Wow. How about this weather? This week in Northern Utah has been so sweet & summery, I feel like I’m “getting away” with something, which has added an almost naughty thrill to the week, making it even that much better. After our little arctic blast last week, it seems like a little mini-Spring, or even a second Indian Summer.
Tuesday morning SkiBikeJunkie and I met shortly before dawn to ride Pipeline Trail in Mill Creek Canyon. I’ve been riding Pipeline for 14 years and I’m pretty sure that now- right now- is the best shape it’s been in ever. In fact it was so good that I went back and rode it again Wednesday morning.
Tangent: Speaking of SBJ, this is a great time for my…
Social Review of 2009
Yeah, yeah I know the year’s not over, but my social life isn’t all that exciting, and it’s unlikely any other major changes will occur in it between now and year-end. Besides social life and relationships are on my mind right now because yesterday Coworker Matt stopped by my office and asked my thoughts about adult men, and the evolution, or rather de-evolution, of their social lives as they get into their 30’s and 40’s. Meaning that men’s social circles so often shrink, or become subsumed into their spouse’s social circles as time passes. It’s an interesting topic and we spent a bit chatting about it, and the social trends going on in our own lives.
Nested Tangent: Matt and I have worked together for a few years. He’s very bright*, competent, and well-respected by pretty much everyone in our company. He sits about 20 feet away from me, and from time to time he’ll stop by with something non-work-related on his mind, always a thoughtful, insightful topic or question, and when he does I’m generally both pleased- as Matt’s always interesting to chat with- and a little surprised- because Matt’s at least as smart as I am, clearly has his act together, and I’m often not clear on how I’m going to be able to provide any great insights which haven’t already occurred to him. Nevertheless, I enjoy our chats.
*Although I still don’t know that he understands how a rainbow works.
Lately, I’ve noticed Matt* seems to stop by more frequently with deeper, more insightful questions/ topics, and I wonder if it’s just a coincidence or if he’s going through an introspective period of sorts. Matt’s 35, and it seems that guys in their mid-30’s go through a lot of self-questioning about direction, values and general existential angst of sorts. I know I did, and it’s funny, because although I remember doing so quite a bit myself when I was in my 30’s, I really don’t much at all these days, although I can’t remember any particular day when I stopped doing it. It’s almost like I got to 40, and some subconscious part of my mind just said, “Alright, enough about you already. Let’s start obsessing about other stuff.”**
*I should mention that I’m not saying anything about Matt I wouldn’t say to his face. And actually I am, as Matt is one of my several lurking-never-comment coworkers who read this blog. In fact Matt is a Watchersticker recipient, though I don’t think he knows what to do with it. It’s just pinned on his office wall, which is sort of odd when you think about it, since the guy who actually writes the blog sits just 20 feet away.
**Which come to think of it, is about the time I got interested in plants and birds and stars and bugs and all the other wacky stuff I obsess about in this blog. Hmm.
So here’s the cool social thing for me about 2009: I’ve bucked the middle-aged guy trend, and expanded my social circle. And specifically I’ve made friends who share my weird scheduling priorities. For example, I’ve ridden at or before dawn for years. But overwhelmingly my long-time friends abhor such early morning outings, and so for years I’ve ridden alone in the dark*. But this year I met both SBJ and Vicente, both of whom are at least as eager and willing to wake in the wee hours of the morning to ride and- even better- ride at the same level of speed and ability as I do. I also met KanyonKris, who shares my willingness to do crazy 1-day 700-mile round-trip desert trips to snag a day of desert biking, and Young Ian, whose unencumbered and relatively baggage-free lifestyle allows him to easily schedule night rides or full-blown weekend road-trips with an absolute minimum of planning and negotiation. My circle of friends also expanded through road-racing, both through teammates as well as regular competitors I’ve gotten to know and befriended. So all told, it’s been a great social year.**
*OK that sounds sort of sad and pathetic, but it’s not really. It’s actually been a lot of fun.
**With one notable exception.
Pipeline’s always a nice trail, and with plenty of Southern exposure and relatively low elevation, it’s one of the first canyon trails to melt out in the Spring. But that same exposure combined with heavy foot and bike traffic means that through most of the summer the trail is dry and gravelly. But not now. Now the low sun-angle and light traffic have allowed the trail to retain just enough moisture to be tacky, fast and quiet. Riding fast on Pipeline right now feels so smooth, it’s like one of those dreams where you can fly, except way faster.
Tangent: When I was a kid, I used to regularly have dreams in which I was able to fly. But it was never a fast flying, just a slow dreamy-flying. So that’s why Pipeline is cool right now- it’s that fast-flying dream I always wanted to have.
Strangely, I realized when writing this post that I haven’t a flying dream in decades. In fact the only transportation dreams I ever have now are either dreams where I’m biking, but my tires and or wheels keep flatting/falling apart/ or otherwise structurally failing, or ones where I am driving, or about to drive, but strange lights keep appearing on the dashboard of my car*. Freud would have had a field-day with my dreams.
*Oh wait. Maybe that’s when I’m awake.
Nested Tangent: OK, here’s a serious weird dream-thing for me, that I’ve had decades, that I’ve never heard of anyone else having: I dream of alternative geographies. Like I’m in a dream, and the geography of wherever I’m at in the dream is different, but I know it. No, I don’t mean that I know that it’s different- I mean I know the geography.
In the real (waking) world I have a great sense of geography/ direction; I almost always have a very clear handle on where I am, where I’m headed, etc. In my dreams I have this same sense of navigation, this same sense of familiarity with landscape, of absolutely knowing exactly where I am and being fully familiar with the area, even though the geography is both not real and completely different from geography in the real world. In many of these dreams I’m actually looking at maps, which when I wake up, I realize are completely wrong, with other states and coastlines and such in places where they aren’t in the real world, only in the dream-world they make perfect sense. Isn’t that weird?
There’s another thing about riding Pipeline now- all the leaves are down, the flowers all disappeared, the hummingbirds and the bees are all gone. And while this can make the scenery seem at first glance a bit gray and dull, I find that riding it this time of year I’m able to notice and tune into things I ignore or just blow by in the summer months.
Side Note: I touched on this aspect of “defoliated riding” several months ago, just before the world woke up, in a post I’m not sure anyone really got. But that same sense- that “quiet order of the brown world”- was with me on my Mill Creek rides this week and lent a sense of heightened perception to the rides, and the week in general. (Probably no one will still get it, but that’s the best I can explain it.)
Pipeline Ride Guide
So if you’re going to ride Pipeline, do it now. I like to ride it as an out & back, starting and finishing at the bottom of Rattlesnake Gulch. Yes, yes, I know the Rattlesnake climb’s a total pig, but it’s way worth it because you get the whole Pipeline in both directions.
The climb is stiff from the get-go, but it’s only about a third of a mile until you get to the first cool thing: this rock. It’s a huge limestone fin, sticking out of the ground at an almost 80 degree angle. If you look around on the lower slopes of the Wasatch, these kinds of fins aren’t uncommon; they’re scattered across the West slope of adjacent Grandeur Peak. But it’s rare that a trail bring you right up to “touching” distance of one. The trail up Rattlesnake Gulch climbs through geographic formation called the Park City Formation*, a combination of limestone and shale layers laid down between 250 and 300 million years ago. More recently crustal faulting (the Wasatch Fault) has buckled and twisted these layers in the present-day Wasatch range, and in spots such as this, the harder limestone has eroded more slowly than the layers “sandwiching” it, leaving behind the exposed fin.
*I got some valuable geology tips for this post from reader Jube. (Thanks, Jube!) However, the summary of the 3 geologic formations in this post I pieced together myself. I say this because there’s a significant chance it’s not 100% correct, and if not, the errors are entirely mine. In fact, any error ever in this blog- and I make plenty- is entirely mine.
After a series of switchbacks, the trail ascends a steep gully littered with small boulders and log steps, which I have yet to see anyone clean uphill, dab-free*. At the top Rattlesnake Gulch intersect the wonderfully level Pipeline Trail, and for the most part, your dues have been paid.
*I’m sure it’s been done, just not by me or the guys I ride with.
Right around dawn this week I’ve noticed dozens and dozens of tiny lights gray moths flying around here, flitting about the bare branches and fallen oak leaves, in what I assume is mating-related activity. They really catch your eye if only because there are so few flying insects about right now. I’m guessing they’re a type of “Lichen Moth”, possibly Crambidia sp., but haven’t been able to make the ID. If anyone can give me an ID, a Fabulous Prize will be yours!
These moths drive me crazy, because they seem to be lazily flitting about, yet they’re almost impossible to film. Here’s my unbelievably lame video attempting to capture one in flight. Don’t watch if you just ate- it’ll make you carsick.
Geologic Transition #1
After the brutal climb, the next few miles are a delight, rolling fast and level up-canyon. The trail alternates between traversing open rocky slopes and threading its way through bare clonal stands of scrub oak. Soon you’ll notice that the dirt and even the rocks are different. The dirt is a reddish brown, as are many of the rock outcrops. This rock is angular and fractured-looking; a great example is the exposed mini-climb about ¼ mile up-canyon from Grandeur Fork. This section, which is now protected by a wooden retaining wall, is chipped away year after year by passing foot and bike traffic, and every 5 years or so the Forest Service breaks down and hacks out a new trail.
The rock is different because when we climbed out of Rattlesnake Gulch we passed out of the Park City Formation, with its smooth, weathered limestone outcrops, and into the Woodside Shale Formation, which is characterized by highly-fractured, almost “chippy”, red shale. These rocks were deposited, probably in tidal areas, around 200 to 250 million years ago
Yeah, yeah so what, who cares about rocks? Here’s the cool thing about these rocks: the Park City – Woodside Shale Transition boundary marks the end of the Permian geologic period and the single biggest, most astounding mass extinction event in the history of the world. In this blog we’ve mentioned the K-T extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs; we’ve touched on the even greater (and possibly supernova-induced) Silurian-Ordovician extinction. But the Permian-Triassic extinction blows them all away. This one wiped out an estimated 70% of all land-based species and 96% of marine species. The Permian-Triassic event even caused widespread insect extinctions, an effect not observed in the other 4 most similar extinction events.
The reasons for the Permian-Triassic extinction are unclear; a big meteor is one suspect, but the leading theories today focus more on supervolcanism and radical climate change. It’s also unclear whether the extinction was really a single event, or multiple events over several million years. Whatever the case, it’s indisputably one of the biggest things ever to happen in the history of life, and you pedal right through it every time you go up or down Rattlesnake Gulch.
Magic Eye In The Forest
Around this point, this vegetation opens up a bit and you can see clearly across-canyon into the Porter Fork drainage. The South (North-facing) side of the canyon is very different both geologically and botanically, and is cloaked in dense PLT forest.
Here’s something I’ve noticed about riding this time of year: there are way fewer greens around, but sometime the differences between those greens becomes clearer. A great example is the PLT forest of the South slope of Mill Creek Canyon. The vast majority of PLTs on the lower slopes are Douglas Firs or White Firs. We’ve talked before about how to differentiate them close up via cones or needles, but a cool thing I’ve noticed in Fall and Winter is that you can tell them apart by color. The Doug Firs are distinctly yellower, and the White Firs bluer. Look again at the photo, and see if you can see the difference.
I noticed this same shade difference last Winter, but I’ve never noticed it in the Summer. I don’t know whether this is because I simply never noticed it in the Summer- with all the other green things around- or if the Doug Firs really are yellower in Fall and Winter*. In any case, it’s sort of like one of those 3D "Magic Eye" pictures, where you look and look and don’t see it, and then all of a sudden, you totally see it.
*If Doug Fir needles really are yellower in Winter, here’s a wild guess why: chlorophyll production in both trees is probably little or nothing in the cooler months. Chlorophyll is a big, unstable molecule that breaks down rapidly in direct sunlight. The beefier, waxier, needles of White Fir may have a thicker wax coating (built up from wax on the stomata) that blocks more of the sun’s rays.
Down Low, Still Green
One this side of the canyon, there’s not a lot of green, but along the “woodsier” stretches of the trail, you can see a green, holly/ivy-like carpet on the floor under the oaks (pic left). This is Oregon Grape, Mahonia sp., which I’ve been meaning to blog about for over a year now. It’s part of the Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae, and so fairly closely-related to things like Monkshood and Marsh Marigolds, but only remotely so to real Grapes (genus = Vitis.)* Oregon Grape is one of the first things to bloom in the spring, with little yellow flowers all over the place, which later in the summer develop into little blueberryish “grapes”, which are sometimes made into jam. The leaves and roots contain the compound Berberine, an alkaloid used in homeopathic medicine, and if you google around a bit you’ll find recipes for its use in treating a number of (primarily digestive) ailments.
Our species here in the Rockies is Creeping Oregon Grape, Mahonia repens(pic right). True Oregon Grape, M. aquifolium, is native to the Pacific Northwest, and is a true shrub, growing up to 20 feet in height. But it hybridizes easily with our “low-cover” species. Interestingly, Oregon grape is a big-time weedy-pest in the American Southeast, where it’s on the Do-Not-Plant list of most states. Ironically, the other green ground cover lining much of Pipeline trail right now is the evil Myrtle Spurge, which we looked at way back in March, and is on our Do-Not-Plant list here in Utah.
Both mornings this week, shortly before the Burch Hollow junction, I passed a small pack of Stellers Jays in the Oaks alongside the trail. There aren’t many birds chirping around here in November, so their warning squawks stand our real clearly. This pack seems skittish, and I wasn’t able to catch a photo; here’s one from the post I did on them back in April 2008.
Stellers Jays are in my opinion the best-looking Corvids in Utah. They’re generalists, do lots of things fairly well, though nothing exceptionally so, and are sometime Pine Birds. Though not “latitude-migrators”, they’re “elevation-migrators”, sticking to high PLT forests in the Summer, and the migrating down lower* for Winter. The only time I’ve seen them in the mid-elevation scrub oak is in the transitional months: March, April, October and November.
*Though I’m not exactly sure where. I never see them in the valley in Winter.
At the Burch Hollow Junction, the big switchback-climb up starts, and though a bit long, it’s a cakewalk compared to Rattlesnake Gulch. When it tops out you have a nice view back down-canyon out into the valley (pic right). The trail levels off once again as you roll toward Elbow Fork.
Geologic Transition #2
Somewhere along this stretch the trail passes through another geologic change, this time into the Thaynes Formation* consisting of gray, fossil-rich and sometimes massive limestone, mixed with sandsone and shale. This formation extends clear up to the ridge, and you can see it exposed in the high, sheer gray cliffs far above. Along the last mile to Elbow Fork, the trail gets rougher, as it’s chipped out of Thaynes Formation limestone outcroppings.
*Named for Thaynes Canyon over in Park City.
One of the things I like most about this stretch is passing by green trees once again: Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany lines the trail along several short stretches in the last mile. I blogged about this tree way back last summer, and since then I’ve become even fonder of it. I love everything about it- its green waxy leaves, its mirage-like feathery achenes in summer, that it’s the only evergreen angiosperm tree for hundreds of miles around, that it’s part of the Rose Family, that its genus is unique to Western North America, that it’s quite possibly the longest-lived angiosperm* (possibly up to 1,350 years) in the world, that it’s wood is dense enough to sink in water. At the end of the long climb up-canyon, I’m always happy to finally reach this stretch, like I’m somehow reunited with an old friend that I can always count on to be there, to be the same, unchanging, reliable, long after the rest of the world has gone back to sleep.
*Not certain. Olive trees are another contender.
So there’s plenty to see now along Pipeline Trail, and since it’s an out & back, you have a second chance to catch anything you missed along the way up. But you have to look fast; the ride back down right now is nice and zippy. Like smooth, tacky, bat-out-of-hell zippy. Go ride it while you can.