Monday, April 18, 2016

Project Shoal Nevada - April 2016

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The Question - When the ground shakes, can you tell if it is caused by an earthquake or by the denotation of a nuclear bomb? Take some time. Let that question sink in.

I grew up during the early atomic age and the Cold War. When I was 6 months old my father moved my mom and my four older brothers and me to Southern California. This was in 1953. One of my childhood memories is my dad loading all of us into the family's Ford station wagon and one evening driving high into the San Gabriel Mountains in hopes of seeing the flash of an atomic bomb exploded in a test over in Nevada. I remember the Civil Defense films and I remember the fear. I remember talk of building personal bomb shelters in back yards. I remember the preacher's wife consumed with fear of dying in a nuclear holocaust. I was a young boy and her fear disturbed and confused me. Of all people, wouldn't she be at peace and not afraid of the opportunity to slide on over into the arms of jesus?

Who had The Bomb? Who was doing testing like we were? The first test ban treaties were being signed and how could we tell if everyone was playing by the rules? When the ground shakes, you can get to wondering.

We had a free weekend and headed over into Nevada. We would be investigating and pondering The Question.

We enjoyed a Mexican dinner in Fallon and continued east on highway 50. We settled into a secluded dispersed camp spot for the night. Morning revealed we were in the heart of the Great Basin.

In the early morning light we walked the road that led down into the Carson Sink, the basin end of the Carson River.

The sandy areas held wonderful displays of the night blooming flowers of Evening Primrose.

Nevada is home to the Nuclear Test Site that most of us are familiar with, where the majority of test denotations of nuclear devises were carried out. Two nuclear tests were conducted in Nevada outside the Test Site. One was in central Nevada and the second was in the Sand Springs Range, 27 miles to the southeast of Fallon. We were heading into the Sand Springs Range, the site of Project Shoal, where a 12.5 kiloton nuclear devise was detonated 1200 feet underground on October 26, 1963.

Here is a glimpse back in time -

The Sand Springs Range is a north-south running uplifted block of granite bordered by faults, typical of the Basin & Range area. The region is seismically active and includes the historic 1954 Dixie Valley - Fairview Peak earthquakes.

We first explored along the western side of the Sand Springs Range. Rising from the valley along the edge of the range was a fin of rock, standing tall against the ravages of erosion.

This bowl held a spring time garden of phacelia.

The area is littered with open end PVC pipe marking mining claims. These pipes trap and kill birds, reptiles, and animals and are now illegal in many states. Jim Boone is active in the effort to remove these posts from public land.

We climbed the high rugged granite shoulder of the mountain range and looked northwest across the Carson Sink and on to Fallon. Our truck is the tiny spot on the far left center.

We were taken with the spring time green around us.

The 7.5 USGS topo has several man made features marked in this area between Fallon and the nuclear blast site. They bear catchy names such as "drill hole", "Atomic Well", and "AEC Well" that suggested a need to monitor ground water movement and possible radioactive contamination. We investigated.

Back to The Question - here's my understanding. Project Vela was a United States program to develop and implement ways to detect nuclear blasts. The project was threefold - seismic, atmospheric, and satellite. Vela Uniform was the seismic element of the project and included seven different nuclear devise detonations to analyze data to recognize the seismic signature of a blast and pinpoint its location. Project Shoal was the first of the series. 

A pdf Project Shoal Fact Sheet can be downloaded by Clicking This Link  

We entered the Project Shoal site that sits in Gote Flats. The access road climbs up the aptly named GZ Canyon. No signs point the way or announce you are entering a nuclear test site. We arrived at ground zero.


We last visited here in 2006. Much has changed in recent years. Somebody is spending a lot of money out here. Numerous new monitoring wells are now in place.

All are locked with brand new padlocks.  The locks, wells, and equipment show no markings designating a responsible agency.

This link from the DOE Office of Legacy Management shows a link to a map of the monitoring wells, information, and a link to several current documents - Shoal, Nevada, Site, A Nevada Offsite

I looked over several of the documents and my take is that observed ground water movement does not match predictions or models and more monitoring is necessary. These types of findings, letters, plans, and possible escape of radioactive contaminants will continue to be the legacy we all inherit from these experiments with atomic weapons.

We found this bench mark at ground zero. This is our first encounter with a "Gravity Control Mark". A little research and I believe this is part of a project to develop a gravity-based vertical datum - GRAV-D - fascinating stuff!

We drove up a 4x4 road to an overview of the area.

Below us I spotted another new piece of equipment.

I wanted to jump to the conclusion that we had found sophisticated equipment to measure radiation in airborne dust from the site.

We had found a rain gauge.

But, unfortunately, a rain gauge that kills birds.

And possibly causes other problems.

I was with the Lady and so not surprised when she said, "Let's go to the top of the ridge and see where we were this morning!" Up we went until we topped out and the view again stretched out over the Carson Sink.

In a swale below the ridge we discovered a new guzzler that was placed in the summer of 2014 for bighorn sheep.

As you would expect in a state where water is the most precious commodity, the placement of guzzlers is controversial.  

Our initial plan was to stay the night in this area. Staying could provide us the opportunity to observe the legendary glow in the dark jack rabbits. In the distance we saw a spectacular possible camp spot.  We drove the 4x4 road that led into the area of the camp spot and found it washed out with a gaping eight foot drop off. We moved on in the late afternoon to Plan B.

We drove out of the Sand Springs Range and down Fairview Valley. We climbed the ridge leading to Little Bell Flats and found a trace of a road leading to a hilltop. It was perfect.

The cutest tiny horned lizard was the guardian.

We sat in the late afternoon light and let the quiet and solitude work its way deep inside us. We consulted our Nevada Benchmark map and oriented ourselves to the seemingly never ending range after range of mountains surrounding us.

This stay at this very special place deserved a very special dinner, the Lady's most favorite - breakfast for supper. This meant I cooked. As I started in making pancakes and eggs, the Lady called to me from outside, "I'm going to wander as you slave away cooking!" Her destination was not too hard to guess although it took the telephoto lens to document.

We walked a few miles in the evening and watched the light dim, the quiet settle into every crease and fold in the landscape, and the stars pop out above us.

We returned to camp and sat out in our chairs, a wonderful night.

Walking before dawn, we witnessed another arrival of sunlight.

While looking at the benchmark map the evening before, we saw three locations to the south we just had to investigate on Sunday - Deadhorse Well, The Car Frame Windmill, and the ghost town of Rawhide.

Deadhorse Well was easy to find, although it lacked a dead horse.

It was a beautiful spring morning in Nevada and almost nothing is more comforting to us than to drive for mile after mile after mile and never see another vehicle.

The world famous Car Frame Windmill lived up to our expectations as a monument to the new term "re-purposing".

We backtracked to the turnoff to Rawhide. We marveled at how thoughtful Mineral County is in taking care of some of its citizens by providing shooting targets on road signs. If dickheads are blowing holes in signs, they might as well work on their accuracy.

Rawhide was gone. Not a trace remains.

The lonely Rawhide cemetery is about one mile north. Bruce Evans, born in 1866, is the only resident with a readable headstone. A small plot holds the remains of someone's dear child, now almost forgotten. 

It was time to turn our truck toward home. We had a late lunch in Dayton's "Our Park", a perfectly named stop along highway 50. Nevada remains one of our favorite getaway destinations, always full of mysteries and questions to investigate.

Thanks for coming along with us. 


  1. Thanks Monte.A great rid along.Keep traveling and posting.

    1. Thanks Frank, we are happy you are enjoying these tales of our travels!

  2. A wonderful sense of space in your photos -- big sky, big horizon, endless landscape. (Very appealing to someone stuck in an urban wasteland, at least temporarily.) And as for that USGS marker, remember what Dick Tracy used to say: "The nation that controls gravity will control the universe." It looks like we're on our way with those gravity control marks!