City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 9, 2017

March 9th

Filed under: Eastern Boxelder Bug, mile 1.2, Moon, Moth, Mule deer, Mule Deer, picnic site 7 — canopus56 @ 10:14 pm

It is enough. This is the Right [Natural] Place – First Peoples – Part VII

5:30 p.m. It is again warm today, but I do not get to the canyon until late, and even so, the parking lot is overflowing and their are thirty people in the first mile. It is the warmth of pre-spring that draws people. The canyon looks dreary, but perhaps that is because I am in a poor mood. Everything is waiting for more light. Plants on the side of the road look dirty; the leaf litter is slowly transforming into a paste that will foster this spring’s growth. Although it is dusk, a few Box Elder bugs are out and a moth flutters by. Below picnic site 7 on the west side of the road and across from the overhanging rock (Jan. 3rd), there is an intermittent spring whose small rivulet runs down an earth bank and along the road. I start up the bank to trace the rivulet back to its source, but then hear a branch crack behind me. Turning around, on south-east side of the canyon and across the stream, two mule deer are picking their way through the undergrowth. They see me turn and freeze. One of the deer stands with one foot held above the ground in mid-step. I wait for a minute and rather than stress them further, I decide to continue up the road and leave their forest home to them alone. At mile 1.1, a nearly full Moon hangs over Black Mountain, and this contrasts the earlier earlier afternoon Moon also seen over Black Mountain on March 7th. Coming back down canyon, I remark about the deer to a canyon regular – a man who daily walks an abused dog that he rescued from a shelter. He patiently was been working with the animal for a year, trying to reduce its aggressiveness. He reports that at dusk yesterday, there was a herd of fifty or sixty deer on the western slope above mile 1.2. Although he is known to me to be a reliable reporter, not prone to exaggeration, this is the type of report that needs to be witnessed directly. Fifty or sixty deer in one herd is more than I have ever seen or heard reported in the canyon, but his description does indicate that the deer have begun their spring move.

Occasionally, humanity does aspire to greatness and it tries to fix its missteps and injustices. For example, the Northern Ute Tribe received $272 million under the 1992 Central Utah Project as compensation for the United States’ failure to complete the Unitah portion of the multi-basin water project. In 2010, the State of Utah agreed to pay $33 million to the Navajo Nation related to the mismanagement of trust royalties for the 6,000 Navajos living in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. Conversely, no monies were actually paid to Northern Utes when they succeeded their lands to the United States under an 1868 Treaty with the United States.

In modern economics study, much is made of the economic miracle of the United States since the initial North American colonization and the exceptional peoples who created that miracle. A typical undergraduate first economics course is Heilbroner and Singer’s “The Economic Transformation of the America: 1600 to the Present”. Heilbroner and Singer’s economic narrative parallels the history of Euro-American Utah: hard-working, creative, persistent immigrants following free market principles took a raw valueless land and turned it into an economic powerhouse unparalleled in human history. The subtext message of the authors is that Americans are exceptional, and, similarly, the Mormons by their religious beliefs also feel themselves to be exceptional even among exceptional Americans. A simpler explanation of the Utah and United States economic miracle is that Euro-Americans were better capitalized. In settlement of the 1848 water with Mexico, the United States paid Mexico about $19.65 per square mile, or 3 cents an acre, for western lands including present day Utah. In present day Utah of the 84,899 square miles, or 54,335,360 acres, about 31 percent is held privately or by the State of Utah. After 1851, Utahans could buy homestead land at $1.25 per acre in 1850 currency, and in 1805, United States undeveloped land was valued at about $2.00 per acre. Thus, in 1850, future private and state lands were conservatively worth about 33,687,922 USD in 1850 currency or 740,198,508 USD in 2016 currency. That is about 148,039 USD for each of the 5,000 colonists of 1847. Viewing Utah as a “business venture”, starting a business with about 150,000 USD capitalization per shareholder is likely to be a successful prospect. Unknown to both the First Peoples and the Euro-American colonists was the value of Utah’s mineral wealth, which extracted and still extracts billions of dollars per year from the earth. In 2016, the value of minerals extracted from Bingham Canyon and the Great Salt Lake were about $3 billion USD. Had the Euro-Americans of 1847 and western United States settlers kept to their fair market and contract law principles and paid the First Peoples the fair value for their lands, the Utah Euro-American colonists would have started out their business venture with a per capita debt of 150,000 USD in 2016 currency. If the Utah colonists had been true to their professed beliefs, then the economic history of Utah would have been much different. The same economic reasoning applies to much of the Manifest Destiny expansion of the United States westward of Appalachia’s in the 1800s. This reasoning should not and does not mean to denigrate the struggle, hard-work and sweat equity that the Euro-Americans, my ancestors, put into transforming the nation. But context is important to understanding the past and present, and certainty in one’s exceptionalism is the enemy of democracy because it prevents a person from seeing issues from another’s perspective and thus from reaching compromise.

Exceptional abilities implies choice within a given context. By 1847, the Euro-American colonists were well into the era of the Indian Removal Act of 1930, that established the precedent of removing First Peoples from lands west of the Mississippi. Removal of First Peoples was their cultural and political policy of first choice. But there were choices. The 5,000 colonists of 1847-1850 could have chosen to remain confined to Salt Lake Valley; they could have slowed the rate of their migration; they could have chosen to expand first to the north; they could have chosen to engage in a reparations program of providing supplemental cattle to First Peoples during the winter. The options are endless, but at the forefront of the colonists Indian policy was seizing the most fertile land in the region in Utah, not Salt Lake, valley. In this regard, the colonists of 1847 were not exceptional, and their behavior differed little from previous Euro-American contact with First Peoples up to that time.

City Creek Canyon also exists in a larger context. Sometimes that context is climate (Feb. 7th), and sometimes that context is the economic and political needs of the Euro-Americans as they developed the surrounding region (Feb. 24th). It is this relationship between nature and human resource and infrastructure needs that modified the pre-colonization condition of City Creek Canyon into what is seen today. Here, again context and ability implies choices. While the canyon has been modified since 1847, by historical accident and by political design, much of its 1847 pre-colonization state remains.

What choices did the Euro-Americans make, and how has nature in City Creek Canyon been changed from its 1847 condition by those choices as compared to the six other Salt Lake Valley canyons?

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 9th, 1852, he notes that bluebirds arrive with the first warm wind (see March 7th here). March 9th, 1853, he opines that the first bark of the red squirrel is a sign of spring. On March 9th, 1854, he see a large flock of ducks and reflections of the landscape in water. On March 9th, 1855, he scares a rabbit from the brush.

January 17, 2017

January 17th

Filed under: Duck, Flood retention pond, Mountain Chickadee, picnic site 7, Weather — canopus56 @ 9:34 pm

Ice Mirror

1:00 p.m. City air grows thicker; buildings a mile away are reduced to mere outlines; and, during these inversion layers, the eyes burn and breathing becomes more labored. I escape to the canyon. I will not be able to reach clean air, but at least will see the beginning of blue skies. It is growing warmer, and the two ducks at the flood retention pond, who have used the pond as a refugee during this coldest part of the year, have left. There is only one chickadee call near the canyon’s mouth.

The retention pond has melted and then partially re-frozen. The frozen shaded part is covered with a thin layer of glass ice. Like its arctic ice pack counterpart, the floating ice layer has fractured and a network of miniature pressure ridges have formed in its surface. When sunlight hits it a the right angle, the glass surface reflects blue-green colors highlight by a bright fire-yellow spider web of pressure ridges. The pond at picnic site 5 is free of ice, and one small trout – the first that I have seen in the lower canyon stream since November 25th – dashes into the shadows. Above milepost 1.0 between picnic site 7 and picnic site 8 where the stream froze completely over into a milky cathedral (Dec. 20th), now there is a open channel in the middle of the stream, but near the banks, the stream retains its original thick layer of ice. In spots in this stretch, the stream has re-frozen and it is covered by a thin layer of delicate window-pane glass ice. This re-freezing process is echoed in the snow on the sides of the road: the surface has melted and then re-frozen. This is “crust” snow – a bane to both back-country and developed area skiers. Placing a foot on the surface, it feels strong, but when any weight is put on it, ones foot breaks through the surface revealing a sugar-powder snow underneath. At a winter intermittent seep near picnic site 7 where warmer water melts overlaying snow, rising vapor from the seep encrusts a cinquefoil sprout and overhanging twigs with its re-frozen waters in the form of intricate ice rime crystals.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 17th, 1852, he notes a sign of a clear, rested mind: enjoying watching sunsets. He comments on the infinite variety of shapes created by clouds.

On January 17th, 1918, Waterworks C.F. Barrett warned of flooding from City Creek into the city because of abnormally high snowfall (Salt Lake Telegram). On January 17th, 1909, City Water Commissioner Frank M. Matthews reported that City Creek delivered approximately 11,000,000 gallons of water a day to the City and that improvement of the road using prison labor continues (Intermountain Republican).

January 7, 2017

January 7th

Filed under: Geology, Guardhouse gate, picnic site 6, picnic site 7 — canopus56 @ 10:02 pm

Volcanic Past

5:00 p.m. Temperatures in the canyon are in single digits and overnight the City fell to -2 degrees Fahrenheit. Three walkers and runners pass by mile 0.3, but then I have the entire canyon to myself. I am in the canyon looking for an example of Van Horn and Crittenden’s “Tv – Volcanic breccia (Tertiary)” described as “Primarily andesitic breccia consisting of angular clasts of purplish porphyrtic andesite in a fine-grained matrix. Locally, clasts are rounded and have undergone some fluvial transport.” In short, this means the layer is an intermediate form of not quite lava that includes embedded crystals. A Utah Geological Survey publication provides a photographic exemplar and is a guide to locating a sample, but I am unsure if I have found this type of rock. The Utah Geological Survey publication shows the layer between picnic sites 1 and 6 and then again from just below picnic site 7 up canyon to picnic site 9. None is visible below picnic site 6, but across from picnic site 7, I find a small that may be of the right material. About two-hundred feet below picnic site 7 and on the south bank of the stream, there is a large boulder that also may be made of a volcanic conglomerate. Van Horn and Crittenden date the age of this volcanic breccia layer between 35 and 37 million years old. Their 1987 geologic map shows extensive layers of this material going down to the red bridge. Another small outcrop of this breccia is shown on Van Horn’s map just north of the Little Twin Peaks. These deposits are geologically related to the tallest peak at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, the 11,253 foot granite Lone Peak, and to the formation of Utah’s current geology.

Hintze and Kowallis of Brigham Young University, Willis of the Utah Geological Survey, and Stokes of the University of Utah describe how the Sevier Orogeny shaped the state’s modern landscape and the canyon, as originally proposed in 1991 by Richard Livaccari of the University of New Mexico. An orogeny is a mountain uplifting event that can last millions of years. The cause of the Sevier Orogeny was the Farallon continental plate. Currently, there are about fifteen principal continental plates, but there used to be a sixteenth, the Farallon Plate, between the well-known North American and Pacific Plates and their border, the San Andreas fault off of the United States west coast. According to Hintze and Kowallis, about 105 million years ago the Farallon plate began subducting under the west coast of the United States (Hintze and Kowallis, 67-77; Stokes, 144-145). The Farallon Plate takes its name from a remnant of the plate found at the Farallon Islands off of the coast of San Francisco. In 2012 using mathematical inverse image techniques to reconstruct the plate from seismic waves, Pavlis, Sigloch, Burdick, and colleagues visualized the remains of the Farallon Plate whose melting carcass is now embedded in the Earth’s mantle a thousand miles below the midwest (see Sigloch and Mihalynuk 2013). Willis likens the response of Utah’s surface from the Farallon Plate passing underneath to a boat riding a passing wave on water (Willis, 4). A more familiar visualization would be a resting surfer, seated on her board as a wave passes underneath.

As Utah and Nevada rode up the leading face of the wave between 105 and 80 million years ago, a cordillera – a vast north-south mountain range similar the the Canadian and United States Rockies – rose in Nevada and western Utah (Hintze, 67, Fig.s 98 and 103; Livaccari, 1106, Fig. 1(a)). Utah was compressed. Hintze and Kowallis conclude that Utah’s western border was about sixty miles closer to the current location of Salt Lake City during this event (Hintze, 5). Between 80 and 65 million years ago, those mountains eroded away and the crest of the Farallon Plate continued to migrate under Utah (Livaccari, 1106, Fig. 1(b), Hintze, 6). Central and eastern Utah, including the canyon, were part of inland sea, and the sandstones and the red conglomerates in the canyon, including the natural bridge at mile 0.9, were deposited from the erosion of the cordillera mountains to the west. Next, about 35 million years ago, the melting of the Farallon Plate as it passed under Utah resulted in a volcanic era, and volcanoes formed in west central Utah around present day Tintic (Hintze, 6). Where molten lava reached the surface, as at Van Horn’s “Tv” conglomerate layer between picnic site 6 and picnic site 9 at mile 1.1, breccia formed. Where molten lava remained trapped beneath the surface, the granite that formed Lone Peak was created (Ut. Geo. Survey, Pub. Info. 87).

Finally, as Utah slid down the backside of Fallaron wave, the land stretched (Hintze, 6). Utah’s western border expanded to its current location. As the land stretched east and west, north-south faults formed in the thin crust, and one of those lifted the Wasatch Front Mountain Range into the sky. The lifting was uneven between the canyon and Lone Peak. At the City Creek end, uplift exposed rock to the Tertiary era, but in the north in Farmington, uplift raised older Cambrian rock to the surface. At the Lone Peak southern end of Salt Lake Valley, the lifting was more extreme. Erosion removed the Cambrian rock entirely, and subsurface pockets of frozen, granitic lava were lifting to 11,000 feet. Thus, the lowly breccia in City Creek share the same parent as the lofty heights of Lone Peak.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 7th, 1851, he enjoys how the winter sun lays a yellow tint on pine trees. On January 7th, 1852, he describes a sunset where one-half of the sky in the east is covered in white clouds and one-half of the sky is in west is blue and clear. On January 7th, 1853, he sees a sunrise where a white mist covers low lands. On January 7th, 1855, he describes an early thaw. The morning overcast sky is tinged with blue, green and red. On January 7th, 1857, he notes it is the fifth consecutive day of cold, windy weather, and he describes the renewing psychological effect of getting “a mile out town” and taking a walk in nature’s solitude. On January 7th, 1858, he again notes speckled crystals on the surface of fresh snow.

On January 7th, 1903, hunters collected County bounties on a total of twenty coyotes killed within or just outside the city (which then included the high Avenues). Hunter George McNeil stated that “City Creek canyon is full of them [coyotes,] and I killed two wildcats up there a few days ago.”

December 21, 2016

December 20th

The Canyon at Rest

12:00 pm and 5:00 p.m. It is the last day of Fall, and tomorrow the tilt of the Earth keeps the canyon furthest from the life giving Sun for the longest part of the day. Nature in the canyon is in a deep sleep. The trees are still; all natural sounds are silent. The air is warmer today, but not enough that snow and ice on the trees melts. Sun warmed ice melded with tree branches expands slightly and then breaks away. Instead of raining droplets as with the last storm, today trees rain tiny chunks of ice. There are two places in the lower shaded canyon where the stream freezes over. The first is the perpetually shaded bend between picnic sites 7 and 8. There the stream is completely frozen over for several hundred feet; the stream is milky white and stone-like. The second is between the up canyon end of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.8 to milepost 2.0. There the stream is eighty percent frozen over. At Bonneville Drive, about twenty percent of the surface of the flood retention ponds is frozen. At mile 1.3, where animal tracks make impressions that are kept partially in shadow, half-inch hoarfrost crystals sublimate, but then evaporate in the warmer late afternoon air. Although the canyon looks dead, the irrepressible force of life continues.

Lichens and mosses respond to the wet cold and grow both on the trees and on rocks in the stream. Digging some leaves up from underneath the snow, some show signs of the beginning of bacterial decay, but mostly the leaf litter and the microbes are dormant, waiting for spring’s explosion. At the surface, data by Whitman, Coleman and Wiebe at the University of Georgia suggests that there are about 3.5 x 10^15 microbes per square meter in woodlands and shrublands and about microbes 5.7 x 10^13 in each square meter of deciduous forests (Whitman 1998, Table 2). In 1995, Richter and Markewitz estimated that there were about 1.1 x 10^12 bacteria and fungal microbes in each gram of soil at the surface (Fig. 3a), and their density decreases to about 4.1 x 10^7 at 8 meters beneath the surface. In 2014, Raynaud and Nunan found an average of 8.9 x 10^9 microbes in the top 0.6 meters of each gram of agricultural field soil (Table 1).

But life does not stop there. Whitman et al also estimated that between 10 meters to 3,000 meters below the surface, there were on the order of 10^6 prokaryotes per cubic centimeter. They made an order of magnitude estimate that in a cubic centimeter column going from the surface down to 4 kilometers, there are a total of about 2.2 x 10^30 prokaryotes (id., 6579). But life exists even further down in the subsurface column beneath the canyon’s surface. In 2006, Li-Hung Lin, et al. discovered Archean microbes living at 2.8 kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface in a South African gold mile, and those microbes were genetically related to Archean microbes living the Yellowstone Hot Springs a few hundred miles north of the canyon. These subsurface microbes may comprise a substantial fraction of biomass in the canyon. Whitman et al estimated a wide first-order ratio of the mass of subsurface prokaryote carbon to plant surface carbon at 60% to 100% (id., at 6580).

I stand at the surface in the canyon, I and am part of this scene. In 2013, Bianconi et al estimated the number of cells in the human body at 37 trillion. In a 2016, Sender, Fuchs and Milo at the Weiztmann Institute for Science in Israel, revised estimates of the total number of cells in the human body and the number of microbes that inhabit each of us. They found that along with the approximately 3.8 x 10^13 (38 trillion) human cells in a 70 kilogram person, another 3.0 x 10^13 foreign microbes live (cooperatively but sometimes uncooperatively) within us or about 44% of the total (3.0/(3.0+3.8)). Because of the exponential power of these estimates, the 10^13 cells, both human and parasitic cell in me, are a minuscule portion of of 10^30 prokaryotes that are in just one 4 kilometer deep column of soil that is one centimeter square. Subtracting my 10^13 cells, there are still 9.999999…. x 10^29 prokaryotes under each square centimeter of subsurface. I measure the bottom of one of my shoes and find conservatively guess there are about 450 square centimeters in the soles of my feet.

Around and above me, even the air above the road contains some levels of bacteria, fungi, and pollen as part of the daily PM10 daily air particle count. In 2009, Wiedinmyer and colleagues counted on average 3.5 particles of DNA containing material per cubic centimeter of air collected from a mountain summit in the Rocky Mountains (Table 1) or about 3.5 million particles per cubic meter of air. Whitman et al estimated that there were about 1.8 x 10^21 microbes in each cubic meter of air from the surface up to 3 kilometers (id., 6580 reporting 5 x 10^19 per cfu). This continues into the high upper atmosphere. In 2013, DeLeon-Rodriguez and her colleagues at the University of Georgia and NASA found 5,100 cells per cubic meter in samples taken from air 10 kilometers above the surface of the Caribbean ocean.

Microbes also dominate the stream’s bedrock. In that aquatic environment, deep blue-green algae grows in thick mats, and at the stream’s edges, large mats of watercress thrive in the freezing water. Although no trout are seen in the lower canyon stream; they move upstream and a group of about fifteen congregate just below an old water head gate at mile 2.8. At the stream’s edge, horsetails are still green, and this indicates that photosynthesis is still occurring despite the cold.

At the retention ponds, a male-female pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) rest. The female is in the sleep position with her head laying on her back. The males feeds on the algae on the pond’s bottom. At picnic site 2, there is a small unidentified sparrow that is not a European sparrow. Further up the canyon, near picnic site 3, there is a Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)! No avid birder will probably believe this, since this kingfisher is far out of its winter range, and I am unable to take a photograph of it. I first had a fleeting view of this bird on December 7th at the south end of the circle where the Pleasant Valley reservoir once stood. Then it was too far away to see clearly. Today, I am able to watch it for several minutes at the top of a snag about 100 feet away. Then the bird sees me, spooks, and flies down canyon to another snag, and again I am able to catch up and watch it closely for another few minutes. At picnic site 4, I am greeted by a flock of mountain chickadees, and they sit in several trees calling back to each other. Below picnic site 5, a flock of six Black-hooded juncos feed and preen themselves on a red osier dogwood bush. The coldest winter makes some birds more tolerant of humans, and I am able to stand directly next to the bush and about four feet from juncos. They grab a piece of snow-ice from clumps of shriveled white berries that still cling to the tree. They eat part of the ice and then dip the rest into their feathers to clean themselves. Then they try to eat the sour fruit of the dogwood (see Nov. 6th), but most of the fruit seems to drop to the ground and not into their beaks. I again see an unidentified raptor that patrols the lower canyon just before twilight. At mile 1.3, a magpie can be heard in the distance. A series of tracks in the snow tell of two birds that had landed on two adjacent rocks that stick up out of the snow. They then hopped across the snow for about 20 feet.

At mile 1.0, high on the western ridgeline, a single anterless elk digs through the snow to green grass underneath. And, in the early morning hours as I am returning home on other business, two mule deer that are refugees from the canyon are grazing a few hundred feet from my urban front door. As for humans in the canyon, there is myself and about twenty other walkers, runners, and bicyclists.

In short, the canyon is asleep, but life cannot be stopped. Life can be attenuated from its peak productivity (August 31st), and today, like sunlight, life in the canyon is at its nadir.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 20th, 1851, he observes a high-flying hawk that is patrolling for prey. He lists the colors of the winter landscape: red, white, green, and brown. On December 20, 1854, he feels that the winter sun has more relative warmth on his skin than the summer sun.

October 7, 2016

October 7th

Filed under: picnic site 7, Weather — canopus56 @ 4:38 pm

An Afternoon Wasatch Storm

2:00 p.m. Today is a crisp, cold fall day, but the sun warms the soul and all living things. The spirits of walkers going up the canyon are lifted and everyone smiles and greets each other. “What a wonderful day.” “What a perfect day it is.” Sections of the road that were covered with crushed yellow and red leaves on October 5th have almost completely cleared.

On the 5th, it was a different story. While jogging down canyon from mile 2.0, a band of black clouds rushed in from the west. In twenty minutes, the canyon was overcast and bolts of lightening shot horizontally between the clouds. Then the graupel started to fall. Graupel are soft pea-sized snowballs. If re-circulated in a nimbus cloud, they become hail. Next, the graupel turned partially to sleet and then to a heavy downpour of mixed graupel, sleet and freezing rain. A well-placed graupel hit in a tree knocked a leaf off. Going through the lower canyon, the trees are raining leaves and the road, normally a grey slate, is now partially covered completely in a matrix of yellow and red shapes. I leave the canyon soaked, but as I reach home a few minutes later, the sky has cleared and the warming sun is out again. All of this occurs in less than 50 minutes. This is a classic afternoon storm on the Wasatch Front Mountain range.

October 3, 2016

October 3rd

Filed under: American Dagger Moth, picnic site 7, Tomentose Burying Beetle — canopus56 @ 10:31 pm

Bright Bugs

7:00 p.m. Back on September 30th at picnic site 7, a black beetle with two bright orange bands across its middle rests on a table. It is a Tomentose Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus tomentosus). The Burying Beetle is so named because it drags and buries its kills under a pile of leaf litter and then lays its eggs on the corpse. With the bright orange bands on its back, it advertises and does not hide from its predators.

Then on September 28th, another brightly colored insect crossed the road at mile 0.5 – a bright yellow caterpillar with long black spikes coming out of its back. It was an American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana). Its host plants, on whose leaves it grazes, are the same trees found abundantly at mile 0.5 – the Maple and the Box Elder.

These insects, who do not hide, advertise their presence to their predators. Presumably, they are poisonous or foul-tasting to other insects or birds, and thus, they have no need for the praying mantis’s camouflage. But how does the Burying Beetle ambush its prey, given that it carries an orange flag on its back?


Create a free website or blog at