 50 students who attend the camp, at least four or five might expect to get jobs or internships through the connections they make near Elko or at a second visit with an oil geologist. Professor Phil Brown, of the University of Wisconsin, said that any student "willing to get away from their computers and do some real geology" has a chance of getting hired.

Throughout their local trips, students have the opportunity to view both sedimentary and igneous formations. Students drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon on their first day and see stone formations of sedimentary rocks that are 1.5 billion years old and farther up the canyon, igneous rocks that are only 100 million years old. Even to polished and professional geologists, the proximity of these types of rock presents something of a quandary.

Brown identifies Park City and Salt Lake City as figurative, but not literal, epicenters. Billions of years ago, what is now North America was bordered, not far from Utah, by Antarctica and Australia. A process of pushing and pulling liberated these two other current continents and caused Nevada to become a sort of accumulation center for sedimentary stones formed by accordion-style action. The Wasatch Mountains stood as the border between the established continent and the shifting land masses.

Volcanic activity also helped to define the area and, fortunately, left valuable minerals like silver. Brown said that the equivalent of Mt. Rainier in Washington state once sat not far from Park City. Aside from the valuable minerals, the volcanoes also left a record of their presence with mudflows in the area, now greatly solidified.

The students in the camp head to these types of flows and, with their professors create maps detailing the formation of the area in study. That could well be what they are doing as they gather along the side of the road in Peoa or along Chalk Creek. Even if it’s hot or snowing, the bottom line for Brown is that "a bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office."


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