City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 16, 2017

July 15th

The Homeless and the Canyon

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Bluets on Bulrush in City Creek Canyon at Seep (Lat. 40.8014929, Long. -111.8749328). Author taken July 2017.

3:30 p.m. True summer heat near 100 degrees Fahrenheit returns and the canyon air takes on oven-like qualities of later in the season. While I was born in the cold of the northeast, part of my adolescence was spent under the blazing sun of southern California deserts. My now heated adapted summer body takes the high temperatures easily. The pulse slows; veins and arteries expand; blood flows and cools in hands and legs. Limbs become flexible; muscles relax; and toxins escape through open pores. The mind becomes lethargic and meditative, but with exercise in heat, thinking remains clear.

The heat has emptied the first mile of road, and only a few joggers are present. The road becomes as empty as in the opposite side of the temperature scale, that is in the depth of winter (December 27th). As in winter, I no longer recognize in myself the person who ran through five degree temperatures.

The heat also affects mammals and insects. Counter-intuitively, it makes Rock squirrels active, and I count three in the first mile. Insects begin to succumb. On the road’s surface, Grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) lays dead, baking on the road, and that carcass is followed by a Giant western crane fly. Next, I find a spent Cabbage white butterfly. This allows me to examine one this usually hyperactive insect with my hand lens. As their name implies, the Cabbage whites are white in color, but close-up their abdomens are jet black. Numerous white hairs cover that segment and make the butterfly appear all-white.

The earth has dried out, and turns the rare cases of stationary surface water in the canyon into oases. The oasis at the seep about 100 yards below picnic site no. 6 (Lat. 40.8014929, Long. -111.8749328) has reached an idyllic peak of diversity. In an ellipsis of sixty by twenty feet, Circumpolar bluets rest on Bulrushes surrounded by Indian ricegrass and fronted by Kentucky bluegrass. These grasses surrounds a water rivulet in which Western Yellowjacket wasps and White Admiral butterflies stop and rest for a drink. Giant cattails are flanked on one side by six foot tall Horsemint (Agastache urticifolia (Benth.) Kuntze), a.k.a. Nettleleaf Giant Hyssop or Nettleleaf Giant Horsemint, covered in Cabbage white butterflies. On the other stands five foot tall blue Chicory. Stands of Starry solomon’s seal are backed by a large grove of Western poison ivy and are intermixed and are intermixed with Common California aster. A cultivar Weeping willow (Salix babylonica) shades the up-canyon end of the glade.

A short-distance downcanyon, three rare butterfly visitors are seen with orange wings, a black circumferential band and white wing spots. These are Mexican queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus strigosus), and they are usually restricted to New Mexico.

Up-canyon, this season’s teasels (Dipsacus sylvestris) have risen to four feet in height below the Red Bridge. For some weeks, the great two foot triangular leaves of the Burdock (Arctium minus Berhn) invasive weeds that line the canyon road have been raising two and three foot vertical stalks, but their purple flower heads have yet to open.

Today, I place three sponges in the lower canyon. The first is in the stream below the pond at picnic site 5. The second is in the seep 100 yards below picnic site 6, described above, and the third in at the watercress stand at the tunnel seep 50 yards below picnic site 6. I will retrieve these in a few days to see what mirco-life has become trapped or grown in the sponge’s cavities.

The intense Sun has boiled huge summer cumulus clouds from the reservoirs that line the eastern side of the Wasatch Front Mountain Range, and the clouds frame the north and eastern ridgelines of the canyon as I reach the Gate. Those reservoirs provide the valley with most of its drinking water. In the parking lot, an elderly gentleman, who each day leaves a homeless concentration zone at 500 West and 200 South in the City to seek the canyon’s cool breezes, sits on a bench eating a sandwich.

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The homeless have long had a relationship with City Creek Canyon. In addition to the homeless person who spends the day at a picnic parking lot, another homeless individual frequents the canyon during the winter, but spends cold nights in a local supermarket. Sometimes in the depths of winter, I have taken the homeless who come to the canyon with the intention of camping overnight back to the city and advise them that they have underestimated the sub-zero temperatures of canyon winter nights. Some are obviously mentally ill. They talk to themselves and their mental illness is either the result of the stress of becoming homeless or an effect of their pre-existing mental illness. For many years, there was a small homeless tent city near the parking lot gate off the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, but in recent years, the County and the City cleared the camp out. Now the watershed patrol vigorously patrols the canyon and takes any homeless citizens back to the concentration zone on the valley floor citing the fear that persons in a homeless camp might set the canyon’s grasslands on fire. While that is a legitimate concern, I suspect the City also quickly acts to remove any homeless from the canyon in part because middle-income citizens simply do not want the homeless there. They fear the homeless as potentially violent and secretly they fear becoming homeless themselves in an uncertain economy.

Salt Lake citizens struggle with the moral ambiguities created by their city’s homeless concentration zone. City residents have long resisted building sufficient facilities to house the homeless on the unsupported theory that building more beds will attract more homeless, and residents, like most other major United States cities, have long avoided building enough affordable housing. The City also struggles with the practice of surrounding communities and hospitals shipping their destitute and ill residents to into the City’s concentration zone. In the 1980s, Salt Lake City took the lead on homelessness by opening Utah’s first homeless shelters. Rather than expending monies addressing their own homeless problem by building their own shelters, for years, neighboring cities have shipped their destitute to the concentration zone citing that Salt Lake City was the only municipality with facilities to house them. Although the concentration zone has become a state and national embarrassment, city residents prefer to keep the homeless out-of-sight and away from other areas of the city, including out of the canyon.

The homeless’ relationship with the canyon goes back farther than this: the homeless built the canyon’s infrastructure. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the City dealt with its homelessness problem by shipping the destitute to the canyon. An early Utah statute permitted cities to impress the destitute and mentally ill convicted of the crime of vagrancy into road work gangs (Utah Code Ann. 10-8-85). In the early 1900s, when the City wanted to build a wider, graded road up City Creek Canyon to promote the new automobile tourism, it began systematic sweeps of the city, arresting the homeless for vagrancy as needed to supply laborer for building the canyon’s road (e.g., Salt Lake Herald, Sept. 26, 1910; Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 11th, 1913). The city police were sophisticated in their sweeps. For example, in 1908, the road gang needed an experienced “dynamite man” to handle explosives used to break up rock ledges along the canyon road’s path. The Police Department did a sweep of vagrants seeking to arrest one with necessary skill (Deseret Evening News, April 24th, 1908). Unemployed miners got wind of the scheme and fled the city. A particularly racist cartoon, by modern standards, in the August 14th, 1904 Salt Lake Tribune shows who was working on road gangs and what residents’ attitudes were towards the poor. The gangs consisted of elderly unemployed men, persons with alcohol addiction, and minorities. On April 28th, 1908, Mark Aaron, a prisoner serving a 90 day sentence for vagrancy, was shot to death in the canyon will attempting to escape the road gang (Deseret Evening News). The officer claimed that he was aiming for Aaron’s legs, but missed and instead the bullet entered Aaron’s head. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court declared vagrancy laws unconstitutional.

This darker era in Salt Lake’s past provides some instruction for the City’s modern homeless problem. What the destitute need to restore their dignity is a roof over their heads and paying employment, even if that means government provided make work. If at night there are any ghosts wandering the canyon, they are probably of homeless men rattling their work gang chains.

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On July 15th, 2015, Mayor Ralph Becker proposes a “Connecting to Nature” plan in which $125 million USD bond would fund park renovations and new land acquisition (Deseret News). On July 15th, 1938, hard oil surfacing of the scenic drive along Bonneville Drive and 11th Avenue was nearly complete (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 17th, 1915, the U.S. Weather Bureau installed an advanced stream flow measuring gauge at the High Line Water Tanks in Pleasant Valley (Salt Lake Herald). On July 15th, 1891, the Red Bird Mine reports opening a four foot wide vein that may contain 1,000 ounces of silver (Salt Lake Times). Fifteen men are working at various prospects in City Creek Canyon (id).

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June 23, 2017

June 22nd

Day of the Butterflies

Day of the Butterflies

1:30 p.m. In the heat of the afternoon, the first mile canyon road is lined with butterflies, and in total there are about thirty in the first mile. A large Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a black butterfly with contrasting red-orange chevrons, slowly moves up canyon. The Red Admiral is hawk of butterflies. Unlike most butterflies, that frenetically flap and change direction, the Red Admiral moves it wings in great, slow soaring motions. Cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) play in the hot sun as western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) also pass by. Two Common sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice eriphyle) chase each other. Two unidentified butterflies fly by. One is the bright yellow with a trailing black wingbar. The second is a small orange.

Large Common whitetail dragonflies patrol overhead. In the Yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) weeds that lines both sides of the road, Western Yellowjacket wasps (Vespula penslvanica) feast.

At Pleasant Valley, city watershed crews are mowing the sides of the Pipeline Trail.

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Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 22nd, 1851, he sees blooms of yellow loose strife and bladderwort. On June 22nd, 1852, he sees a rainbow after a thunderstorm. He observes that fireflies are numerous. On June 22nd, 1853, he notes that even night air is warm. During an evening walk, he notes that blueberries are coming in.

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On June 22nd, 2014, Nathan Peters set a new course record in the 35th annual Wasatch Steeple Chase, an annual running race that goes for 17 miles up City Creek Canyon, that gains 4,000 feet while going over Black Mountain, and end back down at Memory Grove (Deseret News). Two-hundred and forty runners participated. Peters finishes in two hours and eleven minutes (id). On June 22nd, 1996, Mayor Deedee Corradini temporarily ordered suspension of construction of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail due to complaints from Avenues’ residents (Salt Lake Tribune). Planning Commission Chairman Ralph Becker noted that that a controversial trail alignment near Ensign Peak was a condition of the developer receiving approval for a luxury subdivsion (id). On June 22nd, 1906, an Intermountain Republican editorial accused the Salt Lake Tribune of spreading lurid lies about Mormon culture in eastern newspapers, including that “Utah is steeped In lawlessness; that depravity runs riot; that the waters of City Creek canyon going down our gutters [are] tinted with the ruddy flow from blood atonement; that all Mormons are polygamist; and that a presentable woman is in peril of than her life . . .”

October 16, 2016

October 16th

“C” is for Conservation

5 p.m. There was a wind storm last night and the temperature dropped 25 degrees Fahrenheit in the early morning hours. Even so, the canyon is again packed with walkers, runners and bicyclists. The wind-tunnel up to mile 0.9 has stripped even more leaves from the trees and the fallen leaves now cover even more of the road. At mile 1.3, Pleasant Valley opens into a sea of dark golden brown. All of the Gambel’s oaks have turned and they are set off against similar dark red-brown groves on the south canyon slope.

Here, back on October 12th, students from the Utah Conservation Corps, a project of the Utah State University Logan, are resting after working on a starthistle restoration project in the meadow on the north side of the road. The yellow star-thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) is a roadside weed that produces small quarter-inch burrs. It was into starthistles and burdock that “burr boy” wandered into on September 5th. As an experiment, the Corps have cleared nearly a football field sized plot in the meadow and continuing up onto the north canyon slope. They hope to re-seed the plot with native plants and determine if the star-thistles can be abated. Over fifteen years, students in the Corps have restored over 40,000 acres of habitat and 3,300 miles of trails.

These undergraduate and future biologists, range managers, and foresters complain that while clearing the meadow, they were attacked by Western Yellowjacket wasps. The yellowjacket wasps, unlike the Bald-faced hornets whose nest is here in a tree on the south side of the road (Sept. 16th), build an almost identical paper nest underground, often in the abandoned burrows of rodents. But the door of the yellowjacket nest is at the top, and not on the side as with their tree-dwelling Bald-faced cousins. Disturbed by the clearing of the meadow, the yellowjackets came out in force to defend their home. Today, I unsuccessfully search the scoured plot for the entrance to their lair.

At the flood retention pond where the canyon road meets Bonneville Drive, the cattail grove and the surrounding tamarisk are turning brown and yellow, respectively.

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