California Days – Fossil Falls

It was hot. We’d left the mountains with temperatures in the low nineties (90’s) and were now in the middle of the Mohave Desert and heading out in 104 degrees to find a local landmark called Fossil Falls. We were staying down the road at Ridgecrest, California which is noteworthy for a big military weapons testing and desert training facility called China Lake. But it is the Mohave – we never saw a lake – just a few salt flats here and there that would imply that there might once have been a lake there in the past and that there just might be a lake again in the future if it ever rained enough. But there wasn’t much chance of rain on this hot dry day in July…and it was doubtful for the near future.

California Oil Fields

We had arrived in Ridgecrest on Saturday after a long drive around from Three Rivers over on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We’d gone from cultivated areas with lots of orange, almond, and olive groves to drier “farms” with lots of oil wells pumping steadily throughout the long hot days. As we traveled further east, it became drier and the oil wells changed to gigantic windmills covering every ridge. Maybe about half of the windmills were slowly turning but they seemed to be calibrated to the same slow ever-droning-on sequence as the oil wells we were leaving behind. Then turning north and moving even deeper into the desert, we encountered fields of solar panels…which probably moved slowly if they even moved at all. It was like traveling through a diorama of the history of power generation for the past fifty (50) years. Then it was nothing but desert and the occasional Joshua Tree until we left the highway and headed east to Ridgecrest.

After checking into our hotel, we went into town to check out a small local museum where we’d heard from our hotel clerk that we could get some information on how to get to some well-known petroglyphs in the mountains nearby. The Maturango Museum was lovely – small and well-maintained with quite a few native crafts and displays, but, alas, our hopes to see the petroglyphs in the area were dashed when we were told that the petroglyphs were in a restricted area on the military reservation and no one was permitted to enter without a guide from the base. For a glimmer of a moment, we thought maybe we could hire a guide and see the petroglyph site that way…but that was not to be. The Government only allows visitors into the site twice a year in fall and spring. They would not even be considering allowing access to the site at any point before September – we’d be long gone on our way home before the next reservations would be made for visitors to see those petroglyphs. In all fairness, the problem was the heat…the military just couldn’t take visitors up into the mountains in the heat.

Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA
Outside display at Maturango Museum
Checking the time on the human sundial at Maturango Museum

Seeing my disappointment, the kind docent at the museum told me that just up the road from the museum there was a lovely park where a few years ago, the community had set up rocks along the walking path and local artists had painted their “interpretations” of the petroglyphs on the rocks. She said I should take a look at those renderings if I wanted to see petroglyphs. Her heart was in the right place, I am sure and she only wanted to help. I thanked her kindly but, somehow, seeing modern versions of ancient drawings and carvings just wasn’t going to be the same as seeing the originals carved a few thousand years ago.

The artistic renderings of petroglyphs in Petroglyph Park

But, we did cruise by Petroglyph Park anyway and it was indeed a lovely park with a pretty good walking path just as she had told us it would be….and there were great fake petroglyphs that we could enjoy if we chose to take a stroll through the park while enjoying the nice stiflingly hot weather.

Did I mention it was hot? Cruising by the Baptist Church to check out the temperature.

On Sunday, we’d had a lovely morning visiting a local church for the morning services and had then stopped in at Arby’s for a sandwich for lunch. It’s a military town – lots of strip malls and fast-food joints – always something available to grab a quick bite. Our plans were to head out to Death Valley bright and early on Monday so we had Sunday afternoon to do a little exploring. Since petroglyphs were out, we decided to check out another local landmark called Fossil Falls.

So, here we were traveling north on Highway 395 looking for a roughed up National Monument sign that would direct us onto a washed out gravel road leading across the massive lava fields to the site. The sign turned out to be relatively easy to find and soon we were passing Red Cinder Cone, also known as Red Hill, one of the many evidences of volcanic activity in the area, and heading back to the visitor’s area near the “falls”.

Lave Rocks. Somewhere in there is a trail…or not. Red Cinder Cone Hill is in the background.

Of course, there are no waterfalls today. The Owens River that flowed here at the end of the last Ice Age and carved out a path through the lava rocks is long gone. The lakes and ponds that filled Indian Wells Valley and supported aboriginal peoples are also long ago dried up leaving only rocks and gullies that might support a flash flood now and then in the event a storm comes sweeping in from the mountains to the west.

Red Cinder Cone Hill, one of the volcanos that would have helped create the Lava Fields here.

But no such storm is predicted for today. Today it is dry and hot…..very much so. As we drive into the parking lot, I am surprised to see that it is a relatively well-maintained park with a cinderblock toilet rather than the usual porta-potty we have been seeing in all the national parks we’ve visited on this trip. Nonetheless, in this heat, I eyed that bathroom with a goodly amount of consternation telling myself that there was just no way I was going to venture into what would probably be a very hot stinky hazardous filled to the brim with all sorts of nasty bacteria box in this heat. Not no…but NO!!! Just wasn’t gonna happen.

Ancient Lava Flow coming down from the mountains nearby.

The temperature had risen to just about 107 in the meantime but we decided we would go ahead and walk the trail out to the former river bed and take a look at the cliffs where once the raging river had rushed over the lava rock polishing rough knife sharp edges down to the glassy smooth surfaces that were now so slippery as to require caution even when dry. That’s what the signs said and I believed it. However, I found the sharp rocks much more intimidating as we tried to navigate the “trails” through the lava. One misstep and an ankle could be broken or sprained just like that….then I suppose I would be forced to hobble my little hobby back to the car. There just weren’t any improved walking trails here…no markers….no cleared pathways…..just more or less tracks laid down though the lava rocks by previous visitors and hikers to the area.

The trail was just under half a mile one way so I figured I could handle it even in the heat and even with all the rocks. After all, haven’t you heard all about it being a “dry heat” and not the same as that oppressive heart-stopping humidity back home? The air is dry here….so dry. That’s what I have always heard and I can vouch for that for the most part as we hardly even broke a sweat all day although breathing was a bit of a chore. Then again, I suppose that every ounce of humidity that dares to form on our bodies was just evaporated away into the heated air before it ever had a chance to form a good solid drop of sweat.

In the heat, as we walked across the lava field, I found myself wondering about the ancient peoples who lived here. According to my research, the Coso People had lived and camped along the river about 10,000 years ago but, by 6000 BCE, those natives had abandoned the area due to drying conditions. The glaciers finished melting…the rivers stopped flowing.

Sometime around 4000 BCE, the climate became more moderate and the natives had returned to the area. It was still plenty hot and dry but they learned to use what resources were available in the area. By the 19th century though, only the Little Lake Shoshone peoples came here to look for obsidian in rocks among the lava fields to make the spears and knives and arrowheads they needed to survive in the harsh climate.

(We didn’t find any obsidian although we did look for it. It is probably best that we didn’t as I would, no doubt, have wanted to bring it home as a souvenir. As I get older, I’m finding that some things are best left in the preserves where they are found and not lugged all the way back home to sit on a shelf somewhere. And the sign said not to take anything out of the park…so, there’s that.)

The “Falls” at Fossil Falls. The Owens River would have rushed over the 40 foot drop        creating the waterfalls.

Now, the area is abandoned and the site is managed and controlled by the state. The river no longer exists; the falls no longer overflow with water thundering down onto the rocks below….no more water, no more trees, and no more people….the land is silent now and left to the small desert creatures who can still manage to survive in the harsh environment.

The ancient Owens River bed (center). Note that the lava rocks in the old flow area are smoother here.

We found the old river bed with few problems. Just pick you way through the rocks until you reach the gully, and then head downstream until you can see the cliffs where the falls used to be. We didn’t hike all the way down to the cliffs themselves….time and the heat just did not permit it….at least not for me.

We weren’t the only ones at the site that day. We had noted with amusement the two teenage girls who headed out across the lava rocks taking lots of “selfies” wearing absolutely the wrong shoes. Really, who wears flip flops and sandals through a rock-strewn desert with snakes and lizards and scorpions and spiders?

The trail begins. That Owens River bed is towards that small hill in the distance (center).

On our way, we met four young men who seemed to appear out of nowhere heading back to the parking lot. They looked just plain hot, beat up, exhausted and ready to get back into an air conditioned car and head to some cool oasis for a nice cold glass of iced tea. (Tea, right?) I think that I must have looked equally as bad when I emerged from the trail and headed across the parking lot because a nice lady hurried up to me with a nice cold bottle of water straight out of her cooler. Guess she thought I was going to pass out or something.

I thanked her profusely but I was on a mission at this point and couldn’t be delayed. You see, I had other things in mind…..I was going to have to do it….going to have to risk everything….put aside my better judgement and my sanity….just take my own safety in my own hands and head right into the heart of danger. I was going to have to risk it….I was going in….just had to do it….no other choice. I was going into that bathroom after all. Imagine my surprise to find a bright sunny well-ventilated clean-smelling composting toilet with plenty of toilet paper and a full container of hand sanitizer.


You just never know what you are going to find in the desert in the middle of nowhere.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Fossil Falls –
  2. Visit California Website –

Inside Conowingo


 The Susquehannock natives called the site Conowingo meaning “at the rapids”. Today, we (and quite a few other birders, nature enthusiasts, and photographers) think of it as the place with the dam where all the Bald Eagles come in winter to eat the remains of fish that don’t always make it through the big turbines alive. Well, I suppose fish do make it through…and I suppose also that some of the eagles (and herons and gulls and vultures) actually catch live fish when they are perusing the menu below the dam.

When the Philadelphia Power Company began construction of a new hydroelectric dam “at the rapids” on the Susquehanna River near the small town of Conowingo in 1926, I’m sure the intent wasn’t to provide such a magnificent winter feeding ground for the birds, but, as things happened, that is what developed…..along with a new continual source for about 500 Megawatts (MW) of electricity. (The hydroelectric plant is connected to the eastern portion of the continental electrical “grid” and how much is produced by Conowingo depends on how much is needed by the grid and the price per kilowatt on any given day.)

Building the dam had some negative effects too. And there is a website ( that lists all of them in detail. The dam changed the seasonal water flow (although I have to add, it also stops flooding downstream). It blocks the spawning runs for shad, eel, herring, and a variety of other fish. And it has, of course, changed the aquatic habitat and altered the river’s natural ability to purge itself of the sediment that now remains trapped behind the dam.

Conowingo Dam from Fisherman’s Park

It took two years (amazing feat all by itself) to build the dam. It is 105 feet high by 4,648 feet long. The reservoir created on the Susquehanna River behind the dam is about 14 miles long and covers 9000 acres. Sadly, there are no more rapids “at the rapids” on this part of the river and the original town of Conowingo lies somewhere at the bottom of the lake. It happens.

We have visited the dam many times. I mean, really, it’s a no-brainer if you love birds and especially Bald Eagles; it is the place to go. And, on top of that, it is just about two hours away and great for a day trip up to see a few eagles, grab lunch somewhere, and head home before dark. Really, it is a perfect local birding spot. Even in summer when the eagles are scarce, there are always Vultures (but take care where you park because the big black birds have a taste for anything rubber that is attached to an automobile) and Cormorants and Gulls….plenty of gulls. I have read that, of the 170 species of birds recorded at or near the Dam, there are at least 11 species of gulls. And then there are the Herons…who doesn’t like to see a beautiful Great Blue Heron fishing along the river?

Lined up to get that perfect photograph….standing room only.

Just a quick note about the photographers: If you want to see thousands of dollars’ worth of “glass”, i.e., binoculars and super-sized zoom camera lens, just head up to Conowingo in December or January. Pick any Saturday – ah, just pick any day of the week – and you’ll see photographers and birders lined up along every inch of the rails and fence line along the river in Fisherman’s Park with their gear set up on expensive tri-pods (and some not so expensive ones) just waiting for that perfect eagle flying, fishing, fighting moment. And, trust me, they get the pictures.  A quick stop by the Visitor Center at the top of the dam and you can see amazing photographs taken right there below the dam.

So, we too have stood on the banks of the Susquehanna below the dam at Fisherman’s Park (did I mention fishermen love the place too….for obvious reasons?) in the chill of winter with me freezing my patookas off watching the eagles scuffle with each other over the fish they’ve caught (or fish parts they’ve retrieved) looking up at that dam and wondering if they ever let anyone go inside and take a look around the place.

Turns out they do. If you call on a specially designated day in August (got this info from the Visitor Center when I stopped in one afternoon for a potty break before heading home), you can sign up for a tour in September when they have the Conowingo Dam festival….which is not to be confused with the Eagle Days Festival they have later (or is it earlier?) in the year. This year, I called in and signed us up. So, one fine hot Saturday in September (the 23rd), we headed up US Route 1 north of Belair to the dam and waited for our turn inside.

View from inside the dam just between Turbine Hall and the gates.

Actually, I was quite excited at the prospect of getting inside the dam. I had always admired its industrial art deco type styling sitting there straddling the Susquehanna River.  You can tell from the outside that it is gonna be pretty cool inside too.

Still looking for a retirement job.

We donned hardhats and were issued ear plugs. There wasn’t any construction going on – we wore the hardhats because the fishermen outside were known to cast their lines out with heavy weights that sometimes broke off and came crashing through the windows in Turbine Hall. Just another hazard of working there, I suppose. The earplugs? Well, it was noisy with the turbines running.

Turbine Hall
Generator #1

Our tour guide led us into a side door and right into Turbine Hall which is pretty much as far in as they let us go. But that was okay although I really wanted to go down into the bowels of the place and see the twenty-seven (27) foot butterfly valves that were originally used to control the water flow through the turbines. Nowadays the water is controlled by something called wicket gates which do not sound nearly as impressive as humongous butterfly valves. But, alas, we did not get to go that far into the dam….guess we would have needed more than hardhats and earplugs for that.

One of the older turbines.
Going down under Turbine #2

We did get to see the big beautiful turbines in the aforementioned Turbine Hall of which there are eleven (11). Although the dam was built to accommodate eleven (11) turbines, only seven (7) were installed when the dam was completed in 1928. The last four (4) higher capacity turbines were added in 1978. Each of the new turbines drives a 65 Megawatt (MW) generator increasing the dam output to about 548 MW. The original seven turbines produced about 252 MW. In total, the plant at Conowingo adds about 1.6 billion Kilowatt (KW) hours to the grid.

East Fish Lift

We also got a look at the two fish lifts that have been added to the dam to attempt to accommodate the spawning of the shad, herring, eels, etc. The east lift is very large and essentially a large elevator. The fish swim into the bottom and then the lift is raised the 100 feet to the top of the dam where the fish are released. This lift was at the top when we visited; I did not climb all the steps up to the top to see if there were fish inside when we visited although it is not the season so I expect the lift was empty.

The west lift is much smaller and apparently used by scientists to monitor the shad, count them during spawning season, and sometimes to collect the fish and transport them to creeks and tributaries up river which could be a daunting task considering the Susquehanna runs for 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York (yep, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Our guide did tell us a bit of a tall tale about the fish coming through the turbines and then swimming over to the lift so that they could go shooting down through the turbine again….swirling around like on a roller coaster….but I think he was pulling my leg….I really do.

Susquehanna comes from a Len’api word – Sisa’we’hak’hanna – which means Oyster River or “river with the oyster beds” which probably works better for the end of the river at the Chesapeake Bay rather than the beginning up at Cooperstown. There are some who say the river still runs under the Bay and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That makes sense as the Chesapeake is basically a relatively shallow estuary with the deep parts running right through the middle, i.e., the river.  The Susquehanna is the longest river on the east coast of the US draining just about 27,000 square miles….so that accounts for quite a few tributaries to transport those shad to during spawning season.

Dam with several gates open.

With all that water, you’re gonna need quite a dam. Conowingo Dam includes fifty (50) crest gates to control water flow from the reservoir. Less than ten (10) are open to the lower river at any given time – generally. But the dam is also used for flood control so that, as the water level rises in the upper river and reservoir, more gates are opened to the lower river and the Chesapeake Bay. The flood control gates are operated by overhead cranes that basically are hooked up to a gate at the top and then the gates are raised and lowered to allow water to escape the reservoir.

Crane used for lifting and lowering flood gates. It would be operated from above the gates.
Overhead cranes.

All fifty (50) gates have rarely been needed. The last time all the gates were opened was June 19-24, 1972 after Hurricane Agnes. The water levels were so high and the water pressure so great on the dam that explosive charges were laid on the eastern side of the dam as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, with all gates open, the water levels receded to a safer level and they did not have to destroy the dam. On the other hand, with all the gates open, Port Deposit just down river was totally flooded out…all that sediment and mud just washed right into the little town and pretty much buried it in muck. But the people who lived there had been evacuated in time so came back home and went to work. The town did recover.  After all, in the past couple hundred years, Port Deposit had seen quite a few floods and, worse, ice flows being located so close to the Susquehanna. Nowadays, anytime the gates are opened, the operators at Conowingo have to give due notice to the officials at Port Deposit to allow time for evacuation if necessary.

Today the dam is owned and operated by Exelon Power Corporation and is one of the largest non-Federally owned dams in the United States.  Just shy of ninety (90) years old, it is not certain what the future holds for the dam. There are some who say the power being generated is not needed so much and the river should be returned to its original state allowing nature once again to take its course. Part of me agrees – take it down and let the river flow again “at the rapids”; but another part of me thinks it would be a shame to destroy the beautiful old dam. In the meantime, the eagles and cormorants and gulls and vultures and herons will come in winter to hunt and fish and fight. And, as long as they do, the birders and photographers will also show up to stand in the cold and watch the spectacle unfold.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Conowingo Dam –
  2. Conowingo Dam –
  3. Wildlife South Conowingo –
  4. Exelon Conowingo Dam –
  5. Harford County Bird Club – Conowingo Dam –
  6. Conowingo, Maryland –,_Maryland
  7. Susquehanna River –
  8. For great information on visiting Conowingo, Emily Mitchell‘s blog/visitor guide: