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Glacial Lake Missoula was repeatedly dammed by the Purcell Trench Lobe of the Cordilleran ice sheet during the last glaciation to maximum altitudes near 4200 ft (1280 m). Studies from outside of the lake basin suggest that the lake filled and drained multiple times in the late Pleistocene. Deposits and landforms within the former glacial lake basin provide evidence for a complex lake-level history that is not well understood for this famous impoundment. At least two general lake phases are evident in the stratigraphy: an earlier phase of catastrophic drainage that was responsible for large-scale dramatic erosional and depositional features, and a later, less-catastrophic, phase responsible for the preservation of fine-grained glaciolacustrine sediments. Features of the earlier lake phase include giant gravel dunes and openwork gravel with anomalously large clasts (erratics). Deposits from the later phase are mostly low-energy glaciolacustrine sediments that record a history of lake-bottom sedimentation and repeated lake-floor exposure.

A focus of this field trip is to look at evidence for the two lake phases as well as evaluate the record of exposure surfaces, and therefore lake-level lowerings, during the second phase at multiple locations in the lake basin. One of the second phase sites is close to a highstand, full basin position in the lake (near Garden Gulch), representing a maximum water depth at this site of ~100 m, whereas others (Rail line and Ninemile) are at lower altitudes in regions that may have been under as much as 300 m of water.

Fine-grained glaciolacustrine sediments are rippled very fine sandy silt and fining-upward sequences of laminated silt and clayey silt of glaciolacustrine origin. Periglacial features, contorted bedding, desiccation, and paleosols in outcrop provide clear evidence of multiple exposure surfaces; each represent a lake-lowering event. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL or “optical dating”) ages on quartz from the three sections (Ninemile, Rail line, and Garden Gulch) allow for preliminary correlations that suggest approximately the same phase of glacial Lake Missoula sedimentation. The exposure surfaces suggest that the glacial-lake level rose and fell at least 8–12 times to elevations above and below the sections (936–1180 m), filling to within 100 m of full pool (1280 m). Optical dating shows that this occurred after 20 ka and the last inundation of the lake before 13.5 ka. Correlation of specific exposure surfaces throughout the basin will be required to develop a lake-level history.

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