The River That Shouldn’t Be There

This would be the Humboldt. As the avenue for Forty-Niners (not the football team, gang), the Humboldt has a special role in American history. But why is it there?

OK, if you don’t know the river this is all sounding strange.  The Humboldt rises more or less in the Ruby Mountains at the eastern side of Nevada and then heads west, nearly reaching California before dying in the Humboldt Sink, a saline sump in the bottom of the remains of Pluvial (aka Ice Age) Lake Lahontan. Emigrants nicknamed it the Humbug for its low flow and foul taste. It swings across the “army of caterpillars marching north”–meaning the north-south trending mountains ranges of northern Nevada. That is the mystery: with these modern ranges and basins developing largely in the past 12 million years, and with at least some of that occurring in the Holocene, how does a river that would barely earn the name creek in the eastern U.S. manage to cut across all those ranges? But cut it does in three places: east of Carlin, Nevada (along I-80), west of Carlin, and again near Golconda.

Maybe the river was really full in glacial times and so it was a powerful river then (there were glaciers in the Ruby Mountains). Gene Shoemaker long ago wanted to run the Colorado River prior to 5 million years ago along the Humboldt to get around the “Muddy Creek” problem (a constraint on the age of the Grand Canyon)–he said he had had some students look at well cuttings hoping to find some Cretaceous microfossils that would show that the Colorado had gone that way and then out the Yuba River. [Gene’s idea was never very likely and much less likely in view of newer work, but shows how strange the Humboldt was]. Maybe there are enough structural accidents along the way to make it possible. Maybe flexure associated with Lake Lahontan made it more likely.

Just an aside, GG isn’t sure of the answer but it is fun to note these little puzzles; something to play with on a rainy day….


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