Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mill Creek Canyon, Wild Geraniums And Kim Jong Il

Boy, all week I’ve been feeling really great. Just that all-round, happy-to-be-alive feeling. I spent a few minutes yesterday thinking about why this is, and came up with 2 major reasons (plus, a 3rd, tangential reason, which I will cover, appropriately enough, in a tangent.)

First, I think I’m still on kind of a high after the High Uintas Classic. After a day that miserable, that cold, that dismal, simply being warm and wearing dry clothes is just a huge pleasure. I guess I just feel normal, but after Saturday, “normal = “great”.

Second, Summer has finally arrived. Sunday was our last stormy day; so far this week had been perfect. Just walking across the office parking lot in the morning feels delightful, and the rides I’ve done this week have been some of the most pleasant all year.

Sunrise 6 23 09 Tangent: Of course, Summer really did arrive- astronomically- this past weekend. Earlier this week I took a couple of photos that’ll be fun to look at again come December. First is the sunrise from my driveway (which faces almost due North. In Winter my driveway practically never melts out.) on June 23. North ShadowSecond is my shadow @sunrise on the North-facing garage door. Sunlight from the North- that never ceases to freak me out! And third is sunset seen from Donner Park over Antelope island, at an astounding azimuth of 59 degrees, placing it just South of Frary Peak on Antelope Island.

Sunset 6 23 09 Nested Tangent: I had to spin up to Donner Park for the shot because you can’t see the sunset from our house. Yes, despite living up on the East Bench, our house is one of probably <a dozen in the Salt Lake Valley that Has No View. Which is embarrassing, because in Salt Lake, every house has a view. Seriously, there are trailer parks out in West Valley that have astounding, national-park-class views, but in our hoyty-toyty East Bench ‘hood, the best I can see from the back yard is a piece of scrubby Perkins Peak.

Anyway, I’ve been feeling great all week.

IMG_0979 Tangent: OK, here’s the 3rd reason I think I’m feeling great- I bought a new pair of shoes for work, and they’re pretty much the Most Comfortable Shoes Ever. Don’t laugh- when you reach middle age, it’s the little things that matter, and I am telling you, every step in these babies is a cushiony little podia-gasm. And check out the cool Euro-styling- these are some fine-looking shoes!

Nested Tangent: Yes, yes, I know, I have really big feet. (You know what they say* about guys with big feet…) But really they’re not all that big for a guy my size. My size is 11 ½, and I’m 6’2”. My neighbor, Hunky Chris, is 6’4”, and is only size 10. I’m always like, “Dude, how do you keep from falling over all the time on those tiny feet?”

*Big shoes. Big socks.

Yesterday the day was so nice that I took a long lunch and did a combo road/mtn ride up past the Mill Creek Canyon gate.

Side Note: It is like a law of physics that you take a long lunch out of cell range, your boss will choose that time to try to call you repeatedly. Why is that? My boss is in another state, calls me maybe once every 2 to 3 days. But the moment I get out of cell range, suddenly there’s some time-critical-work-emergency that requires my immediate attention…

IMG_0957 I love Mill Creek Canyon. Across the Intermountain West of course, mountain canyons are so often wonderful micro-climates, each one its own little botanical garden, full of cool air, running water and green growing things. But here in Northern Utah, Mill Creek is possibly my favorite, for reasons I’ll come to a moment. But first, let’s talk about the gate.

The Gate

What makes Mill Creek so super-extra-cool this time of year is that the road is gated and close to traffic 4 ½ miles from the top, which makes it a cycling wonderland. The smooth, sinewy road is car-free, and the trails accessed by it largely deserted. The upper road and trails don’t melt out till mid-June, and the gate opens on July 1, so right now is the best time to bike in upper Mill Creek.

President_Obama Tangent: This brings up the wonderful topic of what I would do if I Were President. We all have these fantasies, right? Where we say things like, “If I were President, I’d make all those AIG executives give their bonuses to all the people who lost their houses!”, or “If I were President, I’d make the Air Force hold a bake sale to buy a bomber!”, or “If I were President, I’d deport Lou Dobbs!”, or whatever.

Nested Tangent: This reminds me of the Worst Commercial Ever, a shampoo ad that aired in the early-to-mid 1980’s. (Unfortunately I can’t recall the brand.) The camera zooms in on a beautiful, sultry-looking woman, who turns and stares sulkily at the camera, and a narrator’s voice comes on and says, “If you could have one wish, for the rest of your life, what would that wish be?”

shampooAd Of course, you immediately assume she’s going to say, “World Peace”, or “A Cure for Cancer”, or some such. But no, she would say- I swear I am not making this up- “Shiny, manageable hair for the rest of my life.” What?? That’s it? Are you shitting me? That’s your one wish? You’d leave thousands/millions starving in Africa or suffering in Soviet gulag camps, so you could have nice hair??

But what we gloss over with these “If I were in charge…” type statements, is that by and large the President of the United States doesn’t have the kind of sweeping autocratic powers implied by them. The other problem is that much of the time, we use these “If I were in President…” statements about purely local issues, like “If I were President, I’d make my neighbor clean up that yard of his. It looks like hell!” Really? That’s what you’d do? If you got to be President, you’d come back to your old neighborhood and start ordering landscaping?

Kim Jong Watcher

Kim Jong Watcher No, what most of us really wish is not that we were President, but that were the local municipal executive (i.e. mayor), but with sweeping, near-dictatorial powers. Personally, my dream is to somehow become the Kim Jong Il (KJI) of Salt Lake County (SLC).

As KJI of SLC, there are a number of important things I’d do, beginning straightaway with the demolition of the new, nearly-completed Utah Museum of Natural History building, and the restoration of the site to its formerly quasi-pristine foothills-open space condition*, regardless of the cost.

*Hopefully by this point in the post it is apparent even to the even the most casual reader that I would be a thoroughly dismal public servant. Seriously, if I ever run for anything, don’t vote for me. I wouldn’t.

But the second thing I’d do- and the one that actually has something to do with the point of this post (and yes this post does have a point and I am finally getting to it) is close upper Mill Creek Canyon to automobile traffic year-round. Seriously, think about it for a second. The road doesn’t go anywhere. Why does anybody need to drive to the top? Make it a permanent bikeway/walkway, repaint the lanes to minimize hiker/biker/runner/canine conflict, and keep it muscle-powered-only year-round. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

Although all the Wasatch canyons are inviting, I’m convinced that Mill Creek is the most botanically interesting of them all*. It encompasses several distinct ecological zones, from dusty foothills, up through thick Oak-Maple woodland, clear on up to deep, cool PLT/Aspen forests, and yet the scale of the canyon is such that all of these different zones can be visited in a single couple-hour-ride.

Map Caption cut On yesterday’s lunch ride, I started at the gate, pedaled up the road to the Big Water trailhead, took the trail up to Dog Lake, descended the trail, then the road back to Elbow Fork. From there I followed Pipeline Trail through the shady Oak-Maple canopy down to Burch Hollow, and then returned to the gate. In 2 hours I went up nearly 3,000 feet and back, and saw all kinds of different trees, hummingbirds and butterflies**.

*With the possible exception of Red Butte Canyon, which I still need to get around to poaching…

**Cool post about one tentatively planned for tomorrow. Seriously, way, way cool. You won’t want to miss it. It’ll be the post everyone is talking about. Well not really, but it was one seriously good-looking bug. I mean insect.

IMG_0934 Of course you can do that on countless Wasatch rides, but for reasons not quite clear to me, Mill Creek often supports slightly different species or mixes of species than the other canyons around. Here are a few examples from the roadside between the gate and the top, easy for anyone to check out.

The South side of the road (climber’s right) features extensive, repeated stands of IMG_0933Rocky Mountain Maple. (pic above left) This is one of Utah’s 3 native Maples (the other 2 being Bigtooth Maple and Box Elder) but you don’t run across it nearly as often. RM Maple is smaller than its fellow Utah Maples, and occurs mainly as a shrub, but it’s got much different, and easily-recognizable, toothed leaves (pic right). It tends to favor shadier, wetter sites than Bigtooth, and seems to do well along the North-facing roadside, probably benefitting from runoff from the pavement.

IMG_0930 Another interesting shrub is the Serviceberry, also along the South side of the road. Serviceberry of course is all over the Wasatch, but check out the size of these leaves! (pic left, hand for scale) Serviceberries are notoriously problematic taxonomically, with very subjective lines between species, but I’m thinking that rather than our ubiquitous Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis), this might actually be Saskatoon Serviceberry (A. alnifolia) common through the Colorado Rockies clear up into Alberta and BC. If so, it’s the first place I’ve managed to recognize it in the Wasatch.

Wild Geraniums

IMG_0941 The road up is also a great place right now to check out native geraniums, because both of our common species are blooming in abundance along the roadside right now. Both are smallish, fairly simple-looking 5-petaled flowers atop stems maybe 1’ -2’ high. The (possibly para-carnivorous) Sticky Geranium (Geranium viscosissum) (pic right) is pink, while the Richardson’s Geranium (G. richardsonii ) (pic below, left) is white. The leaves are very similar, though on closer inspection they appear to be lobed slightly differently.

IMG_0936 Now both these flowers are pretty common throughout the Wasatch, so spotting one or the other is really no big deal. But what is a bit unusual is seeing so many of both in the same place. Typically I see Sticky Geranium all over the place in relatively sunny spots, lining trails through aspens for example. (The aspen sections of the Northern half of Mid-Mountain trail up by The Canyons Resort is an excellent place to see them throughout July and most of August.) But when I see Richardson’s Geranium it’s usually in shadier, cooler spots with less direct sun. (The upper, shadiest parts of Flying Dog trail in Jeremy Ranch is a great place to see them right now.)

Geranium Lobes But along the upper Mill Creek road you can see both all over the place, though what’s interesting is that the “Stickies” are mostly on the sunny, North, South-facing side of the road (climber’s left) while the Richardson’s are on the opposite, shadier side.

IMG_0942 Side Note: Here’s something cool I saw about ½ way up between the gate and Big Water trailhead. See what’s different? It’s a Sticky Geranium with 6 petals, something I’ve never noticed before. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more in the coming weeks, and try to get a feel for how much of a 4-leaf-clover type thing it is…

IMG_0955 The ride just up to the end of the rode and back is fun by itself, but yesterday I continued up on the dirt. Everyone loves the trails in upper Mill Creek, but unfortunately they probably get a bit too much love. By mid-summer the get beat and dusty, and on a weekend they can be so busy it’s sometime not worth trying to bike them. But right now, early in the season, after weeks of rain- and with the gate closed- they’re perfect. Smooth, tacky and empty (pic left). If you love to fly down Big Water, this week is the absolute best week of the year to do so. I didn’t see one person on the entire dirt portion of the ride.

IMG_0956 The 3 miles of pavement back down to Elbow Fork is fast and fun. When you jump back onto dirt on Pipeline, you’re in a completely different world from the one you left up at Big Water 5-7 minutes earlier. Now it’s warm and you’re zipping along under an arching 15-20 ft high canopy of Gambel Oak and Bigtooth Maple. (And still, no people!) But most impressive yesterday was the grass. Our rainy month has left the smooth, tacky trail lined with lush, green, 3-foot high grass that softly brushes your shins at 20 MPH (pic right).

Red Light Flashing I dropped the switchbacks down to Burch Hollow, pedaled the ½ mile back up to the car and sped back down the canyon, down into the valley, and cell range, back to the land where the red light is always blinking on my Blackberry, full of voicemails from my boss. It was a great lunch.

Within a week the gate will be open, the road busy with cars, and the tall grass already starting to brown and wilt. If you can work it in, try to get up there this week.


KanyonKris said...

5 hours later I was riding Millcreek.

We took similar trail photos - in fact, I was going to use a photo very similar to your first trail shot, may be the exact same spot, but it was a little blurry.

I noticed many of the flowers you mentioned. I was blown away by the profusion of Bluebells - I've never seen them so thick anywhere else.

Mark and I are figuring how to ride Millcreek again before the gate opens July 1. Possibly Monday after work, if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

hear hear on the restoration of the new museum site back to its natural state!

KanyonKris said...

Did I address you as "dear leader" on the Pinebrook ride?

Watcher said...

KKris- count me in. I didn't have time to go up to the saddle, and would like to before the gate opens. The 1st is a Wednesday, and sometimes they open the gate the weekend before the 1st, so we'll have to check. If they do, Monday is odd, so it wouldn't work.

I almost put "DEAR MAYOR" on the jumpsuit in the KJW graphic but wasn't sure readers would get it. You would have!

Sally said...

But... but... what KIND of grass? It makes a difference, ya know? Nice post, per usual, Watcher...

Watcher said...

Sally- you're so right. And I hate to blog about any plant without nailing the species ID. Unfortunately, grasses still lie in the have-to-figure-out category for me. Ah well, something to look forward to!