Mary Alice Benson

Mary Alice Benson

Seattle, Washington

UW standing
Graduate student in applied geology as of fall 2017

Favorite field camp project site
Timber Hill

Known in the field for
Rock identification

Favorite tool in the field
Rock hammer

Previous profession
Retail manager

Outside of geology
I live on a sailboat, love to travel and go curling whenever I can

I’m Mary Alice, a student in the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences. Last summer, I spent more than a month exploring Montana’s vast, geologically diverse landscape. At UW’s field camp, I tested, honed and mastered techniques I’d learned about in class.

I traced a complicated pathway through time; millions of years etched into the earth for geologists, like me, to parse through. The imprint of these 41 days will be with me forever.

In the Digital Age, fewer and fewer students get the same opportunity I did. Powerful mapping technologies — important for geologic work — sit at our fingertips and on our screens. We can explore landscapes without leaving our desks, so the number of field camps operating in the U.S. has dwindled.

But I believe every geologist needs to spend time in the field. All of us definitionrockhounds: An amateur mineralogist who studies and collects rocks and minerals from their natural environment.rockhounds need to feel the weight of history, time and transition up close in the areas we study.

This is my field camp experience.

Dillon, MT Map

Days 1-18

Dillon is a small Montana town with a population just over 4,000. Based in Dillon for the first 18 days of field camp, we worked at several field sites including Frying Pan and Block Mountain. Rat’s Nest is a smaller subsection of Block Mountain.

Dillon, Montana

Day 1

We left Seattle this morning at 7:45 a.m. and rolled into Dillon 11 hours later — we’re exhausted but ready to hit the field. My goal is to keep a near-daily log of what we encounter in the field, the opportunities and challenges I face here and how the group navigates this incredible opportunity. More soon.

Day 3

It’s incredible to put what you’ve learned in class to use toward something tangible. That’s what we’re getting to do out here. Today, we looked at how to use a definitionJacob’s staff: A common surveying tool used to measure the true thickness of a rock layer.Jacob’s staff. Is it tedious? Sure. But it’s a necessary skill for all geologists to have, and we’ll put it to use creating definitionstratigraphic columns: A diagram that shows geologic time in a sequence of rock layers, with the oldest rocks at the bottom and the youngest rocks at the top.stratigraphic columns tomorrow at Frying Pan.

Day 4

Being in the field is brilliant.

Block Mountain’s complicated geology has me second guessing things I thought I knew.”

Day 9

It’s my birthday today and our first day off. Coincidence? I don’t think so. We celebrated by hiking to an abandoned garnet pit mine. Our rockhounding paid off because we saw definitiongarnets: A group of minerals that are brittle and transparent-to-subtransparent; most commonly found in metamorphic rocks.garnets, definitionepidote: A yellowish-, pistachio- or blackish-green mineral. epidote, definitionquartz: Crystalline silica, an important rock-forming mineral. Next to feldspar, it is the most common mineral.quartz and definitionpyrite: A common, pale-bronze or brass-yellow isometric mineral.pyrite.

Sketch of a high thermostat

Day 11

Block Mountain’s complicated geology has me second-guessing things I thought I knew. Not to mention, how are we going to map five miles in six days in this 90° heat?

Day 12

Yesterday, I was disheartened. Today, I woke up ready to attack the task at-hand. My partner and I devised a crafty plan to map the west quadrant of Block Mountain more effectively and efficiently. Tomorrow, we conquer the Rat’s Nest.

Sketch of a rattlesnake

Day 13

I’m hitting my stride. I’m getting better and better at mapping features from a distance and recognizing formations as I approach.

Glacier National Park, MT map

Days 19-22

We spent a few days exploring and unwinding in Glacier National Park midway through field camp. We stayed at two campsites, Sun River Canyon and St. Mary Glacier Park KOA. Piegan Pass is an arduous 9.2-mile hike in the northeastern part of the park.

Sketch of tent under the stars

Glacier National Park

Day 19

Last night at Sun River Canyon, we stayed up late by the campfire, roasted s’mores and listened to music alongside the river and under a dense blanket of stars. We should reach Glacier tomorrow morning.

Day 20

It’s beautiful here, and I’ve had a few quiet moments to reflect on all I’ve learned through this experience so far. At times though, I’m reminded of how much I still have to learn.

Sketch of a ground squirrel

Day 21

Confession: I’m afraid of heights. Piegan Pass led us through wildflower meadows and culminated in a view of the neighboring valley. But when the path got too narrow, I stayed behind. I napped on flat boulders with a gorgeous view of adjacent glaciers through the trees.

Dillon, MT Map

Days 23-42

The second leg of our time in Dillon was full of more projects in the field, including at the Timber Hill and Kelley Reservoir sites. Price Creek is a smaller subsection of Timber Hill, and the Ruby Range is a mountain range east of Dillon.

Mike McGroder

Beyond my field notes

Meet field camp leader and UW alum Mike McGroder, learn more about the geology field camp experience and meet some of my classmates.

Learning from the ground up

Back in Dillon

Day 24

We’re dealing with two sedimentary units composed of volcanic ash and tuff — which look nearly identical — at Timber Hill. I’m up for the challenge.

I finally feel like I know what I’m doing and like I can (and should) enter the field every day with confidence, knowing I can get the job done.”

Day 26

My partner and I think we’ve figured out how two billion years of geologic records could have disappeared from the area. I finally feel like I know what I’m doing and like I can (and should) enter the field every day with confidence, knowing I can get the job done. I finished my map and definitioncross section: A diagram showing a “slice” of an area’s geologic layers, as if the earth were cut open and seen from the side, similar to a canyon wall.cross section early tonight, so I went into town to shoot pool at the Moose.

Sketch of bear claws

Day 31

My classmates ran into a mama bear, her cub and a moose today.

Day 33

Five weeks ago, I was overwhelmed by the workload here and had many skills left to learn. Today, I’m identifying rocks in the field and defending those identifications when my classmates disagree. I’m quickly and accurately making maps and stratigraphy columns, and I’m able to mentally piece together billions of years of geologic history. Earth and Space Sciences field camp proves how much you can learn and grow in a short period.

Day 37

Today is our last day in the field. Just two more Price Creek transects to definitionsurvey: To determine and delineate the form, extent, position, boundaries, value or nature of a tract of land.survey!

Day 38

We’ve been through a lot together in the last six weeks. Tonight, we celebrate.

Day 40

During today’s fieldtrip to the Ruby Range, I saw ultramafics. ULTRAMAFICS. It’s not every day that you see a rock that exists deep in Earth’s definitionmantle: The thick layer of hot, mostly solid rock between Earth’s crust and its core, which makes up 84 percent of the planet’s total volume.mantle exposed on the surface. And if that weren’t enough, we also saw a cougar — it was massive.

Sketch pointing at final entry

Day 41

Field camp was physically daunting, but also incredibly empowering. More than holding my own, I can thrive when I’m thrown into the deep-end. I’m more confident than ever in my ability to ID rocks, make observations and work through all the possible ways geologic formations came to be.

I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

Special thanks to Mary Alice Benson
Photos courtesy of Mark Stone/University of Washington and Madeline Hille
Definitions adapted from American Geological Institute’s Glossary of Geology

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Despite being professionally and personally enriching for students who participate, the number of programs like UW’s geology field camp are on the decline nationwide. Field camp at the University of Washington is funded exclusively through private donations from people who believe in the power of immersive learning. The UW Department of Earth and Space Sciences offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, including the MESSAGe applied master’s program Mary Alice is now enrolled in.

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