City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 18, 2017

March 17th

Filed under: Cottonwood tree, Flood retention pond, People, Sounds, Stream — canopus56 @ 7:21 pm

Cottonwoods and Lightning

1:30 p.m. Another extremely warm day. Although the parking lot is full, there are few people on the road. They have, like the chickadees, have dispersed along the length of the road, and the crowded canyon is sufficiently empty to evoke a feeling of solitude. The stream roars and water at the flood retention pond now is one-third full. Although the canyon is empty, on the drive out of the canyon along Bonneville Drive and the State Capitol Building, I am seventeenth in a line of pleasure driving cars. This route was originally developed by the City in the early 1900s as a scenic pleasure drive for horse carriage rides to draw tourists off the transcontinental trains, and in the 1910s, the road was improved to accommodate the new automobile tourists.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 17th, 1854, he observes green shoots growing on a south facing bank where snow has partially melted. On March 17th, 1857, he hears a woodpecker and notes green plants grow in puddles between snow banks. On March 17th, 1858, hears bluebirds, sees the season’s first flicker, and sees a robin and a redwing. On March 17th, 1860, he sees flock of shelddrakes.

A portion of the largest mountain cottonwood trees in the first mile are either dead or dying. Those with the largest trunks are also the tallest trees within the first mile, and typically they reach about one-hundred feet in height. Cottonwoods live to be at most 160 years old (Werstak, Fig. 5(a), p. 23). What causes morbidity in these giants? Do they simply grow so high that the physics of raising water one-hundred feet above the ground will no longer sustain their biological requirements? Do they succumb to disease? Three tall cottonwoods in the first 1.2 miles suggest to me that lightening is the principal cause of their demise. Some years ago, I saw one now dead hundred-foot tall cottonwood tree on the south wall of the canyon shortly after it had been hit by lightening. The next day it was still smoking, and it was the tallest tree within several hundred feet. Two equally tall cottonwoods adjacent to each other near picnic site 7 are still alive, but they both have large tracks of missing bark that spiral down the main trunk. On December 23, 1853, Thoreau in his journal described a similar spiral caused by lightening hitting a pine tree. My own speculation is that cottonwoods do not die from old age or disease. They die because as they age they grow to be too tall, and they become the biological lightening rods of the canyon.

On March 17th, 1915, two weather bureau officers began snow-shoeing into upper City Creek Canyon in order to measure the depth of the snow pack (Salt Lake Tribune). They took over 296 snow depth measurements using a hand snow drill (Salt Lake Tribune, March 17, 28, 1915, Salt Lake Telegram, March 31, 1915).


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