City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

February 22, 2017

February 22nd

Tree Trunks

4:00 p.m. This a year of extremes: on February 21st, the temperature was sixty-six degrees and yesterday and last night and today, after raining for almost ten hours, the temperature has dropped to thirty-three degrees Fahrenheit. As I enter the canyon, it is snowing, but this is light snow that turns to water when it touches any physical object. The high ridgelines and Pleasant Valley are covered in snow dust, perhaps one-eight of an inch thick, but it will not last. This is the second sign of the coming spring now one month away: The battle between spring overtaking winter (September 22nd) has begun. There are other signs. At Guardhouse Gate, I see my first, fat and healthy Rock squirrel of the season. It runs across the road and is busily inspecting bushes for fresh buds. The constant rain has driven three earthworms on to the road, even though temperatures are freezing. High on the ridgeline near mile 1.1, I see my first mule deer in over a week. Even at this distance, it is skittish; it tentatively comes out of a copse, feeds, and then retreats for cover.

The lichens and mosses are the most responsive to the hours of light rain. Everywhere the orange, yellow and green colors of lichen and mosses have deepened, and a few trees become vibrant flames amongst winter’s brown, grey and white. Black cankers on tree branches that normally turn to dust when touched have become plump, fat and solid with water. It is the time of year for the simplest organisms, for the earliest life.

Tree trunks have so many varieties of forms. Above picnic site 6, some trees are like brothers and sisters. The trunks of two 4 inch diameter immature river birches intertwine in a playful embrace, and they spring from a common root. Next to the River birch, are three immature Box Elder trunks that also rise from the same root. These stand tall and vertical like two brothers. At and down-canyon of picnic site 6, large Mountain cottonwoods have large bulbous galls on their lower trunks, and this is evidence of old attacks by insects, bacteria, and fungi. Other trees in the lower canyon have partially or completely succumbed to age and disease. At picnic site 6, an ancient tree has been broken off to about four feet above the ground and spilt in half. The remnant remaining in the earth is pock marked with with trails and caves of insects that reminds me of the cave houses carved out of volcanic tufa in Cappadocia in Turkey. In the lower canyon, still half-alive cottonwoods have had much of their bark stripped away, and underneath the xylem and heartwood has taken on a sinuous, smooth, yellow texture like human skin. At Pleasant Valley and at picnic sites 9, 7, and 2, dead cottonwood snags are bleached grey-white. Where large trunk stubs are near the road, erosion has exposed their subsurface tap roots, and this reveals a tangle of gnarls that remind of Eastern paintings of nature. An example is below the Red Bridge.

Traveling down-canyon, a familiar pattern appears in the River birches, Box elder and Mountain cottonwood trees that line the stream. Multiple, large, mature trunks sprout from a single root, and at the base, numerous suckers rise. For these trees, the mixture of angled mature trunks and smaller shoots gives the impression of a circular fan opening or a fountain of water rising. In this respect, trees are simply a larger, woody version of the brome grass bunches in Pleasant Valley, further up canyon. I realize that my impression of trees as organisms that are born, grow, have a middle age, and the die is mistaken. Angled older branches grow and fall away, and this gives the young shoots an opportunity to grow and replace them. But both originate from the same tap root, from the same genetic material. In this sense, most of the trees in the lower canyon that surround the stream possess a form of immortality. My misconception of the lives of these trees is the result of my biased exposure to shade trees in the city. Those trees mimic the cultured form of an English oak forest. There, trees are manicured and husbanded as individuals by their human farmers. Those trees do experience an individual birth, a middle age, and a death. But the English form of a forest is only one classical European choice, and here in the canyon, the stream trees pass their lives in a cycle and not along linear time.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 22nd, 1856, he observes the first insects of spring crawling over snow.

On February 22nd, 1910, the City Council debated whether to lease a second gravel pit in lower City Creek (Deseret Evening News). On February 22nd, 1894, an attorney sought permission from the City to hunt a mountain lion in City Creek Canyon. Permission was granted and the hunter took a cougar (Salt Lake Herald).


January 10, 2017

January 10th

Wooden Noises

3:00 p.m. Last night media was concerned that flooding may occur because of the heavy rain and continuing high temperatures. Most of the snow is gone from south facing slopes and the snow left along the road is saturated with water. It has remained warm, so no crust has formed on the snow’s surface, but everywhere the snow is covered with bits of bark, leaves and dirt from a high wind. There is no sign of the potential flood; the stream has not risen; but, for the remainder of the season the risk of avalanche in the high Wasatch Front Mountains will be high. At higher elevations, this water soaked layer will form a base on which further snow layers will accumulate, and this can form a fracture zone in which back country skiers can be swept to burial. At Guardhouse Gate, a chickadee is sings a bright note. The sky is overcast and gives off a uniform diffuse light. For some stretches of the stream, I see hints of the silver ribbon (Dec. 26th).

Where the snow bank is partially eaten away, the bunch grass is exposed, and the dried tan grass is mixed in with still growing green shoots. Although recently soaked in water, this time the tips of the oaks and maples do not turn red-tinged (Dec. 11th), and the trees make no start at growth in response to the water. Although I had thought that mosses had stopped growing, at the down-canyon end of picnic site 4, I find two trees where on the west side, they are covered in bright orange lichen and on the east side, they are covered in a thick mat of dark-green moss.

From this weather, at picnic site 9, the Bald-Faced hornet nest is reduced to the size of a large grapefruit. At picnic site 1, the hummingbird nest is dissipating. I can partially see through its weaving.

Another storm front is approaching, and at mile 1.3, the wind gusts at 30 miles per hour while six anterless elk graze on a west hillside about three hundred feet away. The Gambel’s oaks creak and groan. Leaves rustle, and a single leaf loudly tumbles across the surface of the snow. There is a fourth sound. Where the wind causes two small branches to collide, they make a subtle dull and hollow thud sound, similar to tone of musical wooden xylophone. In their resting state, it sound as if the branches of trees are empty of water.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 10th, 1957, he records a -8 degree F. temperature with heavy snows that have trapped him at home. He recalls summer. On January 10th, 1858, Thoreau prescribes the snow-covered beauty of catkins as a remedy for winter seasonal affect disorder. He notes that any sight of “catkins, birds’ nests, insect life” is welcomed in winter. He observes a sunset in which pink light is reflected off of snow.

January 6, 2017

January 6th

Filed under: milepost 1.5, Picnic site 9 — canopus56 @ 5:22 pm

Lake Bonneville

1:00 p.m. Temperatures remain in the teens today; the Refrigerator (Dec. 28th) continues. While driving to Guardhouse Gate and at the corner of 11th Avenue and Bonneville Drive, I see two another areas of recent landslide activity. On the west side of lower City Creek Canyon along East Capitol Boulevard and north of the Capitol grounds, is another large landslide area shown on the Salt Lake County geologic hazard map. One home owner along East Capitol has constructed three stories of cement block wall below their home as insurance to keep their home from moving. This landslide area continues up canyon to picnic site 3. Turning the corner on to Bonneville Drive towards the canyon, there is a low concrete wall that the City erected to hold back the sliding slope on the east or right side of the road. Jogging up to picnic site 9, then on to milepost 1.5, and turning back down canyon, a rockslide can be seen on the southeast wall at the entrance to Pleasant Valley. This slide is shown on both the Van Horn and Salt Lake County geologic maps, but not being a geologist, I am unsure what the maps refer to. There appears to be a slump at the base of this wall, but there are also large boulders on the hill side that have cleaved from sandstone layers and tumbled downhill.

Jogging downhill, I come to picnic site 7 and then the red bridge at mile 0.9 at an elevation of 4,712 feet. A lay geologic guide to the Wasatch Canyons of the Utah Geologic Survey marks this area where a beach of ancient Lake Bonneville stabilized during 14,000 to 12,500 years ago (Ut. Geo. Survey, n.d.; see Stratford 1999). The Provo Bench of Lake Bonneville frames the lower canyon at Bonneville Drive on the east and below Ensign Peak on the west. The Provo Bench was first identified in G. K. Gilbert’s classic 1890 geologic investigation titled “Lake Bonneville” while Gilbert was employed by John Wesley Powell, the great western river explorer and first director of the United States Geological Survey (Gilbert; Stratford). After the lake first formed about 30,000 years ago, the lake grew and eventually formed the Provo Pleistocene epoch beach that extends up into the canyon near picnic site 7. But this was not the highest level of the lake, and between 16,500 and 15,000 years ago, the lake temporarily reached its highest level at around 5,325 feet, or just below the water treatment plant. While at the lower Provo bench level, City Creek formed a fan-shaped delta below the surface of the water that reached to the present location of the Mormon Temple. Hintze reproduces a fanciful reconstruction by De Courten of Ice Age animals seen from a viewpoint looking south from the vicinity of City Creek and the State Capitol 15,000 years ago (Hintze, 118). At about 11,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville quickly reduced, but paused briefly at 4,250 feet to create the faint Gilbert Shoreline (Hintze, 119, Fig. 152). Then the lake’s level fell to its current level of 4,206 feet, and at that time, the first evidence of human habitation at the fringes of the lake were found in Danger Cave near Wendover, Nevada (id). Because of the rapid reduction in the lake’s level, the resulting high stream velocity was able to crave out of that fan-shaped delta, the v-shaped canyon seen today below Guardhouse Gate and Bonneville Drive. In order to exploit the resource provided by the ancient delta fan, through the 1910s, a gravel pit operated in the lower canyon in the location of Memory G6rove (Salt Lake Tribune, April 12th, 1911).

Driving downtown after my jog, I turn back and look at the hillside above Warm Springs on Beck Street. There is a fainter lower terrace at about 4,500 feet elevation that Gilbert named the Stansbury Bench (Stratford, 369; Hintze, 119). Some years ago when I worked downtown during lunch, I would run up to the Stansbury bench west of the State Capitol building. This lower bench was created between 30,000 and 16,500 years ago as Lake Bonneville was first forming (Stratford, 369). Looking to the west and Antelope Island, the three benches, the Bonneville, Provo and Stansbury benches, can be seen carved on its eastern side; however, the bench elevations on the Antelope Island are higher than the elevations of the corresponding benches on the western side of the Wasatch Mountain Front Range in and near City Creek. Gilbert first noted this in 1890, and he reasoned that the weight of 1,000 feet of water had pushed the land down as the beaches were forming (Stratford 369-370). After the waters receded, the land at the center of the lake rebounded and raised the benches.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 6th, 1838, he describes a mixture of star-shaped snowflakes and round grapple snow.

On January 6th, 1939, the Utah Audubon Society planned a monthly field trip up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On January 6th, 1883, two miners attempted to reach Snell’s mine more than seven miles up City Creek Canyon. After traveling two miles in neck deep snow, one miner collapsed from exhaustion, the second miner made it back to the City exhausted, and the first miner was rescued the following day with frost-bitten, black feet.

December 13, 2016

December 13th

Filed under: Elk, Mammals, Picnic site 9 — canopus56 @ 10:03 pm

Wise Elk

5:00 p.m., December 11th, 2016 (Supplement). At mile 0.6, several hundred feet higher on a step slope of the south ridge, there are twelve elk. Two anterless elk hunters are on the road, viewing, but not hunting the elk, through their rifle scopes. They spent the day riding bicycles for the six miles up to the end of the road and the hiked up two miles through the snow into the upper canyon where it is legal to hunt. There, they found no elk. Today, there were four anterless elk hunters on the road, out of 20 runners and walkers.

4:30 p.m., December 12th. Yesterday was Sunday; today is Monday; and the weekend hunters are gone from the canyon. Four elk graze on newly exposed grasses 150 feet from the road at Pleasant Valley. They take notice of me as I pass by, but continue to feed unconcerned that I am a human and that I might be armed. How can they tell that I am no threat?

On December 13, 1893, Salt Lake City Superintendent of Waterworks Griffin proposed to replace one of three aged wooden waterlines, that ran from a headgate in City Creek to distribution reservoirs in the Capitol Hill area, with a modern cast iron pipe (Salt Lake Herald).

December 7, 2016

December 7th

Speckled Snow

1:30 p.m. December 2nd, 2016. Back on December 2nd, I am doing a very slow jog in order to closely scan the trees for birds’ nests. This is a good time of year to look for nests: the trees have lost all of their leaves and the low angle of the afternoon Fall sunlight brings out details that might otherwise be missed. I plan a survey route. I have on December 1st, I jogged the pipeline trail parallel to the road between guardhouse gate and Pleasant Valley at mile 1.2. Today, I will jog through the snow covered dirt road and trail along the south side of the canyon between mile 1.2 and the end of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.7, then up the road to mile 2.2, and then back down the road along the pipeline trail that parallels the road on the north side back to mile 1.2. I will end up with another close look at the road between mile 1.2 and the gate.

Jogging along the dirt road and trail between mile 1.2 and 1.7 is hard going because the road is covered in six inches of snow, but it is rewarding. Overnight temperatures have dropped into the teens, and as a result, the surface of fresh snow is covered in the beginnings of surface hoarfrost. The hoar crystals are only between one or three millimeters in size, and this surface reflects the sun in hundreds of thousands of speckled flashes. Although the Moon is new, this same effect is spectacular under a full Moon.

The snow records the movements of unseen birds and mammals. I can easily follow how the deer have come down from the south canyon wall (November 25th), crossed the canyon floor, and started up towards their winter critical grazing fields on the north canyon ridgeline. The movements of smaller mammals that I have seen previous years are also revealed. A hair’s tracks cross the trail and climb up a slope towards the road, but is stopped by a thicket, reverses, comes back down, and then succeeds in its climb by an alternative route. Further on, the tracks of a fox are found and are distinguished by the clear imprints of its small claws. A small, very light bird has landed on the snow and barely made an imprint. It hopped once, turned to the left, and then took off again.

This small half-mile stretch of fresh hoar covered snow is a trivial and faint reminder of experiences in the high Wasatch Front Mountain Range where tracks of such snow can be found for one or two miles. Backcountry skiers hunt for this snow on slopes that drop a thousand feet or more. It has a unique sound and feel. It does crackle or crunch underfoot; it compacts with a distinct hollow thump, but still provides a firm foundation for both foot and thinner alpine backcountry ski. It provides support underneath but yields as if it were airs as one glides through it on skis.

Near the stream, I find river birches that show that spiders are still active despite the cold weather. A sunlit branch has three or four distinct spider threads along it, and since threads only last a day or so, they must have been laid after the recent snow storm. I search for some time, but I am unable to find the spider that laid them. I regain the paved road near mile 1.7.

Returning down canyon through Pleasant Valley, the south facing canyon slopes have lost their snow. Dried tan meadow grasses look like they have been combed by the hand of the wind.

After running the snow covered trails and through the cold shaded lower canyon, I am chilled but happy. Time for a hot shower at home, for a nap, and then for a relaxed and contented evening.

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 1, 2016

November 1st

Filed under: Bald-Faced Hornets, Gambel's Oak, People, Picnic site 9 — canopus56 @ 10:46 pm

Will the Bald-Faced Wasps Return Next Year?

4:00 p.m. Back on October 24th, a couple, one in their fifties, is at the picnic site 9. The nest of the Bald-Faced wasps (Sept. 27th) is easily visible from the road, since the Gambel’s oak leaves have fallen. They have assembled a pile of rocks and for entertainment, they are using the nest for target practice. The nest has deteriorated in the rain and cold over the last three weeks. It outer layers have begun peeling off, and having no worker residents, it is not being repaired. I check back later, the couple found a two foot stick, and managed to hit the nest with it. The nest is still on the tree, but it is ruptured. It has been sufficiently cold that the workers and males in the nest have died. As a last gesture before dying, males impregnate the queen, who will take to the leaf litter and hibernate over the winter. Hopefully, she has already left or is still safe within the nest, waiting for a signal from the first snow. If not, there may be no bald-faced wasps in the canyon come summer. On October 29th, there is young man illegally practicing target shooting at picnic site 1. Hopefully, there are no squirrels about which are about the size of the cans that he is shooting at.

While these are insignificant events, they are also a metaphor for the larger global issues facing nature. Currently, there are about 7.4 billion people alive on the Earth, and when I was born in the 1950s, there were about 2.8 billion. If one out of every 7,500 of those 7.5B people do an unthinking act each day like the one above, how can nature heal from one million such cuts each day? While we often look to industry as a cause of nature’s decline, another significant contributor is the collective, unintended result of our individual actions. This illustrates the need to not act unthinkingly in our daily lives and to act consciously and with intent. Also on October 24th, the World Wildlife Federation and the Zoological Society of London released an advocacy report estimating that since 1970, the population of wildlife on the Earth has declined by fifty-eight percent.

September 28, 2016

September 27th

Filed under: Bald-Faced Hornets, Insects, Picnic site 9, Uncategorized, wasps — canopus56 @ 1:21 am

Some Hornets Tell a Bald-Faced Lie

2:00 p.m. Identifying insects is tough for an amateur. I always struggle with it. There are so many types of species and so many varieties of each insect, and for bees and wasps, each species may also look different depending on their role as queen, solider, or worker. No one book or online database can cover them all, and this makes classifying an insect seen in the canyon a difficult and time-consuming task. As an example, there is a wasp nest at mile 1.2, picnic site 9 (see September 16th) and, it is populated by a jet-black wasp with a yellow-tipped abdomen (see August 20th). Hornets are wasps that live in large social communities, that is in nests. The nest at picnic site 9 appears to have been built by Bald-faced Hornets (Vespula maculata). After standing in front of the nest with my monocular fixed on the nest entrance for a few minutes, I am able to see the characteristic white face markings of its inhabitants that classify this as a nest of Bald-faced hornets.

I still am unsure if these are the same wasps that I saw on August 20th. Those had yellow tips, but were jet-black and did not have the characteristic white markings found on the face of the Bald-faced Hornet. Were those earlier wasps just an immature phase of or a special worker class of the Bald-faced Hornet, or were they a completely different wasp specie? There are jet-black wasps such as cricket hunter wasps, and the meadow at mile 1.3 is full of crickets. But cricket hunting wasps generally are solitary, build underground nests, and do not have yellow tips. For now, I just continue to describe those earlier jet-black wasps with yellow tips as “unidentified”.

Blog at