City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

November 30, 2016

November 30th

Filed under: Birds, California gull, People, Sego lily — canopus56 @ 3:19 am

A Thanksgiving to the Utes and Goshutes

9:00 a.m. It is a season of reflection and giving thanks. One story of giving thanks involves the archetypal Utah edible plant is the state flower: the Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttalli). It can be found along the ridges on either side of City Creek Canyon and that surround the City to its north and east.

Like most western states, Utah has a state pioneer narrative that has risen to become mythical. In California, that state’s pioneer myth is that culturally diverse group of pioneers came west to commercially exploit gold deposits, built part of a continent spanning railroad, and a powerhouse of innovation. That myth continues to drive California’s narrative and economy today. In Utah, its cultural narrative is tied to the religion of the Latter Day Saints (“LDS” a.k.a the Mormons) instead of commerce, although Utah, like California, was initially built on the riches of extracting precious metals, and not prayer.

The Utah L.D.S. pioneer narrative parallels our shared national mythology that first nation peoples saved the first Europeans settlers from starvation. With a gift of knowledge about native plants, the Utes also saved the first LDS pioneers from starvation. The popular current narrative of the LDS entry into Salt Lake Valley emphasizes that its industrious members plowed and planted fields on the first day of their arrival in the valley, and they then diverted water from City Creek Canyon to those fields. LDS members also celebrate their “miracle of the sea gulls,” in which those first 1848 crops were protected from locusts by divinely sent flocks of California gulls (Larus californicus), and thus, the first LDS settlers were saved from starvation. This event is memorialized by the sea gull being adopted by Utah as the state bird, and a statute was erected in the gulls’ honor on the LDS temple grounds.

The history of this state’s flower reveals that those first crops were insufficient. Notwithstanding the gulls’ intervention, and the first LDS pioneers faced starvation. Early pioneer women may have discovered from watching the Ute or Goshute First Nations peoples already in the valley that the underground bulb of the Sego Lily was edible (Cannon, 71), and the lily’s bulbs and other thistles sustained the first LDS pioneers through their initial hard seasons (id). Later, first generation Mormons served and ate cooked Sego Lily bulbs during the holidays in order to illustrate their privations to subsequent generations, and in 1911 as a remembrance of the tenacity of those first LDS Utahans in the face of hunger, Utah adopted the Sego Lily as the state flower (id, 74).

This season, remember to thank a Ute or Goshute tribe member for saving from starvation your ancestors who were among first Mormon settlers.

A version of this entry was published as a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune on Nov. 26th, 2016.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 30th, 1858, he describes a winter setting sun. The low sun is a white-silvery disk. He describes an approaching winter storm seen twenty miles away with snowfall underneath that encroaches on a clear sky.


November 29th

Scrub Oak Forest With Snow

4:30 p.m. The day after a major storm, the road is clear and dry or damp, and the canyon is covered in six inches of new snow. In the high mountains, three feet has fallen. Although the Sun comes out in the afternoon, the temperatures in the canyon remain in the upper twenties and low thirties, and as a result, branches in the scrub oak forest is covered in three to five inches of snow. But because of the low temperature, the snow will not melt. At mile 1.0 on the high north-west ridge, are four female deer and at mile 1.3, six mule deer are digging through the snow for grass hidden underneath. In the distance, the pine and fir trees on Black Mountain and the unnamed peak at 8283 feet have been blasted and are frosted with a layer of fresh snow.

Since the Pipeline Trail is covered with fresh dry snow, I decide to return by jogging down the trail before rising temperatures turn it into watery mud. Three or four other runners have already broken trail, but there is enough fresh snow that I get to enjoy the soft sound of a few inches of powder under my feet. It is slow going, but is still an enjoyable jog. The Gambel’s oaks arch from the left and the right over the trail, meeting at the top, and thus, they form a natural snow covered arch in the dimming twilight. By taking the trail, I am rewarded with the evening calls of a group of chukars (Alectoris chukar) high on the north-west canyon wall.

A third of a mile before the gate, I am greeted by clear skies and a brilliant Venus hanging as a guide star above the trail and twenty degrees above the horizon against a deep blue twilight sky. It will continue rising in the evening sky until its maximum elongation from the Sun and a peak brightness of magnitude -5.1 on January 12, 2017. This is midway in brightness between the brightest star, Vega (magnitude 0.0), and the full Moon (magnitude -10). I am reminded that although my feet are comfortably chilled by jogging through snow powder, on Venus the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has raised temperatures to where lead flows like water.

November 28, 2016

November 28th

Insect Death; Winter Storm

3:30 p.m. It has rained most of the night; in the afternoon, a major winter storm comes through the valley; and there is six inches of snow in the canyon, as I begin my jog into moderate falling snow blown by a strong wind. The stream is swollen and watercress formerly along the stream bank are now all waving from under water. A squall line is crossing the canyon, and even though the road is newly plowed, a fresh layer of snow covers it. My footsteps are soft and muffled. But the jog is not a cold one. Clouds, which allow only a third of a mile in visibility, make a roof over the canyon, and this keeps the what heat there is in.

Even in this near white-out, there is color, and the white snow emphasizes color where ever it can be found. At two water seeps on the west side of the canyon, the green of the watercress more vibrant. The light brown of the catkins hanging from Box elder trees are radiant. By the time I reach the Pleasant Valley meadow, snow is falling vertically. All is quiet with solitude. The tan of parched summer grasses contrasts with the newly fallen snow. One or two chickadees are heard in the distant trees.

I am not alone. A regular runner is exiting the canyon as I arrive. A lone man strolls using an umbrella to keep the snow at bay. Although I am alone for almost a mile, as I go down canyon, a young confident runner speedily goes by and disappears into the falling snow.

It is the third day of low temperatures with some snow on the ground. Today is or yesterday was the next marker of the change of seasons of Summer to Fall: the insects are gone. Other markers were the peak of leaf turning (September 13th), the first light snow (September 22nd), the Yellow Tube of leaves (October 11th), the Brown Tube of leaves (October 21st), the day of last leaf fall (November 10th), the first major snowfall and the White Tube (November 24th). This second major storm is a killing storm. There is no freeze, but insects will not survive. The nest of the Bald-faced Hornets at picnic site 9 is in tatters. It has lost one-half its volume as the rain and snow have progressively removed its outer layers.

November 27, 2016

November 27th

Filed under: Colors, Gambel's Oak, Light, picnic site 5, Stream, Weather — canopus56 @ 9:41 pm

Reflected Tree

3:00 p.m., November 26th (supplement). As the Earth moves closer to winter solstice, sunlight is at a lower altitude than at the beginning of the month. As a result, the angle at which the light strikes the stream makes it and ponds less transparent (see “No Where to Hide,” Nov. 2nd). Today, peering into the pond at picnic site 5 to visit trout, I can only partially see into the water. After hunting unsuccessfully for a minute, I realize that I am seeing two images: One is of the bottom of the pond that is in shade, and the other is a rippled reflection of a sunlit tree on the farside of the pond. The tree looks like one in Monet’s pond paintings.

4:00 p.m., November 27th. Today, the sky is overcast; it has been raining for most of the night and part of this morning, and temperatures have returned to the thirties The reflection in the pond at picnic site 5 is blurred, indistinguishable brown.

4:45 p.m., as I reach milepost 1.5, the sun is setting unseen behind the steel blue and grey low cloud layer. As the sun sets, it illuminates the tops of the clouds, which from below become a patchwork of delicate pink-orange and pink-brown and these brightly colored regions break up the cloud sheets of blue-grey and grey. I am treated to another of nature’s paintings. In a few moments it is over; the sunset line has risen above the tops of the clouds.

Near mile 0.4, another large Gambel’s oak trunk has snapped. This time the separated top hangs to the bottom by a sinew of bark, and a large swath of bark is stripped off the remaining lower trunk.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on a clear night on November 27th, 1855, he notes how the cold November air brings out the contrast between the stars and earth. The stars appear brighter.

November 26, 2016

November 26th

The White Tube is Gone

3:30 p.m. In the city, it again reaches into the fifties, and in the canyon at mile 1.1, the white tube (Nov. 24th) has melted, and the trees are again brown. With less water from snow fed water drops, the lichen on tree trunks have lost their bright green luster and are again becoming a dull orange-brown. It is a holiday weekend, and during the two hours on the lower two miles of the road that I am traverse, I count 91 unique persons.

The canyon is still cold and brisk at mile 1.1, but as I exit into the Pleasant Valley meadow at mile 1.2, the temperature rises by fifteen degrees. The air is quite warm. This is the breeze catching the air heated by sun-soaking grass on the north-west slope. Earlier in the day, this warm air must have penetrated to the narrows at mile 1.1 and melted the white tube. It being warmer, the deer are not driven into the lower canyon and are not seen at the usual winter grazing places high on the canyon ridgeline.

The Sun begins to fall behind the south-east ridge as I reach the second meadow at mile 2.1, and there I hear my first bird of the day: a distant chickadee. Going down canyon at the Pleasant Valley meadow at mile 1.3, the Sun, which is now much more southerly than a month ago, sets behind the south-eastern ridge instead of the north-western ridge. Here, the second bird, a lone Black-billed magpie patrols this open space.

Because the Sun is setting more southerly and behind the south-east ridge, as it sets, the road is in shade, but a shaft of light runs up the canyon and illuminates the north-western canyon wall and half of the meadow. Suddenly, a flock of fifty birds follows this shaft of light up the canyon and lands on the Gambel’s oaks higher up the canyon wall and about four hundred feet away. They are too far to identify, even through my monocular, but they have dark colored wings and white underbellies. The Sun is at its lowest, and the brown meadows and hillside are bathed in a yellow luminescent glow. After resting for a couple of minutes, the flock of fifty alights in unison, and slowly ascend to about one-hundred and fifty feet above the canyon the floor. As their wings flap, their lighter underbellies are exposed, and the yellow sunlight brightly reflects off the belly down. As they fly, the fifty birds flash like yellow beacons against the darkening blue sky, but are far more pleasing than any man-made object. The flock rallies and returns to their flight up-canyon and some unknown destination. As this first flock leaves, a second flock of fifteen stragglers arrives from down-canyon, and this second flock repeats the process. They land in the same oaks; rest; and after two or three minutes, resume their up canyon flight. It is special time.

As I about to exit the canyon at mile 0.1, I turn and look up canyon. All is darkness and grey, and there is no hint of, but only a remembrance of, rising birds bathed in a yellow glow.

It is now 7:30 p.m., and another winter storm front is approaching the valley.

November 25th

Filed under: Meadow Mile 1.3, Mule Deer, Weather — canopus56 @ 8:37 pm

The White Tube Continues

4:30 p.m. Temperatures reached 50 degrees in the city today, but the canyon remains cooler. The white tube is gone completely between guardhouse gate and the mile 1.1. Between mile 1.1 and mile 1.25, there a short stretch into which the Sun cannot reach, and here the white tube survives. The trees remain frosted with white, but the some of the snow surrounding branches and at the end of twigs have turned to ice. The water treatment plant workers have sanded the road, and this helps the bicyclists that yesterday had to dismount and pick their way up and down the icy road. At mile 1.3, a couple with binoculars points out three deer. One on the north-west ridge is a proud stag with long antlers that is silhouetted against a yellow sunset sky. On the south-east canyon wall, two doe are sitting in the snow separated by a quarter-mile. At first, I thought they be ill because deer are rarely seen bedding, but when running down canyon, both have stood up and are browsing. They were just resting, like me, after enjoying the warming rays of the setting Sun.

It is a holiday weekend and no one is working downtown; however, it is a traditional shopping day and downtown is fuller than usual. At mile 0.2, the roar of city rumble (Nov. 18th) is deafening compared the winter silence of the canyon.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 25th, 1853, he observes at sunset that one-half the sky is clouded, but the clouds end at a straight line over his head. The over side of the sky is clear. On November 25th, 1857, he sees a fox crossing a road at twilight. On November 25th, 1860, Thoreau notes how a winter storm has driven and concentrated crows in a meadow.

November 24, 2016

November 24th, Thanksgiving

Filed under: Gambel's Oak, Mammals, Mule Deer, Plants, Sounds, Weather — canopus56 @ 7:19 pm

The White Tube of Thanksgiving

10:00 p.m. November 23rd, 2016. In the valley for the last few hours, there has been heavy rain mixed with snow from a major storm. I decide to go for late evening run through the snow, and as I arrive in the canyon, water treatment plant employees have just finished plowing the road. Even after removing one or two inches that has fallen, there is an inch of snow on the road in some places. Cloud bottoms are just below the canyon walls. One would expect the canyon to be dark, but it is not. Light from the city reflects off the clouds and falls on the snow, and the snow again reflects the light upward a second time. The road is well lit and because of the cloud cover, the temperature is not bitingly cold.

This makes for an extraordinary experience. As I jog the first mile, the trees are all frosted an inch thick with the freshly falling snow. The first mile is now the white tube. The diffuse reflected light gives the trees a silver glow, but the glow is magical and not ghostly. Tonight is a wonderful contrast to other seasons when the first mile is green tube (comment, Nov. 11th), a yellow tube (Oct. 11th), or a brown tube (Oct. 24th). The falling snow muffles all sounds of the City, and the only sounds are the crackle of the snow under my feet and the stream. The air is crisp and refreshing, and the snow falling through it strikes the face with a pleasing tingle. Running forward through the vertically falling flakes has a hypnotic quality.

The branches of trees that normally clear the road, now bend over it, straining under the weight of the snow. In a few places, the branches hang low enough that I can not go under them standing up. I pass a twenty foot tall Gambel’s oak near picnic site 5, and on the return down-canyon trip twenty minutes later, the tree is broken off about six feet from the ground, and now lays in the road. I take a minute to pull it to the shoulder. As I go out the canyon on Bonneville Drive, an even larger tree has fallen across the road, but it is too large for me to move.

2:00 p.m. November 24th, 2016. In the early morning, the sky cleared and this afternoon, the warming Sun is melting snow. It is Thanksgiving, and the parking lot is full, but not overflowing. Many families and couples walk in the canyon in Thanksgiving, either before sitting down for a heavy holiday meal, or in the late afternoon, in order to combat the sleepiness and sense of fullness brought on by overeating turkey.

I have started my jog too late in the afternoon. One-half of the white tube is gone below mile 0.8. On the north but south-facing side of the canyon, the snow has largely melted off of the trees, while the frosting remains on the south but north-facing shaded side of the canyon. The road has not been salted, and much of it is covered in a thin layer of ice, and this makes for slow and uncertain footing. Had I arrived at eight or nine in the morning, the white tube for the entire first mile would have still here. But I am compensated by the sound of 10,000 water droplets (8 per second for 20 minutes along the first mile) falling off the warming branches on the south-facing side onto the road with a distinct thump. That sound and the stream predominates the first mile. Insects and birds have disappeared, but near mile 0.3, a lone trout station-keeps behind a rock. It is barely moving and trying to conserve all of its energy against the cold water.

From shaded mile 0.8 to mile 1.2, the white tube is still intact. The trees are all frosted, and illuminated in the diffused light of shade. During the day, the snow covered trees reflect a warm blue light and not the silver-grey seen at night. At each end of this stretch, the white tube contrasts with the warm yellow of sunlit distant ground. Again, this is another magical place and moment in the canyon. From the lateness of the day, it looks like the Sun will not reach this part of the canyon. This part of the white tube may last another day.

From the meadow at mile 1.3, a herd of eight deer, one stag with a good set of antlers and seven does, forage in a clearing high on the south canyon wall. Two of the deer are clearing snow in an oak copse to find acorns and the other are digging through the snow for the green grass underneath (Oct. 30th and Nov. 20th).

During the down-canyon return jog, where the Sun has reached the ice on the road, the water has melted, and a faint mist rises from its surface.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 24th, 1858, Thoreau notes “lungwort” lichen grows on oaks but not on pines. On November 24th, 1860, he describes the first light-snow flurries of winter that only lightly dusts trees and creates color contrasts with moss, but then the snow evaporates. See November 21st here.

November 23, 2016

November 23rd

Filed under: picinic site 5, Shark Fin Rock, Weather — canopus56 @ 7:19 pm

Shark Fin Rock

4:30 p.m. After a warm morning and afternoon, a new front arrives, and quickly the canyon becomes dark and foreboding. Rain and snow begins to fall. At mile 0.5, there is a queer, prominent rock formation: two 40 foot tall fins sticking out of the hillside. From below on the road at picnic site 5 and milepost 0.6, they look like a hand with an index finger pointing to the sky, but from on the pipeline trail they look like a shark’s fin. When the canyon is dark and foggy, these rocks are a reassuring sight. Even though I have been walking and jogging in the canyon for several decades, I still become disoriented in the cold, the dark, and the fog. When the shark’s fin can be seen through the fog backlit against a morning sky or against the reflected city lights at night, I know I am near home. With this knowledge, my soul and body warm.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 23rd, 1850, Thoreau looks through the ice on a pond and sees caddis worms crawling on the pond’s bottom. On November 23rd, 1852, Thoreau records the first snow of the season.

November 22, 2016

November 22nd

Filed under: Box Elder Tree, Cottonwood tree, Maple tree, picnic site 3, Plants, River birch — canopus56 @ 10:19 pm

Broken Arrow

Noon. After a night of heavy cold rain, at picnic site 3, there is a new fallen thirty-foot tall maple tree that still retains its brown leaves. This is probable the same species of tree that still retain their brown leaves along the shadowed south ridge wall at mile 1.1. Unlike its relatives that grow vertically, this maple grew at a sixty degree angle in order to avoid the shade of an adjacent eighty-foot tall narrowleaf Mountain cottonwood and a fifty foot tall Boxelder tree. The angle of its growth is the undoing of the maple. With the recent snow and rain, the leaves became soaked, and the maple snapped about five feet above the ground. The eight-inch diameter trunk at the fresh break looks healthy and no disease is apparent. The weight of the water soaked leaves was just too much of the tree’s design, given that it was growing at an angle.

Many trees in the canyon grow at a similar angle, such as the River or water birches, but they and many other trees lose their leaves earlier in the year and before first snowfall (see October 24th). In addition to the reduction in light, this broken maple suggests another agent of natural selection that directs trees to lose their leaves earlier in the year – snowfall. Trees that do not lose their leaves are more susceptible to losing branches.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 22nd, 1853, he notes geese migrating south. On November 22nd, 1860, Thoreau notes how the Fall light makes branches and twigs to seemingly glow.

November 21, 2016

November 21st

The Oaks put on Green Coats

Noon. It has been raining overnight and this morning, but the air remains warm. Usually, I associate moss on the trees with thick mats that adhere to the north sides of pines in the upper canyon beyond milepost 5.0. During the summer, except for stream side, there is not enough moisture in the air to support either moss or lichens. But the lower canyon today proves my impressions wrong. The sides of the trunks of Gambel’s oaks and horizontal branches have become soaked with snow melt and rain water. Trunks which had previously been a uniform grey, now are covered in the green of mosses and lichens. One some oaks, the lichen has a light green color that is luminescent against the dark tree trunk. Just beyond milepost 1.5, the interior of a copse of Gambel’s oak reveals, now that its leaves are gone, a large horizontal branch that is covered with thick mat of moss. The summer leaves provided a protected moist environment against the harsh mid-year sun. From along Bonneville drive up to mile 2.0, all of the Gambel’s oaks have come alive with green trunks.

At mile 0.4, a three inch long Leopard slug, also known as the Great grey slug, (Limax maximus) is slowly inches its way across the road. The last third of the grey body near the head is covered with large black blotches, hence the “leopard” name. This is another invasive species, originally from Europe. The rain has wetted the road, and this allows the slug to migrate across this summer barrier.

At Guardhouse Gate, today’s single insect, is a miniature unidentified spider hanging from the guardhouse’s community posting board. While picking up trash left from a beer party at Guardhouse Gate picnic area, I notice what appears to be a House wren (Troglodytes aedon) hiding at the base of a dogwood tree next to the stream. This identification must be wrong. The Rock wren is out of season and it is in the wrong habitat. At mile 1.1, a single Black-billed magpie hides in the center of an oak copse.

A bow-hunter walking up the road informs me that mule deer browse inside the Gambel’s oak copses for acorns. They do not eat the dry grass in the meadow, but they will graze on the green shoots at each grass clump’s base.

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