Travel

America's Original Mystery Monolith Towers Above the West

The country's first national monument is steeped in the uncertain.

Lillah Grinnell / EyeEm / getty images
Lillah Grinnell / EyeEm / getty images
Lillah Grinnell / EyeEm / getty images

There is nowhere on Earth like it: An 867-foot plume of cooled magma frozen in time, standing sentinel in Wyoming’s ranch country. From afar, its symmetrical rows of 10-foot-wide columns appear as if a giant bear clawed up its sides, like some sort of celestial scratching post. Simply looking at it requires an admission of bewilderment.

Devils Tower is the nation’s first national monument, designated with the flick of a pen by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Of course, its human history goes back thousands of years before that: This is sacred ground to some two-dozen Northern Plains tribes, including the Lakota, Shoshone, and Arapahoe. How it got here, we’re not exactly sure. What’s its future? Well, that’s not entirely concrete, either.

Laura Hedien / moment / getty images
Laura Hedien / moment / getty images
Laura Hedien / moment / getty images

50+ million years ago during the Laramide orogeny-a mountain-building event-parts of the U.S. were being pushed skyward, from California all the way to the Black Hills. Devils Tower is part of that wild tectonic story, a magma plume that boiled its way through sedimentary rock one or two miles down, but never made it to the surface on its own.  

So far, that geologic origin story isn’t all that special. 

“It’s kind of a small fry for some cooled magma bodies,” explains Dr. Erik Klemetti, associate professor at Denison University. “Think about all the granite in the Sierra Nevada in California,” like Yosemite’s Half Dome, which underwent a similar process of uplift and erosion. 

But even though Devils Tower isn’t super-sized, it’s still in a class of its own: The tower’s columns are the largest examples of columnar jointing on Earth.

Diana Robinson Photography / moment / getty images
Diana Robinson Photography / moment / getty images
Diana Robinson Photography / moment / getty images

For columnar jointing to occur in the first place, conditions have to be just right. That means “slow, gradual, monotonous cooling like you would get in a magma body that is miles beneath the land surface,” explains Klemetti. “The crust is hundreds of degrees cooler, but because rock is such a good insulator, it can take tens of thousands of years to cool fully.” 

As to the columns’ unparalleled size-those at California’s Devils Postpile National Monument, for example, average two feet to the tower’s 10-those exact details remain unknown.

To the outside eye, the tower’s columns look perfectly carved by the gods. But get closer and you’ll notice a more complicated story. 

“It’s not as uniform as it may look,” writes Nick Myers, the monument’s chief of interpretation. “Individually, the columns are similar in size, but overall the tower itself is very diverse-especially the top.” The individual columns, he points out, can be five-, six-, or even seven-sided. 
 
But beyond those basics, we don’t precisely know the tower’s origins-some even say it’s the neck of an extinct volcano.
 
“We have a very, very good idea as to what happened here,” adds Myers, “but we may never know definitively.”

Kathryn Froilan / moment / getty images
Kathryn Froilan / moment / getty images
Kathryn Froilan / moment / getty images

Local Indigenous tribes, of course, have their own explanations. The oral history of the Crow weaves a far more sudden tale: Two girls were being pursued by a gigantic, hungry bear. In answer to their desperate prayers, the Great Spirit shot the ground underneath them up into the sky and the girls out of reach. The bear climbed the tower in pursuit-scratching out the columns-but couldn’t make it to the top. 
 
The sacred narratives of the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Kiowa are similar, and sun dances, sweat lodges, and prayer offerings are regular occurrences on the site to this day. If you see prayer cloths or other religious artifacts at the park, do not disturb them. They are not yours.
 
Which brings up a necessary point: This is sacred Indigenous land, commonly referred to as Bear Lodge. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Lakota, spearheaded a 2014 request to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to get the tower renamed as such. 
 
“The [current] name is offensive,” the proposal states, “because it equates cultural and faith traditions practiced at this site to ‘devil worship,’ in essence equating Indigenous people to ‘devils.'”Unlike South Dakota’s Black Elk Peak or Alaska’s Denali, the request hasn’t progressed too far yet-but it did spur on Sen. Mike Enzi (WY) and Rep. Liz Cheney (WY-At Large) to introduce legislation protecting the name in early 2019. Per USBGN policies, any proposed name change won’t be considered until at least 90 days after the beginning of the next session of Congress, or January 3, 2021. 
 
That said, the NPS works “very closely with all affiliated and associated tribes at Devils Tower,” according to Myers, and space for Indigenous tradition is a constant conversation. Since 1995, there’s been a voluntary ban on climbing the tower-there are 100+ routes-during the month of June, when Indigenous ceremonies are most numerous. Many routes also close in April to protect nesting prairie and peregrine falcons.
 
Regardless of how this igneous giant came to be, what it’s called, or if and when you should climb it, a few things remain clear: Respect this sacred site, its mysteries, its traditions, its flora and fauna-and look out for gigantic bears.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.

Travel

Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave-er, depths.

Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo… you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

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Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.

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