Storm above Unkar Delta Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon Experts | A conversation with Ivo Lucchitta Part 1

Q  So let’s see where do we start? Maybe can you give us your general impressions of visiting the South Rim of Grand Canyon?

A  The average length of most visitors to Grand Canyon is appalling. [From research for

Storm above Unkar Delta Grand Canyon

Storm above Unkar Delta. Photo by Sue Wotkyns

this project one survey showed that it is between 6 and 7.3 hours.] For many visitors it is a lot shorter than that. For me, the most valuable things about Grand Canyon are the things you do not see – it’s a journey of the mind and of the spirit. For a typical visitor that is not in their sphere of conception. It’s both an educational and intellectual thing.

Q  What do you recommend to go deeper, as it were, in your Grand Canyon visit?

A Go to Shoshone Point, for example – be there at the magic hours of the day – sunrise or sunset. Get there in the early morning or the late afternoon. Consider a visit in winter as opposed to summer. Winter is much better – in other words you need time for quiet, for contemplation. My view is that it is best to go at times other than in flat light – winter is a good time for that, and you have to have quiet.

Q What other things do you suggest to help approach the Canyon in a deeper, say more emotional way?

A  I think it would really be fantastic to go and visit Grand Canyon on a bicycle. I haven’t done it but I really want to. Get out of the car. Bicycling is silent, it is slower yet you can still observe and get places. I think the Park should promote this more. This way you are in it – you are in the landscape.

Really the Canyon is a strange entity. It is very important, it is completely different depending upon how you experience it. Consider a hike into it, or a float trip. I spent 30 years guiding Colorado River trips. I suggest a Grand Canyon River trip as a completely new way for visitors in how they are exposed to Grand Canyon, and I’m not talking about just floating and drinking beer. Flying over the Canyon is also awesome – but it is totally detached. There is also seeing it from the Rim the right kind of way – by bicycling or simply sitting and absorbing it. Then there is also the IMAX Theater at the Visitor Center in Tusayan – that is another way of experiencing it. Hiking in the Canyon is probably the most intimate, sweaty, direct way of experiencing the place. That is when you finally understand the real size and scope of the place.

Q In general terms, how do you describe the experience on the River?

A  On a Colorado River trip the River is the Queen, it dominates the scene. But this is what I’m trying to get at: Your understanding of and connection to the Canyon is completely different depending upon how you can experience it. That’s really important and visitors, tourists ought to be aware of this. The way I see it there is also the intellectual way – seeing Grand Canyon through your mind – and that’s where geology comes in. What I think is so rare, and what we need in our documentary programs, for example, about Grand Canyon is a symbiosis of the skill of the scientist with the skill of the artist. The essence for me is to combine the intellectual and spiritual – the way of the scientist and the way of the artist.

Q  So Grand Canyon geology  – it’s such a huge subject, what would you suggest is a way for visitors to approach it, you know, that’s approachable?

A  One aspect, or way of thinking about Grand Canyon is that it is a great book. The story of how life came about is told nicely in the Grand Canyon  – the small single-celled organisms. With them was a dramatic rise in the oxygen in the atmosphere, with the blue-green algae. These organisms are key because fundamentally, they made it possible for every other organism to exist. To have energy to move – you need to burn oxygen. That is very concentrated energy.
Fundamentally, in Grand Canyon with the Vishnu Schist – the old metamorphic rocks – they were cooked, so there is no evidence of life. But with the Grand Canyon series, you can see with the red color the evidence of oxidation or iron. In the Grand Canyon Supergroup there is lots and lots of oxidation, and there is lots of evidence of  life such as stromatolites. There are lots and lots of fossils of algae, algal mounds. These early life forms grew in mounds.
Q. What are the key clues for you, where the geology first gets interesting … and then other parts of the story?
A.  It is when we get to the oldest sedimentary rocks, those between 850 and 1200 million years old. We see the presence of oxygen and an abundance of primitive life. By the time we get to the base of the Paleozoic – 550 million years ago – there was an explosion of life, mostly single-celled plants. There were organisms of great diversity, mostly marine – life really originated in the sea. All the fundamental problems of life were really solved in the early Paleozoic time. For example – the evolution of complex multi-celled organisms sensing the environment, supporting the body, moving around. Many of those kinds of major things were solved in early Paleozoic time – that’s not shabby.

There really wasn’t much of anything on land, no plants or animals – the land looked like Mars. Then at the end of Paleozoic time that’s when you start seeing plants and amphibians. So, at Grand Canyon when we get to the Coconino sandstone there are leaf imprints and tracks of amphibians and reptilians. The geologic time frame called the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are combined into one and called the Carbiniferous in Europe. Plants exploded [into being] on land. There were big trees – they didn’t look like our present-day trees but were more like ferns and palms, that kind of stuff. So fundamentally the Paleozoic was the realm of sea animals – the sea was where the action was for most of that time. And then we get to the end of the Paleozoic, represented by the Kaibab limestone on the rim of Grand Canyon – there the Canyon story, the geologic story, ends. Above the Kaibab limestone is the Moenkopi formation and at the boundary between the two some 98 percent of species disappeared.