Down to Earth With: Mountain biking geologist Kurt Refsnider

by Kate S. Zalzal
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Growing up in Minnesota, Kurt Refsnider spent a lot of time exploring old clay and limestone quarries along the Minnesota River, where he collected marine fossils. While on a camping trip with his family at age 8, he visited the Burgess Shale in Banff, Canada, and learned about the exquisitely preserved soft-body fossils of Precambrian marine fauna. The experience initially made him want to become a paleontologist. But as he grew up, the glacial landscapes of the upper Midwest drew his attention and he decided to study geology instead.

His doctoral work at the University of Colorado Boulder took him to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic for several summers, where he studied the ice-age dynamics that carved the vertical fjord walls found along much of the eastern coastline. He also documented the demise of small, high-elevation ice caps on the island.

Today, Refsnider is the lone geologist in the Environmental Studies and Sustainability program at Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz., teaching courses in geologic history, field geology and global environmental change. But his most popular course is “Geology Through Bikepacking,” which he co-developed and co-teaches with Prescott outdoor education instructor Kaitlyn Boyle.

The course takes students on a three-week mountain biking and camping expedition through the rich landscapes of Arizona, Colorado and Utah, bringing the geologic past into focus with each stretch of trail. In addition to discussing the rocks and landforms around them, the students route-find and carry their own water, food and camping supplies attached to their bikes.

Refsnider and Boyle have deep geologic and outdoor education experience, and both are also ultra-endurance mountain bike racers. He has raced the Tour Divide — a 4,418-kilometer self-supported bike race from Banff, Canada, to southern New Mexico — three times, winning it once. He has finished the Arizona Trail 300 — a 300-mile-long, self-supported wilderness mountain biking race — six times, setting course records five times. With his latest trip to Australia, Refsnider has now ridden and raced on all continents except Antarctica. He’s also the head coach of the Prescott College cycling team.

Kurt Refsnider is a geologist in the Environmental Studies and Sustainability program at Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz. Credit: Kurt Refsnider.

Refsnider recently spoke with EARTH about the challenges of taking students bikepacking, teaching geology to majors and nonmajors alike, and about the need for geologists to communicate their science to the public.

KSZ: Earth science is a big topic. What critical geoscience lessons do you focus on in your teaching?

KR: I try to get across the idea of deep geologic time, putting what’s going on now — the recent physical changes on the planet — into much longer context. Modern climate change is one of the most pressing challenges we’re going to face in this generation. So that’s something we try to work into all curricula at the college too, because it plays into social justice issues, human rights issues, politics, economics — it’s everywhere. The other real need, whether related to geology or climate, is to convey to folks that earth history is a story. Once they learn that it can be told step-by-step or page-by-page, the science becomes so much more understandable and digestible.

KSZ: What geology does your bikepacking course cover?

______KR: ______The curriculum covers the geologic history of the Colorado Plateau region. We go to places that have rocks of all different ages so you can put all the pieces together and start teaching the students how to interpret those. In our course, the geologic story runs from 1.7-billion-year-old Precambrian basement rocks, found right around Prescott and the Grand Canyon region, all the way through to recent glaciation and Quaternary climate change that’s evident farther north on the high plateau.

The students, shown here near Crested Butte, Colo., route-find and carry their own water, food and camping supplies. Credit: Kurt Refsnider.

KSZ: What’s your itinerary?__

______KR: ______We start in Flagstaff and do a loop around the San Francisco peaks for a couple of days before heading north for a three-day trip along the Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Then we go north to Moab, Utah, and do a three-day trip in Canyonlands around the White Rim. This itinerary marches us forward in geologic time, getting into younger and younger rocks. The first year we did a four-day trip at the end in the high plateaus of central Utah in the Bryce Canyon area. The second time, we went east and ended up in Crested Butte, Colo.

KSZ: How did you put the course together?____

______KR: ______It was an idea that I had, just in concept, when I came down and interviewed at Prescott in 2011. The school has a pretty substantial and renowned adventure education program that teaches students a whole range of technical skills for all different kinds of outdoor pursuits. Combining adventure education and environmental courses is also something the school has done for a while — a rock climbing and geology course has been around for years. As soon as I got to Prescott, there was a push to get the bikepacking course going.

Getting all the specific gear that we needed was pretty challenging. I worked with Kaitlyn Boyle … to develop the curriculum and get it approved. And of course, we needed to make sure that the students who want to take the course actually are competent mountain bikers. Our “test ride” was a 50-kilometer off-road ride. That’s demanding, and with a loaded bike, it can be tough. The first time the course went out in 2013, Kaitlyn and I had 10 students and two teaching assistants.

KSZ: When is the course offered?____

KR: In the fall and spring at Prescott College we have a one-month block followed by an 11-week semester. During the block, students take just one class. We offer “Geology Through Bikepacking” every other fall during the block. There really are no restrictions on what we do during that month, we can just take them and leave for the whole time. So that’s what we do. We are in the classroom for the first three days, doing all the logistics, planning and setting expectations. We also teach some basic geology. Then we do one overnight trip, kind of a shakedown ride, right from campus and up into the mountains above Prescott. The students then get a couple of days to change gear and fix whatever went wrong on the first night before we head out for three weeks.

KSZ: Why biking instead of hiking?____

______KR: ______Mountain bikes are perfect for this kind of trip. We [geologists] normally do so many trips riding from place to place in a van. You get out and look around; then you get back in and you sort of get detached from the landscape as you blast through it at high speeds. Experienced geologists can learn a lot by watching from a car, but students who haven’t had a lot of geology can’t. The places you stop when driving on roads also aren’t necessarily well connected to each other, and it’s challenging for students to synthesize things like that. Hiking is great, but it’s hard to get from one place to the next with diverse geology. On a bike we can do 40, 50, or sometimes even 60 kilometers a day and students can literally see how one thing changes to the next. It really is the perfect speed to make these observations in the field. That’s one of the unexpected things to come out of this course. I knew it worked for me, but it actually works well for the students too.

KSZ: How do you handle students with different technical biking skills?__

______KR: ______One of the challenges always is with students of different endurance and riding speeds. Overall, the students have to adapt and learn to work with each other’s riding styles. These are life skills, and it’s one of the cool things about adventure education that I didn’t really know much about until I spent time in the field. The geology that they learn can be relevant to their field, but the trip also helps prepare everyone for life in general — how to be better communicators, better organizers, better planners. It all transfers into daily life.

KSZ: Have you had any injuries or problems on the course?____

______KR: ______We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had one sprained ankle but no major bike problems in the field that weren’t repairable. However, we’ve been in lots of storms and lightning. On our first trip out, a big line of thunderstorms came through and we ended up just stuck in the woods in the rain and hail waiting for these storms to pass. We had to scatter about and get into lightning position as trees nearby were getting struck within two seconds of the thunder. It was really close. The second time the course went out, we made it to the edge of town, maybe a quarter mile up the trail, and the same thing happened again. So we teach students to be patient and not to push it.

The bikepacking course covers the geologic history of the Colorado Plateau, ranging from 1.7-billion-year-old Precambrian basement rocks near Prescott and the Grand Canyon (right) to evidence of recent glaciation and Quaternary climate change farther north. Credit: Kurt Refsnider.

KSZ: What challenges do you face when carrying all your supplies on bikes?__

______KR: ______It’s warm on the White Rim in Moab in September; high temperatures are in the 80s and 90s [degrees Fahrenheit, or 20s and 30s Celsius] during the day. But the nights cool off. On that leg of the trip, we encourage students to test their limits a bit in terms of the gear that they bring. We need to haul a lot of water so it’s good to have more room on our bikes to do that. We leave our tents behind and some of the students will even leave their sleeping bags and just bring an extra layer, a sheet, or even a trash bag — they can get pretty creative. One night I woke up at 2 a.m. to a bunch of giggling. Eight students were awake and freezing, it was about 50 [degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 Celsius]. They had huddled together in a line to try to conserve heat. One girl had her shorts on her head, another guy had his feet in his backpack. They were fine, they just weren’t able to sleep because they were chilly.

KSZ: Are there other bikepacking courses offered by other institutions?____

______KR: ______I’ve received lots of emails from people from all over wanting to do the same thing. We aren’t the first to do a course like this though. A friend of mine at Fort Lewis College [in Durango, Colo.] runs an Outdoor Pursuits program, and he took about eight students and rode part of the Arizona Trail about six months before we did the class the first time. He and I went back and forth regarding logistics: “How do you plan for this? How did you deal with that?” It’s really captured the attention of a lot of people, which isn’t something I expected.

KSZ: What makes a good geologist?____

KR: A good scientist needs … to be curious and skeptical enough to think about things from different angles and to keep asking questions — to not get stuck on one particular idea or hypothesis. One thing that is overlooked in the scientific community is being a good communicator. That’s something that scientists can be just terrible at. Teaching and working with the public have made me realize how difficult, but important, good communication can be. Some of the best and most effective scientists are going to be the ones who can communicate with anyone.

When you’re talking about landscapes and landscape processes, you need to get outside and see that stuff. An undergraduate professor once told me that the best geologists are the ones who’ve seen the most. Even in modeling, the best modelers are also the ones who’ve spent time outside doing field geology. Part of being a good geologist is being willing and excited to get out in the field and be miserable and dirty at times — but to really enjoy it too.

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